Jane Eyre as a Bildungsroman
A Bildungsroman as a genre was conceived by German Romantics and perfected through the of development of the realist novel. Charlotte Bronte is regarded by many as a successor of both German and English Romantics; her novel Jane Eyre narrating the story of the psychological and spiritual development of a young girl into adulthood and womanhood bears many affinities with the best specimens of the genre. Through textual analysis of three episodes of the novel this essay argues that motives of quest for one’s identity, psychological growth and individual responsibility correspond well with patterns of Bildungsroman, while certain narrative devices employed by Bronte allow her to offer her readers an insight into the nature of psychological changes undergone by her character.
The peculiarity of this novel’s narrative strategy is that the events are represented from two and more points of view simultaneously: Jane as a child and Jane the narrator. This strategy allows the reader to follow the evolution of the heroine’s perceptions and moral judgment. Let us start with the first significant episode of the novel, mainly Jane’s imprisonment in the red-room (Bronte, Chapter 2). We already know that Jane is a rebel spirit not easily subdued; we are already aware of her unhappiness, her inner homelessness, her perception of herself as an outsider. The episode in the red-room symbolically presents Jane’s first fight for preserving her integrity and spiritual freedom. Frightened of the imagined ghost she tries bravely and desperately to exercise self-discipline of the mind and to fight her panic attack: “I endeavored to be firm… I lifted my head and tried to look boldly round the dark room…” (Chapter 2, p.18) Such a valiant attempt in a child is admirable in itself; t does not matter that she loses this battle and succumbs to her fears. The important thing is that she fully realizes the necessity of self-control and is determined to persevere and gain full command of her emotions. It is interesting to notice the difference between the two visions here. Jane’s vision as a child is rendered through emphasis on her feelings towards Mrs Reed, while the grown-up Jane puts emphasis on analysis and appraisal of Mrs Reed’s actions and attitude. The young girl perceives her aunt as a source of unbearable, unjustifiable “fearful pangs of mental suffering” (Chapter 3, p.22); the adult argues the case for her forgiveness, for “[she] knew not what [she] did,” (ibid.) distances herself from her anguish and tries to evaluate the situation from her aunt’s perspective. Jane’s ability and determination to forgive is the evidence of her spiritual growth, her conquest and her ultimate freedom. This theme is revisited towards the end of the novel when Jane meets her aunt and her sisters and confronts the ghosts of the past.
The fact that Jane’s personality is shown as a fluid, developing, changing entity is stressed more than once by the narrator herself. When the wedding is called off, we witness a curious transformation, a kind of reverse motion in Jane’s progress: “Jane Eyre, who had been an ardent expectant woman – almost a bride – was a cold, solitary girl again…” (Chapter 26, p.293) This temporal fusion of conflicting personality traits in one person is a great achievement of Bronte’s psychological realism.
A significant episode in the novel’s structure is Jane’s flight from Thornfield. This episode can be interpreted as part of Jane’s spiritual quest, but also as a kind of test of her maturity. Having been saved from becoming the Bluebeard’s seventh wife and fled from Thornfield as far as she could literally afford, Jane now faces the necessity of contact with fellow human beings in order to survive. She feels defeated, “hopeless of the future” (Chapter 28, p.321) and still fiercely proud and independent. Repeatedly rejected by the villagers, driven to the edge of despair, it is in this plight that Jane completes her “apprenticeship” and acquires enough moral strength to realise what Bronte herself considered the major ethical agenda of the novel: to condemn bigotry, “to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation” between conventionality and morality, self-righteousness and religion, appearance and truth. (The Preface to the Second Edition, p.5)
Psychological verisimilitude of portrayal of different states of mind and efficient narrative strategies mark Jane Eyre as one of the best examples of the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.