A learning novel or a pilgrimage novel?

A story which educates

In general terms, Jane Eyre could be described as a Bildungsroman. This is the German term for an ‘education' or ‘learning novel' which became popular in the nineteenth century following the publication in 1795-6 of J. W. von Goethe's Wilhlem Meister's Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship).

This kind of novel is part of the interest shown by the Romantics in the centrality of individual experience and emotions: William Wordsworth's long poem The Prelude (first version written 1805; published 1850), subtitled ‘the growth of a poet's mind', is an English example of the genre.

Characteristics of the Bildungsroman

  • The young main character has to achieve emotional and intellectual maturity, negotiating a way through the intricacies of social conventions and expectations
  • The main character undergoes difficulty and suffering as well as pleasure and satisfaction (usually more of the former than the latter)
  • He or she has to learn to observe, understand and judge characters, their actions and surrounding social structure
  • The narrative can thus be used as a means of commenting on, satirizing and challenging established social norms
  • These novels may offer opportunities for learning for their readers as well as for their central characters.

A story of pilgrimage

The structure of Jane Eyre is also similar to that of a pilgrimage. The best-known pilgrimage narrative in English is The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan:

  • This tells the story of Christian's journey towards the Celestial City (Heaven)
  • Along the way, he is beset by dangers and temptations, in the form of people and places representing those of the real world: for instance vanity, doubt, despair
  • But he is also helped by those whose faith and strength is greater than his own and eventually he reaches his destination.

Charlotte Brontë knew the book; Jane is described as having read it; it would have been familiar to almost all of the novel's first readers; and it is mentioned in relation to St John Rivers on the last page of the novel.

The pilgrimage structure

Frontispiece to Pilgrim's ProgressJane Eyre has a structure similar to Bunyan's story:

  • Overall, the novel describes a journey, both:
    • literal and physical (Jane moves from place to place)
    • metaphorical and emotional (as she grows towards the person she wishes to become and finds the man she loves and wishes to marry)
  • Along the way, she encounters dangers and temptations
    • physical dangers occur:
      • at the hands of John Reed
      • the illness brought on by the psychological terror of the Red Room
      • privations at Lowood School
      • the danger of starvation and death when she runs away from Thornfield
    • there are temptations of different kinds represented by people whose example she does not wish to follow:
      • the unpleasant behaviour of her Reed cousins
      • the resignation and acceptance displayed by Helen Burns
      • Rochester's temptation of Jane to be a ‘kept' and ‘fallen' woman, Jane becoming merely his possession rather than an independent being who can freely give herself
      • the extreme zeal of St John Rivers, who also seeks to use Jane for his own ends
  • She also meets people whose example and practical assistance enable her to continue her journey, such as Miss Temple and the Rivers sisters.

Different goals?

There are some important differences between Jane Eyre and The Pilgrim's Progress:

  • Although Jane sets out on each stage of her journey with a clear sense that she wishes to move on, she has no very specific idea of what or where her ultimate destination should be
  • Her destination is seen in terms of self-fulfilment, a desire to discover a means of living her life to the full and making use of all her capacities
  • Her goal is not religious but secular: her ‘holy city' is in her relationship with Rochester and living with him at Ferndean
  • Jane is conscious that she elevates her feelings for a human being above her love for God, and the novel was criticized on these grounds when it was first published
  • In the last section of the novel, however, Rochester sees himself in terms of repentance and redemption
  • The fact that the novel ends with St John Rivers is a reminder of the larger frame of belief within which the story takes place.
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