Narrative techniques: realism and the supernatural

A realist novel

In general terms, Jane Eyre may be described as a realist novel. It describes a believable story in settings that the readers can accept as being probable and recognisable, even if they have not seen them for themselves. It also employs characters resembling those readers might have met in real life.

Even the novel's most apparently strange and inexplicable characters and events turns out to have a rational explanation:

  • The ‘apparitions' that Jane experiences are the work of Bertha, Rochester's first wife
  • The ‘gypsy' who knows so much about the guests at the Thornfield house party is revealed to be Rochester himself.

Supernatural elements?

Whilst being realistic, the novel contains constant reference to the supernatural and inexplicable:

  • When Jane first encounters Rochester and his dog, there are references to the North of England folk tales of the ghostly Gytrash (see Chapter 12, Volume 1, Chapter 12)
  • Rochester constantly refers to Jane as a fairy or sprite, both because of the circumstances in which they first met and because she is so unlike any other young woman he has ever encountered. However, these references can be explained in terms of the circumstances, and the imagination, of the characters involved
  • Chapter 21 (Volume 2, Chapter 6) opens with a discussion of presentiments in the form of dreams just before Jane is summoned back to Gateshead
  • In Chapter 22 (Volume 2, Chapter 7), Jane dreams of Blanche Ingram apparently pointing Jane away from Rochester. In the modern world, familiar with the ideas of Sigmund Freud, such events can be seen in terms of the psychological state in which Jane finds herself.

Charlotte Brontë's use of such elements in her novel was in some respects controversial.

  • Although in Gothic and sensation fiction (see Literary context) some supernatural or initially inexplicable events might have been acceptable, their presence in a largely realistic novel would have been more disturbing
  • The novel attracted criticism from some quarters for being anti-Christian and supernatural elements would have been seen as part of its irreligious quality
  • There has also been controversy regarding Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights in which pagan and heathen elements were detected: Charlotte Brontë's preface to the second edition of her sister's novel is in part a defence of Emily against these charges.

Inexplicable voices

On two or perhaps three occasions, Charlotte Brontë seems to employ the supernatural as a means of advancing the action:

  • In Chapter 10 (Volume 1, Chapter 10), when Jane is trying to decide how to deal with her desire to leave Lowood, a voice answers her questions as to what she should do:
    • However, this could be seen as a voice deriving from another part of Jane herself, the practical young woman who knows exactly what to do in such circumstances
  • In Chapter 27 (Volume 3, Chapter 1), as Jane looks at the moon, she hears a voice which she knows to be that of her mother, telling her to flee temptation:
    • Again, this could be seen as something emerging from Jane's own personality. The moon is traditionally a powerful female symbol and at this stage in her life, just after she has discovered the truth about the woman in the attic, she is in need of a female advisor, even though she knows what she has to do
  • In Chapter 35 (Volume 3, Chapter 9), just as Jane is about to give St John a decision, she hears Rochester's voice calling her, and answers it. It is later revealed that at that precise moment Rochester called to Jane and heard her reply (see Chapter 37, Volume 3, Chapter 11):
    • This is the least explicable of the three examples of the supernatural and is left to stand as an indication of the power of the feelings that Jane and Rochester have for one another.
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