Psychoanalytical criticism

Sigmund Freud, by Caesar Blanco available through Creative CommonsThe development of psychoanalytic theory (deriving from the work of Sigmund Freud) has had a major influence on literary criticism in a wide variety of ways. The following are particularly relevant to Jane Eyre.

The relationship between writer and text

This approach would concentrate on Brontë's own experience, such as:

  • Her lack of a mother
  • The time she spent at Cowan Bridge School
  • Her supposed isolation and ignorance of sexual love.

These can be seen to result in a romantic plot that operates as a kind of wish-fulfilment. Such interpretations are not always based on reliable biographical knowledge (see Author section).

Analysis of character in psychological terms

Here, critics might concentrate on how characters behave, treating them as psychological cases:

  • Mrs Reed would be a suitable character for study, particularly in relation to the loss of her husband and her inability to handle responsibility
  • The highly repressed Mr Brocklehurst, with his distaste for the ‘natural', could be seen as an example of a man who uses strict religious practices as a means of concealing his own psychological problems
  • Women had been associated with ‘the flesh' and sexual passion – thus Bertha Mason, the deranged creature who lives in Rochester's attic and has a hold on his life can be seen as symbolic of his lust / passion
  • St John Rivers is an example of a personality undergoing conflict between a sense of duty and his passionate feelings for someone else. This is seen in Chapter 32 (volume 3, Chapter 6), where he allows himself to give way to his feelings for a set time
    The maiming of Rochester at the novel's end could be seen as a sort of castration of his passion and physical prowess – although that does not take account of his subsequently fathering children by Jane.

Family and parent-child relationships

Critics might also concentrate on the varieties of such relationships to be found in the novel:

  • As in many nineteenth century novels, there is a distinct absence of parents and hardly any of the novel's main characters – Jane, the Reed children, many of the pupils at Lowood School, Adèle – have grown up in stable or complete families
  • Children might have poor relationships with their parents – Rochester, for instance
  • There are a number of surrogate parents – such as Mrs Reed, Brocklehurst, Miss Temple and Mr Rochester – the first two of whom are highly unsatisfactory.

Relationship between the reader and the text

This approach would concentrate on the reader's response to the novel and how readers in some way work or collude with the author in the act of reading to construct meanings or satisfy unconscious wishes by their response to characters and events. This is a theoretical way of stating that readers usually have empathy or sympathy with one or more of the novel's characters and may, therefore, identify psychologically with the fortunes of that character:

  • In the case of Jane Eyre, a good deal of the reader's understanding of the novel depends on the degree of his or her sympathy or hostility towards Jane
  • Readers will also bring to their reading their own expectations, often derived from their previous reading of novels and how they are resolved – for example, in relation to the relationship between Jane and Rochester, do novels always end in marriage?

Construction of identity in relation to the social order

Throughout the novel, we see Jane engaged in the construction of her own identity in relation to her dead parents, to her changing environment and to the rules of the social order:

  • This is particularly true in relation to the construction of gender identity. In the early part of the novel, Jane is constantly being told that her behaviour is inappropriate for a girl
  • At various points in the book, Jane is presented with contrasting models of female behaviour and becomes aware of the constraints of social expectations about women.

Three examples of a psychoanalytical ‘reading'

1. A good example of how a critic might apply psychoanalytical approaches to Jane Eyre can be found in Elaine Showalter's A Literature of their Own (1984), which, as its title suggests, was an early example of the new feminist literary history:

In Jane Eyre, Brontë attempts to depict a complex female identity, and she expresses her heroine's consciousness through an extraordinary range of narrative devices. Psychological development and the dramas of the inner life are represented in dreams, hallucinations, visions, surrealistic paintings, and masquerades; the sexual experiences of the female body are expressed spatially through elaborate and rhythmically recurring images of rooms and houses. Jane's growth is further structured through a pattern of literary, biblical, and mythological allusion. Brontë's most profound innovation, however, is the division of the Victorian female psyche into its extreme components of mind and body, which she externalizes as two characters, Helen Burns and Bertha Mason. Both Helen and Bertha function at realistic levels in the narrative and present implied and explicit connections to Victorian sexual ideology, but they also operate in an archetypal dimension of the story. Brontë gives us not one but three faces of Jane, and she resolves her heroine's psychic dilemma by literally and metaphorically destroying the two polar personalities to make way for the full strength and development of the central consciousness, for the integration of the spirit and the body.

2. Another way of using this approach can be found in Angela Carter's essay on Jane Eyre, written in 1990 and published in her collection Expletives Deleted in 1992:

[For Jane Eyre] love is a means of existential definition, and exploration of the potential of her self, rather than the means of induction into the contingent existence of the married woman, as it had been for the previous heroines of the bourgeois novel.

[…] Jane Eyre is a peculiarly unsettling blend of penetrating psychological realism, of violent and intuitive feminism, of a surprisingly firm sociological grasp, and of the utterly non-realistic apparatus of psycho-sexual fantasy – irresistible passion, madness, violent death, dream, telepathic communication.Virginia Woolf

3. The twentieth century novelist Virginia Woolf illustrates another dimension of the psychological approach in her essay ‘Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights' (1916) where she reads the novel as an expression of Charlotte Brontë's personality:

Charlotte Brontë […] does not attempt to solve the problems of human life; she is even unaware that such problems exist; all her force, and it is the more tremendous for being constricted, goes into the assertion, ‘I love', ‘I hate', ‘I suffer'.
  For the self-centred and self-limited writers have a power denied the more catholic and broad-minded. Their impressions are close packed and strongly stamped between their narrow walls. Nothing issues from their minds which has not been marked with their own impress. […] In other words, we read Charlotte Brontë not for exquisite observation of character—her characters are vigorous and elementary; not for comedy—hers is grim and crude; not for a philosophic view of life—hers is that of a country parson's daughter; but for her poetry.  Probably that is so with all writers who have, as she has, an overpowering personality, so that, as we say in real life, they have only to open the doors to make themselves felt.  There is in them some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently. This very ardour, rejecting half shades and other minor impediments, wings its way past the daily conduct of ordinary people and allies itself with their more inarticulate passions.
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