Jane Eyre: Developing By Setting

[Rachel Weber]

Charlotte Brönte creates with Jane Eyre one of the first female versions of a bildungsroman. A bildungsroman can be classified as a coming-of-age story or a novel that exhibits individual formation through academic, spiritual, or emotional growth. Jane Eyre moves about during her formative years, living in different locations along the way and experiencing different life events throughout the journey. Five identifiable locations shape each stage in Jane’s life; each setting has a name that characterizes the point of development Jane undergoes while living there. Throughout the novel, Jane views her homes as a temporary resting point and frequently prefers the freedom to come and go as she deems necessary. Typically, Jane leans toward a preference of nature and gardens versus the cage-like feel of civilization, as revealed in the names of the places she finds herself living.

Jane Eyre begins at Gateshead. In terms of the bildungsroman, the name Gateshead represents a starting point in Jane’s journey. The term “gate” and “head” can both be applied to the idea of “beginning.” A gate can represent an entryway to vast beyond; Jane’s stage in life while she resides at Gateshead reveals a strong desire to escape and be free of the cruelty of her cousins and aunt. Jane sees the home as a place to escape from. The word “head” often may be used to describe a starting point, as in trailhead. The name Gateshead also marks the beginning of Jane’s flight to nature: putting the words together creates an illusion of an entryway to nature. Gates frequently lead to a garden, while in this interpretation of head, readers can imagine a trail to nature and freedom as well.

After Jane finds freedom from Gateshead, she makes her way to Lowood School. Jane enters the school with great amounts of hope and excitement. Quickly after arrival, however, Jane faces disappointment. She finds herself in dark and “low” times at Lowood: Jane becomes haunted by past abuse, she has a hard time acquiring close companionship, and, when she does find a confidant, illness strikes the school and Jane loses her friend. Lowood properly holds true to its name: low.

Mrs. Reed’s choice of Lowood as the school to which Jane is sent, however, does not fulfill Jane’s need for a less tormented life… At Lowood emphasis is placed on the need for the girls to accept their station in life, to learn to endure hardship and deprivation without complaint, and to restrain their passions in the process (Teachman 3).

Before arrival, Jane sees school as an escape from constant ridicule and put-downs, but reality barely skims expectations. Though Jane experiences spiritual and academic growth there, she falls victim to unfortunate circumstances and low feelings as well.

From Lowood, readers watch Jane grow into a young lady as she departs from the school and takes up residence in the home of Mr. Rochester at Thornsfield. The name can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but the use of the term “thorns” and “field” can very easily lead one to think of a field of thorny plants, such as roses. Roses can appear delicate and beautiful from a distance, while upon closer examination and contact, thorns can quickly created pain and anguish to those who grasp hold. Similar to a rose field, Jane views Thornsfield and life with Mr. Rochester as an idyllic dream. As events unfold, Jane realizes that, like a field of roses, Mr. Rochester holds secrets that wound her and cause great pain.

Once Jane discovers the thorns at Thornsfield, she flees to the Moor House. There are several meanings to the word “moor.” First, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a moor can refer to a marshland. It can serve as a retreat to nature, as the reader knows at this point in the story that Jane greatly relies upon throughout her life. The moor typically contains uncultivated land and has a peaceful quality. This similarly supports the second meaning of “moor.” Mooring also, according to the dictionary, means a stabilized place or object on which something can be secured. After emotional turmoil suffered at Thornsfield, Jane chooses to retreat to Moor House and takes the time she spends there to regroup and re-center her life. While at Moor House, Jane also discovers that she has inherited a large sum of money and, not only does she achieve emotional stability, but financial stability as well.

Jane’s final place of rest ends up being Ferndean Manor, and she remains there with Mr. Rochester after Thornsfield burns down. Interestingly enough, while Ferndean acts as a protection and safe paradise amongst the nature for Jane at the end of the story, the name also takes on a role of protection. According United States Department of Agriculture’s plant database, ferns, common plants that date back to times before dinosaurs, provide safety to smaller animals that frequently fall prey to stronger predators; in a similar manner, Ferndean provides, for the first time, a permanent safe haven for Jane. Another interesting play on the use of “fern” notes that, after forest fires, ferns tend to be the first plant that grows in the aftermath of destruction. After Thornsfield burns down and all signs of a previous life become ashes, Mr. Rochester rebuilds his life from the beginning in Ferndean Manor.

A fern growing from the ashes of a forest fire

Location plays a large role in Jane Eyre. The settings both create and soothe Jane through unfortunate circumstances throughout the story. They act as the cause of distress and as a cage in which Jane becomes captive, as well as the gate to freedom Jane so boldly dreams of. The names of each location help readers to understand on a different level how much importance every new place of residence plays in Jane’s coming-of-age development.

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008. Print.

“Moor(ing).” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 17 Sept. 2014.

Teachman, Debra. Understanding Jane Eyre: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001. 3-5. Print.

USDA. “Plants Profile for Pteridium Aquilinum (western Brackenfern).” Plants Profile for Pteridium Aquilinum (western Brackenfern). USDA, n.d. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.

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6 Responses to Jane Eyre: Developing By Setting

  1. Rachel-

    I loved your reflections on the significance of place names in Jane Eyre. Primarily, I think the topic is interesting, because it is notable how many times setting shifts throughout this novel. One must think it is intentional. And if the change of settings itself is significant, then logically, the names would be too, because this is Charlotte Brontë; this is the master.

    I agree with your reflection that, “Lowood properly holds true to its name: low.” However, Jane does have some pleasant memories of Helen Burns and Ms. Temple, and though the school is strict, Jane is thankful for her education throughout the book. And, the hard work she puts in both as a student and a teacher at Lowood allows her to become a governess and move from a “low” place to a higher one.

    Your reading of the name “Thornfield” was intriguing, especially your imagery of a rose. I also think of thorns as entrapping or ensnaring, just as Thornfield leaves Jane feeling trapped, caught in the middle of the bizarre situation between Rochester and Bertha. Later, at Moor House, Jane does find a stable haven, as you mentioned, but she is still within the marshes; she is still emotionally compromised, and like the marshland about her, her future is yet unclear and foggy.

    The information you presented about ferns was incredibly interesting. You wrote that ferns, “…provide safety to smaller animals that frequently fall prey to stronger predators.” True, Jane is finally protected- financially stable and living with the man she loves- but Ferndean is also protecting both Jane and Rochester from the outside world, and from their tumultuous pasts. It is secluded, tucked away, allowing Jane and Rochester to rebuild their lives. And, Jane, being the strong, independent woman she is, is just like the fern, growing back against the odds after the fire.

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  2. Megan G. says:

    While I was reading Jane Eyre, I did not pay very close attention to the different settings within the novel. They way you incorporate each of the major five settings with the concept of bildungsroman and how Jane’s character and personality was represented really made me think differently than I had about this novel. I really enjoyed reading your post because I would not have thought about the novel in this way. It is interesting to me how you take apart the names of the places and go in depth to explain how the names related to the scenes and the plot of the novel.
    I also found it very intriguing how you related not only good experiences but bad experiences as well. It is important to know that with a coming of age story, there are fallbacks and upsets; however, these incidents in fact make the character stronger and ultimately moving forward. Reading this made me realize how much thought Charlotte Brontë must have put into her novels and characters. From the names of the characters to the names of the places, it is apparent that it was all very well thought through. I really enjoyed reading this post, as it is a very different perspective than what I had gathered from my reading of the novel.

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  3. Erica Oswald says:

    Rachel’s blog entry was beautifully written, providing enchanting images of the places Jane Eyre traveled throughout her life. Jane’s earliest memories were at Gateshead. One definition of “head” is “the position or place of leadership, greatest authority, or honor.” In this sense, the place Jane began is also the leadership of Jane’s remaining family – truly the last place on earth where Jane had relatives. Yet, this place was so wretched that she was willing to disown the place forever. As fate would have it, Jane would return years later, briefly reuniting with her aunt and cousins. And, as one exits a gate, so also can one re-enter.

    When discussing Thornfield, I also thought of the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus at his crucifixion. In the Christian tradition, Jesus was blameless; yet he wore this painful, mocking crown and suffered excruciating pain, leading to death. Jane’s feelings at the moment when she knew she must leave Mr. Rochester forever must have been truly excruciating as well. The solicitor’s parting words to Jane were, “you, madam, are cleared from all blame;…” (339). I doubt being found blameless assuaged Jane’s pain that day.

    I love the connection Rachel pointed out between Thornfield burning down and the place Jane and Mr. Rochester ultimately went to recover – Ferndeen! Rachel’s information about ferns often being the first plants to grow after a fire was a real “aha” moment for me. As a child, I loved to run my fingers over fern leaves. They were so soft and fine – a comforting feeling. And what a comfort for Mr. Rochester and Jane to be reunited, knowing they could be together. As Mr. Rochester so eloquently said, “I thank my Maker, that, in the midst of judgment, He has remembered mercy. I humbly entreat my Redeemer to give me strength to lead henceforth a purer life than I have done hitherto!” (516)

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  4. Carlee Diedrich says:

    Rachel, I really enjoyed your post! You gave me much to ponder regarding the amount of thought Charlotte Bronte put into this novel. Do you believe she consciously put so much relevant description behind the names, or was it an act of appropriate serendipity? I’m inclined to believe these highly motivated names must have been a conscious decision on Charlotte’s part.

    Your commentary on Thornfield Hall was most interesting. In thinking about the significance behind Thornfield’s name, I’m reminded of Poison’s epic ballad “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” In that glorious bit of 80’s spew, Bret Michaels unabashedly declares, “Was it something I said or something I did? / Did my words not come out right? / Though I tried not to hurt you / Though I tried.” Then, that iconic chorus rolls in, but can’t you just hear Rochester saying (more eloquently, of course) the same thing to Jane in reference to the whole marriage debacle? What a tragedy that Bronte and Michaels didn’t grow up in the same era!

    Tragedy aside, the idea of Thornfield simultaneously being a place of extreme joy and one of pain is quite compelling. I believe that dichotomy alone is what makes Jane Eyre such an appealing novel. Jane experiences extreme happiness, the most she has ever felt, only to be slammed with extreme anguish the next moment: just like a rose, which simultaneously possesses delightful petals and blood-seeking thorns. This idea, though contradictory, is quite relatable and relevant. There is definitely something to be analyzed in Jane Eyre regarding fatal love, depressing happiness, and other oxymoron(s) of that sort.

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  5. Ashley Scotting says:

    When reading Jane Eyre, I had noted the use of nature throughout the novel, but paid little attention to the connections of the scenery around Jane at each different location to her transformation. Looking back through the novel now, with this frame of mind, Charlotte Brontë’s work is transformed to that of an even greater literary genius that I originally found her to be. Whether or not the connection was intentional, it’s brilliant.

    I especially loved the association of Gateshead to a cage, with Jane’s escape being the beginning of her journey to freedom. The allusion of a cage at the beginning of the novel and then fast forwarding to the first proposal scene where we see a major transformation of Jane ties the theme of Jane’s search for freedom together wonderfully. “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.”

    Your research of moor for the Moor House and ferns for Ferndean Manor were also exemplary. I found the comparison of Jane to a fern at Ferndean, growing back from the ashes of a fire, to be the greatest and most accurate similarity of the location to Jane’s current transformative state. Great work Rachel! This will forever change the way I read the novel!

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  6. Allison Waage says:

    I really enjoyed the way the names of the places she was staying at integrated into what was happening with the story. I never put that together, and now I feel it adds immensely to the story. I wonder if Charlotte Bronte was intending to create a subliminal message, or if she was basing these names off of real places with similar names. I like to think that she had intended to name these places what she did, especially after the explanation of their meanings. While our generation might not understand the meaning behind the names of her various landing locations, I wonder if people during the Victorian era picked up on them, and if it added to their enjoyment of the novel, or if they had different meanings. Over time, the emphasis and use of words evolve, so I wonder if they had a different meaning for them than they do for us. It could change the perception of how we think Jane was feeling at the time, although I think Rachel’s description was pretty spot on.

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