Jane Eyre

this might need a wee bit of editing, but here is the main for the moment.

A Historical Reading of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte’s crisp and hauntingly heartful Jane Eyre, when read with an eye towards its historical perspective, is remarkably informative of the age in which its heroine lived. Jane is admittedly in a unique and, presumably, extremely uncommon situation in the novel. However it is very likely that the world she lives in, takes joy in, observes with such an animated mind, such sound judgement and such a keen eye, is a relatively accurate portrayal of English society in the early nineteeth century. One of the things that stands out the most historically to the eye of this student situated in London is simply the detailed surroundings of the story. Like watercolors painted with a dreamy, deep vision, they tug at the heart while at the same time remaining utterly true to the English landscape. Another notable feature of the book, following on this, is how clearly Gothic and Romantic notions are brought out in it as a whole. It is quite often that one finds oneself in the midst of a scene in which the influence and symbolism of nature dwarfs materialistic reality. This is the mechanism Bronte uses in order to make her point that equality is an inward thing, though it has outward manifestations and trappings. Thus, the third most vivid feature of the novel would be its pervasive theme of station, class, gender, and age, each of which their relation to the customs, freedoms, and notions of beauty, of the age. It is in this setting that Bronte unfolds her ingeniously lovely and disarmingly simple heroine, displaying the many subtle ways in which young Jane Eyre breaks her given mold — especially centered in relating to Mr. Rochester.

Two passages stand out as beautifully faithful to the kind of greenery in the English countryside and the scattered wildlife being composed of various birds — such an integral part of their surroundings somehow. These passages as well seem to reflect Jane’s inner state of being in a mysteriously whole way, spreading her soul out upon the earth for all to see in the fruit of British soil. When she had been at Thornfield (What a name, that! Even it is revealing.) for some time and had given in to her need for a good walk one winter evening — the same evening she met Rochester for the first time on the road — she described her surroundings by saying with quiet satisfaction that

the ground was hard, the air was still, my road was lonely. . . the church bell tolled as I passed under the belfry: the charm of the hour lay in its approaching dimness, in the low-gliding and pale-beaming sun. I was a mile from Thornfield, in a lane noted for wild roses in summer, for nuts and blackberries in autumn, and even now possessing a few coral treasures in hips and haws; but whose best winter delight lay in its utter solitude and leafless repose. If a breath of air stirred, it made no sound here; for there was not an evergreen to rustle, and the stripped hawthorne and hazel bushes were as still as the white, worn stones which causewayed in the middle of the path. Far and wide, on each side, there were only fields, where no cattle now browsed; and the little brown birds which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like single russet leaves that had forgotten to drop (105-6).

I have seen this here — these are the plants and birds I have seen in bus rides and class trips to Oxford for example. The wildlife being so predominantly composed of various birds seems true to me, and the fields on each side, far and wide, and the lack of cattle in the winter, and the hardy plants and bits of color that make their simple presence known among the leafless skeletons of lush summer. The feel, I think, is entirely in keeping with England’s countryside — and so descriptive! Bronte’s command of language is such that it plays over one’s mind like carefully orchestrated moving water, gently brushing, pulling, pushing, sweeping with a liquidity one might almost fail to notice if one weren’t so affected by it.

At the beginning of chapter twenty-three Jane is again describing herself in a sense: glowingly contented. This is evidenced by the happy and hopeful state of her relationship with Mr. Rochester at the conclusion of the previous chapter. She begins the next by observing that

a splendid Midsummer shone over England: skies so pure, suns so radiant as were then seen in long succession, seldom favour, even singly, our wave-girt land. It was as if a band of Italian days had come from the South, like a flock of glorious passenger birds, and lighted to rest them on the cliffs of Albion. The hay was all got in; the fields round Thornfield were green and shorn; the roads white and baked; the trees were in their dark prime; hedge and wood, full-leaved and deeply tinted, contrasted well with the sunny hue of the cleared meadows between (233).

Because this outer world reflects her inner one, we see Jane’s life is ripe for something — is on the brink of something rich and fulfilling. And yet at the same time we see England again, and we know that this clear-eyed beauty of sky is not typical of the weather here, that the sunny views are unusual. This treat to Jane’s heart tells us something of Britain’s atmosphere and seasons.

One character in particular shows off the novel’s Gothic theme, and that is Thornfield’s mysterious Grace Poole and her eerie, horrible laughter. She lives alone in the highest floor of the large house, often takes her meals alone, and is the seeming perpetrator of violent acts which are hushed to secrecy. The Gothic-Romantic image is also portrayed through Jane’s watercolors. The symbolism in the midnight storm that whips up when Rochester decides to marry Jane, and in the horse-chestnut tree itself being struck by lightning, are such images as well — foreboding, charred: ignored warnings of catastrophe (240-241). Even Mr. Rochester’s reference to Jane as an elf or a sprite or some magical being sprung up out of the grass with mystical powers fits this theme well.

The idea of Jane’s internal life being reflected in her exterior life leads to an extremely Romantic world in which nature becomes a guiding force — a mirror, yes, but also a guide. She speaks of the garden outside Thornfield the night Mr. Rochester wrung out her confession of love, saying that there was

No nook in the grounds more sheltered and more Eden-like; it was full of trees, it bloomed with flowers… a winding walk, bordered with laurels and terminating in a giant horse-chestnut . . . Here one could wander unseen. While such honeydew fell, such silence reigned, such gloaming gathered, I felt as if I could haunt such shade for ever. . .”(234).

The Eden reference is phenomenally idealistic, as is the winding walk, and the honeydew and silence hold the unmistakable scent of Romantic poetry, having direct access to her inner being. Nature, as a separate entity in which Jane is cleansed and guided, is lifted up and revered in such a way that Her acts become prophetic of wholeness, vision, and wisdom. The moon is representative of this force, which puts one in mind of the Romantic poets like Wordsworth, who wrote a poem called “To the Moon; Composed by the Sea…” in which he addresses the moon thus:

WANDERER! that stoop’st so low, and com’st so near

To human life’s unsettled atmosphere; . . .

Yes, lovely Moon! if thou so mildly bright 40

Dost rouse, yet surely in thy own despite,

To fiercer mood the phrenzy-stricken brain,

Let me a compensating faith maintain;

That there’s a sensitive, a tender, part

Which thou canst touch in every human heart,

For healing and composure.–But, as least

And mightiest billows ever have confessed

Thy domination; as the whole vast Sea

Feels through her lowest depths thy sovereignty;

So shines that countenance with especial grace 50

On them who urge the keel her ‘plains’ to trace

Furrowing its way right onward. The most rude,

Cut off from home and country, may have stood–

Even till long gazing hath bedimmed his eye,

Or the mute rapture ended in a sigh–

Touched by accordance of thy placid cheer,

With some internal lights to memory dear,

Or fancies stealing forth to soothe the breast

Tired with its daily share of earth’s unrest,–

Gentle awakenings, visitations meek; 60

A kindly influence whereof few will speak,

Though it can wet with tears the hardiest cheek. (http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww864.html)

The moon is a recurring presence throughout Bronte’s novel — Jane even speaks to it! At other times she gazes at it, it seems to watch over her, she is woken by it, or she feels the loss of it keenly. She appears to follow it’s direction in her life in a unique way. This is an especially Romantic feature of the book, and thus a historical style marker revealing of society’s sensitivities and assumptions.

Station, class, gender, and age are also pervasive themes in Jane Eyre. Jane’s “Quakerish” notions of propriety, proper dress, modesty, making sure she fits her station in both appearance and action are indicative of the strict social hierarchy upon which it was rare to see an individual rise in status. Upon arrival at Thornfield as the new governess, Jane meets Mrs. Fairfax and is attended to by her so kindly and thoughtfully that she is startled, as she had assumed Mrs. Fairfax to be far above her in status. When she discovers that the woman who tended to her was not in any way above her but was rather her equal as the housekeeper, Jane is quite pleased and relieved. Jane attempts to keep her place at Thornfield for a very long long time, even after preferential treatment by Mr. Rochester and the waiving of conventional rules of conversation in order that he might enjoy some pleasure in conversing with someone who suits him in mind and spirit. They become friends and more, without mention of the change in attitude made, and Jane tries hard not to betray her feelings because of her station. The scene where she draws Miss Ingram’s face and then her own in stark contrast to one another is very revealing. Her own face is as plain and true-to-life in the mirror as she can, done in materials less attractive themselves, and Miss Ingram’s face is the picture of beauty in the day, done in the finest materials Jane can lay hands on. She tells herself severely that Miss Ingram is far more fitting for Mr. Rochester despite their lack of love because of the societal conventions and forms which make the match advantageous and because of Miss Ingram’s beauty.

Women and men are markedly different in the novel, holding different powers completely to one another. The men have a traditional place of power in that they have property and money and they travel and they woo the women and give them gifts. The women — even the non-traditional Jane cannot fully escape this — are objects of desire and possessions to be taken care of. They are powerful in the internal world and add to the men on that level, as well as showcasing his abilities by displaying themselves as his capture in an odd sort of way. The reader can observe this phenomenon play itself out over and over again in different ways at the party at Thornfield in chapters twenty-seven and twenty-eight. Jane, though recognized by Mr. Rochester initially as an equal in the internal sphere, has trouble with the outer one because both riches and age are denied her — although she really does not even wish to conform to the dictates of this outer world. She is quite content with her modest, youthful self. And she is eventually (after much trial and error) accepted by Mr. Rochester for who she is because of the way she stands true to herself in this matter.

Three things stood out to me as I read Jane Eyre with an eye out for insights into the historical details of life during these times. One was the English countryside, described in such beautiful and striking detail that it seems almost as if the sequence of words on the page create a landscape of the texture of Britain. Another was the romantic and gothic notions woven throughout the telling of the story, the symbolism inherent in an almost conscious Nature which guides the impressionable Jane down the path of her life with sure foot and tongue. And lastly, the hierarchical set up of the society of the day apparently depended much on station, class, gender, and age such that we see our Jane at a real disadvantage in all possible respects — and yet she continues to have respect for herself and to walk as straight as she can according to what her conscience tells her. Young Jane Eyre breaks the mold given her by society — most boldly in her relations with Mr. Rochester. Admittedly, she is in a unique position — probably quite an unusual one. But that her observations and surroundings are more than likely a relatively accurate portrayal of English society in the early nineteenth century. Her joys, struggles, animated mind, sound judgement, and keen soul are a wonderful portal through which to glimpse the times.

c. Mary Kathryn Gough, March 24, ’06, During a Semester in Britain


Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, won the 1981 Booker Prize, and in 1993 it was decided that Midnight’s Children was the ‘Booker of Bookers’, or the best book to win the Booker Prize in a quarter century. The author of six novels, Rushdie has won awards from several countries for his writing over the years, and his books have been published in over 24 languages (http://www.randomhouse.ca/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780812969030).

Although Midnight’s Children was to be historical in concept initially, Rushdie found himself instead creating a book the writing of which was for him “about the nature of memory. . . For instance, a lot of people. . . keep asking me why Gandhi’s not in the book. Well, he’s there when he dies, and he’s also there in the background of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, but he’s not particularly or centrally there, and I keep saying, this isn’t a history book. This is a book about one person’s passage through history” (http://www.subir.com/rushdie/uc_maps.html, emph add). That one person is the narrator, Saleem Sinai, who says at one point near the end of the novel, “I no longer want to be anything but who I am. Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done to me….Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each ‘I’, every one of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. . . to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world” (MC, 383). And that is exactly what Rushdie attempts to do: feed us an entire world, complete with history, politics, wars, intrigue, love, hate, forgetfulness, and neglect. Included are all the moving larger pieces which shape the smaller ones, and all the moving smaller pieces that make up the larger. Each chapter is characterized as a pickled jar of memories and, according to Saleem, there is an art to the spices used in the pickling process: “In the spice bases, I reconcile myself to the inevitable distortions of the pickling process. To pickle is to give immortality, after all… a slight intensification of taste, is a small matter, surely? The art,” he explains in the last pages, “is to change the flavour in degree, but not in kind; and above all (in my thirty jars and a jar) to give it shape and form — that is to say, meaning” (MC, 461). This sounds as though Rushdie’s original historical, indeed almost mythic, intent was preserved in some way. Nevertheless, he insists the novel was a personal book. People often ask him if he “thinks of writing mythic books,” and he always responds that “you can’t sit down to write a myth. A myth is a collective act. The society does it….You can’t sit down to say ‘I will now express the collective experience of my generation.’. . . most people who would sit down to do that would write something very bad. I sat down to write a personal book. If people have that response to it, then it’s a matter of great pride” (http://www.subir.com/rushdie/uc_maps.html).

Salman Rushdie was born in 1947 ‘in Bombay, India, to a middle-class Moslem family’ (http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/rushdie.htm). His father’s father was an Urdu poet, and his father was a businessman educated at Cambridge College in Britain (http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/rushdie.htm). His own life experiences are often the well for his astutely sensitive, symbolically layered, and lavishly attentive descriptions of Indian life throughout the years leading up to and following the region’s independence. He says that he spent a lot of time ‘excavating’ other people’s memories as well in order to come up with such a detailed final work (http://www.subir.com/rushdie/uc_maps.html). In fact, in one interview he explains that he had so much material he had no idea how to organize it, and the resulting oral narrative developed out of desperation with an unfocused manuscript many times too long.

The gravitational point turned out to be Saleem Sinai, dying in a pickle factory and narrating Midnight’s Children in the disorganized-re-mapping-of-one’s-most-important-memories sort of way that an elderly person might have when trying to relate their entire life-story. It might seem the storyteller had one foot in eternity already, the way everything is interconnected in their flickering perspective. That’s characteristic of Indian oral narrative style, and of many other oral traditions as well. Rushdie explains that “‘an oral narrative does not go from the beginning to the middle to the end of the story. It goes in great swoops, it goes in spirals or in loops, it every so often reiterates something that happened earlier to remind you, and then takes you off again, sometimes summarizes itself, it frequently digresses off into something that the story-teller appears just to have thought of, then it comes back to the main thrust of the narrative.’ (Rushdie, “Midnight Children and Shame.” p.7)” (http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/postcolonism/Mid_Children.htm). In this way, Midnight’s Children complexifies history in structure (memory is a complex beast!), while simultaneously simplifying it by pinning it down around a central figure– similar to the way bits of sugar crystal dissolved in water will solidify and gather around a stick.

At the same time, the memory of this central figure (Saleem) at times plays tricks on him and inks a fictionalized version of his past. He is not infallible, factually speaking. Historical dates (like the date of Gandhi’s death) are occasionally misstated and then glossed over, in the way an old one has of trusting more to memory than to fact, because somehow that’s the way it was, altogether-like. Most dates are right — but more importantly, all dates are reliable in character and effect, holding together many far-flung pieces with a personal logic that retains an integrity which holds true to Indian experience. In fact, many Indians have asked him, point-blank, why he even wrote the book at all. ‘We know all of this,’ they’ll tell him, ‘We could have written this book’ — which he takes as highest praise (http://www.subir.com/rushdie/uc_maps.html). Any author should be pleased to receive a compliment like that — never mind thousands upon thousands of them!

Historically, there are many sound landmarks in Midnight’s Children, written in memorial-type fashion, from a distance. One remarkable event Rushdie included in the book is the Armritsar Massacre, which occurred on April 13th, 1919. Dr. Aziz, who is Saleem’s grandfather, is there when it happens. Aziz and his ‘good Kashmiri wife’ Naseem have had an argument over her reluctance to give up her limiting traditions of meekness, submission and shy propriety in order to become a more modern Indian woman– ending in his burning all her veils and her sending him out of the house (MC, 34). Significantly, the sentence immediately following the summation of their argument runs thus: “While in the Cantonment area, at British army H.Q., one Brigadier R. K. Dyer is waxing his moustache” (MC, 34).

The next page begins April 13th, and Aziz is walking unsuspectingly around Armritsar with his doctor’s bag. A crowd sweeps him through an alleyway and into a compound full of peaceful protesters of the raj. A speech is being made, and Dr. Aziz’s nose is itching terribly. Brigadier R. K. Dyer arrives and Aziz sneezes so hard that he falls forward in the crowd, his doctor’s bag opens, and everything in it goes flying (MC, 36). This saves his life, because as he attempts to collect it all and replace it in the bag he hears ‘a chattering sound’, and people start falling on him, staining his clothing red (MC, 36). At the close of the scene, “they have fired a total of one thousand six hundred and fifty rounds into the unarmed crowd. Of these, one thousand five hundred and sixteen have found their mark, killing or wounding some person. ‘Good shooting,’ Dyer tells his men, ‘We have done a jolly good thing.’ (MC, 36). The story then jumps back to Aziz’s quarters where he finds himself unable to exactly answer Naseem’s query as to where he’s been. His response: “’Nowhere on this earth,’” he said, and began to shake in her arms” (MC, 36).

The way the Armritsar Massacre is painted here proves once again Rushdie’s thesis that the nature of the book is personal. It works as emotive memory rather than as a documentation of an event. What is not said is almost more important in memories and un-burying truth than exactly what is said. The realm of the heart is not a court of law.

Another historical linkage can be found near the end of the book when Parvati-the-witch summoned Shiva. Saleem says “He [Shiva] can be concealed no longer, however; because one morning in May 1974 – is it just my cracking memory, or am I right in thinking that it was the 18th, perhaps at the very moment at which the deserts of Rajasthan were being shaken by India’s first nuclear explosion? Was Shiva’s explosion into my life truly synchronous with India’s arrival, without prior warning, at the nuclear age?” (MC, 406-407) But again, this centers history around the book’s main character, making it a personal telling, not a documenting of facts. Oddly, that is the very thing which makes it so wholly familiar to so many Indians.

In the end, however, despite the historical and political linkages one can find littering Saleem’s life-memories, I agree with the critic who reminds us to look at the author as author, rather than historian: “In order to appreciate fully the work of Salman Rushdie, one must look past the politics surrounding his novels and study Rushdie the artist. Only then can the reader develop an appreciation for his brilliance and examine his universal insights into the human experience. Anything less is denying his work the credit it deserves” (http://www.subir.com/rushdie/jason_paper.html).

Rushdie’s writing has a spider-web-like intricacy that deserves much meditative study and respect. It’s almost as if touching any part of the story makes the entire web shake and jiggle in response, there are so many delicate interwoven connections through connections through connections. His narrating character helps him to accomplish this complex structure. Literarily this is called leitmotif, rather than simple symbolism. Taking any one image or name or date-connection in Midnight’s Children and deconstructing it is not going to get a result with anything near the life or meaning that Rushdie interleaved through the pages of the book. The building of symbolic structures and significance over the span of a novel with such a light touch takes a level of genius I only hope to ever be able to achieve. The sheer brilliance of it — and hours of thought and work it must have taken — demand respect. It is simply astounding to see how each bit tugs on each other named, described, and bounded bit in such a carefully balanced, yet informal, conversational way. The effect of the whole displays tremulous truths that refuse to come out when objectified wholly on their own… It’s a style worth turning green over.

Rushdie also attempted to make Indian linguistic habits graspable in the English language — similar in nature to an ongoing project he’s been developing with his language use over many years. “If you look at Midnight’s Children,” he says, “it’s to try and find a way of making English acquire the rhythm and flavor and music of Indian languages. To try and bring a kind of Indian vernacular speech, an Indian sense of metaphor, across into English” (http://www.powells.com/authors/rushdie.html). He’s also been noticing for some time that tempo has a great deal to do with the reader’s emotional response to what is written, and can even override content! He explains in an interview with Powells that “if you play with the tempo of something, it actually affects the meaning quite dramatically. You can take something mournful, speed it up, and it becomes like The Keystone Cops. Or you can take something funny, slow it down, and it becomes melancholy or it reveals other dimensions, and so on. So I’ve often been very interested in the issue of tempo in writing and what it does if you tell the story at the wrong speed” (http://www.powells.com/authors/rushdie.html).

Some have wondered at the seeming hopelessness concluding and enwrapping the whole novel. There’s an increasing fragmentation and confusion in the telling that reflects what was going on culturally and politically at the time, and some readers have wondered whether Saleem’s vision of multiplying cracks and final explosion, as well as the tone of the book itself which lends toward hopeless disintegration (distilled in the Midnight Children themselves), was a comment on the “possibility of the nation state” (Portenaar, 57; http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/postcolonism/Mid_Children.htm). Does the reader have a choice?, they ask. Rushdie responds with typical verbosity, saying that “the story of Saleem does indeed lead him to despair. But the story is told in a manner designed to echo, as closely as my abilities allowed, the Indian talent for non-stop self-regeneration. This is why the narrative constantly throws up new stories, why it ‘teems’. The form–multitudinous, hinting at the infinite possibilities of the country–is the optimistic counterweight of Saleem’s personal tragedy. [The optimism] resides in the people, . . . the people have enormous energy and invention and dynamism, are not passive, and that kind of turbulence in the people is, I suspect, where the optimism lies (“Midnight’s Children and Shame” 17 Kunapipi 7 (1985): 1-19.). http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/postcolonism/Mid_Children.htm) Also, one of Saleem’s last comments on history in the novel expresses hope. He says that “one day. . . the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, their smell may be overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth. . . that they are, despite everything, acts of love” (MC, 461). Having just stated that he is afraid of absurdity, it is unlikely that this hope is expressed idly, or merely aesthetically.

Salman Rushdie’s writing in Midnight’s Children can be stunning, crass, beautiful, shocking, painful, and deeply touching all at once. He has certainly distilled, from a personal vantage, the times and experience of multitudes of people and printed them in such a way as to draw his many readers far, far into the struggles in foreign fields and hearts. He is a gifted artist. In 1970, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed that a “torpid inability to understand someone else’s grief” afflicts the entire world, and asked who had the capability of “…impress[ing] upon a sluggish and obstinate human being someone else’s far-off sorrows or joys, who could give him an insight into magnitudes of events and into delusions which he has never himself experienced[.] Propaganda, coercion, and scientific proof,” he says, “are all equally powerless here. But fortunately there does exist a means to this end in the world! It is art. It is literature” (ASCEaDM, 565). Salman Rushdie’s contribution to literature is accomplishing just what good literature should, in this sense.


Dunlop, John B., et. al. ed. Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials. New York. Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1975. (ASCEaDM)

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. London: Vintage, 1995.