Shaped through Negative Space in Bronte’s Jane
Although Jane Eyre was written in the style of an autobiography, it is a work of fiction that psychologically explores the personality and life of an English governess in the nineteenth century. Bronte makes several statements about social class, family and feminism in Jane Eyre, using the development of the main character and her encounters with those around her to illustrate the shaping of a strong, independent woman. Through each encounter included in the novel Jane learns lessons and gains principles that ultimately define her by the end, and the reader meets others in the world of Jane Eyre and naturally compares them with what they know of Jane. The two most important foil characters in this novel are that of Mrs. Reed, Jane’s aunt and guardian, and Blanche Ingram, Jane’s stark opposite and competition for the love of Mr. Rochester. Bronte writes these two characters into the story in order to clearly define what Jane is not, therefore using the concept of “negative space” to define and refine Jane Eyre as not only a character, but a person the reader connects with and supports.
Sarah Reed is introduced to the reader on the first page of the novel. She is set in the drawing-room, reclining “on a sofa by the fireside, with her darlings about her”, her darlings being her three children, Eliza, John and Georgiana. Immediately, Jane is an outsider, looking in on this family of four in their great Victorian house. She is an ugly orphan who is unwanted and unloved by her relations. Mrs. Reed distances Jane from her three angels as a necessity until Jane can learn “to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and spritely manner,” and so forth. We have not yet made it to the third paragraph and we already dislike this haughty woman and her spoiled children.
In this way, and through similar themes throughout the text, Bronte makes it very clear that the reader is to find in Mrs. Reed an antagonist most vile. We watch through Jane’s innocent eyes as Mrs. Reed abuses and frightens her, shames her for her “otherness,” and locks her in a terrifying room for a crime that could be called, at worst, self-defense. Mrs. Reed seems wholly bad, written only to torment Jane and build in her a sense of rebellion, and Jane wholly good: an innocent child wronged by circumstance as well as relation. This view changes somewhat during the interview with Mr. Brocklhurst where we see Jane stand up for herself for the first time. Fuming and embarrassed, Jane confronts Mrs. Reed and accuses her of “miserable cruelty” toward a child who only wished for her love.
This incident is monumental in the development of Jane Eyre, because she speaks for and of herself for the first time. She is learning to define her view of her life, her personality, and the mistreatment that she has been forced to suffer in her short ten years of life. The encounter is also crucial in the development of Mrs. Reed. She is so startled at Jane’s outburst that she quits the room, hurriedly, looking “as if she would cry.” Mrs. Reed is deeply affected by this encounter, and when she reappears later in the novel, she brings it up as a moment that has been haunting her every day since. This is an example of two very different persons reacting to the same situation in starkly opposite ways. Both have a tendency toward the dramatic, and in both women we see a consciousness that holds on to guilt and fervently tries to avoid wrong doing. However, it is the actions of Mrs. Reed that form the negative space that obviously contrasts the rapidly developing individual, Jane Eyre. Mrs. Reed is written so clearly as an antagonist, all her traits and all her actions only contribute to the villainy she has established in the reader’s mind. This is her important role, and her static character brings out the change that takes place in Jane.
When Jane hears that Mrs. Reed is laying on her deathbed and asking repeatedly for her, she wastes no time and runs to Gateshead in full confidence that she belongs there. Unlike her experiences as a child, when she belonged anywhere but Gateshead, newly mature Jane sees that the greater need within her hated childhood home trumps her dread of crossing the threshold. Through her forgiveness of and genuine care for Mrs. Reed, Jane becomes a protagonist with new, different layers to her character. The reader tends to wish Mrs. Reed would “get what she deserves,” but Jane chooses the higher ground and goes to her aunt in full compassion. In this way, Jane is now set above her guardian, and when Mrs. Reed laments that “she wished (Jane) had died!” the contrast between Jane Eyre and Sarah Reed is stronger and more potent than ever. Reed, begrudgingly wishing for the death of a child in her care, lays on her deathbed while Jane, benevolently leaning over the dying woman, verbally and mentally forgives her of the trespasses of the past. This act not only redeems Jane of any rash action or word toward her aunt in the reader’s eyes, it develops an element of her character that had not yet been explored by the novel by juxtaposing her with the greatest negativity yet.
When Blanche Ingram comes on the scene by way of an extended party at Thornfield, she is immediately described by Mrs. Fairfax from head to foot as “beautiful”, “fair”, and “much admired.” At this point Jane is very much in love with Mr. Rochester but is still coming to grips with her feelings. Blanche floats in as Rochester’s particular favorite, and as the rumors of their engagement fly, Jane is invited to their evening social hour every night in order to watch their flirtation from the best vantage point. This is a very painful experience for Jane that further outlines her “otherness,” as she hides in a dark corner watching Miss Ingram prance and peacock through Thornfield.
Blanche Ingram is both talented and accomplished and described by Mrs. Fairfax as “certainly a queen.” She is written to be the Victorian ideal, the “perfect woman” in the eyes of high society in the time Bronte was writing. Everyone has an obsession with her—even Jane thinks about her frequently and sketches her portrait in distaste. Although Blanche is the center of the attention at Thornfield, to the reader she seems a simpering, whining child who is both vapid and silly. Her name itself speaks of her personality: “Blanche” seems to us pure and cold as well as blank and empty. We see no depth to her, no intellect to speak of and definitely nothing to interest Rochester in the long term. An antagonistic view is immediately encouraged, and no woman could seem more opposite to Jane Eyre than Miss Ingram, an obvious fact made even more potent by the concept of negative space and how it shapes Jane Eyre at this crucial time of her life.
Bronte makes an interesting, back-handed statement with the character of Miss Ingram. Setting Jane Eyre against a Victorian stereotype and leading the characters and the reader to prefer Jane upheaves an entire set of beliefs for Victorian England. The two characters in contrast have entirely different motives for marrying Rochester, and although Miss Ingram’s is traditionally “right” and Jane’s traditionally “wrong”, Blanche is not the hero and does not win the reader’s support. As Jane says herself, “I would always rather be happy than dignified.” Plain, feisty, somber Jane who has no social qualities and no money to speak of should pale in comparison to the wealthy, fair Blanche, and if Jane knew what was good for her, she would try to be more like the idealistic Miss Ingram. And yet, Bronte sets up the story so not only Rochester, but the reader also prefers Jane to Miss Ingram a hundred to one, and Jane herself looks upon Blanche with disdain and pity: she has no desire to emulate her traits or actions in any way. This is Bronte’s biggest statement, and Jane’s most defining characteristic: that of love (both self-love and love for others) conquering social class as well as physical appearance.
The many differences between Jane Eyre and the ‘Victorian ideal’ are the very reasons that she must fight for herself, find her own place in the world, and move past the trials of her past and onto a brighter future. These elements of Jane are what bring us as the reader back to the book again and again. Bronte clearly breaks social constraints by pointing out the strength in the different, the frowned upon, the outcast and the unique, and turning the unusual into the hero. This resonating theme could not be achieved fully without the character of Blanche Ingram to hold up against that of Jane Eyre. Without Blanche’s form creating the negative space around Jane, without Blanche being exactly what Jane is not, the reader would not be able to as clearly refine exactly what Jane’s otherness is, and why it is so likeable.
These two characters set in contrast to the protagonist, Jane Eyre, form the image of the character of Jane for the reader by using “negative space;” by outlining what Jane is not and why. This is a very strong way to set up a character, because the reader is given to ability to inference the positive space or the actual form of the protagonist, therefore making her personally and individually relatable to each reader, yet still true to herself. Jane is formed by those she encounters, but it is not a passive, helpless process, it is active for Jane and exciting for the reader. Bronte uses brilliant literary devices to develop this theory of “otherness” about Jane as she tells her story and builds a frightened ten year old orphan into an assertive married woman with property and claims of her own. Through her use of contrast and comparison, Bronte creates Jane Eyre: a character that lives, breathes and demands to be remembered.
(Paper by Kaylie Hayter. Sketch by Amalia Zeichnerin)