The symbolic meaning of Jane’s art…

The first major use of art within Jane Eyre is when Jane presents her watercolours to Rochester upon their first meeting at Thornfield.

The first represented clouds low and livid, . . . there was no land. One gleam of light lifted into relief a half-submerged mast, on which sat a cormorant, dark and large, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet, set with gems, . . . . Sinking below the bird and the mast, a drowned corse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn.

The “presentiment” of the images was likely Brontë’s intention in their inclusion, the first one especially: the cormorant in the image is “dark and large” and “flecked with foam”, prefiguring the racially-tinged origin of Bertha Mason in the Carribean, her imposing size, and, with the alliance of foam with rabies and madness, her own insanity, and it steals from the “fair arm” a golden bracelet studded with gems — or, perhaps, a wedding band, symbolising the first marriage ceremony between Jane and Rochester. The sudden announcement of Rochester’s bigamist relationship to Bertha snatches away the wedding band that should have been on Jane’s finger, instead returning it to Bertha, and leaving Jane to drown in her emotions before fleeing Thornfield. Barbara Gates takes a slightly different approach to interpreting the image, associating Rochester with the bird, but both interpretations assume it refers to the same incident.

The second picture contained for foreground only the dim peak of a hill, with grass and some leaves slanting as if by a breeze. . . . rising into the sky was a woman’s shape to the bust, portrayed in tints as dusk and soft as I could combine. The dim forehead was crowned with a star; . . . the eyes shone dark and wild; the hair streamed shadowy. . . . On the neck lay a pale reflection like moonlight; the same faint lustre touched the train of thin clouds from which rose and bowed this vision of the Evening Star.

The second image prefigures Jane’s wanderings in Whitcross, specifically her final approach to the Moor House of the Rivers’. “The woman in the drawing, with her streaming hair, dark, wild eyes and pale neck, strongly resembles Jane, who is drenched, wild-eyed, and pale as a ‘spectre’ when found by the Rivers”.  It is worth noting, as well, that the star is perched at the very top of the forehead, a position endowed with mythological importance in many eastern religions and pagan beliefs.

The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky: a muster of northern lights . . . along the horizon. Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head. . . . Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, . . . a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible. Above the temples, . . . gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge. This pale crescent was “the likeness of a Kingly Crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.”

The third image is a strong reference to St. John, described when Jane meets him as having a “high forehead, colourless as ivory, [and] partially streaked over by careless locks of fair hair”. The quotation at the end of the description, however, complicates the parallel somewhat; the footnote to the Broadview edition notes the quote is from Milton’s description of Death within Paradise Lost . St. John is both a narcissist and a martyr, and one of the manners in which that expresses itself is in his sermon’s emphasis on death and damnation. Additionally, Jane quotes Diana Rivers as calling St. John “‘As inexorable as death,'” and she agrees . Lawrence Moser, on the other hand, sees Jane’s previous experiences at Lowood in the watercolour, writing that “the inspiration was most probably founded in Miss Temple’s departure from Lowood. . . an absence that drew a veil, so to speak, over the temporarily happy Jane. The crown, again the only point of light in the portrait . . . symbolizes her affectionate heart and its love”. That the face is not assigned a gender makes both readings plausible, and it may very well stand for both of them, as symbols of the larger Church and Christian faith.

Moser also calls these images as “surrealistic,” a description that appears to be slightly over-eager; as compared to the works of the committed surrealists of the 20th century such as Duchamp and Dali, Jane Eyre’s images are relatively well-mannered. The surreality of these images is somewhat besides the point, however; the genre did not exist at the time, and to imagine them as existing within the continuum of surreal art is anachronistic in the extreme. Jane Millgate, while agreeing with Moser about the images’ surreal nature, points out that “even though Rochester is impressed by their being ‘for a school girl, peculiar’, the reader finds their portentousness, lack of originality, and naivety somewhat embarrassing — and this cannot be dismissed as simply a modern reaction”. They are somewhat quaint, even in their oddity; the descriptions allow for no nuance in the images themselves, and they appear didactic and simplistic in their application of symbolism — the vast, glacial forehead, the mingling of the outline of the individual with the stars: these visual cliches persist even today.

Why are these images in the text, aside from rounding out Jane’s character with other lady-like skills? None of the other images she creates in the text are anything like these — all portraits and conventional landscapes — or described in such detail. The answer lies not so much in the images themselves but the conversation which follows their presentation to Rochester.

“And you felt self-satisfied with the result of your ardent labours?”

“Far from it. I was tormented by the contrast between my idea and my handiwork: in each case I had imagined something which I was quite powerless to realize.”

It is hard not to read autobiography into these lines, or at least strong authorial intent and comment. The gulf between what an artist intends to create with art and what they actually manage to create is something with which anyone involved in creative work is familiar. These images, for all their faults and their odd surreal nature, are but shadows of their true nature; the metaphor can be telescoped upward, with Brontë commenting on her own creative process, as both a literary outsider and a woman, who had faced rejection by publishers before the eventual acceptance of Jane Eyre.

Sandra Gilbert, taking a different tack, mentions that the paintings in the text also allow for Rochester and Jane to appear as equals within the novel. Though such talk would bewilder Rochester’s other dependants, it is a breath of life to Jane, who begins to fall in love with him not because he is her master but in spite of the fact that he is, not because he is princely in manner but because, being in some sense her equal, he is the only entitled critic of her art and her soul. This sense that Jane is using the images she creates to attempt to position herself relative to Rochester on the social ladder of Victorian society is reinforced with her paired portraits of herself and Blanche Ingram. “It does good to no woman to be flattered by her superior, who cannot possibly intend to marry her; and it is madness in all women to let a secret love kindle within them, which, if unreturned and unknown, must devour the life that feeds it,” she tells herself as she sets out to create the doubled images.

The doubling in this sequence appears to be a direct refutation of the philosophy that Gilbert sees in the watercolour segment — whereas those images set out to allow Rochester and Jane to be equals, these images are created to set Jane as lower and less worthy of Rochester than Blanche. She paints Blanche from Mrs. Fairfax’s physical description of her, and draws her own self-portrait from a small mirror. Blanche’s is done up in the finest paints Jane can muster, and is almost homoerotic in tone at points, in her description of Blanche’s beauty — or as impassioned as Jane will allow herself to become, at any rate. “Recall the august yet harmonious lineaments, the Grecian neck and bust: let the round and dazzling arm be visible, and the delicate hand”. Jane, here, strives to draw Blanche as if Jane were looking at her from the position of a male: hijacking the male gaze of Rochester to attempt to batten down her own hopes that Rochester is gazing at her instead.

However, the emphasis on the physical of these images gives away their falsehood. Rochester’s interest in Jane is not physical, but instead rooted in her fiery will and personality. Jane’s expectation is that Blanche’s various material qualities would automatically drive Rochester to prefer her over Jane, but, instead, he describes her as the real beauty. “‘You are a beauty, in my eyes; and a beauty just after the desire of my heart'”. Although Rochester is looking at Jane with the same gaze that she attempted to use to create her portrait of Blanche, he sees something very different than just her “Quakerish” physical plain-ness. Rochester makes his distrust of the outward appearance of women plain on the following page: “‘To women who please me only by their faces, I am the very devil when I find out they have neither souls nor hearts . . . but to the clear eye and the eloquent tongue, to the soul made of fire . . . I am ever tender and true'”. This is an admission of love which is made just for Jane, to whom fire imagery clings to throughout the novel.

The final major artistic moment within the text occurs during Jane’s exile at the Moor House, and her employment at the school there. The undercurrent of homoeroticism that had been visible in Jane’s desire to create a portrait of Blanche Ingram resurfaces here: “I felt the thrill of artist-delight at the idea of copying from so perfect and radiant a model . . . I promised myself the pleasure of colouring it. . .”. This strong of a reaction to her presence, even after she had dismissed Miss Rosamond as “not profoundly interesting or thoroughly impressive” just a few paragraphs before.

“St. John is a finely-observed study of a man who turns egoism and ambition to the service of religion,” pronounces Craik. “He is indeed not attractive himself, and all his speeches are about, or soon turn to, himself”. However, his narcissism does not preclude him from lusting after Miss Rosamond, even if he will not allow himself the pleasure of acting out his physical desires. “Even his passion for the elementary Miss Oliver indicates his deficiency, in caring in such as way for a woman so clearly inferiors to what he has been accustomed to in his sisters, apart from Jane herself”

It is the image of Miss Rosamond which changes the relationship between Jane and St. John dramatically; not only does it provide him with her real name, and set the plot moving forward once more, but it allows for Jane — and the reader — to plumb the depths of St. John’s character. He attempts to avoid her, to begin with, with facile compliments: “‘A well-executed picture,’ he said; ‘very soft, clear colouring,'” but Jane is having none of it. Here, the question of gaze returns to the text. “He continued to gaze at the picture: the longer he looked, the firmer he held it, the more he seemed to covet it” . It is this somewhat innocuous, seemingly throwaway line that St. John’s character and attitude toward women is collected together for the reader — he covets what he remains close to, and wishes to control it. He does not chase after Jane at first, either, but instead grows to the idea of her accompanying him to the colonies on his missionary work as she becomes familiar to him. A woman is not an individual to St. John, but a worldly bauble to alternatively covet and deny, and entirely physical, as evidenced by his two-faced desire for and rejection of Miss Rosamond at this juncture, and his proposal of a loveless marriage to Jane later on in the section. Women are merely temporary distractions in this world, alternatively aiding in achieving the paradise of the next world or leading him astray, never individuals in their own rights — mirroring the position that the Church itself took toward women at this time, a fact of life that Charlotte Brontë, the daughter of a preacher, would have been fully aware of.

Careful examination of the art within Jane Eyre, then, leads to a greater understanding of how the text functions as a whole, and how Brontë intended the characters and events within the text to function as critiques of society. The watercolours presented by Jane to Rochester at their initial meeting at Thornfield act as both foreshadwing for other events in the book, predicting the disastrous initial marriage to Rochester, Jane’s homelessness prior to entering Moor House, and her subsequent acquaintance with St. John, as well as represent a broader point about art and the impossible task of the artist to faithfully represent their vision in whatever medium they’re working in. The doubled portraits of Jane Eyre and Blanche Ingram emphasize the physical and social differences between the two of them, and appear to denigrate Jane. However, Rochester once again demolishes this emphasis on the external, instead telling Jane he loves her for her will, mind, and spirit. St. John, on the other hand, has his rejection of these same characteristics revealed with his reaction to Jane’s portrait of Miss Rosamond, and his physical lust for her, tempered by his eventual request for Jane herself to accompany him to India — showing that he considered them almost interchangeable and only in the light of his own needs, and not individuals. The varieties of use of art within Jane Eyre, then, emphasize that Charlotte Brontë intended for there to be various shades of meaning to the work, and that, far from being an exercise in redundancy, approaching the work from a variety of theoretical positions allows for a deeper, fuller, and more rewarding of the text as a whole.

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