So sorry I’ve been MIA lately–I’ve been traveling, doing the holidays, and dealing with some personal things. Hope you all enjoyed a wonderful Christmas. I can’t believe 2015 is just around the corner!
Sundays with Jane is all about delving into the richness that is Jane Eyre. It’s a book I re-read every year because it never fails to impress and provoke me. I’ve learned so many lessons from this book, and there are so many quotes that have applied at different times to my life.
This week I want to cover one of the popular themes in JE: fire and ice. It’s a topic covered by countless English undergrads, and for good reason—Charlotte Bronte is a master of metaphor. And you can’t possibly miss all of the fire/heat/ice/cold talk in this book; it’s everywhere. So I’m not going to list or discuss all the instances of this metaphor, because that would take days and has been done many times elsewhere; instead, we’re just going to talk about a few that shed insight into the lives of the characters.
It’s no secret that Jane’s personality is described many times throughout the book as fiery. (This is why I’m always surprised by movie adaptations where Jane is sullen, silent, and meek. Have these people read the book?!) Sometimes, Jane’s fire is a positive force, and sometimes it is a negative one. One of my favorite quotes from JE comes after Jane’s famous quarrel with Aunt Reed:
A ridge of lighted heath, alive, glancing, devouring, would have been a meet emblem of my mind when I accused and menaced Mrs. Reed: the same ridge, black and blasted after the flames are dead, would have represented as meetly my subsequent condition, when half an hour’s silence and reflection had shown me the madness of my conduct, and the dreariness of my hated and hating position.
“A ridge of lighted heath, alive, glancing, devouring”—hello, iambs! But anyway, in this quote we feel all of Jane’s passion in defending her honor. Jane allowed her rage to take over; she went into attack mode and the book says she effectively won that battle. It’s a scene in which we readers usually cheer for Jane and are proud of her standing up to her aunt. But, interestingly, Jane didn’t see it that way. After a time of reflection, she regretted her outburst and likened the feeling to the charred barrenness that comes after a violent fire. She even says that her actions were “madness” and “hating.” As much as Mrs. Reed may have deserved Jane’s scorn, Jane’s conclusion is that her delivery was not appropriate.
Why she feels it wasn’t appropriate is a much harder question to answer, but I believe it has to do with Jane’s beliefs about sympathy, which is the topic of another blog post. 🙂
There are other times when Jane’s fire is a healthy motivation for her; it spurs her on to action and gives her strength. When St. John outs her as the lost bride of Mr. Rochester but keeps secret his own relation to her, Jane knows that he isn’t telling the full story. He tries to put it off, but Jane is steadfast:
[SJR] “I am cold: no fervour infects me.”
[JE] “Whereas I am hot, and fire dissolves ice.”
This scene is the first in which Jane stands up to St. John, not letting him dictate the outcome of the conversation. It’s foreshadowing the moment later when Jane again asserts her equality with St. John and braves his anger to do what she knows is right in leaving him.
I know I said I’d only mention two specific instances of “fire,” but if you need more or want to read further into it, here’s a quick list of other important fires in Jane Eyre:
- Helen Burns (hint: it’s in her name) – Ch. 5-10
- Bertha sets fire to Mr. Rochester’s bed – Ch. 15
- Mr. Rochester delivers Jane’s fortune – Ch. 19
- Lightning strikes the chestnut tree – Ch. 23
- Thornfield Hall is burned to the ground – Ch. 36
Fire is also associated with Mr. Rochester throughout the book, in both positive and negative ways, reinforcing the idea that they are “precisely suited in character,” as Jane later notes.
In stark contrast to Jane and Mr. Rochester, we have St. John (pronounced “Sin Jin.” Yes, I’m serious.). I noted in my last post how Jane likens him to a Greek god several times; her other prominent comparison for him is to ice. St. John himself notes this in the quote above. As the Rivers family lives in an isolated area in the Moors, snow surrounds them constantly. St. John is portrayed wandering into the snow at all hours of the day and night to visit parishioners, and when he visits Jane’s cottage there is a terrible snowstorm.
“Know me to be what I am,” he tells Jane, “a cold, hard man.”
She does, and for a long time her veneration for St. John seems to quell her own fire. She admires and cares for him very much, and desires to please him. He increasingly makes more demands of her time and attention, until he finally tries to manipulate her into marrying him so that he will have a companion when he goes to India as a missionary. This is the one thing Jane’s conscience cannot permit her to do, but she finds it difficult to resist him after for so long obeying his every request. St. John is shocked, and asks, “And you will not marry me? You adhere to that resolution?”
Reader, do you know, as I do, what terror those cold people can put into the ice of their questions? How much of the fall of the avalanche is in their anger? of the breaking up of the frozen sea in their displeasure?
Again, just look at that imagery. Doesn’t that perfectly describe the freezing sensation you get in your stomach when you know you’ve just upset someone or you’ve messed up, and you fear the consequences?
Jane almost succumbs to him, because of her fear. She almost agrees to become his wife, saying that she could “imagine the possibility of conceiving an inevitable, strange, torturing kind of love for him.” She knows, though, that to settle this way would be the death of her spirit—if not her life, if she were to go to India with him. Thankfully, she does resist him—and mysteriously hears Mr. Rochester’s voice, calling her to him.
We’re often told that opposites attract. But Jane and St. John aren’t opposites in a good way; they wouldn’t complete each other and make each other better people. They’re opposites in a polarizing way. Jane’s match is Mr. Rochester, a man with fire, just like her.