Published: May 1, 2008 By

“Children can feel, but they cannot analyze their feelings.”

–Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (24).

“Neither Charlotte nor Emily Bronte was, at the time of writing Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, in a position to experience or even anticipate actual motherhood.”

–Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing (88).

[1] It is astonishing given the countless theoretical approaches to Jane Eyre, particularly feminist interpretations, that the criticism lacks and even resists a reading of Jane as a latent mother who struggles with the precepts of pregnancy and maternity. Although multiple critics pay deserved attention to Jane’s nightmares of children, most interpret the dreams as repressed and unresolved memories of Jane’s girlhood. Yet few critics note the less abstract and even somewhat blatant interpretation of Jane’s resistance to a perceived confining and difficult social role of mother, one she intermediately occupies as governess. Jane’s famous feminist declaration of equal opportunity and mobility for women is conceived in the context of Jane reflecting on her employment as a governess. This speech is consistently juxtaposed with the immediately following scene of Grace Poole’s enigmatic laughter yet rarely with the immediately preceding scene of Jane’s indifferently “cool” relationship to Adèle and her criticism of people who romanticize the mother/child connection as “parental egotism” (113-14). These preliminary points critique Victorian sentimentalization of maternity that recur in Jane’s ensuing feminist monologue. While many critics have deconstructed the novel’s self-reflexive narrative structure to reveal the emotional and inarticulate child in contrast to the controlled and knowledgeable adult, none interpret this correction and censure by the adult Jane of her childhood self as parental. Yet Jane sees her primary role as governess is to discipline Adèle’s emotions and outbursts, disparaging these tendencies through pseudo-parental responsibility she internalizes and externalizes. Finally, Jane’s infantilized treatment by Rochester bespeaks a fascinating Oedipal reading as a father and daughter relationship, which I too engage as symbolizing the dual woman/child identity that Jane resists in its literal form as mother but fetishizes in its figurative form. Yet critics who read Jane as child-like overlook her concluding empowerment and control through care-giving as a pseudo-mother to Rochester in his vulnerable state, a reading that works with, not against, her prior infantilization. These several oversights, in addition to biographical work that denies Charlotte Bronte the capacity to conceptualize herself as a mother and emphasizes her violent morning sickness during pregnancy, ultimately marginalize what is a very prevalent focus on Jane’s conflicts with maternity.

[2] I will present a feminist formalist evaluation of Charlotte Bronte’s consistent exploitation of children- stylistically in dream, rhetoric, and monologue, structurally in undercutting, retrospective narration, and literally in plotlines that blur and exploit adult/child distinctions- to portray Jane as fearful of pregnancy and motherhood, two roles she partially occupies as governess and infantilized woman. Jane functions indirectly as a mother to the suffering yet threatening “baby-phantoms” that recur in her dreams; to Adèle, as governess where “she was committed entirely to [her] care”; to herself, in the narratological split where the adult-Jane corrects and critiques the child-Jane; to Rochester, in his concluding physical demise; and eventually to her own child that is absent in voice and scene (113, 231). Yet these several portrayals lack the care and comfort of stereotypical motherhood, where each is sequentially themed as surreal, cold, domineering, emasculating, and absent. Bronte thus enacts a theme of resistance to a terrifying and subversive motherhood for Jane that recasts her famous feminist soliloquy as a statement on motherhood. Jane’s struggles with maternity have gone unacknowledged in the criticism because of the cultural assumption of the Victorian woman’s self-fulfillment through marriage and mothering and the psychoanalytic disconnect between women’s sexuality and pregnancy. In combination with biographical work that similarly characterizes Charlotte Bronte as unmotherly, there is resistance on the part of Bronte, Jane Eyre, and the critic to conceptualize Jane as what she ultimately becomes- a mother.


[3] Jane’s subconscious fear of pregnancy and motherhood manifests most directly in recurrent nightmares of children she struggles to carry, comfort, and control. Jane’s dreams refigure a single child in different distressing scenes, a repetition Jane equates less to an identifiable baby but moreso to an inevitable “idea,” that is, a metaphor for motherhood: “I did not like this iteration of one idea– this strange recurrence of one image; and I grew nervous as bed-time approached, and the hour of the vision drew near. It was companionship with this baby-phantom” (231). Jane’s dreams situate her in scenes of “frantic perilous haste” where she is “confined…feeble …tired…impeded…and strangled” by unidentifiable infants, symbolizing the burden of motherhood to self-actualization (231, 295-96). Because, according to Bessie, “to dream of children was a sure sign of trouble, either to one’s self or one’s kin,” even the dreams of infants not in imminent danger are foreboding (230). Jane recollects this ominous parable before she summarizes her dreams:

Of late I have often recalled this saying and this incident; for during the past week scarcely a night had gone over my couch that had not brought with it a dream of an infant: which I sometimes hushed in my arms, sometimes dandled on my knee, sometime watched playing with daisies on the lawn, or, again, dabbling its hands in running water. It was a wailing child this night and a laughing one the next: now it nestled close to me, and now it ran from me; … for seven successive nights to meet me the moment I entered the land of slumber. (231)

Jane’s subconscious fears surface in her dreams as multiple children contrastingly “playing” or “wailing,” beckoning her to motherhood where “it nestled close to me” yet evading her control where “it ran from me,” portraying motherhood as a series of contradictions.

[4] Soon the recurring dreams become more threatening and uncontrollable in mood as Jane’s final dream concludes with the child falling to its death:

I was following the windings of an unknown road; total obscurity environed me; rain pelted me; I was burdened with the charge of a little child: a very small creature, too young and feeble to walk, and which shivered cold in my arms, and wailed piteously in my ear…. Wrapped up in a shawl, I still carried the unknown little child: I might not lay it down anywhere, however tired were my arms– however much its weight impeded my progress… the child clung around my neck in terror, and almost strangled me … the wall crumbled; I was shaken; the child rolled from my knee. (295-96)

The “creature” “wailed [and] shivered,” portraying an inhuman baby in terrible suffering that ultimately meets its downfall. Physically “burdened” by a small child that “impeded [her] progress,” Jane “wandered,” “stumbled” and “climbed” treacherous terrain. This staging will parallel Jane’s famous feminist soliloquy in her conflicts with “too rigid a [social] restraint” against female mobility, “action,” and “exercise” (114-15). In both scenes Jane endures an obstacle to freedom of travel. In addition to the repeated theme of movement, Bronte will revisit the theme of sight from Jane’s dream to her speech. Beginning her famous soliloquy, Jane “climbed the three staircases…looked out afar over sequestered field and hill, along dim skyline: [and] longed for a power of vision that might overpass that limit” (115). So too in dream she “climbed the thin wall with frantic, perilous haste, eager to catch one glimpse of [Rochester] from the top” (114, 296). “Burdened by the charge of a little child,” Jane grapples with the prospect of motherhood in dream, and later in monologue, as a “weight” that hinders “progress.”

[5] Emphasis on Jane’s physical exhaustion, her continual carrying of the infant, and her inability to “lay it down anywhere” evokes pregnancy. John Seelye notes that Bronte’s verb choices imply pregnancy: “Jane carrying the child in her arms is symbolic in a Freudian sense surely, for to ‘carry’ or ‘bear’ are verbs teeming with significance to women” (83-84). When adding these dreams, which occur for Jane over an extended period of time, to the novel’s repeated occurrences of childhood suffering and want, “[t]he persistence of these misbegotten, unwanted babies outweighs the unseen infant Jane will finally present to Rochester as the fruit of their long deferred passion” (Seelye 86). Although Jane’s romance-quest concludes with marriage and a child, the absence of an in-scene depiction of Jane with the child and its descriptive brevity deny a dimensional rendering of Jane as a mother. In language that virtually disconnects her from the baby’s creation, Jane summarizes her maternity through emphasis on Rochester, stating, “when his first-born was put into his arms, he could see that it inherited his own eyes” (476). This terse conclusion provides just one of many mothering depictions that lack the traditional compassionate tone of the maternal.

[6] Jane’s subconscious reservations toward motherhood extend past her dreams into the descriptive language and metaphors used to illustrate contexts entirely separate from a focus on children. Allusions to stillbirth, exposure, and infanticide often characterize Jane’s thoughts of Rochester. Melodie Monahan traces this rhetoric:

Jane characterizes the threat of separation from Rochester as a “new-born agony- a deformed thing which I could not persuade myself to own and rear.” And later she wonders if her persona as Mrs. Rochester “will come into the world alive.” Finally, after the wedding ceremony is broken off, Jane likens her dashed hopes to the Slaughter of Innocents: “my cherished wishes …lay stark, chill, livid- corpses that could never revive,” and her love for Rochester “shriveled in her heart, like a suffering child in a cold cradle.” (600)

Similar to the ultimate demise of her “child-phantom” from a fall, allusions to children consistently connote death (“new-born agony…corpses…cold cradle”) and deny the child subjectivity (“creature…phantom…deformed thing”). On the one hand, Jane’s ominous dreams depict her as either overwhelmed and conflicted by the presence of children or “impeded” and physically endangered by the necessity to carry them, to where she struggles for her own physical footing, or psychological balance, in choosing a focus. The dreams threaten the absorption or termination of Jane’s identity for emphasis on saving the child. Margaret Homans writes, “For the apparition of the child in these crucial weeks preceding her marriage is only one symptom of a dissolution of personality which Jane seems to be experiencing at this time …[i]n view of this frightening series of separations within the self” (795). Yet Bronte’s rhetorical allusions to stillbirth (“deformed thing…will [it] come into the world alive”), exposure (“shriveled…suffering child in a cold cradle”), and infanticide (“corpses… I strangled this new-born agony”) empower Jane to retaliate against the children that “clung around [her] neck in terror, and almost strangled [her]” (256, 296, 317). This dualistic use and abuse of a threatening vision of motherhood evokes Jane’s liminal status as a pseudo-mother when employed as governess and its paradoxical function to both extend yet prevent Jane’s self-actualization.

[7] Jane’s recurring nightmares of suffocating children are seldom read as metaphoric of her resistance to being a mother despite their gothic presentation, allusions to motherhood and pregnancy, and parallels to Jane’s feminist speech (which I later explore). Critics generalize the nighttime visions of struggle as representing Jane’s struggle: “whether as a symbol of erotic impediment, of lost childhood (read: virginity), of blighted love, or fears of abandonment, the burdensome, suffering children in Jane Eyre is clearly a projection of the suffering, burdened woman” (Seelye 86). Esther Godfrey reads Jane’s dreams of a recurrent child as symbolizing the individual identity of Jane herself and the childhood past she has yet to reconcile: “What are we to make of these strange dreams?… To begin with it seems clear that the wailing child who appears in all of them corresponds to the ‘poor orphan child’ of Bessie’s song at Gateshead and therefore to the child Jane herself” (861). Seelye equates Jane’s powerlessness in Rochester’s presence to a child’s weak status, stating, “The dream reveals a curious ambivalence toward the dependency of infancy, the helplessness and weakness that Jane displays in the company of Rochester, which we might explain as the conflicted response by a child-woman to the child forced by some mysterious agency into her arms” (84). When expanded into a larger social context, Jane’s dreams are aligned with marriage, not motherhood, as representing Jane’s conflict with an unequal marriage where she is infantilized or, conversely, a self she must relinquish as a barrier to her marriage as a signifier of adulthood. Sandra Gilbert early argued that the dreams symbolize Jane’s resistance to an unequal marriage where she will occupy a child-like position: “That dream child’s complaint is still Jane’s or at least that part of her which resists a marriage of inequality” (795).

[8] These several readings overlook the pragmatic detail that Jane is a young woman at the pinnacle of reproductive age. Because the dreams follow Jane’s thoughts on her impending marriage, they connote Jane’s inevitable sexual intercourse with Rochester in “the powerfully depicted recurrent dream of a child she begins to have as she drifts into a romance with her master” (Deutsch 215). Even outside these contexts of age and marriage expectations, the child-dreams, rhetoric, and allusions are ominous, becoming one of the strongest Gothic elements in the novel. Monahan recognizes this pervasive imagery, arguing that “the ambivalence in [Jane’s] struggle to realize self within a community expresses itself through metaphors of abortion, stillbirth, crying dream children, and dying babies” (Monahan 600). Jane returns to the image of suffering children when confronted with multiple life struggles, continually figuring her trials through a maternity metaphor such that “the transitory experience of being a mother is the central recurring metaphor for the abundant sense of danger in Jane Eyre” (Homans 88).

[9] Although Jane Eyre is semi-autobiographical, Charlotte Bronte’s documented testimonial dislike of children rarely extends into readings of Jane. However, “Charlotte Bronte is on record as not being fond of children, and her terrible death brought on by continuous, unrelenting morning sickness has been interpreted by modern psychologists as a violent rejection of her pregnancy” (Reisner 176). Despite Charlotte becoming pregnant six years after writing Jane Eyre, Margaret Homans declares that “[n]either Charlotte nor Emily Bronte was, at the time of writing Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, in a position to experience or even anticipate actual motherhood” (88). Literary criticism resists reading Charlotte Bronte as a mother figure and thus marginalizes this impact on her novel while bringing her romances to the forefront. Godfrey parallels Bronte’s new marriage and pregnancy, emphasizing how “Charlotte Bronte’s manner of dying, nine months after her marriage and into her pregnancy, is an irony with a scalpel-like edge” because of their identical chronologies (884). Similarly Gabriel Reisner associates fictional marriage, and disassociates authorial biography, to Jane’s child-dreams by dismissing Charlotte Bronte’s stance on children: “But that, of course, is the author’s nightmare, not Jane Eyre’s, for in the novel the wailing, burdensome child is an impediment to Jane’s pursuit of her master [and] holds Jane back from her desired union with Rochester” (186). Together, analyses of Jane’s dreams and Bronte’s biography privilege marriage and abstract motherhood despite the novel’s violent allusions to pregnancy and infants showing a troubled relationship with maternity that Charlotte Bronte actually lived.

Feminist Speech

[10] Allusions to distressed and deceased children in addition to the literal suffering of nearly every child presented in Jane Eyre create a catalogue of adolescent affliction. Jane Eyre‘s children are denied physical, emotional, and psychological nurturance and complexity. Their mistreatment ranges from conscious efforts by adults to withhold food, home, affection, attention, lineage, self-expression, and subjectivity resulting in the ostracization, simplification, or death of every single child in the novel. Children become empty figures that are marginalized and discarded en masse and narrative figures employed as vehicles for plotline development only. Conversely, Bronte infantilizes Jane in adulthood yet attributes intellectual, ethical, and religious complexity to her character in prominent and multifaceted interior monologue. Bronte’s problematic treatment of children by depriving them subjectivity yet attributing to Jane both subjectivity and childishness is best clarified in her most direct feminist commentary of the novel. Jane’s proclamation of women’s desire for mobility and knowledge as equal to men is purposefully juxtaposed with her reflection on the unfulfilling work of governing Adèle and their inherently “cool” relationship to one another (113). Bronte thus invokes the theme of motherhood as an obstacle to self-realization. While Jane finds pragmatic purpose in caring for and teaching children because these occupations expand the scope of her experience beyond the confines of Lowood, she remains unfulfilled and guarded from the nameless and largely absent children, instead “longing for a power of vision that might overpass that limit: which might reach the busy world” (115). The paradoxical function of children to both extend yet prevent self-actualization is later reflected in moments of Jane’s infantilization. As a perpetual girl-woman, Jane struggles for wholeness beyond her educational fashioning for the socially expected, matron role of governess as pseudo-mother.

[11] Jane’s reflection on educating Adèle introduces the dynamic position of governess to both superficially uphold yet subversively deconstruct social roles. Much critical theory exists on how the governess’ liminal position destabilizes the two gender roles she simultaneously fulfills. Mary Poovey explains, “Because the governess was the middle-class mother in the work she performed, but like a working class woman and man in the wages she received, the very figure who theoretically should have defended the naturalness of separate spheres threatened to collapse the difference between them” (168). “As keepers of middle-class children and thereby keepers of the future,” Jane as governess is a mother figure yet paradoxically positioned to critique motherhood (Godfrey 858). Jane assumes the role of governess in a detached, unaffectionate union with Adèle which she philosophizes as thwarting prospects for self-fulfillment. Immediately preceding Jane’s feminist proclamation about women’s capabilities and necessary freedoms, she makes an equally declarative summary about her apathetic relationship with Adèle and the public’s excessive romanticization of parent/child relationships. However, critics consistently overlook this previous scene for the later, instead focusing on Grace Poole’s laughter as fully characterizing Jane’s feminist statement as her unconscious, sexual self lashing out and materializing beyond woman’s confining social roles. While, of course, this is the paramount reading of Jane’s speech, Bronte imbues multiple complexities in this famous passage, not the least of which is an implication of opposing motherhood. Bronte begins the chapter by positioning Jane as a pseudo-mother to Adèle: “The promise of a smooth career, which my first calm introduction to Thornfield Hall seemed to pledge, was not belied on longer acquaintance with the place and its inmates. … My pupil was a lively child, who had been spoilt and indulged, and therefore was sometimes wayward; but as [such] she was committed entirely to my care” (113). In nuanced language intermixing themes of occupation (“career… pledge”), parentage (“child…entirely to my care”), and imprisonment (“inmates…committed”), Bronte introduces these three issues that will combine into the social role of motherhood.

[12] Jane characterizes Adèle as lacking any noteworthy qualities in personality that are either positive or negative, relegating her to an almost devoid status and negating her personhood in the very statement she intends to describe it:

She had no great talents, no marked traits of character, no peculiar development of feeling or taste which raised her an inch above the ordinary level of childhood; but neither had she any deficiency or vice which sunk her below it. She made reasonable progress… and inspired me, in return, with a degree of attachment sufficiently to make us both content with each other’s society. (113)

This relentlessly unsentimental portrait of her relationship with Adèle is, in Jane’s eyes, “reasonable…sufficient…content.” Despite her clear occupational position as pseudo-mother and eventual familial position as adoptive mother, Jane’s indifference dominates this summative passage. In philosophical commentary that both segues into Jane’s feminist speech and parallels its structure by predicting public criticism, Jane undercuts “parental egotism” and the social presupposition of “angelic…children.” Resisting a mother’s expected adoration, Jane rejects the emotions of the matron role despite fulfilling it in form:

This, par parenthèse, will be thought cool language by persons who entertain solemn doctrines about the angelic nature of children, and the duty of those charged with their education to conceive for them an idolatrous devotion but I am not writing to flatter parental egotism, to echo cant, or prop up humbug; I am merely telling the truth. I felt a conscientious liking for Adèle’s welfare and progress, and a quiet liking to her little self; just as I cherished towards Mrs. Fairfax. (113-14)

Critical of “parental egotism” as “humbug” that positions mothers/educators in “idolatrous devotion” of ethereal children, Jane denounces prescribed motherly affection and veneration of youth. Instead she equates her “conscientious liking” for Adèle as the same connection she feels to adults. Anticipating public censure of her “cool language,” this philosophy’s delivery parallels her next philosophy on womanhood.

[13] Juxtaposed with Jane’s critique of Victorian sentimentalization of maternity is her metaphoric “walk” to the parameters of the Thornfield estate where she gazes into the horizon and wishes for “a power of vision that might overpass that limit: which might meet the busy world, towns, regions full of life” (114). This “limit,” as foreshadowed in the chapter’s opening and reinforced in the speech itself, is a stationary mother role. Jane contrasts her restricted mobility as governess/mother to the possibilities available to men and anticipates similar public disapproval of this statement as her previous on “parent[hood]”:

Anybody may blame me who likes, when I add further, that, now and then, when I took a walk by myself… [I] looked out over sequestered field and hill, along dim skyline: that then I longed for a power of vision that might overpass that limit.; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I’ve heard of but never seen: that I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach. (114)

Yearning for “practical experience… intercourse…[and] acquaintance with a variety of character,” Jane outlines the interactions unavailable not just to women but, primarily, to mothers. Because “[s]he never, for instance, articulates her rational desire for liberty so well as when she stands on the battlements of Thornfield, looking out over the world,” Jane’s clarity of “vision” in her feminist speech contains noteworthy allusions to motherhood (Gilbert 788):

It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot…. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts. (114-15)

The sheer multitude Jane references by stating “millions” must contain mothers. By comparing their confinement to domesticity as greater than hers, Jane alludes to an exaggerated picture of her own duties – the duties of the biological mother. The “stiller doom” of pregnancy and “silent revolt” of motherhood becomes clearer when she lists the activities Victorian women are relegated to by placing motherly conduct first: “[I]t is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex” (115). Cooking “puddings,” food edible for babies, and knitting “stockings,” as opposed to handbags or gloves, reference motherly duties and come before the young woman’s education in the arts of “piano playing” and busywork of “embroidering.” Furthermore, for the Victorian woman, there is nothing femininity “necess[itates]” more than obedience and childbirth, a connection I will explore later through Jane’s infantilism as representing her liminal status as both child and mother.

[14] Despite parallels between the two scenes’ placement, delivery, and philosophy, Jane’s feminist revelation is consistently juxtaposed with the following interjection of Grace Poole’s laughter, as in Gilbert’s analysis:

[T]he sequence of ideas expressed in the famous passage beginning “Anybody may blame me who likes” is as logical as anything in an essay by, say, Wollstonecraft or Mill. What is somewhat irrational, however, is the restlessness and passion– the pacing “backwards and forwards”– which as it were italicize Jane’s little meditation on freedom. And even more irrational is the experience which accompanies her pacing: “When thus alone, I heard Grace Poole’s laugh.” (788)

The following presence of Grace Poole corresponds with, rather than diverges from, both of the two prior scenes if we continue Jane’s theme of motherhood. Grace Poole ultimately reveals herself as Bertha, phonetically “birth-a,” or the manifested figure symbolizing Jane’s fear of pregnancy and motherhood. Simultaneous to Jane fantasizing on romantic (ie. sexual) union with Rochester, Bertha haunts Jane’s chamber, scares her unconscious rest, threatens her physical being, and thwarts her potential marriage. As a controlling “intrusion of the hostile mother,” Bertha portends pregnancy and threatens Jane’s self-fulfillment in worldly travel and experience (Reisner 184). Reisner analyzes the mother’s threat to the daughter’s subjectivity as an association Jane experiences through Bertha’s destruction of her room and belongings: “The demand of the Imaginary Mother to the Imaginary Daughter is: admit that I dominate you and that you have no self.… The Fiery Mother comes before the beginning– she denies origins instead of extending possibilities…. She rends Jane’s veil to deny her womanhood, the aggression of the Mother unmasking the fear of the child” (185-86). Bertha is a threatening mother figure that must ultimately die for Jane to achieve self-actualization, to “have [a] self,” as one in a collection of uninspiring mother figures she encounters. Reisner continues, “Indeed, negative female images invade the child-Jane from her beginnings. She is inhabited by female images she will not internalize as part of herself” (168). Jane’s figurative hunger for a mother in her youth is literalized as a bodily hunger at Lowood, symbolized by the “bad breast” in her unnourishing meal: “the ‘bad breast’ [is] an image that refers to the frustrating maternal body. The bad breast provides little yet intrudes itself into experience with negative force. Hence she is both nauseated by and starved for the presence of female figures” (Deutsch 41). After failed attempts at realizing mothers in Mrs. Reed, Miss Temple, and Helen Burns, Jane is eventually disenchanted with motherhood and subconsciously rejects it as a potential role for herself. Therefore, Jane frames her paramount feminist speech with allusions to how “[a]ntagonistic maternal figures interfere with the achievement of self-continuity” (Gilbert 780). Jane’s dual narratology will again show her internalize the “antagonistic maternal figure,” truncating both her feminist soliloquy and child psychology by the threat of the maternal.


[15] Jane Eyre‘s narratology presents a poised and articulate adult Jane who has gained access to language, can subsequently voice her own story, and has internalized the societal disciplining of emotion that her childhood self cannot move beyond to achieve communication. As a child, Jane cannot successfully verbalize because of overwhelming emotionality, therefore “Jane’s speech in this early section, while crucial to her verbal development, is rudimentary and ineffectual because her voice is thoroughly governed by passion and geared toward venting emotion rather than communicating it and persuading others to believe it” (Peters 82). A second Jane must enter to provide context and analysis for the disabled speaker. Janet Freeman introduces the contrasting capabilities of narrator and subject and hints at its masochistic undertones: “The child struggles with words’ meaning. The irony with which the adult who is narrating these formative conversations utters it is a sign of her ease and control. The striving child, who suffers, and the adult who narrates that suffering, meet in these opening chapters of Jane Eyre” (687). Agreeing on this reflexive method of delivery, though not the extent of its disempowerment for Jane, “feminist narratologists retain the premise that the narration is entirely provided by the character as she looks back retrospectively over her life” (Peters 79). Jane’s adult narration frequently undercuts the expressivity and agency of its speaker and often directly critiques childhood perception as flawed and inchoate, thus denying the young Jane a degree of subjectivity so that “a diminishment of the subjectivity of Jane’s discourse is encouraged” (Reisner 171). This dynamic exchange portrays a strange separation of Jane into two selves and is interpretable as a mother-daughter relationship in the adult Jane’s control and cultivation of her nascent child self. This relationship is reminiscent of Jane’s criticism and management of Adele’s emotional “little freaks” into “the moderation of her mind and character” as “obedient and teachable” (113-14). Richard Benvenuto recognizes how Jane’s older identity disciplines the younger, stating “Jane’s two perspectives employed in the episode of the red room suggest a pattern of the development in which the mature adult corrects the excesses of the child” (628). But Benvenuto stops short of classifying these corrections as parental, which I argue is paramount to the novel’s overall structure of denying children and demonizing motherhood.

[16] Jane remarks on the impossibility of accurate childhood expression, denying children analytical skills: “How much I wished to reply fully to this question! How difficult it was to frame my answer! Children can feel but they cannot analyze their feelings; and if the analysis is partially effected in thought, they know not how to express the result of the process in words” (24). Broadening Jane’s struggle to “reply” and “frame” an answer into a philosophical assertion about child psychology, the narrator generalizes children as a whole as lacking “analysis” and a certain psychic aptitude. The narrator conversely “know[s] how to express” analytically and does so with methodical control:

The child, who hid herself away to read in silence about far distant places, uses words from her reading to try to defend herself against a very near enemy; on being severely punished, she can only scream and faint; on being symptomatically questioned, she finds the words inside her erupting uncontrollably- and so the struggle goes on, meticulously recorded by a narrator whose equilibrium never falters. (Freeman 689)

The discrepancy in expressivity between young and old Jane progresses in several instances where the young Jane cannot achieve verbal or even psychological connection: “I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children’s brains…. And then my mind made its first honest effort to comprehend what had been infused in it about heaven and hell… and for the first time it recoiled, baffled” (82). Partial comprehension implies partial subjectivity where the young Jane is undercut by her adult self.

[17] The division between young Jane and old Jane’s capabilities is so striking it almost crystallizes her into two selves where the adult’s control and knowingness is presented simultaneous to the child’s frantic ignorance. Janet Freeman summarizes opposing responses to the same scene:

The child, whose vocabulary is limited, “could not answer the ceaseless inward question- why I thus suffered”; the adult, on the other hand, sees no hesitation: “Now, at the distance of- I will not say how many years, I see it clearly. I was a discord at Gateshead Hall.” She tells us this very skillfully, withholding one piece of information while in the same breath she offers another. The child has no such poise. At the moment the narrator is analyzing that discord, the child is working up to the scream. (Freeman 688)

Now referred to as “the adult” versus “the child,” the adult Jane is “skillful” and “poised” where as a youth she was “limited.” It is important to note that the thematic context of every one of these scenes is Jane’s struggle both actually and expressively, where childhood affliction occurs at multiple levels and disempowers the child in multiple ways, adding dimension to an already troubling picture of childhood “struggle.” The narrator’s critique of her childhood self can be read as a mother disciplining her daughter, an omnipresent voice Jane never physically experienced through interactions with a real mother and therefore materialized as self-criticism through reflexive narration. Joan Peters notes the difference in genre between the child’s and adult’s perceptions, one that can easily translate into a mother interpreting her child for the audience with “[t]he young Jane focalizing a scene as Gothic and the mature narrator simultaneously framing, ordering, and evaluating in the mode of realism” (78). “[F]raming, ordering, and evaluating” the young Jane’s incapacity for holistic expression, the “mature” Jane’s narration “corrects the excesses of the child” in language that is critical of children as a group, substituting a learned voiced for a limited one. In conclusion, Bronte’s narrative structure reflects her theme of a menacing motherhood in the unforgiving criticism, interruption, and refashioning of the young Jane’s story at the expense of a complete subjectivity for the child.

[18] Thus far my argument has literalized Jane’s allusions to children within narration, monologue, dreams, and rhetoric as representing the loss of freedom and self by the tangibly burdensome state of pregnancy and consuming duties of motherhood. Selfhood is truncated in a practical sense by the “stiller doom” of the immobile pregnant body and the “impeded…progress” of care giving over self-directed “action” and “exercise.” However, critical readings of these children as symbolizing a psychological “part” of Jane are equally correct and applicable, as demonstrated by Jane’s narratology. The psychological reasons Jane fears Othering herself through childbirth are equally threatening as the literal reasons a child “impedes” a desired lifestyle. In sum, Jane views motherhood and selfhood as mutually exclusive. Margaret Homans philosophizes on the psychoanalytic annulment of the mother by the child in Jane Eyre:

Splitting the sense of self between child and adult, these dreams question and break down the boundary between subject and object, between self and other. [F]or Bronte the image of childbirth connotes primarily loss of self. … Within the conventions of fiction, childbirth puts an end to the mother’s existence as an individual. (89-91)

For motherhood, Jane would sacrifice a degree of psychological constitution by redirecting her focus on the subjectivity of her child over herself. If Jane’s “baby-phantom” is Other to her self, Jane’s determination to simplify children’s interiority, objectify their identities, and even kill their presence can mirror any number of fears she has about facing (literally and metaphorically) a repressed or inchoate part of herself. Because “the boundary between her identity and that of the child within her is quite permeable, psychically and physically,” Jane may fear dissolution: “before birth there is an other, perhaps sensed as parasitical, resident within one’s self, while after birth a part of the self is gone” (Homans 89).

[19] If becoming a mother can switch “subject and object” status, Jane may secondly fear objectification. Homans reads childbirth as an objectified, materialized expression of the Gothic genre: “To say that the mother projects into the object world something that was once internal and that now has its own independent existence… that that projection may produce fear, is also to describe the structure of the gothic. Childbirth, thus construed, almost too vividly figures the gothic pattern in which unconscious projection takes actual form” (89). Finally, besides raillery against “splitting” or objectifying her selfhood, Jane’s resistance to maternity can symbolize the Othering of a self that would threaten her power: “[w]hether she wants to or not, she who has created this new life must obey its power: its rule is expected, yet invisible, implacable…. the womb can do literally [what] literal self-duplication invites [–] the fear that what one has created will subsequently overpower and eradicate the self” (Deutsch 215). While the psychoanalytic implications of pregnancy for Jane are multifarious, what is specifically reiterated through the stylistics of narratology, soliloquy, and rheoric is Jane’s view on the exclusivity of selfhood and motherhood. Jane only reconciles these two in an abstracted and fetishized form through her simultaneous mothering of Rochester yet infantilization by him.

Infantilism and Maternalism

[20] Neurosis over compassion for children, pregnancy, and motherhood finalize in Jane’s infantilized mothering of Rochester. Although Rochester refers to Jane as a child and treats her like one throughout their courtship, the novel’s conclusion demonstrates the interweaving of this child role with motherhood simultaneously. Jane is powerful in her financial gain and returning status as an “independent woman”; her sadistic withholding of information to trouble Rochester for her enjoyment; her physical and visual superiority to Rochester; and her motherly assistance to his depleted body and ego. Yet Jane is concurrently portrayed as Rochester’s child by sitting on his knee and responding to the same rhetoric of youth projected onto her previously. Juxtaposed with a concluding summary where Jane substitutes Rochester’s care for Adèle’s reintroduction into the family, thereby equating one form of mothering with another, as well as a terse synopsis of Jane’s new baby, the conclusion blurs the lines of demarcation between the social roles of mother, child, and wife. Bronte thus makes her most controversial feminist statement by conflating childhood and motherhood within marriage as ultimately destroying subjecthood “because childbirth objectifies, literalizes the self in the same way that traditional marriage objectifies andtherefore infantilizes woman when it defines her only in reference to her husband. This process of objectification constitutes erasure; it denies the integrity and autonomy, the selfhood, essential for quest. In giving birth to Mrs. Rochester, Jane faces the death of self” (Monahan 590).

[21] Rochester infantilizes Jane throughout the various stages of their relationship. From their first meeting he makes the distinction of being “rid” of all “womankind” but enamored with the “[c]hildish” Jane: “Last January, rid of all mistresses- in a harsh, bitter frame of mind…. and especially against all womankind… I had no presentment of what it would be to me… yet you were there…Childish and slender creature!” (329). He repeatedly underlines her youth when referencing their appending marriage, stating, “This is my wife, Rochester said, and thisis what I wished to have… this young girl…. This girl… my girl-bride… She was a little small thing, they say, almost like a child” (323, 360, 465). Even after Jane divulges her maternal nightmares to Rochester he allocates her to the status of a child by directing her to the “nursery”: “it is no wonder that the incident you have related should make you nervous, and I would rather you did not sleep alone: promise me to go to the nursery” (297). Jane reciprocates this treatment by calling Rochester her “Master” and “sir” equally often. Godfrey notes Jane’s submissiveness around Rochester:

Jane Eyre is also a young woman with a strong will and a temper to match, and yet when in the presence of her master, as she calls him, Jane becomes passive and obedient, even child-like, as Rochester himself is fond of noting. … Rochester, having secured Jane’s love, almost reflexively begins to treat her like an inferior ….his “mustard-seed,” his “little sunny-faced…girl-bride.” “It is your time now, little tyrant,” he declares, “but it will be mine presently.” (860)

This unequal power dynamic, incongruously coupled with Jane’s self-government, complicates Jane’s independence and foreshadows her eventual hybridization as Rochester’s mother and child. Godfrey examines Jane’s disparate identities as an autonomous adult yet obedient child, though he does not explore the role of maternity in this equation:

Though reading Jane, a seemingly capable and self-governing adult, as a child might appear to be a critical stretch, the text encourages readers to take note of her relative childishness within her relationship to Rochester. Bronte allows Rochester to voice his pleasure proudly at having procured a younger wife: “Yes; Mrs. Rochester, ” said he; “young Mrs. Rochester-Fairfax Rochester’s girl-bride.” Here, the sexualized connotations of marriage and the masculine privilege of possessing a trophy wife are intricately linked to Jane’s youth and girlhood. (860)

Jane’s power as a “capable and self-governing adult” collides with the social roles of wife and mother because both positions can equate women to children: “Fantasy of romantic love is both powerful and regressive because it repeats structural features of a daughter’s relationship to her father in a patriarchal nuclear family organization and so channels desire back into recreating the patterns of female subordination and dependency on a man that characterize the Western family” (Wyatt 202-3). As a wife, the woman is infantilized by lawful subordination to a husband as she was once to her father. As a mother, woman’s subjectivity is subsumed by the care and prioritization of the child as her body becomes quite literally associated with a child. Together, marriage and motherhood doubly position Jane as a child.

[22] “Independent” and “rich,” Jane returns to Thornfield and to a powerless Rochester, marking the novel’s climax that superimposes several social roles onto Jane that she had previously resisted. Interweaving configurations of the mother/child relationship, “Jane resigns herself to the domestic sphere in her subservient roles of wife, maid, and child for Rochester and exchanges her former child-rearing position as paid governess with the new unpaid feminine status of mother” (Seelye 90). While critics often focus on the Oedipal representation of Jane as Rochester’s daughter (rightly so because he actually terms her “daughter” in this passage), Jane’s infantilism should not overshadow her new simultaneous “status of mother.” In addition to the repetition of child-like terminology given to Jane previously, the act of Jane sitting on Rochester’s lap for an extended period marks the strongest allusion to her infantilism. Yet this infantilism is complicated by her new-found financial power that, when paralleled to Rochester’s new physical and visual disempowerment, places Jane in the “dominant” position:

Before she begins to answer his questions about her whereabouts, and thereby to relieve his anxieties about her sexuality, he places her childishly (and sexually) on his knee…. the childish posturing of Jane on his knee proves an unpleasant reminder of his “twenty years difference in age.” Jane, now the psychically and physically dominant of the two, refuses to move. She revels in her youthful position and flatly responds to his demands in the negative, affirming her age-associated power “because I am comfortable there.” (Godfrey 864)

By insisting upon staying on Rochester’s knee, Jane purposefully exaggerates her infantilized role to paradoxically draw power from it. She teases Rochester by withholding information and mocks his weakness by his physical inability to remove her. Because “Jane glorifies in her newfound masculine role as keeper and caretaker of her trapped bird, who has been ‘forced’ to renounce patriarchal authority over her,” she next adopts the role of mother (Godfrey 870). She states, “I served both for his prop and his guide…I caressed in order to soothe him… to read to you, to walk with you, to sit with you, to wait on you, to be eyes and hands to you… It is time someone undertook to re-humanize you” (458-59, 468). Rochester reciprocates by becoming child-like: “[y]ou know I was proud of my strength: but what is it now, when I must give it over to foreign guidance, as a child does its weakness” (470).

[23] With “her new independence and Rochester’s humility,” Jane is finally able to accept the role of mother that she previously rejected because it ironically empowers her– not over children that she loathes and pregnancy that she fears– but over the man that she loves (Gilbert 801). Therefore, Jane believes her selfhood is ultimately extended through motherhood and infantilization, accepting this convoluted situation despite her original, sustained resistance to both roles. From a contemporary perspective, Jane seems to be accepting the confining roles she railed against in others and in herself simply because they fall into a marriage plot. The reader is forced to ask, “[i]s reading Jane Eyre an imaginative experience that leads to change, or does it simply reinforce old patterns?” (Wyatt 209). Depending on perspective, Jane’s struggle with accepting children, pregnancy, and motherhood paradoxically extends and precludes selfhood, as Sandra Gilbert concludes that “[t]he indecisive endings of Bronte’s novels suggest that she herself was unable clearly to envision viable solutions to the problem of patriarchal oppression” (803).

[24] Jane is a latent mother to ailing babies in her nightmares, to herself in narratology, to Adèle as her governess, to Rochester as his caregiver, and to her biological child in the novel’s conventional ending. Yet these numerous motherhood depictions are cruel, unnatural, and immaterial, reflecting Jane’s, and furthermore Bronte’s, resistance to maternity. Jane’s feminist proclamation most substantially reflects this rejection of pregnancy and motherhood. Critics’ failure to recognize this soliloquy as framed within critiques and fears of maternity as well as expressing oppressive maternal obligations is a profound oversight in the current Bronte criticism. With several feminine roles superimposed onto Jane in the novel’s conclusion, she is able to fulfill the socially expected role of mother and socially imposed position of child through parenting Rochester. Because this relationship requires no actual children- the Other that she fears- though circulates around the infantilizing of both parties, Jane accepts this union as a new subjective identity that empowers her.

Works Cited

  • Benvenuto, Richard. “The Child of Nature, The Child of Grace, and the Unresolved Conflict of Jane Eyre.” ELH39.4 (1972): 620-638.
  • Deutsch, Helene. Motherhood Volume 2: The Psychology of Women A Psychoanalytic Interpretation. New York: Grune and Stratton, 1995.
  • Freeman, Janet H. “Speech and Silence in Jane Eyre.” SEL 24 (1984): 683-704.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M. “Plain Jane’s Progress.” Signs. 2.4 (1977): 779-810.
  • Godfrey, Esther. “Jane Eyre, From Governess to Girl Bride.” SEL 45.4 (2005): 853-874.
  • Homans, Margaret. Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
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  • Poovey, Mary. “The Anathematised Race: The Governess and Jane Eyre.” Jane Eyre: New Casebooks, Heather Glen, ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
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  • Seelye, John. Jane Eyre’s American Daughters: From The Wide, Wide World to Anne of Green Gables A Study of Marginalized Maidens and What They Mean. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005.
  • Wyatt, Jean. “A Patriarch of One’s Own: Jane Eyre and Romantic Love.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. 199-216. 4.2 (Fall 1985): 199-216.