Fire as a motif is versatile; it has the ability to comfort or destroy, enliven or kill. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë fully illustrates the potentiality of fire, from how it “shines in Paradise” to how it “burns in Hell” (Bachelard 7). Its presence in contained forms results in contentment, its absence results in gloomy isolation, and its wild abundance results in destruction. Although the novel shows the different presences of fire physically, it also mirrors them in the personality of the main character. Jane strives to find the middle ground for her internal fire, allowing it to fuel her passion and self-respect without destroying her.
Fire is commonly depicted in its most comforting form, as an inviting flame burning brightly behind a grate. Contained fire comes to represent the merriment, warmth, and comfort of home. When Jane Eyre first describes the Reeds, she notes that Mrs. Reed likes to “lay reclined on a sofa by the fireside, and with her darlings about her” (Brontë 7). The Reed family gathering by the fireside is a very picturesque scene but one from which Jane is excluded. Jane is considered too spiteful to enjoy a privilege “intended only for contented, happy, little children” (Brontë 7). This deprivation only adds to the solace that fire brings when Jane finally “belongs” somewhere.
As a child, Jane’s own passion acts as a substitute for comforting fire to sustain her. One of Jane’s deepest childhood fears is that she will live in grim poverty. The “ragged clothes, scanty food, fireless grates…” are so degrading in her eyes that she would rather live imprisoned with her aunt than to live with “liberty” in poverty (Brontë 23). In other words, to live without the fire of passion would be as terrible as the worst abuse at the hands of Mrs. Reed.
Oddly, the fiery nature that keeps Jane content is seen as repulsive to refined English society. In her first encounter with Mr. Rochester, she is unafraid to defy him because of the “frown, the roughness of the traveler” (Brontë 108). Rochester appears to be relatively untamed, and thus Jane feels that she is “good enough” to talk to him with no delusion of politeness. Had Rochester been handsome and proper, he would not “have sympathy with anything in [her], and should have shunned [her] as one would fire, lightning, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic” (Brontë 108). Jane recognizes the fire that burns so radiantly within her, but she sees it as off-putting to the mild-mannered. Rochester not only tolerates Jane’s fire but encourages and loves it. After the proposal, he confides in her that “to the soul made of fire… I am ever tender and true” (Brontë 245). Rochester is thrilled by Jane’s matured and controlled passion, choosing it over the “perspective of flatness, triviality, and perhaps imbecility” (Brontë 245).
In their first fireside conversation, Rochester immediately sees the spark of livelihood beneath a no-nonsense shell, saying that she must be “tenacious of life” to have survived eight years at Lowood (Brontë 115). Indeed, Lowood seems like an institution designed to drown any superfluous passion. With its “plain fare, simple attire, unsophisticated accommodations, hardy and active habits,” Jane must conform to its system to succeed (Brontë 33). Helen Burns becomes Jane’s mentor for “survival” at Lowood. While she teaches her to suppress the fire of hatred, making Jane a more docile student, she also encourages Jane to feed the fire of intellect. Helen shows great wisdom in her advice to Jane to let go of her resentment and self-pity, telling her, “Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs” (Brontë 54). Helen’s last name is a reflection of her role in Jane’s life; she teaches her how to constructively burn her fire. Yet Helen is not a perfect model of propriety. She often boldly shows her passion for learning, and Jane delights in seeing this. In all her passivity, Burns clings to the sustaining passion for knowledge, and Jane tries to follow this example. This provides an outlet that allows the fire to remain controlled without putting it out.
When left unchecked and uncontrolled, the very fire that sustains Jane’s spirit has the potential to destroy her life. When Jane is a “naughty” child, Mr. Brocklehurst threatens her with the consequence of hell: “a pit full of fire… to be burning there forever” (Brontë 31). Later, this is the very fate that St. John fears for Jane after she refuses to be a missionary. The physical threat of fire is echoed in Rochester’s first wife, whose personality is so overflowing with the fire of insanity that she tries to burn everything that confines her. She begins with Rochester’s bed, but Jane manages to “[extinguish] the flames which were devouring it” (Brontë 140). Bertha’s habit of setting fires eventually leads to destruction for both Thornfield and Mr. Rochester. Thornfield becomes a desolate ruin: “the grounds were trodden and waste: the portal yawned void… there was the silence of death about it: the solitude of a lonesome wild” (Brontë 396). This complete demolition of Thornfield eventually allows a new start: the destruction of the past, clearing the way for a fresh beginning.
Fire is a prominent symbol in Jane Eyre,
and its quantity often correlates with its meaning. The lack of fire
and light corresponds to complete loneliness and isolation. When fire is
allowed to flourish within the confines of a fireplace, it can be a
revitalizing yet comforting force, just as the fire of passion can give
life. Yet, the uncontrolled spread of flames that has been given air
(Eyre) to breathe is chaotic. Just as the destruction of Thornfield
enables Jane to begin a new life with Mr. Rochester, fire can destroy
old lives, but it can also clear the way for new beginnings.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Boston: Beacon Press, Google Books. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Dover Thrift Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002. Print.