(All quotes taken from the 1985 Penguin Classics edition)
“You have a very bad disposition,” said she, “and one to this day I feel impossible to understand; how for nine years you could be patient and quiescent under any treatment, and in the tenth break out all fire and violence, I can never comprehend.” (p 267)
The 21st century reader might wonder that as well. One reason is that Charlotte Bronte was, among other things, writing a novel about repression. There are several types of repression; political, societal and psychological. Bronte chose to focus on both societal and psychological aspects in Jane Eyre.
The orphaned Jane is repressed as a child, first by her heartless relatives, then by the cruel and hypocritical Reverend Brocklehurst, headmaster of school to which she is sent. Jane is repeatedly verbally abused, slandered and mistreated. Her pattern is to suffer in silence, enduring the slurs, taunts and outright lies, letting her resentments build up until she erupts in an outburst.
Jane struggles internally with a different kind of tension, the battle between judgment and passion, reason and emotion. As Mr. Rochester says, “Reason sits firm and hold the reins, and she will not let the feelings burst away and her hurry to wild chasms. The passions may rage furiously . . . but judgment shall still have the last word in every argument and the casting vote in every decision” (p 230). Throughout the book, Jane oscillates between cool, almost calculated reason, and deep emotion.
The Things We Try to Hide
The term “repression” did not exist as a psychological term, but Bronte certainly understood it. She understood the internal mechanism of suppressing desires or fears rather than facing them, and she saw clearly the gap that allowed society to ignore unpleasantness or behavior that contradicted the virtues and mores of the day. Part of the reaction of the critics who called Jane Eyre “coarse” stems from her willingness to name things that were not to be named; Jane and Rochester’s open discussion about his mistresses; her insistence on making her audience experience, through Jane’s “dark night of the soul” the humiliation and uncertainty of poverty.
The masterpiece of psychological repression and its dangers, however, is Edward Rochester. As a young man, Rochester is tricked into a catastrophic marriage to a Jamaican-born madwoman. This marriage is a torture chamber for Rochester, and his despair drives him nearly to suicide. At that critical moment, inspiration strikes him. No one in Britain knows about his marriage, so he will hide his mad wife and pretend it never took place.
Rochester has resources, and several choices of places to secure the mad Bertha. He owns a villa in the south of France, in a climate Bertha might find familiar and soothing. This also has the benefit of being in a different country, where word would be the least likely to drift back to England. He also has Fernmead, a remote manor in England. Either choice would reduce the chance of discovery. Instead, Rochester ensconces the object of his rage and shame, his terrible secret, his lunatic wife, in Thornfield, the very heart of his estate, and whether he likes it or not, his home. He compounds his mistake by bringing Adele, the daughter of his cast-off mistress, into the same house.
Of course the plot requires all of this, but Bronte chose this plot for a reason. Bronte wanted a book with Gothic sentiment and high drama, and to do that, simply, she needed a madwoman in the attic. Could the madwoman have been Rochester’s half-sister, or even his mother? Certainly, either would have worked. Bronte’s choice is deliberate. This is what happens when you hide secrets; when you try to lock up the part of you that is ungovernable. It becomes dangerous. Bertha, acknowledged and kept in an asylum, would have been unable to try to burn Rochester in his bed, to stab her brother, and to threaten Jane.
Why would you bring the thing you want to keep the most hidden, you are most ashamed of, or frightened of, into your own house? Well, if you were a famous anti-gay “expert witness,” why would you hire a handsome boy from a website called rentboy.com to “carry your bags?” If you were a well-known televangelist, why would you patronize prostitutes? If you were a Democratic Presidential candidate, why would you have an affair with a staffer? If you can’t apply self-insight, if you can’t acknowledge you have desires or needs, or impulses, then you won’t try to control or manage those desires and impulses. You will try to just lock them away and hope they don’t escape. No matter how careful you think you’ve been (and Rochester, by hiring an attendant who liked her drop of porter, wasn’t careful at all), some day they will escape the confines you’ve created, and it’s possible they will burn down your house. Rochester, a powerful, intelligent character with a great deal of insight into others, does not dare look inward until Jane forces him to, until it’s too late. Rochester has huge blind spots in his own life, so it is no coincidence that he loses his physical sight, for a time at least, at the end of the book.
Jane’s behavior, creeping out of Thornfield in the middle of the night, comes from her regression to a time of helplessness and powerlessness, the time she was locked in the red bedroom at Gateshead. In modern terms, Jane’s reaction to the discovery of Bertha and her long discussion with Rochester falls best into the category of post-traumatic stress disorder. While Rochester is telling her his story and pleading with her to stay, she must hold down—repress—her own feelings for him, as well as managing his behavior; trying to judge whether he will fall into violence, choosing her words carefully, monitoring his responses. She holds her own and maintains her moral stand, but it all takes its toll. Jane’s behavior as she flees Thornfield is like that of someone in the early stages of hypothermia, when critical thinking and reasoning skills are affected. She carries her shoes as she walks down the hall so that no one will hear her; she stops in the kitchen for provisions, she thinks to oil the lock so that the key will make no noise; all apparently rational acts in the execution of a decision that is irrational. The rational thing would be to wait until morning, and demand that Rochester find her a new position, pay her the wages he owes and put her up in an inn for the duration. Jane, who believes she is thinking clearly, cannot think clearly at all in this moment, because reason, this once, has lost the reins and been over-run.
Jane is heading for the wild chasm; the passage of physical suffering that matches her broken heart, the long dark night of the soul, the spiritual test that will bring her, at the end, to self-realization, financial independence, and the discovery of her family.