Theme of Isolation in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Throughout her novel Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte develops the motif of isolation, both physical and emotional, to show how Jane’s solitary experiences resonate throughout her life to represent her insecurity, freedom, and resolve.
First of all, Bronte shows how Jane’s experiences with physical and social isolation throughout her life contribute to her sense of insecurity and lack of self-confidence. Some major examples of this form of isolation in Jane’s life occur at Gateshead, namely with her alienation from the Reeds. While reflecting on her treatment at Gateshead she says that “had [she] been a sanguine, brilliant, careless, exacting, handsome, romping child– though equally dependent and friendless- Mrs. Reed would have endured [her] presence more complacently; her children would have entertained for [her] more of the cordiality of fellow-feeling; the servants would’ve been less prone to make me the scapegoat of the nursery” (Bronte 18). Jane talks about the mistreatment she received and how she knows it wouldn’t have happened if she were “brilliant” or “handsome.” This shows that Jane believes herself to be incompetent or lesser than the Reeds due to the way they alienated and isolated her from the privileges they enjoyed. Another example of the weight of her isolation is seen as a result of her experience in the red room. After Jane retaliates against John Reed for hitting her, she is locked up in the abandoned ‘red room’ until Mrs. Reed sees fit for her to be released. As Jane sits in the room alone and daylight fades, she is trapped with nothing but her thoughts, which begin to wander. She thinks to herself about how “[everyone] said [she] was wicked, and perhaps [she] might be so” and even wonders to herself if she “[is] fit to die” (18). This shows even more directly just how much her experiences in isolation led to Jane’s insecurity and seeming self-hatred and doubt. As she is left alone in a distressing environment, her thoughts wander to dark places and she dwells on all of the mistreatment and bad experiences she has had. These thoughts lead her to doubt her worth and wonder if it would be best for her to die. Though this would be awful on its own, the fact that she’s just a young child makes it much worse. The extent of her isolation and mistreatment has led to these dark thoughts which should have no place in the mind of a young girl such as Jane. However, her experiences of isolation and alienation carry over into her adult life as well. Specifically, when the group of Rochester’s high-class acquaintances is at Thornfield, Jane is once again set apart. The presence and attitudes of some of these people, especially Blanche Ingram, serve to separate Jane from the group both physically and socially. As Miss Ingram speaks to Rochester in the drawing room, she mentions that she supposes Rochester must “have a governess for [Adele],” and that she “should think it quite expensive.” This mention and implied insult of her to Rochester makes Jane “involuntarily [shrink] further into the shade,” in fear of him acknowledging her (178). To make the experience worse, Blanche’s mother deliberately remarks in a tone “loud enough for [Jane] to hear” that in Jane’s appearance she “[sees] all the faults of her class” (179). The passive-aggressive comments of these higher-class women set Jane apart from them and impact her already relatively low self-confidence and she ends up leaving the room. Rochester stops her and mentions that she is evidently “so much depressed that a few more words would bring tears to [her] eyes” (183). Once again it can be seen that Jane’s isolation and mistreatment from people above her in both her youth and adult life lead to her insecurity and self-deprecation.
In contrast, Jane’s experiences with isolation also give her a sense of freedom. Bronte shows one example of this freedom when the majority of the girls at Lowood contract typhus. This leads the few girls unaffected by the disease to be granted more personal freedom, better rations, and more. The spring scenery outside is beautiful, and “all this [Jane] enjoyed often and fully, free, unwatched, and almost alone” (79). Though the cause for this newfound freedom might be grim, Jane finds some unusual but much-needed relief and relaxation in her willing isolation. For once Jane experiences a positive outcome, where she feels free in her seclusion rather than trapped by it. Another example of this freedom in isolation occurs when she works as a schoolteacher at Morton. Jane decides to take the job in the first place because “it was sheltered, and [she] wanted a safe asylum: it was plodding– but then compared with that of a governess in a rich house, it was independent” (357). Jane is willing and grateful for the job because it is a “shelter” where she can feel safe and free, “independent” from the stress of working as a governess like she previously had. The isolation of the small cottage and school in Morton frees her from the stress she had faced at Thornfield and allows her to cope with her feelings in peace. Overall, though Jane’s experiences with isolation are often negative, there are also instances where this isolation gives her a sense of peace and freedom.
Finally, Bronte shows Jane’s resolve through the instances where she chooses to isolate herself. A major example of this is shown in Jane’s decision to leave Mr. Rochester. She shows the strength of her resolve when she chooses to isolate herself from him for both of their sakes, though it’s extremely hard for her to do so. The difficulty of her decision and the extent of her strength is shown in her last conversation with Rochester before she leaves, when he asks her if she “will not be [his] comforter, [his] rescuer” and if “[his] deep love, [his] wild woe, [his] frantic prayer, are all nothing to [her]” (320). Jane thinks to herself, “what unutterable pathos was in his voice” and states just “how hard it was to reiterate firmly, ‘I am going’” (321). Though Rochester pleads and begs for her to stay with him and be his “comforter” and “rescuer” with the most “unutterable pathos” in his voice, Jane remains unswayed in her decision to leave, as she believes it would be immoral and harmful to both of them if she were to stay. The fact that Jane is able to deny herself and Rochester this pleasure and her willing isolation from him shows just how strong her principles and resolve are. Another example of this appears when she similarly turns down St. John’s marriage proposal. This time, however, it is more for her own sake. Her isolation from St. John is necessary for her well-being and enjoyment of life. Though he holds such great influence over her and can manipulate her by targeting her insecurities, she finds the strength to stand up for herself and not give in to his pressure. She compares the two situations and says that she “was almost as hard beset by [St. John] now as [she] had been once before, in a different way, by [Rochester]” and how she “was a fool both times,” as “to have yielded then would have been an error of principle,” and “to have yielded now would have been an error of judgment” (421). This quote shows that though she is “hard beset” by both men, she recognizes that she cannot be with either of them as it would be “an error of principle [or] judgment.” This shows the reasonableness of her decision to isolate herself from the men in each situation and the strength of her resolve in the face of their immense influence over her. Once again, Bronte uses Jane’s— in this instance willing and self-inflicted— isolation to show her resolve and reason.
Overall, Jane’s insecurity, freedom, and resolve are all revealed through the solitary experiences throughout her life as Charlotte Bronte develops the motif of physical and emotional isolation in her novel Jane Eyre.