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Gothic Elements in Jane Eyre

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  • Category: Eyre

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Gothic is a literary genre that is connected to the dark and horrific. It became popular in the late Victorian Era, following the success of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, in 1764. Since that time, gothic literature has become a widespread influence. Some elements that are typically gothic include ancient prophecies, mystery and suspense, supernatural events, dreams and visions, violence, and a gloomy and desolate setting. Charlotte Bronte, the author of Jane Eyre, was greatly influenced by the gothic movement. This is obvious to anyone who has read her work. Jane Eyre, in particular, falls into the tradition of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century gothic novels. Gothic elements can be seen in the mystery behind Thornfield and Rochester’s past. There is also a prevalent theme of the supernatural, such as the appearance of Mr. Reed’s ghost, the ghoulish and sinister laughter of Bertha Mason, and Rochester’s disembodied voice calling out to Jane. Furthermore, there is a great deal of suspense that is generated by the violent behaviour of Bertha Mason. The gothic elements of mystery, violence and the supernatural have the strongest presence in Jane Eyre.

The mystery behind Thornfield and Rochester’s past is a strong theme in the novel. When Jane first arrived at Thornfield, already she could sense that something was peculiar about the place. She hears a “distinct, mirthless laugh” coming from the third-floor of the house. Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper, informs Jane that a servant named Grace Poole lives up there. She is also rather unbalanced. Jane finds the servant’s behaviour very strange and disturbing. However, Jane seriously starts to question the story behind Grace Poole when the servant snuck into Rochester’s room and set the bed curtains ablaze. Jane finds Rochester’s reaction to the incident to be peculiar in itself, since after the fire was put out, he immediately went upstairs to the third floor. However, what Jane finds most disturbing is that Grace continues to work at Thornfield even after she supposedly tried to kill Rochester. She wonders what power this strange woman has over Rochester, and furthermore, why she had tried to kill him in the first place.

Jane is convinced that Rochester may not be telling her the whole truth regarding Grace Poole. Her beliefs are confirmed when she sees the bleeding Mason, one of the guests at the house. Jane now realizes that Grace is a dangerous person, although she still does not know how Mason and Rochester are related to her. The night that the strange woman comes into Jane’s room further arouses her suspicion of Rochester. When she tells him about the incident, Rochester tries to convince her that it must have been a dream. However, Jane is certain that it was not. The mystery of Thornfield is revealed when Mason declares that the strange woman is Rochester’s wife, Bertha Mason. Rochester had kept her up on the third floor and paid Grace Poole to look after her. She was the one who started the fire and tore Jane’s wedding veil. Mason is connected to this mystery because he is Bertha’s sole relative. The mystery of Thornfield Hall and Rochester’s dark past is akin to the gothic tradition that draw out fear and excitement in the reader.

The theme of the supernatural is consistent throughout the novel. Jane had her first supernatural encounter when she was just ten years old. As punishment for striking her cousin, John Reed, her aunt locked her up in a spare room in the house. It was called the ‘red-room’ because of the colour on the walls and the mahogany furniture. What is significant about the red-room is the fact that Jane’s uncle had died in it. While she was imprisoned, Jane hears strange noises, and the tension in this scene increases as her mind becomes more frantic and superstitious. A “singular notion dawned upon [her]”, and she was convinced that the room was haunted by her late uncle. Indeed, she says, “… I thought Mr. Reed’s spirit, harassed by the wrongs of his sister’s child, might quit its abode… and rise before me in this chamber.” (10)

This provides the scene with its gothic elements. A sound “like the rushing of wings” fills her ears, and she faints. The scene within the red-room is also loaded with gothic imagery. The room itself is described as a ‘vault’, which gives it prison-like qualities. The “silent” atmosphere, the “chill air”, and the gathering of “quiet dust” all contribute to the gothic setting. Like old castles and crumbling ruins, the red-room has a dark and ominous feeling. The colour on the walls is reminiscent of blood. Bronte’s description of the rain and winds paint a vivid picture of the violent storm raging outside. All of these elements – a dark and foreboding room where a family member died, the colour red, ghosts, and the violent storm – are essentially gothic.

Another instance of the supernatural occurs near the end of the novel, when Jane hears Rochester’s voice calling her from afar:

“I might have said, “Where is it?” for it did not seem in the room, nor in the house, nor in the garden; it did not come out of the air, nor from under the earth, nor from overhead. I had heard it – where, or whence for ever impossible to know! And it was the voice of a human being – a known, loved, well-remembered voice – that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke in pain and woe, wildly, eerily, urgently.” (401)

Later on, Rochester tells Jane that a few nights before her arrival, he called out her name and thought that he heard her answer. Jane did not wish to upset him in his fragile state, so she does not tell Rochester about the voice that brought her to Ferndean in the first place. However, it still implies that Jane and Rochester have some sort of connection that transcends physical boundaries. The manifestation of voices is a traditional gothic theme.

The ghoulish laughter coming from the third floor is described as nothing less than supernatural. According to Jane, “the laugh was as tragic, as preternatural a laugh as any I ever heard.” (99) In the novel, Bertha Mason is also portrayed as some sort of supernatural being. When Jane sees Bertha in her room, she thought that it was “the foul German spectre – the vampire”. She is often described as less than human. When Rochester unlocked the door to Bertha’s room, Jane saw that she “grovelled, seemingly on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal.” (278)

Bronte uses violence to generate suspense, which is another characteristic of a gothic novel. The first instance of violence occurs when Bertha came into Rochester’s room and set the bed curtains on fire. The violent and destructive side of fire is a prevalent theme in Jane Eyre. Another violent scene occurs in the fire that consumed Thornfield Manor. After he made sure that all the servants were out of the house safely, Rochester went back inside to save his deranged wife. But somehow, Bertha found her way to the roof and she threw herself down into the fire. The most notorious instance of violence in the novel occurs on the third floor of Thornfield Manor. Mason had come into Bertha’s room and she had savagely attacked him. When Jane saw Mason, his arm was bleeding. Rochester had asked her to tend to his wounds while he went to fetch the surgeon. Bertha violent and wild behaviour generates suspense, as well as propels the plot forward.

The gothic elements of mystery, violence and the supernatural are clearly present in Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre. Bertha Mason is one of the key figures that facilitate the gothic elements in the plot. Her violent behaviour creates suspense and adds to the mystery of Thornfield. Rochester’s past is a mystery as well. However, the reader discovers in the end that mystery of his past, and the mystery at Thornfield is interconnected through Bertha Mason. Another important aspect of a gothic novel is the supernatural. Jane encounters the supernatural through Mr. Reed’s ghost, as well as the disembodied voice of Rochester. Both instances prove that there is a force in nature that transcends physical boundaries. Bertha can also be associated with the supernatural though her eerie laughter. Bronte is able to integrate gothic elements with other literary genres. In fact, Jane Eyre is actually a mixture of three genres: Gothic, Romance, and Bildungsroman. The skilful integration of these genres is the very reason why Jane Eyre is a timeless classic.

Works Cited

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

Stevens, David. “The Gothic Tradition.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Online. Available http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_novel. 2 Jun. 2005.

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