March 4, 1998
Throughout her life, Jane Eyre, the heroine of the novel by Charlotte Bronte, relies heavily on language and story-telling to communicate her thoughts and emotions. Not only are good story-telling skills important to Jane Eyre as a the narrator, but they are also important to Jane Eyre as a character in her own novel. From the beginning of the novel, we learn of Jane's love of books -- "each picture told a story" (40) -- and of her talent for telling her own stories. As the narrator, she makes sure the reader is fully aware of her thoughts, emotions, and the constraints put upon her as her life unfolds before us.
In the opening scene of Jane Eyre, we immediately see how Jane is suppressed by the Reed family. She is often forbidden to show expression in any form. Upon questioning her guardian as to the reasoning behind her being excluded from the rest of the family, she is told, "Be seated somewhere, and until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent" (39). She retires to solitude in another room of the house with a book to keep her occupied and is never allowed to explain herself. When John Reed finds her and hurls a book at her head, she is forced to go to the "red-room." Jane is immediately blamed without having a chance to give her account of the incident.
Jane's straightforwardness and honesty when relating with others is fundamental to her character; but it is not until Mrs. Reed accuses Jane of having "a tendency to deceit" (65), in the presence of Mr. Brocklehurst, that we see this attribute of her character surface. Before this time, Jane has been able to suppress her anger and emotions regarding the Reed family quite successfully. In this scene, however, we seen Jane's hatred toward Mrs. Reed begin to fester and build up inside her until she erupts with emotion and all her pent-up feelings are released -- "Speak I must" (68). "I am not deceitful: If I were, I should say I loved you; but I declare I do not love you . . . . People think you are a good woman, but you are bad, hard-hearted. You are deceitful" (68-69).
Throughout her life, Jane measures her relationships with others by their narrative abilities. The relationships she values the most are with those in which she can engage in story-telling. At Gateshead, Bessie is loved for her "remarkable knack of narrative" (61) and Jane delights in hearing "her most enchanting stories" (72). After becoming ill from the red-room experience, Jane awakes to Mr. Lloyd who listens to her story despite Bessie's annoying interjections. Although he does not offer much sympathy, Mr. Lloyd is instrumental in getting Jane out of Gateshead and into Lowood school. Jane respects Mr. Lloyd because, besides Bessie, he is the first person to ask to hear her account of what "things" (56) are causing her unhappiness while living at Gateshead.
During her residence at Lowood, Jane develops several close relationships with both the staff and students there. She speaks of her brief friendship with Mary Ann Wilson: "She had a turn for narrative, I for analysis; she like to inform, I to question; so we got on swimmingly together, deriving much entertainment, if not much improvement, from our mutual intercourse" (109). In this passage, the high import Jane places on communicative relationships is clearly evident.
Jane has a very special regard for her friend Helen Burns. Upon their first encounter, Jane realizes that she and Helen share a love for books. However, Jane has a very difficult time trying to start a conversation. To Jane's persistent questioning, Helen responds with, "You ask rather too many questions. I have given you answers enough for the present. Now I want to read" (83). Being an expressive character herself, Jane admires Helen's reserved and restrained behavior. Jane continues to question Helen; she is fascinated by her life history and her philosophies on life. Her persistence pays off as Helen begins to reveal her eloquence and strength of character to which Jane is immediately attracted.
Immediately following Mr. Brocklehurst's decision to banish Jane from all social activities at Lowood and his warning to her classmates to "avoid her company, exclude her from you sports, shut her out from you converse" (98), Miss Temple invites Jane to defend herself: "when a criminal is accused, he is always allowed to speak in his own defense. You have been charged with falsehood; defend yourself to me as well as you can" (102). Jane responds by telling "all the story of my sad childhood," but being careful to heed "Helen's warnings against the indulgence of resentment" (103). Miss Temple not only listens to Jane's tale, but believes her and takes action to clear her of "every imputation" (103). Jane's admiration for both Helen and Miss Temple is escalated that same night as she observes them in conversation: "They conversed of things I had never heard of; of nations and times past; of countries far away. . . . What stores of knowledge they possessed" (105). Again, we see the value Jane puts on eloquence in conversation.
Toward the end of the novel we meet Jane's cousins, Diana and Mary Rivers, who she also holds in high esteem because, among other things, "they could always talk; and their discourse, witty, pithy, original, had such charms for me, that I preferred listening to, and sharing in it, to doing anything else" (420).
At Thornfield, Jane feels isolated and lonely because she cannot find companions who are "of a descriptive or narrative turn" (142). Upon her arrival, Mrs. Fairfax is her main source of companionship; but unfortunately she is not gifted in the art of conversation: "there are people who seem to have no notion of sketching a character, of observing and describing salient points, either in persons or things: the good lady evidently belonged to this class: (136). Of Grace Poole, Jane relates, "I made some attempts to draw [her] into conversation, but she seemed a person of few words: a monosyllabic reply usually cut short every effort of that sort" (142). Regarding Sophie, she adds, "[Sophie] was not of a descriptive or narrative turn, and generally gave such rapid and confused answers as were calculated rather to check than encourage inquiry" (142).
Rochester is the character for whom Jane holds the highest regard. Their relationship is largely based upon their discourse as Rochester proclaims toward the end of the novel when he says, "All the melody on earth is concentrated in my Jane's tongue to my ear" (464). It is Jane's honesty that immediately attracts Rochester to her. When Rochester asks Jane whether she thinks him handsome, she replies, "No, Sir" (162). Jane describes how the art of conversation is central to their relationship saying, "I knew the pleasure of vexing and soothing him by turns; it was one I chiefly delighted in . . . on the extreme brink I liked will to try my skill" (187).
The eloquence which attracts Jane to Rochester is apparent in many scenes depicting their dialogue as it often becomes difficult to discern who is narrating the story -- Jane or Rochester. Regarding this point, Jane comments, "I, indeed, talked comparatively little, but I heard him talk with relish" (177). Once they are married, Jane describes the importance of discourse in their relationship when she says, "we talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character -- perfect concord is the result" (476). This statement summarizes the significance of "talk" in most, if not all of Jane's relationships.
The importance Jane puts on communication arises throughout the novel. Not only is it important to her character as a form of expression, but she consistently uses communication skills and narrative ability as a measure of character. Jane assesses the ability of every character to communicate effectively and then proceeds to make judgments about that character based on these assessments. Her favor, as is repeatedly shown, rests with those who are proficient in their narrative abilities. Jane is the dominant narrator, but she delights in letting other characters share in the task. Our focus is continually shifted from one character's narrative to another's. By allowing her story to be told through various characters, Jane not only emphasizes the high regard she has for these particular characters, but she emphasizes the veneration she has for eloquence in narration as well.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. NY: Penguin, 1966.