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Understanding Symbolism in Jane Eyre

written by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • edited by: Trent Lorcher • updated: 1/5/2012

Helping students understand the symbolism in Jane Eyre is essential to comprehending the Victorian Era. Charlotte Brontë utilizes this literary device to speak to issues that could not be discussed openly at the time.

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    More than Just a Word

    Symbolism is a literary device that is used by authors to add depth to their writing. On the surface, a bowl of oranges may seem benign; however, they might symbolize prosperity, fertility or sweet indulgences depending on the hidden meaning intended by the author. Another way of explaining this is that often writers cannot put into words exactly the theme they intend to write about, for example, Animal Farm is not about animals learning to live together on the farm. It is about Communism. Orwell could not write an outright condemnation of Communism; however, by writing an allegory full of symbolism, using animals and a barnyard, he was able to portray his thoughts to readers about Communism.

    By using symbolism in Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë, was able to discuss such weighty subjects as oppression of women, poverty, child labor and elitism.

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    Looking Beyond the Obvious

    On the surface, the story of Jane Eyre appears to be a romantic thriller in which a young heroine finds love after much turmoil and trauma. However, Charlotte Brontë utilizes symbolism to discuss many of the subjects that were unseemly for women to discuss.

    In analyzing this book, the teacher will need to give students a brief history of the Victorian Era. Collaborating with the history teacher might also be helpful and would give the students a richer understanding of both the book and Victorian England.

    Once the students have a clear sense of what Victorian England looked like, they will be better able to discover the meanings within the symbolism found in Jane Eyre.

    The following is a list of some of the symbols found in Jane Eyre:

    • Food - symbolic of appetites for more than food - For Jane, food is for social, sexual and spiritual fulfillment.
    • Babies - for Jane the dream child is symbolic of her sinful self - Once the child is gone, Jane is transformed.
    • Fire - passion that is wild, uncontrollable, and sinful, also symbolic of baptism or cleansing - Once Thornfield is destroyed, Jane is finally able to marry, finding happiness.
    • Dreams - symbolic of trouble ahead - Jane's governess tells her that dreaming of a child brings the dreamer or their family trouble. Jane believes this. They also symbolize good fortune as happens when Jane dreams at Gateshead of the cosmic woman. Dreams haunt her life and often reflect her emotions.

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    Happy Endings?

    While the symbolism in Brontë's novel touches upon the repressed sexual desires of Victorian people, the symbolism in the ending is troublesome. Jane's final and long awaited happiness comes only once she is married. Marriage is symbolic of the only way to a content life for women. However, further analysis will show that in the novel, the norms of regular society have been manipulated and even though Jane has refused another to marry Rochester, she does so completely on her own terms, thereby asserting her independence. Although, it could be argued that this is not independence at all, it is simply another form of giving into conventional thinking. Either way, symbolism in Jane Eyre is sure to create lively discussions within the classroom.

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