Fire and Water
In the novel Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte recounts the story of Jane and her lovers, Mr. Rochester and St. John Rivers. Critics such as Adrienne Rich and Eric Solomon argue that Jane Eyre has to choose between the "temptation" of following the rule of passion by marrying Rochester, or of living a life of complete renunciation of all passions by marrying St. John Rivers. Fire and water imagery symbolizes these two forces competing for dominance in Jane Eyre, both on a personal and metaphorical level. Throughout the novel, this imagery of fire and water is used by Brontë, in keeping with her use of poetic symbolism, to develop character, strengthen thematic detail, and establish mood.
In Jane Eyre, fire imagery has a strong metaphorical significance, representing passion, sexual desire and the heat of emotion and feeling. Brontë's use of fire imagery is very appropriate in that fire, as is with the passions, can provide warmth and comfort, but can also burn. Water, the antithesis of fire, represents the extreme point of cool reason, without any trace of passion. Eric Solomon writes, "The fire is in Jane’s spirit and in Rochester’s eyes...St. John Rivers contains the icy waters that would put out fire, destroy passion" (Solomon, 73). As Jane wanders between these two points of temptation throughout the novel, the accompanying imagery of fire and water is most significant to the understanding of the themes and concerns of the novel.
Bronte uses fire imagery to develop Jane’s character throughout the novel. As the novel progresses, the corresponding imagery changes to show different aspects of Jane’s nature. In the beginning, Jane’s overly passionate nature is shown through her punishment at Gateshead. After being physically bullied by John Reed, her cousin, Jane shows her uncontrollable passion by striking him. As her punishment, Jane is locked up in the red- room. Here, fire imagery, in the form of the red-room with its "pillars of mahogany"(20) and "curtains of deep red damask"(20) is used to represent Jane’s overly passionate nature. Bronte makes a direct reference to fire when she writes "the room was chill because it seldom had a fire"(21), representing the chill of the red-room as the futility of Jane’s passion at this stage. Later, fire imagery is used to show Jane’s feelings for Rochester. She builds a fiery passion for him that is later threatened by numerous circumstances. This fire imagery is used to define Jane’s overly passionate character.
The water imagery is commonly used to show what Jane’s values are in the novel. Mr. Rochester’s attention to her three paintings soon after they meet tells much about her values and concerns. The images of water are shown in her painting of "clouds low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea" (142) and "the pinnacle of an iceberg"(143). These images carry expressions and expectations of impending danger. Jane sees water as a locking out of passion and emotion, much like the feeling she gets when St. John asks her to marry her later on in the novel. This is significant in the understanding of the thematic structure of the novel also in the fact that unregulated passion must be avoided. The water imagery, later incorporated into St. John’s character represents the passion that Jane is not interested in.
Rochester is also represented by fire imagery throughout the novel. When he first returns to Thornfield, "a warm glow suffused both it and the lower steps of the oak staircase"(133) and there was "a genial fire in the grate"(133). There is a change in atmosphere in Thornfield upon his return. In his first meeting with Jane, Rochester tells her to "come to the fire"(138). This can actually be seen as an invitation to indulge her passions and emotions. Bronte is careful to use such fire imagery and representation as this is a central point in the thematic pattern of the novel. To Jane, Rochester represents the temptation of passion over reason. Adrienne Rich writes, "...he is certainly that which culture sees as Jane’s fate, but he is not the fate she has been seeking" (Rich, 79). Rochester’s character is all-fire. He offers Jane the temptation of finding romantic love and releasing the passions within her. When disguised as a gypsy, Rochester tells Jane "You are cold, because you are alone: no contact strikes the fire from you that is in you"(222). He does this intentionally to draw Jane out and make her admit to her feelings for him. Rochester’s character is developed with fire imagery throughout the novel.
Fire and water imagery is most significantly used to convey the passionate relationship between Rochester and Jane. Throughout the novel, Jane desires "life, fire, and feeling"(183). She finds this in Rochester since he has "strange fire in his look"(130). This fire kindles soon after Jane takes her job as a governess at Thornfield. It is later threatened by Blanche Ingram, who wants to marry Rochester. Jane is hurt after she hears of their engagement, not knowing it is only a game that Rochester is playing. She has strong feelings for Rochester but she realizes that her "fiery passion...must be quenched by the cold waters of self-control"(Solomon, 74). Jane is shocked when Rochester tells her he wishes to marry her and rekindles their fire quickly. Their fiery relationship builds as they approach their wedding and is quenched when Rochester’s secret is revealed.
Fire imagery pre-empts their break-up when the chestnut tree in the orchard is hit by lightning. Though "scarred and scorched"(309), "the cloven halves were not broken from each other"(309) and the "strong roots kept them unsoldered below" (309). Their flame is split, but it leaves a path open for reconciliation at the end. The fiery passion is quenched soon after the secret of Rochester’s old passionate flame, Bertha is revealed. Eric Solomon writes, "Bertha represents the flames of hellfire that have already scorched Rochester" (74). Jane saves Rochester from this "mad woman" when she sets fire to his bed. Later, she finds that Bertha is Rochester’s wife. She saves them both from hellfire by refusing the passionate advances of Rochester. She releases from her burning agony and decides to leave Thornfield. Jane says "the waters came into my soul; I sank in deep mire: I felt no standing, I came into deep waters; the floods overflowed me."(331). Her fire is quenched and she leaves Thornfield.
In marked contrast to the wealth of fire imagery used to describe Rochester and his relationship with Jane, St. John Rivers is identified largely with water imagery. His last name "Rivers" signifies his character. Jane sees St. John for the first time and says, "I have never seen that handsome face of his look more like chiseled marble...as he put aside his snow wet hair from his forehead" (386). Bronte writes that St. John was "at the fireside a cold, cumbrous column, gloomy and out of place" (393), hinting the incompatibility of Jane and St. John. Jane’s nature is passionate while St. John’s in not. Solomon writes "His ‘ice kisses’ cannot reach her"(Solomon, 74). Bronte again uses water imagery to describe the strange marriage proposal of St. John’s. She compares him with imagery of cold, running water when Jane says "he...has no more a husband’s heart for me than that frowning giant of a rock, down which the stream is foaming in yonder gorge" (459). Thematically, St. John is the antithesis of Rochester, just as water is the opposite of fire. This associated imagery is used since Jane must learn to combine passion with reason before she can be reunited with Rochester.
Ferndean and the imagery used to describe the reunion between Jane and Rochester effectively concludes the themes of the novel. Jane finds Rochester alone and blinded by the fire; the fire once again, representing passion that has burned him. In effect, his fiery passion has made him blind. In keeping with the key themes of the novel, Jane finds Rochester by "a neglected handful of ice"(480) which shows that Rochester has learnt control and come to an understanding of the perils of an overly passionate nature. Jane, by seeking to build a larger fire for Rochester, thus rekindles some of that lost passion between the two. She has learnt that the extremes of control, as embodied in St. John and the associated water imagery, is undesirable as well.
Eric Solomon and Adrienne Rich agree that fire is essential in the novel for us to understand the motivations of the key characters in the novel. Representing passion and emotion, fire has both a comforting and a destructive effect. Water imagery is significant as it is the antithesis to the uncontrolled passion of fire. The fire in Rochester and Jane gives value to their love, but they must learn to temper that fire with some water and coolness before they can be together.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin Group, 1996.
Rich, Adrienne. " ‘Jane Eyre’: The Temptations of a Motherless Woman." On Lies,
Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose (1966-1978): 89-106. Rpt. in Nineteenth-
Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris and Sheila Fitzgerald. Vol.
8. Detroit: 77-80.
Solomon, Eric. " ‘Jane Eyre’: Fire and Water." College English (1963): 215-217. Rpt. in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris and Sheila Fitzgerald. Vol. 3. Detroit: 73-74.
Flames of Passion
Word Count: 1556
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