According to E.F. Bleiler, "Before Horace Walpole, the word 'gothic' was almost always a synonym for rudeness, barbarousness, crudity, coarseness and lack of taste. After Walpole, the word assumed two new major meanings -- first, vigorous, bold, heroic and ancient; and second, quaint, charming, romantic, but perhaps a little decadent in its association with Romanticism, but sentimental and interesting" (12). Of course, Bleiler is referring to Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, first published in 1764, which introduced English readers to what is now called "Gothic Romanticism," a style of fiction characterized by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious or violent incidents.
Following Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, the Gothic novel took on new dimensions and the terms Gothicism and Romanticism became linked forever in many other works of fiction between 1750 and 1850. This link is connected chronologically by numerous themes such as the hero-villain (the anti-hero) with a terrible secret, usually brought out through the use of human psychology. Also, many of the Gothic writers, such as Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Mary W. Shelley, and the Bronte sisters, "valued sensibility, exalted the sublime and appealed to the reader's imagination" ("The First Wave," Internet). Gothic Romanticism, besides appearing in works of fiction, was also utilized in short stories and poetry by such writers as Samuel Taylor Coleridge ("Rime of the Ancient Mariner"), George Gordon, Lord Byron ("Don Juan"), John Polidori ("The Vampyre") and Edgar Allan Poe ("The Fall of the House of Usher"), who brought the genre to fruition in America during the 1830's and 1840's.
Toward the end of the so-called "Gothic Romanticism" movement, Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855) emerged as a prominent English novelist along with her two sisters, Emily Bronte (1818-1848), best-known for Wuthering Heights (1847), and Anne Bronte (1820-1849), author of Agnes Grey (1847). As the creator of the 1847 novel Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte diverged from the 19th century literary tradition of the fictional stereotype of women as submissive, dependent, highly attractive yet ignorant of everything outside of her personal orbit. In Jane Eyre, Bronte introduced a completely different female protagonist in the form of a heroine who possesses intelligence, self-confidence, self-reliance and moral correctness. Charlotte Bronte is also considered as one of the first feminist novelists whose literary talents were superior to many of her English contemporaries.
According to M.H. Scargill, Jane Eyre "is remarkable for its intensity (which) counteracts what some critics regard as a sensational and poorly-constructed plot" (156). In Jane Eyre, there are obvious reflections of Charlotte Bronte's own life which, in essence, makes the novel autobiographical in nature. Some scholars have pointed out, however, that Bronte relied too much on her personal life for the plot of the novel which affects its dramatic impact and structure. Biographically, the character of Jane Eyre may indeed be Charlotte Bronte, for Jane "is a young woman wholly unprotected by social position, family, or independent wealth. . . is without material or social power; she is, as Bronte judged herself, 'small and plain and Quaker-like (and) lacking the most. . . necessary qualities of femininity" (Oates, Introduction v).
Robert B. Heilman considers Jane Eyre as replete with Gothic undertones expressed via human emotion and feelings, ranging from "nervous excitement to emotional absorption" and at times filled with much "tension, sexuality, hate, and irrational impulses" which when combined symbolize Bronte's version of the Gothic (78). In addition, Heilman declares that this symbolism "modifies true Gothic, for it demands of the reader a more mature and complicated response than the relatively simple thrill. . . sought by primitive Gothicism" (98).
Of course, as in all prominent novels based on "Gothic Romanticism" motifs, the use of symbolism is highly important, for it brings out the basic premise of the novel by providing to the reader specific images that stand as allegories for reality. In Jane Eyre, many literary critics have assumed that the paintings that Jane brings along to Thornfield symbolize the personalities of Jane and Charlotte Bronte. In the opinion of Scargill, this symbolism has been put to good use in Jane Eyre which "contains the elements of fiction used as a poet employs language and imagery. . . To impose belief, even though it may be by irrational means" (122).
In order to fully understand and appreciate the application of "Gothic Romanticism" in Jane Eyre, it would be best to explore some pertinent passages from the novel that illustrate most decidedly the motifs of the Gothic as previously mentioned by Bleiler, namely, vigorous, bold, heroic, ancient, charming and romantic with a touch of decadency.
In Chapter 4, during a conversation with Mrs. Reed, the narrator, being Jane Eyre/Bronte, exclaims "my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst. . . (30). With this, it is clear that Bronte is expressing Jane's desire for a vigorous life, one that is not reliant on the needs of anyone else and is free of self-doubt and dependence. This is also somewhat decadent, for Jane equates freedom with triumph which goes against the traditional English conventionality that women should be subservient and obey their parents and elders.
In Chapter 5, upon leaving Gateshead, Jane observes that "the moon was set, and it was very dark; Bessie carried a lantern whose light glanced on wet steps and gravel road sodden by a recent thaw. Raw and chill was the winter morning (and) my teeth chattered as I hastened down the drive" (34). This example expresses a good deal of the usual symbols for the Gothic, such as light contrasted with the dark, chilly temperatures and a landscape filled with desolation. In addition, one can sense the presence of ancient atmospheres, much like being in the shadow of an ancient castle perched high above the land with vacant windows that look down upon the chill and damp scenery. This is supported by a brief description in Chapter six which relates, "A change had taken place in the weather. . . And a keen northeast wind, whistling through the crevices of our bedroom windows all night long, had made us shiver in our beds. . ." (45). Notice in these two passages that Bronte is speaking and writing much like a poet, an obvious influence from one of her favorite English poets, Lord Byron.
In Chapter 8, Jane mentions the infamous "red room," a place where "nothing could soften. . . The spasm of agony which clutched my heart," especially when Mrs. Reed locked Jane "a second time in the dark and haunted chamber" (64). As in other English novels based on the Gothic, the application of dark and foreboding symbols like this "dark and haunted chamber" is a very recurring motif which serves to draw the reader into the psychological trauma within the narrator's mind, similar to Poe's use of the "haunted" narrator in such tales as "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat."
The romantic aspect of the Gothic is best shown in this passage from Chapter 16 in which Mrs. Fairfax describes the physical attributes of Miss Ingram -- "Tall, fine bust, sloping shoulders; long, graceful neck; olive complexion, dark and clear; noble features; eyes rather like Mr. Rochester's, large and black. . . A fine head of hair, raven black. . . dressed in pure white. . . " (148). Miss Ingram surely fits the romantic mold with this description, for she appears to be a noble woman of good birth from a fine English family. Notice, too, the contrast between "raven black" and "pure white" with white being the true color of mystery and apprehension.
The use of decadence in the Gothic varies tremendously, but most of the time it is applied to art and architecture, as in the example from Chapter 17, which describes part of the interior of Thornfield -- "furniture rubbed, flowers piled in vases; both chambers and saloons looked fresh and bright as hands could make them. The hall. . . was scoured, and the great carved clock, as well as the steps and banisters of the staircase, were polished to the brightness of glass. . . vases of exotics bloomed on all sides" (154). The key word here is "exotics," a reference to the flowers in the vases which are not native to Great Britain. Thus, the exotic flowers and the "great carved clock" are symbols of Mr. Rochester's decadence which, in this instance, refers to his wealth and fortune as compared to the lower classes of England.
In speaking of Mr. Rochester, the guardian and owner of Thornfield manor, Jane provides a very detailed description of his face which embodies all the traits of a romantic hero -- "My master's colourless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth -- all energy, decision, will. . . full of an interest, an influence that quite mastered me. .…