Jane Eyre


Charlotte Brontë

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Jane Eyre: Irony 4 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—Liar Liar:

One example of situational irony occurs in Chapter 4, when Mrs. Reed introduces Jane to Mr. Brocklehurst as a liar. Jane rejects this label, and with it the "Child's Guide" Mr. Brocklehurst has given her to caution her out of lying:

‘I am not deceitful: if I were, I should say I loved you; but I declare I do not love you: I dislike you the worst of anybody in the world except John Reed: and this book about the Liar you may give to your girl, Georgiana, for it is she who tells lies, and not I.’

This is an example of situational irony because, as Jane points out to Mrs. Reed, her own children are the real liars in the family. The Reed children have consistently lied about Jane's behavior to get her in trouble. If anyone, they should read the cautionary tale about the child whose deceit results in her death. To add insult to injury, Mr. Brocklehurst believes Mrs. Reed's lie that Jane is a deceitful child. The Reeds, who are the real liars, are easily believed, while the label "liar" will now follow Jane and earn her a sentence of public humiliation when she is at Mr. Brocklehurst's school.

One of the things that makes Jane a remarkable protagonist is her ability to spot this kind of situational irony and speak up for herself. She must learn throughout the novel not to let her temper get the best of her, but she must also learn to follow her internal sense of truth and morality. By describing her early resistance to the label of "liar," the narrator also vindicates her own work. She wants the reader to see a distinction between her self-narration (which may not always be factually reliable because it is colored by emotion) and falsification. The narrator may be an artist, but as she declared when she was young, "I am not deceitful."

Chapter 11
Explanation and Analysis—Reading the Room:

The novel sometimes uses dramatic irony to emphasize Jane's relative naïveté when she is young. For example, in Chapter 11, Jane arrives at Thornfield and mistakes Mrs. Fairfax for her new employer:

‘She treats me like a visitor,’ thought I. ‘I little expected such a reception; I anticipated only coldness and stiffness: this is not like what I have heard of the treatment of governesses; but I must not exult too soon.’

This is Jane's first governess position after leaving Lowood charity school, and she has been expecting to feel like an outsider. As a person who must work for her living, Jane is decidedly below the social status of anyone who owns Thornfield and can afford to hire help. Mrs. Fairfax treats Jane more kindly than she expected her new employer to treat her, and so she is filled with the hope that her position as governess will be something more than a job. An orphan who has long searched for belonging, Jane tamps down her own "exultation" that she has at last found a family that will welcome her with warmth, respect, and open arms. The situation seems too good to be true.

In fact, it is too good to be true. The astute reader can guess from context clues that Mrs. Fairfax is not Jane's employer, but rather another employee at Thornfield. The owner of the manor house would not be wearing servant's clothes when Jane met her, as Mrs. Fairfax is. Nor would she take Jane's shawl, serve her food, or pull out a set of housewife's keys. The narrator lets the reader in on this little secret from the younger Jane to emphasize that Jane has a lot to learn about markers of social status and the way power dynamics function outside of Lowood.

Later in Chapter 11, dramatic irony continues when the narrator recalls being excited about the days ahead of her:

My faculties, roused by the change of scene, the new field offered to hope, seemed all astir. I cannot precisely define what they expected, but it was something pleasant: not perhaps that day or that day month, but at an indefinite future period.

This is a bit of a joke about Jane as a literary character. Clearly, she did not realize at the time that she was in a gothic novel, destined for gloomy days, secrets, doomed love, and dangerous encounters with a woman locked in the attic. The narrator knows what is to come, and the reader is presumed familiar enough with gothic tropes to be able to spot the irony. Still, the naïve Jane is not altogether wrong in her prediction. The novel does have a happy ending that comes "at an indefinite future period." Thornfield brings a great deal of unexpected unpleasantness into Jane's life, but it also sets her up for the marriage she will eventually choose. The lesson she has not yet learned in this scene, and which Brontë seems intent on exploring, is that happiness pays off the most when it is attained through tribulation.

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Chapter 17
Explanation and Analysis—Perfect Blanche:

The narrator uses a simile that is laden with verbal irony to introduce the character of Blanche Ingram in Chapter 17:

Blanche and Mary were of equal stature – straight and tall as poplars. Mary was too slim for her height, but Blanche was moulded like a Dian.

Jane idealizes Blanche's image by comparing her to a statue of Diana and a poplar tree. Diana, the Greco-Roman goddess, represents perfect, desirable femininity. The poplar tree is native to northern climates, including England. Poplar flowers fruit into fluffy white orbs that look like cotton balls all over the tree. Jane is imagining Blanche as a symbol of white, English femininity. Blanche's very name means "white," which on the surface contrasts with Bertha's association with Blackness. It certainly contrasts with the gothic darkness of Thornfield.

Blanche's name and the narrator's language here are ironic because Blanche in fact represents further enmeshment in England's colonial economy. Although Jane and the reader don't yet know the extent of the problem, the darkness of Thornfield is an effect of its colonial entanglement. (The novel operates on racist ideology that maps sin and corruption onto darkness and Blackness.)  As a fashionable woman, Blanche consumes many products that are connected with slavery and colonialism. This kind of unethical consumerism had long been held against wealthy women, and the novel holds it against Blanche. Jane, who is not in the class of women who can afford luxury imports, finds Blanche shallow and materialistic. Her name and her description as a poplar or a Diana do not match her substance, which is implicated in all of England's problems. As the novel demonstrates by the end, it is not Blanche who stands to "whiten" Rochester's soul by marrying him, but rather Jane.

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Chapter 27
Explanation and Analysis—Victim Complex:

Although the novel truly seems to buy into the idea that Mr. Rochester suffers for the sin of colonial entanglement, there is also situational irony in the way he describes his own suffering. In Chapter 27, he describes the "agony" of being married to Bertha Mason, agony that he claims led him to lock her in the attic:

I lived with that woman upstairs four years, and before that time she had tried me indeed: her character ripened and developed with frightful rapidity; her vices sprang up fast and rank: they were so strong, only cruelty could check them, and I would not use cruelty. [...] How fearful were the curses those propensities entailed on me! Bertha Mason, the true daughter of an infamous mother, dragged me through all the hideous and degrading agonies which must attend a man bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste.

Mr. Rochester's self-pity is ironic considering the agony Bertha must feel being married to him. He keeps her imprisoned in the attic and pretends she doesn't exist. This neglect and abuse is surely worse than whatever Mr. Rochester has endured. Jane tells Mr. Rochester in the scene that she pities him, but the narrator has made clear elsewhere that her spoken words do not always express the entirety of what she is feeling. The reader has already read about Jane's own experience of being locked up in solitary confinement, when Mrs. Reed locked her in the Red Room as a child. Jane was only there for one night, but it was almost unbearable for her. Between Mr. Rochester and Bertha, Jane has more reason to pity Bertha than Mr. Rochester.

Mr. Rochester's victim complex makes him a good proxy for England. He is implicated not only in colonialism, but also in domestic abuse that he has committed in response to the consequences for his actions. He fails to see all the ways in which he is responsible for the bad situation at Thornfield. Similarly, England's investment in imperial expansion has exacerbated problems at home that it is not dealing with well. For instance, the novel criticizes the treatment of poor orphan children at charity schools. Economic changes under imperialism were at least partly responsible for increased wealth inequality that lay at the root of this problem. Whereas imperialism was supposed to increase economic prosperity for English people, it had also led to complications. According to the novel, Mr. Rochester and England alike need to take more responsibility for the messes they have created, rather than leaning on their roles as victims of circumstance. Mr. Rochester must undergo a major transformative experience before he is ready for Jane to marry him. He loses his wife, his house, his sight, and the hand with which he locked Bertha up. The novel suggests that England needs a similarly dramatic transformation.

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