Jane Eyre

by

Charlotte Brontë

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Jane Eyre: Unreliable Narrator 4 key examples

Chapter 3
Explanation and Analysis—Gulliver's Travels:

In Chapter 3, Jane rereads Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. This allusion introduces the novel's colonial backdrop, and it also emphasizes that Jane might be an unreliable narrator when it comes to distinguishing facts from fantasy:

I considered [Gulliver's Travels] a narrative of facts, and discovered in it a vein of interest deeper than what I found in fairy tales: [...] Lilliput and Brobdingnag being, in my creed, solid parts of the earth’s surface, I doubted not that I might one day, by taking a long voyage, see with my own eyes the little fields, houses, and trees, the diminutive people, the tiny cows, sheep, and birds of the one realm; and the cornfields forest-high, the mighty mastiffs, the monster cats, the tower-like men and women of the other.

Jane contrasts Gulliver's Travels with fairy tales and thinks of it as "a narrative of facts" despite the fact that it is fictional and describes encounters with all kinds of impossibilities. It is somewhat understandable why a young reader would make this mistake. Swift was parodying the highly popular travel narrative, in which people would travel the world (often to distant colonies of their home country) and write about what they saw there. These narratives sold well when they were sensational, and they could popularize all kinds of misconceptions about the world beyond Europe. Some of them are responsible for xenophobic stereotypes that persist today. As a parody of this genre, Gulliver's Travels is outrageously fantastical, but it presents itself as fact. Like other British people reading travel narratives, Jane falls for the idea that the colonial world is exotic and strange.

Jane's love and trust for the book emphasizes her desire for escape, and the fact that she is prone to chasing fantastical stories. In Chapter 1, she has already described the way reading a book with pictures allows her imagination to run away. She has spent her childhood at Gateshead, trapped in a house with an extended family that bullies her. The idea that the world is huge and full of possibility is attractive to her. This idea is also attractive to the likes of Mr. Rochester's father, who looks beyond England to its colonies for wealth that his second son might claim. Jane's longing for a bigger world is innocent at this point, but that same longing can also be quite sinister when it comes to global politics and economy.

Chapter 9
Explanation and Analysis—Hope's Steps:

The narrator personifies the concept of hope in Chapter 9, when she describes the Lowood gardens in spring:

[A] greenness grew over those brown beds, which, freshing daily, suggested the thought that Hope traversed them at night, and left each morning brighter traces of her steps.

Jane describes not simply the feeling of being hopeful, but furthermore imagines Hope as a being who walks through the gardens at night. This personification emphasizes that Jane often looks to her surroundings for emotional cues and also projects her own emotions onto her surroundings. Rather than allow a feeling to spring up within herself, she looks for outside reflections and manifestations of that feeling to confirm that it is warranted. An earlier instance of this same tendency occurs at Gateshead, when she imagines a lantern outside the Red Room as the approach of Mr. Reed's ghost. When she looks at the Lowood gardens, she is imagining their verdure as a signal that Hope has dropped into her life to tell her that her circumstances are finally turning around.

Jane's vision of Hope as an independent being that might choose to pay her a visit or abandon her demonstrates that Jane, when she is young, struggles to feel in control of her circumstances or her happiness. She relies on outside forces to determine her happiness. As she gets older, she gradually takes charge of her own destiny. For instance, she chooses not to marry St. John because she cannot see marriage to him as a hopeful path. She begins cultivating her own hope instead of looking for telltale signs of it in whatever situation the world has offered her.

Jane's imagined vision of Hope in the gardens also belies the narrator's tendency to describe her environment through the subjective lens of her own feelings. The gardens may look hopeful to Jane, but there is also a typhoid outbreak at Lowood during this same period of time. To the sick children, the gardens may look utterly devoid of hope. The narrator's version of events is not necessarily false or deceitful, but it is just one version of the truth that is highly colored by Jane's emotional reality.

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Chapter 11
Explanation and Analysis—Autobiography as Art:

Throughout the novel, which styles itself "an autobiography," the narrator crafts her image as an artist and styles the novel as an artistic creation. For example, Chapter 11 begins with a comparison between a novel and a play:

A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote [...]

The narrator is supposedly an adult Jane, recounting the autobiographical events of her life, but she calls her story a "novel," or a work of fiction. The distance between Brontë and the narrator collapses in this moment, as the narrator calls herself a novelist. This "autobiography" is literary art, not a long report of historical fact. There may also be a way in which Brontë's fiction is a kind of autobiography, even if the events didn't exactly happen to her. The line between fact and fiction is blurry. To further complicate the question of truth and artifice in the novel, the narrator also compares herself to the director of a play, staging a new scene before the reader. It is as if the characters in the novel are actors on a stage the narrator controls.

This does not necessarily mean that the narrator is a liar, but she is drawing attention to the hand she has in telling the story. The way Jane describes her drawings in Chapter 13 reveals that Brontë, Jane, and the narrator (the more mature Jane) share a sense of the artist as a mediator between her inner world and the outer world:

The subjects had, indeed, risen vividly on my mind. As I saw them with the spiritual eye, before I attempted to embody them, they were striking; but my hand would not second my fancy, and in each case it had wrought out but a pale portrait of the thing I had conceived.

When she draws, Jane renders the best version she can of the "picture" she has in her mind's eye, but it is difficult to convey what is inside her head. The "autobiography," too, is a rendering, not necessarily a precise copy of the truth. The narrator's job as an autobiographer is to craft a narrative that will allow the reader to experience the closest thing possible to the truth.

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Chapter 13
Explanation and Analysis—Autobiography as Art:

Throughout the novel, which styles itself "an autobiography," the narrator crafts her image as an artist and styles the novel as an artistic creation. For example, Chapter 11 begins with a comparison between a novel and a play:

A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote [...]

The narrator is supposedly an adult Jane, recounting the autobiographical events of her life, but she calls her story a "novel," or a work of fiction. The distance between Brontë and the narrator collapses in this moment, as the narrator calls herself a novelist. This "autobiography" is literary art, not a long report of historical fact. There may also be a way in which Brontë's fiction is a kind of autobiography, even if the events didn't exactly happen to her. The line between fact and fiction is blurry. To further complicate the question of truth and artifice in the novel, the narrator also compares herself to the director of a play, staging a new scene before the reader. It is as if the characters in the novel are actors on a stage the narrator controls.

This does not necessarily mean that the narrator is a liar, but she is drawing attention to the hand she has in telling the story. The way Jane describes her drawings in Chapter 13 reveals that Brontë, Jane, and the narrator (the more mature Jane) share a sense of the artist as a mediator between her inner world and the outer world:

The subjects had, indeed, risen vividly on my mind. As I saw them with the spiritual eye, before I attempted to embody them, they were striking; but my hand would not second my fancy, and in each case it had wrought out but a pale portrait of the thing I had conceived.

When she draws, Jane renders the best version she can of the "picture" she has in her mind's eye, but it is difficult to convey what is inside her head. The "autobiography," too, is a rendering, not necessarily a precise copy of the truth. The narrator's job as an autobiographer is to craft a narrative that will allow the reader to experience the closest thing possible to the truth.

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Explanation and Analysis—Sublime Visions:

The imagery with which Jane describes her watercolor paintings in Chapter 13 emphasizes the fact that the novel is told by an unreliable narrator. The watercolors represent landscapes Jane has tried to recreate through the filter of her imagination:

The first represented clouds low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea: all the distance was in eclipse; so, too, was the foreground; or, rather, the nearest billows, for there was no land. One gleam of light lifted into relief a half-submerged mast, on which sat a cormorant, dark and large, with wings flecked with foam[.]

The vivid imagery here is similar to that which the narrator often uses to describe landscapes themselves. If Jane were to visit the seaside during the course of the novel, it is easy to imagine a passage describing "low and livid" clouds, a "swollen sea," and strange light patterns. The narrator is the first to point out that the watercolors are "representations" of the natural world. For example, she has tried to inject the clouds with a sense that they are "livid." This is the feeling Jane projected onto the clouds when she saw them, and it helped her to paint them as she saw them, not necessarily as they were. Because of the similarity between the paintings and the narrator's descriptions of landscapes, the idea of painting as representation draws attention to the fact that throughout the entire novel, the narrator is representing her story. As with a painting, it is impossible to deliver an exact and objective copy of reality.

All narrators are "unreliable" in that they always represent events in their own language. Jane (both the character and the narrator) begins to look more unreliable as she continues describing the painting:

[I]ts beak held a gold bracelet, set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart. Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn.

Jane's watercolor builds a fantastical horror plot into the landscape: the bird has stolen a bracelet off the arm of a drowning corpse. It seems unlikely that Jane actually witnessed this event. If she did, the gold bracelet would likely have appeared with less "glittering distinctness" than Jane renders here. She makes the bracelet the focal point in order to draw the viewer's attention to the innate horror of the scene. The watercolors demonstrate that Jane is interested in the sublime and the ways in which natural scenery can terrify the viewer. Just as she distorts objective reality in the painting in order to emphasize one aspect of it, the narrator is likely distorting objective facts in order to emphasize the horror and fantasy she feels are central to her own autobiography.

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