Jane Eyre, the skeptic Penny Dreadful: Charlotte Brontë’s Realistic incorporation of the Gothic Tradition, Carolina do Nascimento de Sousa

Ensaio de Carolina do Nascimento de Sousa. Revisão de Lauro Reis. Imagem: pexels.com.

How can a novel be analyzed and studied when removed from its historical and literary context?  This essay aims to demonstrate that the key to complete and utter understanding of even the most concealed aspects of a literary piece is indeed to look at it from a contextualized perspective. As is the case with some specific features of Jane Eyre (1847), oftentimes authors can stray from their era’s conventions. However, in the instance of Charlotte Brontë, most of the novel is aligned with what is expected from Victorian Literature in the nineteenth century, from the feminist narrative to religious plurality. Nevertheless it is a staple for harboring genres such as Realism and elements from Gothic Fiction.

In order to contextualize literary works during the nineteenth century it is crucial to understand how, in a short period of time, Britain underwent a series of progresses and changes in paradigm. The themes that once inspired the medieval word ‘gothic’ were in this period modernized and adapted to an age of religious questioning, advances in medicine and, overall, the desire to know more.

This desire is well described as a new sort of epistemology that is no longer held back by the restraints of religion, as explained by Michael Timko’s article.« For although all ages are ages of transition, never before had men thought of their own time as an era of change from the past to the future (…) Second, this was the period in which epistemological rather than metaphysical concerns began to predominate (…) ».(1)   

Experience and knowledge freed from metaphysical rules led to the advances this period is known for, considering formal education advances never before seen that led to a reform of social norms rarely questioned before. The questions arise? as a result of a collective need to an individual sense of identity that Timko identifies as self-consciousness (2). A better sense of self resulted in the search for its true essence and, particularly in literature, this search resulted in the need to perfect how that is portrayed. The act of describing and narrating objects, people and thoughts in a realistic manner paved way for most of Victorian literary works of this century, especially novels. 

Despite the relevance Realism had on the literary scene, for many authors, it was integrated with a twist. Although Gothic art first made its appearance during medieval times mostly through architecture, it later resurged as a literary genre during the second half of the eighteenth century. During the Victorian Era it gained a new meaning. There was a great amount of realistic novels the nineteenth century saw published and curiously enough a big number of them are actually hybrids between the two genres (3). It is interesting to observe how the desire to narrate things exactly how they happen sets an expectation for a realistic novel that, as is the case with Jane Eyre (1847), will fall short of realistic expectations and actually happen to integrate a series of Gothic elements. 

It is interesting to explain the Victorian’s reinterest in Gothic Fiction when considering the changes and advances of the century.

In an age of increasing religious uncertainty, spiritualistic experiment and imperial fears, Gothic provided a safe space for both ancient demons and modern psychological anxiety. Writers were able to privilege mystery over explanation (…) capturing the dark side of the Victorian soul in all its energetic and self-revealing doubt. (4)

The themes previously identified as traditionally Gothic « (…)ruined castles, helpless heroines, and evil villains (…) » (5) shifted towards elements common to the Victorian society. The settings were recognizable, the moral values and beliefs as well as the mindsets of the characters were the same as the average Victorian’s and that altogether was the key to how engaging Gothic fiction became.(6) 

As discussed before, the Gothic underwent a series of changes that resulted in its progressive adaptation to Victorian society. This adaptation resulted from a series of societal changes that included women’s fight for equality not only for academic opportunities but also inside their own families. While focusing on better developing their own particular interests, many concepts such as “house wife” or “nuclear family” simply started to lose the meaning and importance they once had.(7)

To what do we owe the alteration of a paradigm that was centuries old? Paradigms change according to the rate of a society’s advance. In the nineteenth century the key advance was scientific discovers. Theories as important as Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species led people from all walks of life to question their beliefs, especially when it came to the Old Testament and how Christianity explained the way humans came to be. As it has always been, the more people had access to education the more they had a general capacity to question established beliefs, this being one of the reasons women fought to access formal and higher education. 

Although the veracity of the Bible was oftentimes questioned, religion is nevertheless an important staple during the Victorian era. Many no longer identified with common Christian values and became atheists (8), others turn to a different conviction, Spiritualism. It consists on the belief that some humans have the ability to communicate with the dead and therefore establish ethereal connections. It is interesting that in a century that saw the birth of progresses like the Periodic Table, there was a tendency to strain from science into spiritualism and the partial desertion of organized religion. In Spiritualism, Science and Atavism, Charlotte Barret theorizes the connection to be a consequence of the « (…) abandonment of conventional religion. In the search for meaning, people were prepared to suspend reason. »

Spiritualism played an important role in contributing to the themes of Gothic Fiction. The common themes changed from the previous enumeration of medieval elements such as castles and battles to an emotional realm that deeply represented the advances of medicine, specifically in psychology and the function of the mind. 

Continuous discoveries were relevant in the sense that they revealed how much is still to be studied. The Gothic proliferated with the mindset of intellectual uncertainty and doubt. Spiritualism was, in a way, a form of comfort to fill in the void caused by religion and the hard truth that knowledge continuously improved itself. 

This newfound interest in the occult inspired many of the literary pieces of the nineteenth century that each represent not only the impact of Gothic Spiritualism but also how it mixed with realism. Charles Dickens’s ghost in A Christmas Carol (1843), the ever-changing painting of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Bram Stoker’s Dracula terrorizing England (1897), the supernatural study of anatomy in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and the many hauntings of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) are just some examples of the novels that illustrated the plural religious and spiritual beliefs of the nineteenth century.  

The topics and elements that define Jane Eyre as a Realistic novel with a Gothic and Spiritualistic antilogy are aligned not only with the Victorian religious and scientific beliefs but also Charlotte Brontë’s own. 

The fact that the novel integrates several distinct religious threads, some hints at supernaturalism but at the same time skepticism, is a result of the author’s multiple influences and ideas. As discussed before, the nineteenth century was a decisive period in the matter of faith and religion and the plurality of religious discourses during this era is the key to understanding how Charlotte Brontë combines Calvinism, Evangelism and Spiritualism in the same novel without it losing reliability. (9)

Religion is present all throughout the novel, from being enforced on the girls at Lowood (10) to St John’s proposal to Jane. The idea that the plurality of faiths of the century was represented in the novel is well illustrated in the comparison between characters explored in The Merging of Spiritualities: Jane Eyre as Missionary of Love. Even when only considering Christianity, the essay exemplifies how Mr. Brocklehurst, St John Rivers and Helen Burns are the pinnacle of religious representation for Jane Eyre and how distinct this representation is. 

Helen is Jane’s lifeline from the oppressions of Mr. Brocklehurst. It is discussed how the author grew up surrounded by many religious influences (11), namely an Anglican father, where she might have gotten the inspiration to create Helen’s character in the religious realm. Writing Mr. Brocklehurst as emotionally abusive and strict was Charlotte’s own way of criticizing what she considered to be the absurd Calvinistic doctrine of predestination and the belief that individual faith is established regardless of one’s actions through life: « Further evidence of Brocklehurst’s Calvinism is his reliance on the doctrines of innate human corruption » (12)

The author strongly denounced the belief in « next‐worldly over this‐worldly rewards and punishments » (13) as well as even biblical conceptions of the nuclear family and the representation of what a woman’s roles should be, and that led to some critiques of Jane Eyre as opposing Christian values.

Helen was the embodiment of endurance, love and patience. Helen served as one of the key characters for Jane’s development and maturity. Her calm demeanor puzzled Jane’s childlike behavior and temperament, it also helped form many of the behaviors and tolerance Jane has as an adult. Helen’s promise of « (…) an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits (…) » [JE: VIII, p. 78 doesn’t make sense to Jane yet, but as stated before, Helen’s influence on Jane is much clearer after she reaches adulthood and something to wonder is whether the encryption on Helen’s gravestone is proof that Jane might have reached her own personal belief in the concept of Heaven, as Helen did, as a place where she could reach ultimate happiness. « (…) a grey marble tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name, and the work ‘Resurgam’. » [JE: VI, p. 94] (14)

St John Rivers is another predominant religious figure in Jane’s life, once again demonstrating the downsides of the Christian mentality. Suffering from false righteousness, it is clear how, when Jane does not do as she is told, by turning down his marriage proposal, « he ultimately proves to possess the most negative qualities of Brocklehurst » (15) and turns to punishment as a way to manipulate Jane into a loveless marriage. 

What stops Jane from accepting St John’s proposal is the first and only manifestation of the supernatural in the novel. Charlotte Brontë hints at various sinister happenings since Jane’s childhood. The events Jane experiences in the Red Room are explained by J. Jeffrey, in The Merging of Spiritualities: Jane Eyre as Missionary of Love, as the manifestation of “childhood trauma” and abuse and it can also be associated to Jane’s need to feel the presence of a loved one, like Mr. Reed. The matter of the supernatural can be seen also in the creatures that Jane is named after by Rochester – such as “troubled spirit”, “fairy”, “specter” and “elf”. Jane’s hauntings materialize and accompany her in the way that the Red Room is parallel to the happenings of the Third Floor of Thornfield Hall. 

The most relevant manifestation of the Gothic in Brontë’s work is the life and portrayal of Bertha Mason. She first appears as laugh, « (…) in its low, syllabic tone, and terminated in an odd murmur. » [JE: XI, p. 124].

And for some time, there aren’t any humanlike characteristics used to describe her. Upon discovering Bertha as a caged human and until her death, for a brief moment, until she is « (…) dead as the stones on which her brains and blood were scattered. »                                                       [JE: XXXVI, p. 519]

Jane feels guilt after realizing Bertha’s sanity was stripped from her after being encaged by her husband-to-be. Bertha represents “the stereotypes that have plagued Gothic anti-heroines”(16) of a woman who abandons conventions regarding sexual liberation to a point of being considered animalistic, to being pitied for being mentally ill, to being described as organic matter. The fact that her sin is carnal and promiscuous makes for the fact that she is oftentimes described as “vampiric” and “cannibalistic”, and she contrasts Jane’s “small”, “white” and childlike” bourgeois appropriate demeanor(17). The mad wife’s ominous warning to Jane is made by ripping her wedding veil in half, but it is not the only presage of her and Rochester’s interrupted marriage. 

The Gothic elements in Jane Eyre such as Jane’s own dreams, her premonitions and even the natural elements are often a warning as to what is to come to the characters’ lives, especially Jane’s. The night Rochester proposes, underneath the chestnut tree, has a strong manifestation of a gothic omen that uses the natural elements to sustain the novel’s extramundane atmosphere. Jane describes how the weather was opposing their encounter. « (…) we were all in shadow (…). While wind roared in the laurel walk, and came sweeping over us. » [JE: XXIII, pg. 307] 

Eventually, long before Bertha could tore Jane’s veil in half, « (…) the great horse chestnut at the bottom of the orchard had been struck by lightning in the night, and half of it split away. » [JE: XXIII, pg. 308]. 

Despite Charlotte Brontë’s hinting at the supernatural nature of Bertha, Jane’s premonitions and the Red Room’s occurrences, unlike some of the most notorious novels of the nineteenth century’s literary scene, all of these events are scientifically explained and debunked; all but one. The telepathic phenomenon that is beyond scientific explanation is responsible for impeding Jane’s acceptance of St John’s proposal and her eventual return to Thornfield Hall. The question remains as to why the author clarified every other event rationally, but kept this one impossible to decipher as anything other than coincidental or paranormal. J. Jeffrey offers a good explanation, 

While she finds it necessary to use the supernatural as a vehicle for bringing Christian discourse in contact with the discourse of spiritual love, revising the former by the latter, she then feels compelled to deny the supernatural, leaving it (…) as the excluded term. (18)


  1. Timko, Michael. “The Victorianism of Victorian Literature.” New Literary History, vol. 6, no. 3, 1975, pp. 610, first paragraph. (Full citation of the article in the list of references).
  2. Further regarding the above article’s question of self-consciousness “The epistemological and Darwinian awareness of the Victorians must be seen, then, in terms of the changed nature of the “imaginative awareness” affected by “experience”; and two key terms need to be reexamined. (…) “Self-consciousness” and, of course, “nature”. Self-consciousness has always been regarded as one of the chief characteristics of nineteenth-century writing (…).” Pp. 613. 
  3. Some examples enumerated by Julian Thompson in Victorian Gothic; An Introduction: “The results can be seen in Tennyson’s fairy poems of the early 1830s, Charlotte Brontë hiding guilty secrets in the Gothic towers of Thornfield in Jane Eyre (1847), and the way Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ (1842) cruelly reconstructs the torture-chambers of the Spanish Inquisition.”
  4. Victorian Gothic: An Introduction by Julian Thompson
  5. Spiritualism, Science and Atavism by Charlotte Barrett
  6. Further clarified in Barret’s essay Spiritualism, Science and Atavism: “(…) to situate the tropes of the supernatural and the uncanny within a recognizable environment. This brings a sense of verisimilitude to the narrative, and thereby renders the Gothic features of the text all the more disturbing.”
  7. A Companion to the Brontës, p. 34.: Each novel examines various Gothic feminist strategies— rejection of motherhood, control of the patriarchal estate, struggle with tyrannous religious forces, overthrow of the suffocating and claustrophobic nuclear family, the celebration of education or art for women (…).”
  8. Charlotte Brontë’s own dissatisfaction as stated in A Companion to the Brontës, p. 433. : “The twentieth century saw feminist readers like Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar famously seizing on Charlotte’s “rebellious feminism,” with its apparently “‘irreligious’ dissatisfaction with the social order”.
  9. In The Merging of Spiritualities: Jane Eyre as Missionary of Love (1995) p.469: “Critics long have attempted to rationalize the supernatural elements or have wondered at how Charlotte Brontë was able to fuse “Gothic” elements with “Realist” ones (…) without rupturing it or the reader’s credibility.”
  10. In Haunted by Passion: Supernaturalism and Feminism in Jane Eyre and Villette (2013) p.2-3 Religion is the tool Brocklehurst uses to control the girls at Lowood.”
  11. “They were exposed to both the Wesleyan and Calvinist strains of Methodism, as well as to their father’s reasonably tolerant brand of Evangelicalism, all of which insisted on intense study of the Bible, guided by prayer, as a core component of any Christian’s spiritual life and discipline.” In A Companion to the Brontës, p. 434. 
  12. The Merging of Spiritualities: Jane Eyre as Missionary of Love (1995) p.463. 
  13. A Companion to the Brontës, p. 445.
  14. MeaningI shall rise again”. In: “Resurgam.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resurgam. Accessed 12 Dec. 2020.
  15. The Merging of Spiritualities: Jane Eyre as Missionary of Love (1995) p.466. 
  16. A Companion to the Brontës, p. 38-39.
  17. Id, Ibid.
  18. The Merging of Spiritualities: Jane Eyre as Missionary of Love (1995) p.479.


[1] Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ware, Hertfordshire, Wordsworth Editions, 1992.

[2] Franklin, J. Jeffrey. “The Merging of Spiritualities: Jane Eyre as Missionary of Love.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 49, no. 4, 1995, pp. 456–482. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2933729. Accessed 7 Dec. 2020.

[3] Timko, Michael. “The Victorianism of Victorian Literature.” New Literary History, vol. 6, no. 3, 1975, pp. 607–627. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/468468. Accessed 8 Dec. 2020.

[4] Victorian Gothic: An Introduction by Julian Thompson at http://writersinspire.org/content/victorian-gothic-introduction. Accessed on Sunday, December 06, 2020.

 [5] Spiritualism, Science and Atavism by Charlotte Barrett at http://writersinspire.org/content/spiritualism-science-atavism. Accessed on Monday, December 07, 2020.

[6] Hoeveler, Diane Long, and Deborah Denenholz Morse. A Companion to the Brontës, Hoboken, NJ-United States, United States, Wiley, 2016.

 [7] Lorber, Laurel, “Haunted by Passion: Supernaturalism and Feminism in Jane Eyre and Villette” (2013). Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs). 1889.