Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre addresses the prevalent gothic theme of prisons and confinement, but on a level deeper than some of its literary predecessors. Bronte’s prisons are more than romantic castles of bygone days, but include prisons imposed on us by others, prisons we create for ourselves, and prisons which exist within our minds. These prisons may consist of society and social rank, law and religion, as well as thoughts and reputation. But not all such confinements keep us locked in; some confinements exist when we are locked out. Also not every form of confinement will bring us harm; some types of confinement are a type of protection and can keep us from harm.
One of the earliest ideas of confinement Jane faces in the novel is that of social class and standing. As a child, although living in a wealthy home Jane is not accepted by her aunt and cousins. She is forced to exist somewhere between the role of family member and servant, but without fitting into either position. In these circumstances Jane has also become a prisoner of reputation, shielded from the family’s regard by Mrs. Reed’s low opinion of her.
At school Jane observes the difference in class between her classmates and the children of the schoolmaster, Brocklehurst. When Jane advertises for a new position, she seems more concerned with following proper protocol for her class than getting into a situation she will enjoy. Social class is of course a dominant theme in Jane’s relationship with Rochester, a determining factor which made Mrs. Fairfax doubt the match and brought condescending glances from Mr. Rochester’s wealthy visitors.
The law is also seen as a source of confinement and a type of prison for some within this novel. Jane is confined to her low station in life because she is denied her legal rights as a family member and heir, both in the Reed household and in association with her uncle John Eyre. Rochester is confined by the law in his marriage to Bertha.
Perhaps the most profound example of confinement, and a type of prison, is the realm of thought. This is where all the other types of confinement merge. Jane’s actions are dictated by, and she spends a considerable amount of time pondering, her own thoughts. Jane reasons and evaluates, sometimes finding freedom because of it, but other times creating or at least enforcing more types of confinement. Helen Burns finds the confinement of religious thought a source of comfort and a reason to share her love with others, while Jane’s cousin Eliza uses the confinement of religious thought as an escape and a refuge where she can distance herself from the world. Mrs. Reed spends her entire adult life and her final minutes in a prison created within her mind, the prison of jealousy and hatred. Of course, thought is a prison for Bertha Mason as well.
But of the veritable prisons Jane Eyre is forced to endure, many of these confinements do more to protect her than keep her from liberty. If she hadn’t been locked away from Mrs. Reed and her cousins, she may have suffered a similar fate; she may have become as shallow, as wayward, as stilted or as resentful as any in the class of her “superiors”. If she had not endured the confinements of reason, she might have fulfilled the reputation of her childhood, and if she had not learned to control her reason she could have become as deranged as Bertha.
Without having experienced the many various forms of confinement in her life, she would not have been able to ultimately conquer them and eventually find herself living a happy and fulfilled life.