Connecticut IB Academy at East Hartford High School
Table of Contents
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“Night, Nature and Storms: A Comparative Analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s Use of Setting in the Novels Jane Eyre and Villette”
The novels Jane Eyre and Villette by Charlotte Brontë use setting to a great extent to develop characterization through the construction of relationships between characters and their environment, which also serves the significant role of influencing the plot. Physical buildings and structures, weather, natural structures and settings, and supernatural events as portrayed by the setting all influence the text. In Jane Eyre, Jane consistently reacts to certain aspects of the setting in specific ways, such as when she witnesses the supernatural at night. In Villette, Lucy finds herself especially affected by the way that stormy weather entwines itself into the plot, foreshadowing terrible occurrences.
In both Jane Eyre and Villette, Brontë uses the setting to develop characterization by creating links between characters and their reactions to different aspects of the setting. This also helps to drive the plot by using motifs that develop connections in the minds of readers between each point of the novel. The setting also serves as foreshadowing and powers themes such as the effect of nature and weather on the characters by allowing readers to cling to these motifs and images, like storms or the Moon, while journeying through the stories with Jane and Lucy. Many of these ideas appear in both novels, but the effects that they have in the stories differ vastly. An example of this is the way in which Brontë employs the Moon. In both stories, the Moon presides over multiple different situations, serving more as a mother-figure for Jane and a friendly face for Lucy.
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“Night, Nature and Storms: A Comparative Analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s Use of Setting in the Novels Jane Eyre and Villette”
In the novels Jane Eyre and Villette, Charlotte Brontë employs the setting in various, meaningful ways in order to play multiple roles in the separate texts by mirroring the plot, developing characterization, serving as foreshadowing, and developing themes. Brontë uses setting very specifically and intentionally, especially through the utilization of physical settings, the ideas of weather, nature, the Moon, nighttime, and the manner in which these promote superstition; readers must analyze and follow these specific aspects of the setting in order to form connections and make accurate judgments about the plot and the characters. According to Carol T. Christ from the University of California, Berkeley, Charlotte Brontë has the “ability to make her aesthetic conflict between the claims of imagination and the claims of realism the propelling conflict of her heroines’ personalities” (Christ 289). In other words, in both Jane Eyre and Villette, young independent women are discussed as they move throughout their lives, and Brontë chose the settings carefully to direct the plot. While many of the styles in which Brontë allows for these ideas to occur show similarities from one novel to the next, there are some notable differences that have blatantly specific effects on making the novels unique.
Charlotte Brontë devises her novels Jane Eyre and Villette in such a way that the setting and the plot are exact parallels, and that the setting itself serves as a way to develop characters and build upon the ways they perceive the world. Settings, especially those in Jane Eyre, are in sync with the main character’s state of mind (“The Function…”). In settings where Jane spends much of her time alone or withdrawn, such as at Gateshead with her unfriendly cousins and aunt, who tells her to “‘be seated somewhere; and until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent’” (Brontë, Jane Eyre, 4) and Lowood after Helen’s death and Miss Temple’s departure, she feels a connection neither to the people there, nor to the actual place. As Jane puts it,
It did not seem as if a prop were withdrawn, but rather as if a motive were gone: it was not the power to be tranquil which had failed me, but the reason for tranquility was no more…. I tired of the routine of eight years in one afternoon. (Jane Eyre 122-123)
Nothing has the ability to make Jane feel any desire toward staying at Lowood any longer. Jane’s happiness depends upon the setting, especially in regards to the people surrounding her that care about her, and the physical comfort level of the place in which she is residing. For example, when she arrives at Thornfield, her first impression of which is to note the “snug, small room; a round table by a cheerful fire” (Jane Eyre 139) – overall an impression of comfort, she becomes attached to little Adela and Mrs. Fairfax, and especially to Mr. Rochester. At Lowood, “the garden was a wide enclosure, surrounded with walls so high as to exclude every glimpse of prospect” (Jane Eyre 67), which reflects Jane’s introverted nature and her reluctance to broaden her horizons and expand her life, as well as the desire by the school to keeps its occupants controlled. The opposite of this appears when Jane is living at the village-school in Morton. The small yet cozy and friendly little house and community gives Jane a sense of peace and belonging. To her, living “amidst general regard, though it be but the regard of working-people, is like ‘sitting in sunshine, calm and sweet’” (Jane Eyre 550). Here, she allows herself to be personable and assert her own opinions, and she feels that she is still accepted in spite of this, which the setting conveys through Jane’s reactions. These settings reflect these different levels of comfort, from complete discomfort to one of her most comfortable experiences yet, through how Jane perceives them and portrays them to readers.
Physical, man-made settings, especially buildings, have an enormous effect on the novels. They affect how a character will respond to situations or events occurring in those places, simply because of how they look, and what those appearances symbolize. Upon leaving the dining room on a tour of Thornfield with Mrs. Fairfax, Jane narrates: “I followed her upstairs and downstairs, admiring as I went; for all was well-arranged and handsome. The large front chambers I thought especially grand; and some of the third story rooms, though dark and low, were interesting from their air of antiquity” (Brontë, Jane Eyre, 154). The intentional choice by Brontë to include this comparison of the more public parts of the house versus the more hidden sections foreshadows the knowledge that Jane will soon come across regarding Mr. Rochester’s past and his deranged wife, which upsets her to such a degree that she can no longer stay at Thornfield. Mrs. Fairfax contributes to this comparison by informing Jane that “‘No; [the servants] occupy a range of smaller apartments to the back; no one ever sleeps here: one would almost say that, if there were a ghost at Thornfield Hall, this would be its haunt’” (Jane Eyre 155). Abandoned buildings have historical connotations of sometimes being haunted or having the potential to be the residence of supernatural creatures. For example, earlier in Jane Eyre, Brontë discusses the Red Room at Gateshead. Choosing to have this abandoned and isolated room titled “red” is significant in that red is a color commonly associated with pain or fear, which significantly emphasizes Jane’s reaction to the frightening experience with what she believes to be a “herald of some coming vision from another world” (Jane Eyre 19). The name and location of the room definitely suggest and foreshadow this reaction.
Brontë uses similar strategies in Villette. New settings in this novel mean a new life for and show a new facet of Lucy’s character. After Miss Marchmont dies, Lucy experiences a major upset in her life; she finds herself all alone in the world. She seeks guidance from an old servant of her family, who unfortunately does not know how to help her, leaving Lucy “still all inward darkness” (Brontë, Villette, 41). Having not had much schooling during her youth, living at the school in France takes a toll on Lucy’s mental health, especially when she is alone. She knows no one, and feels foreign and out of place, mirroring her physical isolation. When Madame Beck leaves on vacation and the school is mostly empty, Lucy is overcome by despair:
My heart almost died within me; miserable longings strained its chords…. How vast and void seemed the desolate premises! How gloomy the forsaken garden – gray now with the dust of a town-summer departed…. My spirits had long been gradually sinking; now that the prop of employment was withdrawn, they went down fast. (Villette 162)
The mention of “strained chords” gives readers the idea that the only sound filling the “vast and void” school could be associated with one similar to that of an untuned piano – a sign of uncared for or deserted property, which could either be caused by the wind or could just be confined in Lucy’s head. Following this idea comes the images of a dull, almost horror-story setting, “with the dust of a town-summer departed” covering everything and emphasizing its desolation. Given an impression of this overall depressing scene, readers should not be surprised at Lucy’s reaction to being left alone in a place such as this. Also, the idea of her “gradually sinking” spirits leads to the “tempestuous and wet” (Villette 163) weather near to the end of the vacation.
However, this is remedied when she visits her godmother for a second time, not realizing that they have been living within a short distance of each other. Mrs. Bretton and her belongings reminded Lucy of “the shelter [that] the tree gives the herb” (Brontë, Villette, 179), meaning that her comfort level rises when she immerses herself among the familiar people and objects. The school, on the other hand, “was a strange house, where no corner was sacred from intrusion, where not a tear could be shed, nor a thought pondered, but a spy was at hand to note and to divine” (Villette 243). Lucy never grows particularly comfortable in that place; it is not her own and offers her no privacy, especially from Madame Beck, but also from other residents like Monsieur Paul. Lucy would likely deem privacy valuable, seeing as Brontë portrays her as extremely reclusive.
Mrs. Bretton and her son pressed me to remain one night more. I could have cried, so irritated and eager was I to be gone. I longed to leave them as the criminal on the scaffold longs for the axe to descend: that is, I wished the pang over. (Villette 238)
Lucy is so invariably happy in the Bretton household that to leave this place, where she feels “happier, easier, [and] more at home” (Villette 193) represents a terrible punishment of which she would rather not endure prolonged suffering. Lucy’s comfort level here, and the familiarity of the objects and personalities, sends her back to the time when she was more secure, before her family “perished” (Villette 33). This reflection of characterization and plot development in the setting proves highly effective and important, for it provides readers with a specific and unique type of insight into Lucy and Jane’s minds that they would never have realized otherwise.
Charlotte Brontë uses the setting to act as a method of foreshadowing and developing themes throughout both Jane Eyre and Villette. One example of how she does this acts strongly in both novels: the effect of weather and nature on the characters and plot. Not only does this aspect of the setting affect all of the characters, rather than only Jane and Lucy, but it helps drive a theme of superstition in both novels as well. Brontë begins Jane Eyre with a description of inclement weather – the first of many times that it appears. Jane describes to readers the reason why she stows herself away in the window seat, reading a book: the poor weather has prevented her and her cousins from receiving permission to go outside. Here, she enters the world of Bewick’s History of British Birds, imagining areas of icy desolation similar to the emotional environment in which she has grown up, pointing out to readers that “the two ships becalmed on a torpid sea, [she] believe[s] to be marine phantoms” (Brontë, Jane Eyre, 5). This in turn foreshadows Jane’s frightening paranormal experience in the Red Room that same night. Later in the story, the “pleasant evening, so serene, so warm” (Jane Eyre 113) at Lowood before Helen’s death foreshadows the conversation in which the fourteen-year-old tells her young friend Jane about her conviction and acceptance of the idea that when she dies, she will go to a better place. The term “serene” reflects Helen’s calm attitude towards her fate. When Jane travels back to Gateshead to visit her dying aunt, she notes that “the rain beat strongly against the panes, [and] the wind blew tempestuously” (Jane Eyre 354) during their last conversation, prophesying the older woman’s death shortly thereafter. The stormy nights at Thornfield also foreshadow the unfortunate and seemingly supernatural existence of Bertha Mason, her attempts to kill the Thornfield residents, and the internal conflicts that Jane will suffer upon deciding to leave Thornfield.
This same idea is apparent in Villette, where storms at sea are a common motif throughout the story. While this use of weather is sometimes more metaphorical than factual, it still in fact foreshadows negativity and death, especially at the end when M. Paul takes a trip overseas, and does not return when a storm “roared frenzied for seven days… [and] did not lull till the deeps had gorged their full sustenance” (Brontë, Villette, 529); this image of the personified sea swallowing ships and passengers reflects the metaphor used to describe the catastrophe that wipes out Lucy’s immediate family near the beginning of the novel. Regarding M. Paul’s death, Lucy refuses to inform readers whether or not he actually dies. This is not necessary, as it can be implied that he does in fact die, simply because of the connotations that storms have had throughout the entirety of the novel. Early on in the novel, Lucy’s family is entirely decimated, and she equates that to a storm at sea as well, saying,
Picture me then idle, basking, plump, and happy, stretched on a cushioned deck, warmed with constant sunshine, rocked by breezes indolently soft…. To this hour, when I have the nightmare, it repeats the rush and saltiness of briny waves in my throat, and their icy pressure on my lungs. I even know there was a storm…. For many days and nights neither sun nor stars appeared…. a heavy tempest lay on us; all hope that we should be saved was taken away. In fine, the ship was lost, the crew perished. (Villette 33)
Upon reading this passage, readers experience one of the first mentions of stormy weather in this novel. The pleasantry and normality of Lucy’s everyday life is sharply contrasted with the turmoil of the “nightmare,” leaving readers with the impression that the tragedy has scarred her irreparably. The readers will soon discover that this “nightmare” will come back to haunt Lucy to the point where, on her way to visit Madame Walravens, Lucy decides that she
fear[s] a high wind, because storm demands that exertion of strength and use of action I always yield with pain; but the sullen down-fall, the thick snow-descent, or dark rush of rain, asks only resignation… In return, it sweeps a great capital clean before you; it makes you a quiet path through broad, grand streets; it petrifies a living city, as if by eastern enchantment; it transforms a Villette into a Tadmor. (Villette 412)
Here, she acknowledges not only the idea that storms symbolize physical discomfort, but that storms have a tendency to result in the need for an “exertion of strength” that “yield[s]… pain,” meaning that these are not positive settings for one to find oneself in. An area where this proves itself true appears during Lucy’s lonely stay over the school vacation, where “the raging storm and beating rain crushed [her] with a deadlier paralysis than [she] had experienced while the air remained serene” (Villette 163), once again reflecting the drastic effect that setting has on the character through the creation and development of physical side effects. The nights when the “ghost” of the nun appears to Lucy also follows the mixed themes of storms and superstition.
Charlotte Brontë uses the setting to develop other themes, like superstition driven by the image of stormy weather. One that is common to both Jane Eyre and Villette is the fact that Nature serves as guidance for both Jane and Lucy, especially in their times of need (Thaden 55, 94). Nature is a God-like figure that these women turn to many times in place of, or in conjunction with, their religion, in that it is something they can turn to for guidance, and can rely upon to watch over them. Both Jane and Lucy are Protestant, and though they are both faithful to Christianity in their own ways, they still allow themselves to turn to Nature and believe that it too has the ability to serve as a guardian for them. In response to the sudden sound of Mr. Rochester’s voice calling for her, Jane remarks: “‘Down superstition!’ I commented, as that spectre rose up black by the black yew at the gate. ‘This is not thy deception, not thy witchcraft: it is the work of nature. She was rouse, and did – no miracle – but her best’” (Brontë, Jane Eyre, 633). She does not allow skepticism to invade her mind and convince her that she has made it up. Instead, she gives Nature credit where credit is due, thanking Nature for giving her this sign, even though it is “no miracle.” Similarly, in Villette, Nature is present throughout Lucy’s journey, although more subtly. When visiting the gallery, Lucy notes that “Nature’s power here broke through in a mountain snow-storm; and there her glory in a sunny southern day” (Brontë, Villette, 208). Lucy is having a positive experience and is enjoying herself in the gallery, which is reflected by Nature’s “power” and “glory,” which are commonly associated with positive images.
An important yet underrated character, the Moon serves as a friendly figure for these two heroines. For Jane, the Moon is a more subtle guide and a source of comfort (Renfroe) than it is for Lucy, as it accompanies Jane on her journeys to Lowood, Thornfield, and the Moor House. The Moon is only described in Jane Eyre when Brontë deems it strictly necessary, since it serves more as a mother-figure. Mothers are not present everywhere throughout a person’s life, and, as in Jane’s case, sometimes barely appear at all. The Moon keeps track of Jane, and keeps an eye on her via methods such as through the Bewick’s book, where it appears as a “cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking” (Brontë, Jane Eyre, 5). Jane’s condition and status at Gateshead is the sinking wreck, meaning that it is rapidly deteriorating, and the Moon is unhappily supervising the situation – just as a mother might frown upon a situation in which her daughter is misbehaving.
The Moon holds a similar position in Villette in that it serves as guidance, escorting Lucy when she travels from England to France, and when she follows Madame Beck around Villette during the middle of the night; however, it does so in ways that seem more like a friend for Lucy than a mother. One instance appears when Lucy, at the school in Villette, describes her reasons for spending time in the garden: “…on summer evenings, [she goes there] to linger solitary, to keep tryste with the rising moon, or taste one kiss of the evening breeze” (Brontë, Villette, 108). Here, Brontë utilizes the word “tryste” (Villette 108) to show that the relationship between Lucy and the Moon is one in which an agreement can be made, as between friends or lovers, to organize a meeting at a certain place and time, which shows the intimate and friendly relationship between these two characters.
The ideas of darkness and nighttime serve as violent and unhappy reminders of the bad experiences had by both Jane and Lucy. Jane, for instance, is sentenced to a night in the Red Room at Gateshead during a thunderstorm. There, in the room allegedly haunted by her uncle’s ghost, she convinces herself that she has witnessed a specter and has a panic attack. Many terrible things seem to happen around Jane at night. Not only is Jane haunted by a ghost in the Red Room, but she is also witness to Bertha Mason’s screaming, the fire set by the madwoman in an attempt to murder Mr. Rochester, the attempted murder of Mr. Mason, and the ripping of Jane’s wedding veil. The significance of all of these events occurring at night is that they keep readers from trusting an occasion that may occur during that time throughout the novel.
However, the night, like many other aspects of the setting, is duplicitous and does not always bring about terrible occurrences instantaneously. Mr. Rochester proposes to Jane during the night, which creates a positive mood in that it makes her happy, but it foreshadows the negativity in the near future by the abrupt start of the storm and the splitting of the chestnut tree. Also, Jane happens upon the Moor House and her cousins on a rainy night, which is double-dealing in that she finds family, but also ends up having to deal with St. John. He makes her feel uncomfortable and unhappy. Similarly, in Villette, Lucy discovers that M. Paul had in fact not left the area when she embarks on her mission to follow Madame Beck one night, which both pleases her and causes her unease – yet another duplicitous facet of the night.
Storms tend to add to these frightening auras, which is why the frequent employment of storms into the story by Charlotte Brontë has such a huge effect on the characters and on the plot not only in Jane Eyre, but also in Villette. Lucy has interesting and frightening stormy, supernatural experiences during the course of her story as well. At Miss Marchmont’s house, there is a storm on the night that the elderly lady dies. Lucy thinks she hears a voice “wailing” (Brontë, Villette, 36) to her, which parallels the superstition in Jane Eyre, when Jane
saw nothing: but I heard a voice somewhere cry – ‘Jane! Jane! Jane!’ nothing more…. And it was the voice of a human being – a known, loved, well-remembered voice – that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke in pain and woe wildly, eerily, urgently. (Brontë, Jane Eyre, 632)
This gives readers the impression and insight to notice that superstition allows communication between loved ones, such as between Miss Marchmont and her dead lover, and Jane and Mr. Rochester. The death of Miss Marchmont leaves Lucy alone once again, searching for a place to work, which leads her to leave England and go to France. She embarks on this voyage in the evening, arriving while it is dark and rainy out. This storm and its negative aura follow her, keeping her from feeling entirely comfortable or safe while traversing to the school, whilst causing her to lose her luggage and money, until she arrives at a warm, dry place where she also finds employment. This same type of insecurity is magnified later on in the novel when Lucy leaves the school and rushes to a Catholic Church to go to confession on a dark, rainy night.
Charlotte Brontë takes careful consideration when it comes to describing the setting for readers. The setting contains much significance for both the plot and the characters themselves, showing the importance of details. The ways in which these heroines depict the setting around them tells readers a lot about their personalities and how they view the world around them, as well as filling readers with a sense of foreboding and flow by creating themes and motifs that tie different points of the story together. As the author, Charlotte Brontë chooses to have Jane and Lucy show similarities when it comes to how they actually describe the setting, but she cleverly alters the ways in which they react to these settings. Jane, for example, is very easily influenced by the setting around her, with the settings often reflecting her mood or her state of mind. However, Brontë decides to portray Lucy in such a way that these connections are not quite as obvious. Instead, she attempts to portray the setting from a different perspective, clueing readers in on the idea that Lucy is in fact very introverted and withdrawn. In using the setting as a consistent guide for readers, Brontë attempts – and succeeds – in creating stories with a vivid sense of foreboding and magnificent imagery that easily pulls readers through to the end of the story.
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