Written by Gillian Koh, 2A01A, 14 July 1996.
Write an essay on Bronte's use of water and fire imagery.
Critics such as Adrienne Rich argue that Jane Eyre has to choose between the "temptation" of following the rule of passion by marrying Rochester, which would have made her dependent on him and not his equal, or of living a life of complete renunciation of all passions, by marrying St John Rivers. Fire and water imagery symbolises the two forces competing for dominance in Jane Eyre, both on a personal and metaphorical level. Throughout the novel, such imagery is used by Brontë, in keeping with her use of much poetic symbolism, to develop character, strengthen thematic detail and establish mood.
The general use of imagery requires mention. In most novels, imagery is commonly used to symbolise a certain idea or concept, such as the lightning imagery used in Wuthering Heights. Imagery can also be used to represent underlying themes of the novel, or to provide dramatic effect and mood. In Jane Eyre, fire imagery has a strong metaphorical significance, representing passion, sexual desire and the heat of emotion and feeling. On a very basic level, one can already note the underlying significance for Brontë's use of fire imagery - fire, as is with the passions, can provide warmth and comfort, but can also burn. With water imagery, it is useful to consider that such imagery includes natural imagery of ice, sea and snow, all common features in the novel. Water, the antithesis of fire, represents the extreme point of cool reason, without any trace of passion. As we see Jane wander between these two points of temptation throughout the novel, the accompanying imagery of fire and water is most significant to our understanding of the themes and concerns of the novel.
Fire imagery is used by Brontë to develop Jane's character throughout the novel. As the novel progresses, the corresponding imagery changes to show different aspects of Jane's character. We see Jane's overly passionate nature through her punishment at Gateshead. She is unable to control her passions and strikes John Reed when he physically bullied her by grasping her hair and shoulders. As her punishment, Jane is locked up in the red-room. The colour red is significant here - red, the colour of fire and heat, represents passion and fury, as fire embodies this. Here, fire imagery, in the form of the red-room with its pillars of mahogany" and "curtains of deep red damask", is used to represent, through physical manifestation, Jane's overly passionate nature. Most significant also, is the direct use of fire imagery in this instance. It is stated that "the room was chill, because it seldom had a fire"; this shows that Jane's punishment for being overly passionate is a chill, a coldness of emotion that seeks to temper this rash passion. One could perhaps also argue that the chill of the red-room represents the futility of Jane's passion at this stage in her life. She may be angry and passionate, but the response of Mrs Reed to this, as would be the response of society to Jane, is to lock out that warm passion, leaving a cold chill, or a being in keeping with strict social tenets instead. By putting Jane in the red-room without a fire, Mrs Reed has effectively shown the social limitations which weigh heavily against Jane in her search for expression of that passion and self.
Water imagery is also commonly used to show what Jane's values are in the novel. Mr Rochester's attention to her three paintings soon after they meet, in fact, tell us much about Jane's values and concerns through the rich sense of imagery in them. The "green water" in the first painting, for example, represents death by drowning, as the woman is drowning in the water and the ship is capsizing. The image of "a swollen sea" carries with it expressions and expectations of impending danger. Jane, because of her passionate nature, sees water, representing a locking out of passion and emotion, as death itself. This is significant to our understanding of the thematic structure of the novel, as Jane must necessarily come to realise that while total reason without passion, as embodied in the water imagery described above, is undesirable, unregulated passion must be avoided as well. Brontë uses the water imagery at this stage in the novel to show us the probability that Jane will succumb to the temptations of romantic love by listening only to her passions, in believing that she can marry Rochester as an equal. A character which puts such emphasis on the passions is likely to fall prey to this sort of trap.
Another central character whose character is well-developed by the use of water and fire imagery is Rochester. Rochester is represented by much fire imagery. When he first returns to Thornfield, it is stated that "a warm glow suffused both it and the lower steps of the oak staircase" and there was "a genial fire in the grate". There is change in atmosphere in Thornfield - as Jane notes, "a fire was lit in the appartment upstairs" Immediately upon his return, the fire imagery and more significantly, this sense of fire and heat comes through. Rochester's words in his first meeting with Jane, "Come to the fire", could actually be seen as an invitation to indulge her passions and emotions. Brontë is careful to use such fire imagery and representation as this is a central point in the thematic pattern of the novel. To Jane, Rochester represents the temptation of passion over reason. Significant thematically, Rochester offers Jane the temptation of finding romantic love and releasing the passions within her : "You are cold, because you are alone; no contact strikes the fire from you that is in you". These words, spoken to Jane while he was disguised as a gypsy lady, were spoken with the specific intention of drawing Jane out and making her admit to her feelings for him. Again, the rich image of a burning, passionate fire within Jane is used.
While fire and water imagery is used by Brontë in the development of character, it is most significantly used to convey the various themes and concerns of the novel. As shown earlier, Rochester brings out the passionate side of Jane and encourages her to feel these passions, with some disregard for reason and thought. He appeals greatly to her sense of passion and romantic side. Brontë, in fact, uses fire and water imagery, in the person of Bertha Mason, to show the potential dangers of allowing only passion to rule uncontrolled. Bertha represents unleashed, untamed passion, without any reason or control. When she goes to Rochester's room the night before his departure to the Leas, she torches his bed and curtains. The destructive image which is presented to the reader is designed to make the reader appreciate the grave danger of uncontrolled passion; also, the idea of Rochester, who is still erring by not controlling his passions, is reinforced - "in the midst of blaze and vapour, Rochester lay stretched motionless, in deep sleep". This is effective as Rochester is indeed oblivious to the fact that he is allowing his passions to rule untamed. "In the midst" of his passion, he fails to recognise that he has not truly acknowledged Jane as an equal by keeping the truth about Bertha from her. Jane's act of dousing the flames with water is significant, also - she must learn to control her passions as well. Later when she decides that she cannot marry Rochester, she in fact repeats this action of dousing the flames of passion, as she is making a choice to seek reason and control. Jane's words, "get up, do, you are quenched now", remind one of countless biblical references, where Jesus Christ commanded the people he healed to "get up and walk". Jane, by pouring the water of reason and control on Rochester, must heal him of this passionate nature. And she does, too, as seen in her strict adherence to social bonds, by refusing to be Rochester's mistress. He initially cannot understand this, himself being rather lax in respecting the full weight of marriage, but she acts as an example to him and teaches him this. By the end of the novel, the reader sees Rochester respecting these bonds.
It is fire imagery that in fact, pre-empts the break-up between Rochester and Jane. The chestnut tree in the orchard is hit by lightning, a form of fire imagery. Though "scarred and scorched", "the cloven halves were not broken from each other" and the "strong roots kept them unsundered below". The fire, or passion, has burnt the tree and split it into two, just as Rochester and Jane must be split apart as they have yet to recognise the perils of being overly passionate. However, like the chestnut tree which is still joined at the roots, the basis of the love between Rochester and Jane remains, which leaves the path open for reconciliation later in the book.
In marked contrast to the wealth of fire imagery used to describe Rochester and the relationship between Jane and Rochester, St John Rivers is identified largely with water imagery. Seen in their first meeting, Jane sees St John and says, "I have never seen that handsome face of his look more like chiselled marble as he put aside his snow wet hair from his forehead". It is stated that he was "at the fireside a cold, cumbrous column, gloomy and out of place", hinting at the incompatibility of Jane and St John. Jane's nature is basically passionate - Mrs Reed, Helen and Bessie all comment on this - while St John, associated with water and ice imagery, is not passionate. She speaks of his "ice kisses" and says that he is as "cold as an iceberg" from her point of view. When the crucial point in the novel where St John proposes to Jane comes, Brontë again describes the proposal of marriage with water imagery. She compares him with imagery of cold, running water - "he has no more a husband's heart for me than that frowning giant of a rock, down which the stream is foaming in yonder gorge". Thematically, St John is the antithesis of Rochester, just as water is the opposite of fire. Their associated imagery is used to bring across this point. Jane must learn to combine the two - passion with reason - before she can be reunited with Rochester.
Ferndean and the imagery used to describe the reunion between Jane and Rochester effectively concludes the themes of the novel. Jane finds Rochester alone and blinded by the fire - again, the fire, representing passion, has burned him. In effect, his overconsuming passion has made him blind. In keeping with the key themes of the novel, Jane finds Rochester by "a neglected handful of ice" - the water imagery is effective, as it shows that Rochester has learnt control and come to an understanding of the perils of an overly passionate nature. Jane, by seeking to build a larger fire for Rochester, thus rekindles some of that lost passion between the two. She has learnt that the extremes of control, as embodied in St John and the associated water imagery, is undesirable as well.
Fire is essential in the novel for us to understand the motivations of the key characters in the novel. Representing passion and emotion, fire has both a comforting and a destructive effect. Water imagery is significant as it is the antithesis to the uncontrolled passion of fire. The fire in Rochester and Jane gives value to their love, but they must learn to temper that fire with some water and coolness before they can be together.
- Fire & Water
- Write an essay on Bronte's use of water and fire imagery.
[Yeo Siew Lian's essay] or [Daryl Sng's essay]
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