Seeing With the Heart:

Themes of Beauty and the Beast in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre

Rosemarie Salvatore



The myth of Beauty and the Beast is very old and has existed in various forms.  It is a versatile story that can be read on many different levels.  As children, we take from the fairy tale the lesson that things are not always what they seem or that beauty is only skin deep.  This is largely due to the fact that the Beast makes an obvious and dramatic transformation into a handsome prince by the end of the story.  As adults, we can see that it is the Beauty that also goes through a transformation process of her own.  A more complex reading of the story can look at how the Beauty is transformed on the inside from a girl who sees only the surface, to a woman who looks into the heart.  The process of truly becoming an adult is often full of challenges similar to those that the Beauty faces in the myth.  While we may know the lessons of the Beauty and the Beast myth in our minds, it can still be very difficult to discern what is beautiful from what is beastly in our hearts. 

In literature, it is easy to find stories that echo the ideas of this myth, but Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is probably one of the very best.  While it is purely an adult story, it nonetheless has strong overtones of Beauty and the Beast themes.   Approaching Jane Eyre from the perspective of the Beauty and the Beast myth enhances and transforms the symbolism of the story and makes the story flow seamlessly together in places that may have otherwise seemed choppy and distant.   In each of the three main sections of the book, Jane is faced with beasts and the moral dilemmas they present. Almost every major character in the novel can be seen through the lens of this myth and adds to the symbolism of it in some way.  Best of all, the character of Jane is both Beauty and Beast, fluttering back and forth between these roles like a butterfly on her quest for adulthood and emotional maturity.  When she finally alights at the end of the book, she has truly transformed from young misfit to independent and confident woman.  A reading of Jane Eyre as a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast myth will only enhance one’s understanding of the novel, its symbolism, and Jane’s personal journey of discernment.

The story of Beauty and the Beast can trace its origins back as far as Greek Mythology in the story of Eros and Psyche.  Eros, also known as Cupid in Roman mythology, is depicted as a young winged boy.  He is the son of Aphrodite, Goddess of love and beauty.  When Aphrodite becomes jealous of the extreme beauty of a mortal girl named Psyche, she asked Eros to shoot Psyche with an arrow to make her fall in love with the ugliest man on earth.  Eros agrees but, when he sees Psyche’s beauty, he falls deeply in love with her himself.  He visits her every night but asks her not to light her chamber.  Psyche falls in love with Eros without ever seeing him.  Then, one night, overcome with curiosity, she lights a lamp while he is sleeping and reveals his identity.  He awakes and, angered that she had seen his face, runs away.  Psyche is left to roam the earth looking for her lover.  There are different versions of the story, but in most the two are reunited.

An early French version of the Beauty and the Beast story can be found in Tales of Mother Goose, by Charles Perrault in 1697.  In 1740, Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Gallon de Villeneuve published a very long version that concentrated a lot of time on the fairy elements of the story since this is what Villeneuve knew best.  The first version that was truly similar to the story that we know today was written by another Frenchwoman who shortened Mme. de Villeneuve’s tale.  Madame Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont was a tutor and a writer of books on education and morals.  She published this new version in 1756 as part of a collection of stories entitled Magasin des enfants.  Intended as a lesson for her students, some of the more complex and adult symbolism was omitted from the story. It is basically the version we consider traditional today. Mme. Le Prince de Beaumont's story was translated into English as The Young Misses Magazine, Containing Dialogues between a Governess and Several Young Ladies of Quality, Her Scholars (1757).

The Beauty and the Beast myth, however, continued to evolve with every new incarnation over the years.  In 1946, French filmmaker Jean Cocteau directed the landmark film “La Belle et la Bete” to much critical acclaim.  In 1987, there was an American television series that brought the characters into modern day New York City.  In 1991, there was the Walt Disney Studio's animated movie, and there have been many modern book versions by authors such as Robin McKinley, Susan Wilson, and Mercedes Lackey.

Beauty and the Beast is often categorized as an “animal groom” story, and similar stories can be found in many different cultures around the world under many different names. Some examples are: The Scarlet Flower in Tales of Pelagea the Housekeeper and The Enchanted Tsarevitch from Russia, The Fairy Serpent, from China, The Princess and the Pig, from Turkey, A Bunch of Laurel Blooms for a Present, from Appalachia, The Small Tooth Dog from England, the Indonesian The Lizard Husband, and The Monkey Son-in Law, from Japan..

Furthermore, tales along this line were not at all foreign to the Bronte siblings.  The combination of a somewhat isolated homelife and an extremely vivid imagination resulted in the creation of whole worlds and stories that all four children participated in.  Many famous works of the time were used as inspiration.  It is noted in The Oxford Companion to the Brontes that Aesop’s Fables were “one of the formative books read by the Brontes,” and that “Charlotte clearly states that the characters of Our Fellows Play were taken from Aesop’s fables.” (Alexander & Smith 3) These fables are known for incorporating at least two major elements of Beauty and the Beast. They make use of animals that act or talk like humans, and they always come with a moral lesson.   

Like any well-loved story, literary critics have interpreted Jane Eyre through many different lenses.  Some see strong religious symbolism in the novel.  “Jane Eyre: Charlotte Bronte’s New Bible,” by Keith A. Jenkins, and “Jane Eyre and Christianity,” by Susan VanZanten Gallagher, are only two examples of authors who focus on the religious and spiritual elements as a guide to interpreting the novel.  

Other critics add a definite feminist perspective to the novel.  “Jane Eyre, Bertha, and the Female Gothic,” by Tamar Heller, and “Jane’s Crown of Thorns: Feminism and Christianity in Jane Eyre,” by Maria LaMonaca, discuss the book in terms of a patriarchal society and a female’s identity in relation to such a society.

Still others have zeroed in on specific themes found throughout the novel.  “Fire and Light in Jane Eyre,” by Mary Burgan, or “I Read it in Your Eye: Spiritual Vision in Jane Eyre,” by Amanda B. Witt talk about visual themes.  Witt notes the marked use of looking or gazing, and how Jane loves to watch others but hates to be watched herself. She does an excellent job of showing how so much of the story is told in terms of “the eye.”  This does, in one respect, relate to the Beauty and the Beast myth because “truly seeing,” as opposed to being deceived by what we see, is a central theme.

Likewise, other critics have touched on themes that relate to Beauty and the Beast without actually drawing a direct parallel.  “The Monster Within: The Alien Self in Jane Eyre and Frankenstein,” by Arlene Young; “Guise and the Act of Concealment in Jane Eyre,” by Elizabeth K. Haller; and “‘Am I a Monster?’: Jane Eyre Among the Shadows of Freaks” by Chih-Ping Chen are all excellent in pointing out themes of “the other,” of monster imagery, and of the use of hiding and revealing in the novel.

Still other critics agree that there are many comparisons between Jane Eyre and the fairy tale world in general.  Some point out the extensive use of fairy language and imagery in the novel, or how, as a child, Jane is fascinated with Bessie’s magical stories.  According to Paula Sulivan’s “Fairy Tale Elements in Jane Eyre,” there are allusions throughout the book to such whimsical stories as Gulliver’s Travels, Little Red Riding Hood, the Arabian Thousand and One Nights, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Bluebeard. (61) There are also elements in the story that resemble other fairy tales.  The wicked stepmother and stepsisters figures found in the Reeds strongly resemble Cinderella as well as does the universal “Cinderella success story.” (61)  Sulivan also notes that, “Upon completing the penultimate ‘Ferndean’ chapter, Bronte commences the final chapter with ‘Readers, I married him,’ as if shutting a book of fairy tales and relating how the hero and heroine lived happily ever after.” (72)

In Robber K Martin’s “Jane Eyre and the World of Faery,” he states, “Bronte’s Jane Eyre, however, differs from most other novels of the period, in that the author has not contented herself with allusions to fairy tale motifs, but has in fact woven them into the fabric of the novel.  The very dynamic of Jane Eyre will be seen to depend on the relationships defined in fairy tale terms.” (86)

He goes on to propose that Bronte had a distinct purpose in taking this path in her writing.  Jane Eyre has, therefore, two versions of the truth: the one proposed by conventional society and endorsed by Mrs. Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst, and the one relegated to children and ignorant servants.  The entire novel may be seen as a battle between these two worlds, a battle in which Charlotte Bronte’s support was clearly for the romantic world of fantasy.” (87)

Finally, in Phyllis C. Ralph’s “Beauty and the Beast: Growing Up with Jane Eyre,” Ralph stresses a direct correlation between Jane Eyre and the Beauty and the Beast myth.  As a teacher of adolescent students, she uses the novel in a class called “Growing Up Female.”   She believes that the myth is symbolic of the heroine’s sexual maturation process and that, in the novel, Jane goes through a similar process.  Ralph notes that, “Viewing adolescence through the distancing lens of literature may be helpful for students in coming to terms with the maturation process.” (56)  Jane, like Beauty, must undergo a transformation and sexual maturity in order to enter into a mature and truly loving adult relationship. 

The process of transformation is crucial to the story of Beauty and the Beast and transformation is found throughout Jane Eyre as well.  Jane goes through a series of life transitions and transforms herself each time.  After a very harsh childhood, it might be expected that Jane would reach adulthood with emotional problems that could prevent her from becoming a worthwhile member of society.  She might, understandably, have turned out more like Bertha Rochester than the intelligent and polite governess that arrives at Thornfield Hall.  Jane proves herself to be a strong young woman both physically, since she does not succumb to the epidemic that sweeps Lowood School, and also mentally since she chooses not to stay at Lowood but to seek out a new situation for her life.  She is bold for a woman of her time and very independent, both qualities that the Beauty of the myth must possess since she is called upon to go against the norms of society to speak her love for the Beast. 

Jane, however, is much more layered and complex than the heroine in the myth.  Jane displays characteristics of both The Beauty and The Beast of the myth.  Unlike the typical heroine of the time, or even today, she is not a beauty in the usual sense of the word.  Great emphasis is placed on the fact that Jane is extremely plain looking.  Physical features cannot be controlled, but it is also emphasized that Jane dresses very plainly.  She only has one or two dresses and they are simply a basic black or grey.  It could be said that Jane almost wears a “uniform” as a nun would.  She also wears her hair pulled back in a very harsh, plain style when a fashionable hairstyle would do much in the way of making her more attractive. 

What’s more, Jane seems to want to hang onto this “plain” image she has of herself.  She may have been forced to dress plainly due to being poor; however, Mr. Rochester takes Jane on a shopping spree with the intent to buy her a whole new wardrobe.  Jane does all that she can to resist being his “Cinderella” doll. She refuses the more expensive fabrics and talks him down from a dozen new dresses to only two. She says, “The more he bought me the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation.” (Bronte 270)  Even on her wedding day, when most women expect to indulge themselves, Jane looks in the mirror to see herself in her wedding dress and almost does not recognize the reflection.  Jane seems to be almost daring people to look beyond the appearance and see the real her.  Unfortunately, throughout the book, few people actually do this.  While Jane is not a physical Beauty, she is most certainly an intellectual Beauty.  By limiting her physical beauty, Bronte places even more emphasis on Jane’s internal beauty.  All those who believe that a woman should not be bold or smart have little choice but to treat Jane like a Beast, and therein lies her struggle.

Part of the reason that the Beauty and the Beast myth is so timeless is because there are many levels of what makes a “Beast.”  Different versions of the myth often attribute different qualities to the Beast and, while they can vary greatly, they all seem to work very well. In the original Beaumont version, the Beast was defined primarily by his lacking beauty and wit, qualities that were very important to the society and culture of the time. (Pauly, 84) In Disney’s version the Beast is constantly told to control his temper and is, thus, largely a metaphor for misbehavior that children can learn from.  In the 1980’s TV series, the Beast is a well mannered and sensitive Renaissance man.  He is not even ugly, so much as simply different, and therefore alienated from our modern society in which people fear what they do not understand.  In this modern version, the Beast is a symbol for our human “Aloneness.”

In looking at all these examples of what the Beast character can signify, it seems clear that in the broadest sense of the word, being Beastly is being too much of something.  They are all extreme examples of some human trait or characteristic.  Each Beast is out of balance to such an extreme degree that they can no longer blend in with society.  Instead, these characters stand out and make others very uncomfortable. 

From the very beginning of the novel, it is obvious that Jane has a lot of extremes in her character and tends to stand out from the company that she keeps.  Critic Karen Chase observes that as Jane goes along in the novel she encounters people who also share some of these extremes of character:

It has frequently been noticed that the characters who surround Jane reflect her, with the result that the novel is dense with images of its central character.  But one needs to refine this perception by noting that the reflecting characters do not appear all at once but emerge in response to Jane’s inchoate emotional state.  Jane experiences a need, a desire, a hope or a fear, and there soon appears a character who embodies that emotion.”  (Chase 70-71)

If this perception can be refined even further through the lens of the Beauty and the Beast myth, we can see that it is not only in the obvious choice of Mr. Rochester that Jane’s Beauty meets her Beast.  There are multiple characters in each section of the novel who can be interpreted as The Beast.  Each character's extreme state shows Jane what her potential is should she give in to that part of herself.  This realization seems to have the effect of pushing Jane back to a more balanced position.  If The Beast is excess, The Beauty is moderation.  The Beauty embodies the balance and harmony that leads to a happy and fulfilled life.  This is what Jane is seeking and is, in fact, successful in attaining in the end.

Beginning at a very young age, Jane is treated as the unwelcomed “other” in her Aunt Reed’s house.  In order to find peace to enjoy reading a book, she must hide from her cousins in the window seat.  When discovered, she is rudely summoned by her cousin John.  Even though he is younger than Jane, he is extremely arrogant and treats her like a lowly servant.  He has no doubt learned this behavior from his aunt.  Jane’s female cousins Eliza and Georgina follow their brother’s example in their own way.  Even though it is John that instigates a quarrel, Jane is still punished for striking back at him.  Aunt Reed sees Jane as being wild and uncivilized.  In order to try to tame her behavior she is locked in the Red Room.

This room is aptly named since it is here that Jane fulfills the view that they already have of her.  She behaves quite like the Beast they think she is.  She “sees red” and her emotions boil over into a total meltdown.  The Reeds’ unjust behavior takes its toll on Jane now, but their own beastly behavior also takes its toll on each other in time.  Their extreme and unbalanced personalities keep them from being fulfilled and happy, both individually and as a family, in later years.  John is so spoiled that he cannot take responsibility for his own life and eventually commits suicide.  Someone who seemed to have all the power over Jane and his family eventually has none.  This event in turn causes Aunt Reed to take ill.  Her poor method of raising her children did not do them or her any good.  “Eliza, the elder sister, embodies judgment untempered by feeling…Georgiana embod(ies) feeling without judgment” (Alexander and Smith 422-423) Neither sister seems to be especially moved by the illness and death of their mother.  The Reeds are a failure as a family and as individuals. 

At Lowood, Jane is again treated as some kind of circus sideshow act by Rev. Brockelhurst.  The headmaster of the school is a man of God and should exhibit more compassion than he does toward girls like Jane and Helen.  They are both put on display to be looked at in horror for their beastly natures.  The whole school is warned to “beware” of Jane as one might be warned to beware of a vicious watchdog.   

Of all the characters in Jane’s childhood years, perhaps the most striking example of this extreme in personality is the character of Helen Burns.  Jane is sent to Lowood School because she is seen by Aunt Reed as a wild and rebellious child: “Mrs. Reed informs Jane that rebellion will only bring more unhappiness, and that her situation will improve only on condition of perfect submission and stillness.”  (Chase 71)  Upon arriving at Lowood, Jane is also reprimanded and strongly encouraged to be obedient.  She then meets Helen, who is the perfect image of “stillness and submission.”  Helen’s acceptance of the school’s poor treatment of students is too good to be believed.  Her passivity seems to go beyond a normal human reaction.  Even if one believes that Helen is an example of the perfect Christian, something is still not right.  With the character of Helen, Bronte shows us that any characteristic taken to extreme, no matter how good intentioned, can turn Beastly.  Helen shows Jane the awful truth behind supposedly perfect submission.  As Chase aptly describes it, “Helen Burn’s perfect obedience becomes death-affirming.” (Chase 72)  What could be more Beastly than that?  Jane spends the rest of the book not quite so concerned with trying to master submission.

Jane’s years at Thornfield Hall with Mr. Rochester are at the heart of the book and at the heart of the Beauty and the Beast myth.  The Beauty in the myth is always taken to live in the Beast’s lair. In the myth, the Beauty’s arrival with the Beast is always in some way related to her father.  Often it is the father who initially committed the crime that angered the Beast, and Beauty must take her father’s place as the Beast’s captor.  As Phyllis Ralph points out, “As in Beauty’s family, it is the poverty of Jane’s father that creates the situation of the narrative,” (59) and sets Jane on the path to meet all the Beasts that she encounters.

Even Jane’s first encounter with Mr. Rochester sets the stage for a fairy tale kind of relationship.  On the snow covered path leading from Thornfield Hall to Hay, Jane hears the approach of an animal. Her thoughts, for no apparent reason, turn to the supernatural:

 “In those days…all sorts of fancies bright and dark tenanted my mind…and when they recurred, maturing youth added to them a vigour and vividness beyond what childhood could give.  As this horse approached,…I remembered certain of Bessie’s tales, wherein figured a North-of-England spirit called a “Gytrash”; which in the form of horse, mule, or large dog, haunted solitary ways…” (Bronte 115)

It seems, though, that the appearance of the man breaks her reverie.  Mr. Rochester is not the kind of person that encourages such thoughts.  Her first impression of him is not at all favorable.  She says that, “He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted.” (Bronte 116) His beastly first impression, however, did not put a stop to their encounter.  On the contrary, Jane confesses that their meeting might not have happened at all if not for his distinct appearance. Jane says that she felt comfortable offering her help to him because he was not handsome and not even polite or cheerful.  “I had a theoretical reverence and homage for beauty…but had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape, I should have known instinctively that they neither had nor could have sympathy with anything in me.” (Bronte 116-117)

Mr. Rochester’s attitude during this encounter is one that many might find offensive – especially in an era when much greater emphasis was placed on manners than is today. But instead of putting her off, his demeanor seems to attract her that much more.  As in the fairy tale, the Beauty is not offended by the Beastly displays she initially encounters.  

In addition to his behavior and appearance, Mr. Rochester is also deceitful.  Jane surely would have appreciated knowing that this strange man was her new boss, but when that knowledge becomes clear, he does not tell her.  This seems to be a pattern for Mr. Rochester.  He enjoys catching people with their masks down.

Throughout the novel he goes to great lengths to test Jane.  He allows Jane to think that he is intending to marry another and then parades Blanche before her.  He dresses up like a gypsy fortune teller and pretends to read everyone’s fortune in order to get into Jane’s mind.  He also gives her a marriage proposal that is really more like torture.  The Beast in the myth needs to find someone to break the spell he is under and the Beauty is often put to the test to see if she is the one who can do that. 

Just as Jane imagined fanciful possibilities on the snow covered path, Mr. Rochester speaks of Jane in fairy terms on many occasions, calling her an “imp” and an “elf,” just to name a few.  These nicknames all imply a magical nature.  Mr. Rochester often speaks of Jane as the anecdote to what has been ailing him for so long.  He very clearly tells Jane that when she saved his life in the fire that Bertha set to his bed, “I knew…you would do me good in some way, at some time; - I saw it in your eyes when I first beheld you: their expression and smile did not…strike delight to my very inmost heart so for nothing.  People talk of natural sympathies; ….there are grains of truth in the wildest fable.” (Bronte 154) Jane is the Beauty who will break the spell that has been placed on The Beast. 

Slowly, through intellectual conversation, she begins to see what is beneath the gruff exterior.  Mr. Rochester has a habit of meeting Jane in his drawing room in the evening to engage her in conversation.  This parallels the nightly meals and conversations that the Beauty shares with the Beast of the myth.  When he questions her about his physical appearance, she is honest that she does not find him attractive.  The Beauty is also honest about this and both the Beast and Mr. Rochester seem to appreciate their honesty.  Soon Jane, not unlike Beauty, finds herself looking forward to their encounters.  In spite of everything, she finds herself drawn to him in a strange way.

Mr. Rochester fulfills the role of the Beast in many ways, but he too has a beautiful side.  This is what sets him apart from the other Beasts in the story.  When Jane reprimands him for what she perceives as his hatred of Bertha for being mad, something she cannot help, Mr. Rochester counters: “If you were mad, do you think I would hate you?”  When Jane confirms that she does, indeed, think that, Mr. Rochester declares his blind love for her regardless of her outward appearance:

“Then you are mistaken, and you know nothing about me, and nothing about the sort of love of which I am capable.  Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own: in pain and sickness it would still be dear.  Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still:  if you raved, my arms should confine you, and not a strait waistcoat – your grasp, even in fury, would have a charm for me: if you flew at me as wildly as that woman did this morning, I should receive you in an embrace, at least as fond as it would be restrictive.  I should not shrink from you with disgust as I did from her: in your quiet moments you should have no watcher and no nurse but me; and I could hang over you with untiring tenderness, though you gave me no smile in return; and never weary of gazing into your eyes, though they had no longer a ray of recognition for me.” (Bronte 303)

In this monologue, Mr. Rochester expresses a sense of equality of mind and heart that defies the physical.  He, in essence, declares that even if Jane becomes a Beast through insanity, he will embrace her spiritual Beauty.  It is just this kind of seemingly illogical sentiment that defines the unconditional love that is at the heart of the Beauty and the Beast myth. 

In contrast to Jane’s intellectual and spiritual beauty at this point in the story is Blanch Ingram.  Her physical beauty is emphasized like no other character in the book. Yet, her Beastly nature comes out first in her careless putdowns of governesses in front of Jane and ultimately in the fact that Mr. Rochester does not have to formally break their relationship off.  All he had to do was let word “leak” out that his fortune was not nearly as large as was believed, and she simply loses interest in the whole relationship.  While Blanche ultimately proves herself to be a very shallow snob, she, of all people, succeeds in making Jane to feel out of place and alone.  Blanche fits into the high society world that Jane can only watch from the safety of the window seat.  Once Jane reaches her breaking point after being subjected to such Beastly mind games and mental anguish from Mr. Rochester she bursts out to him:

Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless?  You think wrong! –I have as much soul as you, - and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed thorough the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, -as we are!” (Bronte 255)

The character of Bertha Rochester, also found at this point in the book, fits in with the Beauty and the Beast interpretation in several ways.  It is Chase’s assessment that Bertha is only introduced in the novel when Jane begins to experience feelings of unrest.  She is settled into her new life at Thornfield but has not met Mr. Rochester yet.  She can have pleasant conversations with Mrs. Fairfax but does not find her conversation challenging enough to satisfy.  As Jane tries to find ways of amusing herself, Bertha begins to make her presence known.  Bertha represents complete unbridled passion that Jane is having difficulty controlling but does not dare to let out: 

“An imbalance of forces require(s) a character who might bring them toward equilibrium.  Characters in Jane Eyre...emerge out of imbalance (a rebellious extreme or an extreme of tranquility),…they reveal themselves as false solutions…Bertha’s fire and feeling erupt as lawless destructive passions.  The narrative moves forward by leaving these secondary characters behind, but only after they have left traces on Jane herself.”  (Chase 72)

In many ways, Bertha is Jane’s counterpart since she is in the position of the existing Mrs. Rochester.  Mr. Rochester clearly presents Bertha as a Beast to the party that accompanies him up to the attic.  He seems, as Chen says, like a circus side show ringmaster directing everyone’s attention to the Beast, much the same way Rev. Brockelhurst presented Jane to the students at Lowood. 

Outwardly, Bertha behaves like a wild animal and is even kept in a “cage” under lock and key.  Mr. Rochester views her as the Beast that keeps him chained to his former life of regret and prevents him from even being able to think about a future of happiness.  “Telling Jane about his past, he says, ‘When fate wronged me, I had not the wisdom to remain cool: I turned desperate; then I degenerated.’  He vows to be a better man, but, like the Beast, he must wed a young virgin to be transformed; marriage is impossible, however, because of his wife, Bertha.” (Ralph 60)   

In the beginning of the myth, there is always mention made of a sorceress or witch that tests the young prince.  When he fails the test he is turned into the Beast in order to teach him a lesson.  As Ralph points out, “Seen from this perspective, perhaps Bertha fulfills the role of the sorceress who has caused Rochester’s imprisonment in his present unhappy state.”  (60)   It is because of Bertha that Mr. Rochester is in the dark and brooding state that we find him in at the beginning of the book.

In the myth, just when the Beauty and the Beast are falling in love, the Beauty must suddenly leave.  This also parallels the Bronte novel.  Jane is about to marry Mr. Rochester when his dark secret is revealed.  Even so, Mr. Rochester urges Jane to remain at Thornfield.  For Jane this would mean living in sin with a married man.  As much as she does not want to go, Jane knows she must.  She resists the temptation that would compromise her and flees the Beast’s castle.

When leaving Thornfield, however, Jane reverts back to the role of Beast.  In fact, her wandering through the countryside with nowhere to go and the constant rejection she faces force her into a literally Beastly state.  Arlene Young compares this section of the book to the similar wanderings of the Monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: 

“Her experience after fleeing from Rochester, it becomes clear, has sharp parallels with that of the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein after he flees from his creator.  And the association of Jane with the wretched and unhappy monster produces a symbolic commentary on her feelings of isolation and alienation and on her desire to achieve a satisfying integration in a society that seems to have no place for her.”  (327)

Jane is totally alienated from the human world.  She can only watch from a distance as people around her go about their normal human activities.  She comes very close to dying in this state, even eliciting a fearful reaction from the Rivers’ housekeeper when she tries to ask for help.  Once with her cousins, however, Jane is transformed again.  She begins a new life filled with the luxuries of reading, drawing, learning, and teaching.

The character of St. John seems to be the total opposite of Mr. Rochester, yet, he is no less of an extreme Beast-like character in Jane’s world. Where Mr. Rochester has lived a Beastly life by Victorian standards, having low morals and nearly dragging Jane down with him to live in sin, St. John is a minister and a pillar of the community.  When Hannah would have turned Jane away from their home in her hour of desperate need, St. John invites her in and saves her life. 

The problem arises when St. John realizes he can use Jane.  He makes her his student and she learns a great deal from him.  He has a strong character that Jane finds hard to resist.  He wants to marry her as Mr. Rochester did, and he wants her to accompany him to India to do missionary work.  Jane believes in God and is not outright opposed to this idea.  She fled the temptation, as she saw it, to be Mr. Rochester’s mistress.  Rules and morals are important to Jane, and one would not think that caring about rules and morals could ever be a bad thing.  But as the young Jane saw how clearly perfect submission can turn Beastly, so the older, more mature Jane sees through St John now:

“In her recoiling from Rochester’s attempted bigamy, Jane appeals to God and to ‘laws and principles.’  Rivers is the severe personalization of this appeal, but, as has happened before, Jane comes to flee from the very possibility she had affirmed.  No one could provide a more devoted instance of law and principle than Rivers, but his very fidelity to Jane’s earlier desire created the difficulty.  He satisfies too well the strictures of conscience.  Jane had yearned for God and confronts spiritual intolerance; she had sought firm principle and finds ‘an austere and despotic nature’ a ‘cool, inflexible Judgment’” (Chase 72)

The minister’s daughter, Rosamond, is clearly in love with St John, and he seems to have feelings for her as well that he strongly represses.  Is it God’s will that someone behave in such a way?  He was looking for a woman to be his missionary wife, and it seems like Rosamond would have been very happy to go with him.  But he only treats her very coldly.  He has made up his mind that Jane is the “right” missionary’s wife for him and does everything he can to force her to agree to his proposal. St. John listens only to his mind and not to his heart, perhaps believing that Jane, not Rosamond, would be more easily bent to his will.

While Mr. Rochester was concerned with how each of them felt and disregarded others’ opinions, St. John was only concerned with appearances and totally disregarded both his and Jane’s feelings.  St. John is out of balance in his life to the point of turning a virtue into a Beastly character trait.  Like the Reeds and Helen Burns, his self-sacrifice is ultimately death-affirming and like Cousin John, Helen, and Bertha, he too dies by the book’s end.  The Beast cannot survive forever in such a state. 

Probably the single most fairy tale-like element in the book is also the one that links it most securely to the Beauty and the Beast myth.  Even though Beauty and Beast are separated, they continue to have a connection to each other that allows one to know what the other is doing, even at a great distance.  This will sometimes involve a communication device such as a “Magic Mirror” or sometimes will simply be some kind of mental telepathy or bond connection.  Such a mysterious element exists in Jane Eyre as well.  Jane somehow “hears” Mr. Rochester’s voice calling to her, and she knows immediately that she must abandon her plans with St. John and return to Thornfield Hall. 

The Beast is ready to die with out his Beauty.  She is his life force.  When Jane finds Mr. Rochester, he is again in a similar dark and brooding state, not caring about his life or his appearance.  He is physically broken and wounded from the fire that consumed Thornfield.  Jane brings him back to life by declaring her love for him in spite of his imperfections.  All fairy tales require a happy ending, and the novel delivers one that is appropriately more complete and all encompassing than is usually found in literature.  Now free of the extremes of both their pasts, Jane and Rochester can reunite as equals in a much more balanced and mature way, and are ready to face their happy life together. 

In her novel, Charlotte Bronte takes the symbolism of the Beauty and the Beast myth to a new level.  By infusing the myth into Jane Eyre she makes both stories come alive for adult readers.  While the plot itself is outwardly driven by fairy tale elements, this only serves to facilitate the action and draw our attention to Jane and Rochester’s internal moral challenges and discoveries. 

Jane and Rochester are successful in finding the balance that leads to a happy life together.  The fact that so many other characters in the story are not, illustrates how difficult the journey is and how easily one can be thrown off course.  There are times when it might be only the slightest lack of courage, or error in judgment, that would leave one no better off than Bertha or St. John.  In Jane we see an inherent ability for self-transformation that is key to her success, but even so, she comes very close at times to losing the battle.  Rochester, on the other hand, while possessing many good qualities, nonetheless seems hopelessly lost on the road of life until Jane’s presence helps him to trigger a rejection of his Beastly nature. 

The Beauty and The Beast inspire each other to a higher plain of existence and together, in the process, they inspire us, the reader.    Bronte refines the Beauty and the Beast myth to show how the struggles within the two main characters are, in fact, the struggles within all humans.  In order to lead a successful and happy life we must be willing to face the Beasts within, and, at the same time, discover our own personal Beauty. 




Back to main page