Charlotte Bronte's description of domestic interiors, in her novel Jane Eyre, serve more of a purpose than the simple listing of features required to flesh out the immediate environments in which her characters live and interact. Domestic environments are often used to reflect the inner, psychological patterns of a character; they can be symbolic of a character's physical and material status; they can act as metaphors, meaningful in their tacit relationships to elements in the plot.
We see an example of the parallels between environment and status early in the novel. The first description of Jane's cousins describes a scene of apparent domestic harmony: the children are clustered around their mama in the drawing-room: she lay reclined on a sofa by the fireside (Jane Eyre, p.8). Ostensibly this describes a scene of familial warmth, although a sense of imperial arrogance and decadence could be detected in Mrs. Reed's position on the sofa - a tyranny later verbally manifested by Jane when she accuses her cousin John of behaving 'like the Roman emperors'.
However, Jane is not to share this scene of closeness. She is sent from the drawing-room to solitary reflection in an adjacent breakfast-room, where she compounds her mental and physical isolation by climbing onto a window seat and concealing her presence by drawing the curtain.
The red-room to which Jane is confined following her outburst stands in contrast to the relative austerity of her breakfast-room retreat. It is one of the largest and stateliest chambers in the mansion, decorated with mahogany and damask, but despite its luxury this room is not comforting. The furnishings are red, a colour that instantly carries the negative connotations of anger, fire, blood, Hell; it is chill and silent and, in Jane's childish imagination, also haunted (as it is the room in which her uncle died and laid in state). Its frightening and claustrophobic atmosphere is emphasised by the observation no jail was ever more secure, and its oppressiveness leads to Jane's nightmare and breakdown, the cast of her reflection in the mirror merely reminding her, in this environment, of her own alienation.
When the older Jane accepts the position as governess and consequently travels to Thornfield, her initial impression of its interior is cozy and agreeable, an impression emphasised and personified by the friendly Mrs. Fairfax and her kind welcome, and Jane assures herself that a more reassuring introduction... could scarcely be conceived (p.95).
Not all of the house reflects this welcoming, warm chamber, and as Jane is led to her room she notices some of the church-like architecture along the staircases and hall, with a vault-like air and suggesting cheerless ideas of space and solitude (p.97). This Gothic description is the first to suggest the ambiguities of Thornfield, of the corresponding differences in the personalities of its residents, some warm and friendly such as Mrs. Fairfax and Adele Varens; some cold and mysterious like Grace Poole and the as-yet unidentified woman in the attic; and, taken as a whole, reflecting the complexities and contradictions of the building's perplexing owner, Mr. Rochester. The ambiguities also extend inward, with differences being found not only between different parts of the house but in the same part: the gallery, so forbidding to Jane during the hours of darkness, seems transformed the next morning. Lined with portraits, presumably of Rochester's ancestors, it now appeared very stately and imposing. The gallery, dominated by Rochesters past, reflects the complexity of the living descendant and, by showing how a single portion of Thornfield can breed differing impressions, Bronte subtlely suggests that more exists at Thornfield than first impressions will reveal. Mrs. fairfax, too, acknowledges the disparities between the characters of different rooms when, in response to Jane's admiration of the large, stately dining-room, she comments that 'the drawing-room yonder feels like a vault' (p.104).
When Mrs. Fairfax takes Jane to the third story (sic) rooms, the description once more leans toward more Gothic modes, using phrases such as narrow casements (in contrast with the vast window in the dining-room), coffin-dust and relics, words that imply both antiquity and a sense of otherworldliness. The third story is a home of the past: a shrine of memory (p.106), invoking once again antiquity and graveyard images. The language here is of course ambiguous - Mr. Rochester's past is indeed imprisoned upon this level of the house, and although a first-time reader would not yet know this, the Gothic nature of the descriptions, so soon after the pleasanr description of the dining-room (a place of life, social discourse and the present) hints at a more brooding presence in this area of Thornfield. This is exemplified by Jane's prophetic utterance: 'if there were a ghost... this would be its haunt' (p.106).
Bronte uses her depiction of interiors to foreshadow later events on some occasions; for example, Jane's childhood isolations in the breakfast-room and the red room have parallels with later incidents at Thornfield. In the scene where Rochester's guests are gathered in the drawing-room, Jane repeats her childhood actions by placing herself in a windowseat with a book to read. While reminding the reader of Jane's isolation, however, this scene displays a new type of isolation, one that does not involve spatial distancing. Here, the room is crowded with people who are aware of her proximity but choose to talk about her as though she were not there. Later, as Jane tends the injured Mason in his bedroom on the third story, similarities appear to the chamber in which the younger Jane suffered her breakdown. The pale and bloody spectacle (p.209) of Mason has been pre-empted by the crimson decor of her childhood prison; the ghostly countenance of Mason, his almost spectral visage as he lies in pain and shock, remind the reader of young Jane's terror that her dead uncle haunted the room.
The connection between the diverse character of Thornfield's rooms and the changeable character of its owner continues after the destruction of the building. Jane finds a blackened ruin with paneless windows and the solitude of a lonesome wild. When she subsequently tracks down Rochester, she finds the human equivalent of the derelict mansion: Rochester too has become a burned, lonely shell, his sightless eyes the parallel to his old home's paneless windows. However, the destruction of the house also represents a cleansing: with its scorched interior now exposed to the elements, Rochester's secret past is also exposed, and he and Jane can now start their lives together anew.
A final contrast with the part-realist, part-Gothic nature of thornfield can be made with the new home that Jane finds when she flees from her disastrous wedding - that of Marsh End, also called Moor House. From its first appearance this house draws upon religious parallels, as the first sight Jane has of it consists merely of a light in the distance, a beacon which she follows as the Magi followed the Star of Bethlehem. Her first view of its interior once again adopts the recurrent theme of isolation, as she stands outside the window looking in. What she sees is in stark contrast with her previous home - this building has neither the opulence nor the ambiguities of Thornfield. Instead of rich oak furniture, she sees a dresser of walnut, instead of aristocratic material trappings there are pewter plates. About this interior there was nothing extraordinary (pp.331-2).
Once again, the interior of the house is not only providing information regarding the social status of its inhabitants, but also reflecting their characters. Jane sees a humble kitchen (p.332), and the residents too are humble - the clergyman Mr. St John Rivers and his sisters Diana and Mary. Their parlour too reflects their relative austerity, with walnut-wood furniture and stains on the walls. Unlike Thornfield with its trappings of wealth, this room contains no superfluous ornament with everything well-worn and well saved (p.344). Everything about Marsh End is simple and utilitarian - there are no hidden secrets here.
I have discussed the ways in which Bronte relates her characters to her depiction of the houses and rooms in which those characters live and move. Her descriptions of these domestic interiors move beyond simple suggestions of material wealth and social status. They reflect aspects of the characters, the machinations of the plot and the conventions of Gothic and Realism in the depiction of both places and people.
Charlotte Bronte (1816-1854) was raised with her sisters Emily and Anne at Haworth parsonage, Yorkshire. She is the author of Shirley, Villette, Jane Eyre and The Professor.
Jane Eyre, Bronte C, Oxford University Press, Oxford