In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte uses many types of imagery to provide understanding of the characters and also to express reoccurring themes in the novel. Through bird imagery specifically, we are able to see Jane develop from a small, unhappy child into a mature and satisfied young woman. "The familiarity and transcendence of birds have given them a wider range of meaning and symbol in literature than any other animal. The resemblance of their activities to common patterns of human behavior makes them exceptionally suitable for anthropomorphic imagery that links man to the common forms of nature" (Lutwack xii). Through the use of birds such as doves and sparrows Bronte enables the audience to gain insight into the type of person that Jane is, caring, selfless, and independent. It also allows the reader to see what type of person Mr. Rochester is, strong and controlling, by comparing him to eagles and cormorants. The connotations involved with the specific birds mentioned in Jane Eyre allow the reader to become aware of the distinct traits the characters possess and certain reoccurring themes presented in the novel.
Bronte allows the reader to see the loneliness that Jane is experiencing at Gateshead Hall, by showing the relationship between her and birds. Dismissed from conversation with Mrs. Reed and the Reed children Jane retreats to a window seat and disappears into her own imaginative world with Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds. She is concerned more with the illustrations than the text, she states "the letter-press I cared little for, generally speaking" (20; ch. 1). Through these illustrations, Jane is able to relate to the feeling of solitude expressed by the pictures. One drawing in particular that Jane observes is of "the solitary rocks and promontories" (20; ch. 1) that only the seafowl inhabited. Similar to the seafowl, Jane is the only one who inhabits the "solitary" window seat. She has no connection with any of the Reeds, and therefore she finds refuge in the secluded seat, a place where she can escape from the tortures of the Reeds, and become transported into a world all her own. Furthermore, for Jane the window seat is a form of tranquility the idea of flying above the toils of everyday life appeals to her, much more than taking abuse from John Reed, the oldest of the Reed children, and Mrs. Reed. Through the images of isolated seafowl in Bewick’s book and the "solitary" window seat we are able to see the loneliness that encompasses Jane while at Gateshead, and her longing to be separated from the Reeds.
The link between Jane and birds is strengthened after she leaves Gateshead and moves to Lowood Institution. Bronte foreshadows poor nutrition at the school through a hungry bird whom Jane gives the remains of her breakfast. "My vacant attention soon found livelier attraction in the spectacle of a little hungry robin, which came and chirruped on the twigs of the leafless cherry-tree" (41; ch. 4). This description of a hungry bird allows the reader to understand Jane’s compassion for others, and her willingness to give. It also seems to foreshadow Jane’s struggle at Lowood with poor nutrition and moreover how she is forced to share her meals with other students:
Many a time I have shared between two claimants the precious morsel of brown bread distributed at tea-time; and after relinquishing to a third, half the contents of my mug of coffee, I have swallowed the remainder with an accomplishment of secret tears, forced from me by the exigency of hunger. (69; ch.7)
Even though Jane is famished herself, others still feel the need to take from her already diminutive meal. This seems to contradict Jane’s earlier trait of being rebellious, by showing her reluctance to stand up to the older students at Lowood. Jane’s complacency is further explained in terms of bird imagery when she leaves Lowood and travels to Thornfield to become a governess.
Jane is seen as a caring, strong willed individual who is sometimes complacent and readily willing to serve: She states, "A new servitude! There is something in that"(94; ch. 10). This willingness to serve others can be explained in the statement where Rochester calls Jane a dove. A dove according to Bewick, is "a beautiful bird, willing to be an attendant to man and dependent on his bounty." He goes on to say that doves "live as rather voluntary captives, or transient guests, than as permanent inhabitants" (265). However Bewick also says that "doves enjoy their liberty" (265). This desire for liberty is evident when Jane is at Lowood discussing the need for a routine other than the one she has existed in for the past eight years. Jane declares, "I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer" (93; ch.10). Even though doves are inclined to live as voluntary captives they also desire liberty and freedom. Jane lives as a voluntary "captive" at Thornfield by being a governess, but also maintains her freedom from Mr. Rochester.
During Jane and Rochester’s first conversation at Thornfield, Rochester remarks that he sees "at intervals, the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage: a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high" (144; ch. 14). However as Rochester soon finds out, "Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it, the savage, beautiful creature! If I tear, if I rend the slight prison, my outrage will only let the captive loose" (313; ch. 27). Like his insane wife, Bertha Mason Rochester who is held "captive" on the third floor of Thornfield Manor, Mr. Rochester wants to control Jane. Rochester proclaims "Conqueror I might be of the house, but the inmate would escape to heaven before I could call myself possessor of its clay dwelling place." (313; ch. 27) Rochester admits that he will never be able to "conquer" Bertha without her escaping. This is evident in the fact that she commits suicide while Thornfield Manor is burning and Rochester is trying to save her. Rochester is unwilling to get at Jane in fear that she might escape similar to his wife Bertha. However, it seems ironic that Rochester is willing to keep Bertha captive for years while he travels around Europe, but he has trouble with holding Jane as a prisoner. This fear of losing Jane is due to her unwillingness to be controlled. When Rochester speaks of his power and experience as a means of being Jane’s master she rebuts:
I don’t think, sir, you have a right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I, your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time. (140; ch.14)
Though Jane is compared to a bird many times throughout the novel, she contradicts these comparisons by acknowledging her faults. After her discovery of Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester’s wife, Jane runs away from Thornfield. While doing so she proclaims:
birds were faithful to their mates; birds were emblems
of love. What was I? In the midst of my pain of heart,
and frantic effort of principle, I abhorred myself. I
had no solace from self-approbation: none even from self
respect. I had injured, wounded, left my master. I was
hateful in my own eyes. (318; ch. 27)
Birds are "commonly associated with love, they represent the harmonious operation of nature’s law that applies to humans" (Lutwack 189). Jane recognizes this difference between herself and birds, and is saddened that she cannot be more like them when it comes to love.
Although she desperately wishes to be back with Mr. Rochester, she is unable to bring herself to return to Thornfield after running away. After Jane makes her decision to leave, Rochester is left in "anguish." He cries out to her "Oh Jane! My hope--my love--my life" (314; ch. 27). Jane’s heart feels "impotent as a bird with both wings broken" (319; ch.28). The use of impotence to describe Jane’s heart suggests her suppressed sexual desires and frustrations. Just like a "bird with both wings broken" is unable to fly; Jane is unable to quench her sexual thirst for Rochester.
Mr. Rochester is also compared to a bird throughout the novel. After finding out where Rochester had moved following the fire at Thornfield Jane goes to visit him. After Rochester hears her voice and responds Jane remarks that, "The water stood in my eyes to hear this avowal of his dependence: just as if a royal eagle, chained to a perch, should be forced to entreat a sparrow to become its purveyor" (428; ch.37). A purveyor, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "One who procures or supplies anything necessary, or something specified, to or for others." Mr. Rochester is now blind and more disfigured than before. Her likening him to a royal eagle that is chained seems to shed light on the fact that Rochester is unable to do a lot of things on his own now that he is crippled. This also helps reveal that he will need Jane, the sparrow, to help be his "purveyor." Sparrows are "known for their boldness, and often stand for humanity" (Rowland 159). This accounts for Jane’s courageousness when she leaves Thornfield, even though she has nothing to eat, barely any money, and nowhere to go. Furthermore her selflessness can be seen when she gives each of her cousins a portion of her inheritance. Brontes likening of Rochester to a "royal eagle" and Jane to a "sparrow" also seems to represent the class differences between the two. Rochester is made to represent royalty, while Jane is fabricated to depict the poor humanitarian. Throughout the novel, John Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, and even Mr. Rochester remind Jane of her place in society so it is no surprise that Bronte includes this distinction in her imagery as well.
The comparison of Rochester to an eagle can be explained by the text of Bewick’s History of British Birds. In Bewick’s book, an eagle is described as a "ravenous bird said to be particularly strong, easily distinguished, with a large head." The eagle "avoids the haunts of civilization and is quite melancholy." "Just as the lion is the king of the jungle the eagle is the king of birds" (Bewick 3). This ascribes to the eagle the "magnanimity and strength of the lion" (Bewick 3). The male eagle is also said to be able to "provide easily for himself and his mate" (2-3). This description of an eagle can easily be applied to the appearance of Mr. Rochester. After meeting Rochester for the first time Jane comments on his appearance:
The new face, too, was like a new picture introduced to the gallery of memory; and it was dissimilar to all the others hanging there: firstly, because it was masculine;and secondly, because it was dark, strong, and stern. (410; ch. 27)
Jane specifically remarks on his strong, stern face, much like that of an eagle. She also observes how, like an eagle, his face is quite distinguishable from the others that she is used to. Although the physical descriptions of the eagle seem to fit Mr. Rochester some of the other qualities are lacking. The assessment that eagles "provide easily for themselves and their mates" conflicts with how Rochester takes care of his family. His constant reluctance to care for Adele and his obscene treatment of Bertha seems to contradict the notion of taking care of family. Whereas the financial support is there, the emotional support such as love, understanding, and caring, is lacking.
It is not surprising that Jane and Rochester’s relationship is also better understood through the use of imagery. In Jane’s first painting that Mr. Rochester examines there is a turbulent sea with a sunken ship, and on the mast perches a cormorant with a gold bracelet in its mouth. A cormorant is a "seafaring bird that is trained to fish and seizes its prey within a few seconds of seeing it only to rise to the surface with the captive in its bill" (Rowland 30). It is a "greedy, dark, voracious, alert, and careful bird" (Bewick 57). Rochester is often referred to as a "dark" and dangerous man, much like a cormorant. His greed can also be seen when he is talking to Jane and says, "You, Jane. I must have you for my own, entirely my own" (253; ch. 23). While Rochester represents the cormorant Jane represents the purity and innocence of the bracelet. Just like a cormorant dives in and seizes its prey, Rochester is able to swoop in and capture Jane’s purity and innocence before she runs off and leaves him.
Jane’s innocence is seen again when her and Rochester take a walk in the garden. Jane assumes that he has chosen Blanche Ingram, a noble and beautiful women, to be his bride. However, Rochester tells Jane he loves her. There is a moment of silence after this confession and "The nightingale’s song was then the only voice for an hour" (253; ch. 23). The nightingale "has the happier role of being love’s harbinger, most likely because its enchanting song is sung during the prime seasons of love, springtime and nighttime" (Lutwack 189). This song sung by the nightingale heightens the imagery of love that Jane and Rochester have for one another. It is also quite ironic that this bird’s song is sung right before Rochester asks Jane to marry him.
The irony of this loving scene is changed when Jane and Rochester stand by a chestnut tree, the night before it is struck by lightening and turns into a "wreck." "It stood up, black and riven: the trunk, split down the center" (274; ch.25). This seems to foreshadow the "split" of Jane and Rochester. Jane comments on the tree once again, "you will never have green leaves more – never more see birds making nests and singing idylls in your boughs; the time pleasure and love is over with you;" (274; ch.25). Jane makes notice that birds will never live there again. With Jane and Rochester both being likened to birds, it seems significant that neither will ever live at Thornfield again. Jane, because she takes flight after the discovery of Rochester’s wife and Rochester because of the fire that destroys Thornfield (Renfroe 4). The nightingale’s song can also be used to analyze this split. This specific bird is also known to add "sorrow rather than joy to love." So it is not surprising that the break between Rochester and Jane is symbolized by the splitting of the tree that will never hear the "singing idylls" of the nightingale again.
The patterns represented by the use of bird imagery are an important part of Bronte’s novel. Rochester’s constant likening of Jane to a bird and how he himself is compared to a ravenous bird throughout the novel are important factors in determining Bronte’s purpose for using bird imagery. By looking at these comparisons and patterns the reader is able to see how Bronte wanted the characters to be distinguished. Throughout the novel Rochester continually compares Jane to birds. One bird in particular, a sparrow, is said "to be a crafty bird, easily distinguishing the snares laid to entrap it" (Bewick 155). However as the reader can plainly see, Jane is constantly being entrapped by Mr. Rochester, who preys on her innocence without hesitation just as he has preyed on the many other women during his jaunts around Europe. Rochester, who is likened to birds of prey, seems to fit the description of these birds well. Being ravenous and preying on others is something that Rochester continually does during the novel, and this helps exemplify his dark character. By utilizing these specific connotations that particular birds carry with them the reader is better able to comprehend the traits of Jane and Rochester.
Bewick, Thomas. History of British Birds. Newcastle: Beilby, 1797.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: St. Martin’s, 1996.
Lutwack, Leonard. Birds in Literature. Gainesville: Up of Florida, 1994.
Renfroe, Alicia. "Prometheus Unplugged." 1996.
<http://prometheus.cc.emory.edu/panels/2D/A.Renfroe.html> (25 March 2011).
Rowland, Beryl. Birds With Human Souls, A Guide to Bird Symbolism. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1978.