Upon initially examining Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre, there appears to be a predominance of imagery that the author utilizes to represent both the title character and the various forms of adversity she comes into contact with. The vast majority of this imagery depicts the dichotomy of fire and ice. The author utilizes the former to represent the indomitable spirit and passion of the title character, whereas she employs the latter to symbolize the antagonizing elements that seek to damper Eyre's flaming ardor.
Interestingly enough, this dichotomy is existent throughout the duration of Eyre's life and is evident in her early days as an orphan, in her years receiving her formal education as a school girl, and in her adulthood years when she considers candidates for a husband. Although the symbolism behind the imagery of fire and ice change slightly throughout Eyre's various stages of development, this dichotomy nonetheless represents the central theme of the novel: Eyre's triumph over the forces of poverty, forlornness, and despair into a successful life of her choosing.
Early on in the novel, Eyre's personality is characterized by an incendiary disposition that is largely in response to the adverse conditions in which she finds herself. She is an orphan who lives with her aunt, Mrs. Reed, who treats her cruelly in comparison to how she treats the other children living there. Shortly after Mrs. Reed decides to send Eyre away to school, the latter vehemently protests the former's behavior towards her in manner that is highly indicative of the fiery disposition that is to typify Eyre's personality for the duration of the novel. Significantly, Bronte describes Eyre's behavior with imagery of light and power, which the following quotation proves.
"A ridge of lighted heath, alive, glancing, devouring, would have been a meet emblem of my mind when I accused and menaced Mrs. Reed: the same ridge, black and blasted after the flames are dead, would have represented as meetly my subsequent condition, when half-an-hour's silence and reflection had shown me the madness of my conduct, and the dreariness of my hated and hating position."
This passage demonstrates that Jane's anger and resentment at her ill-treatment, likened to "flames" that scorch the land, is how her passionate nature initially manifests itself. She cannot bear to abide by Mrs. Reed's poor conduct towards her without defending herself. Bronte utilizes the image of a "lighted" land, "alive" and lambent to symbolize Eyre's ire as she "menaced" her family member. In this instance, and in many others in her early childhood, Eyre depends on her incendiary passion to defend herself from the bleak position she is in and to sustain her as she attempts to find a better way of life.
However, Bronte also utilizes the imagery of fire and ice to describe other characters within the novel, and not just Jane. Also, it is important to note that the connotations for the imagery of conflagrations are not always as unabashedly negative as they are in the preceding passage. More than anything else, the author uses fire to represent passion, if not in Eyre herself, than in spirits that are akin to her.
An excellent example of this fact is seen in the characterization of Edward Rochester, the man whom Eyre eventually marries. Quite early on in their relationship, it is fairly apparent that Rochester feels as arduous about Eyre as she does about him a fact that is underscored by the following quotation in which imagery of fire is again highly prevalent. In this quote, Eyre has kept Rochester waiting to meet him.
"Jane!" called a voice, and I hastened down. I was received at the foot of the stairs by Mr. Rochester. "Lingerer!" he said, "my brain is on fire with impatience, and you tarry so long!" He took me into the dining-room, surveyed me keenly all over, pronounced me "fair as a lily, and not only the pride of his life, but the desire of his eyes,"
It is fairly apparent from this quotation that Rochester feels very strongly about his attraction for Eyre. He is not afraid to tell her how she inspires his "desire". What is significant about this passage is that the author chooses to use imagery with connotation of fire to describe the passion of Rochester. By choosing to describe his "brain" as "on fire" with a burning zeal to see Eyre, Bronte does two very important things.
One is to emphasize the swelter of feeling that Rochester characterizes Rochester's ardor for Eyre. The other is to implicitly tell the reader that Rochester is actually similar to Eyre in his own passion. This latter aspect subtly informs the reader that there is a pronounced similarity between both of these two characters, which will eventually mate and consummate their fiery desire for one another. To that end, therefore, Rochester's feelings and his financial and social status are emblematic of the secure future life that Eyre wants for herself.
After examining the symbolism behind the plethora of imagery relating to fire, life, and warmth, it is interesting to delve into the symbolism of the antithesis of such imagery that which pertains to ice, and hard solid stone. In many ways, St. John Rivers personifies much of this imagery, as he is everything that neither Eyre nor Rochester are not. Rivers is a clergyman, is calculating and staid, and emotionally removed from the turbulent form of passion that is so integral to the characterization of the other two.
His influence upon Eyre, therefore, is deserving of a fair amount of scrutiny to see just how different these characters, and their characterizations, are from one another. At one point in the novel Eyre actually considers marrying Rivers, who does not so much propose to her but demands that she acquiesce. The ramifications of this ensuing importuning on the part of Rivers, resounds within Eyre as the following quotation, which takes place within the days that follow her rejection of his marriage proposal denotes.
All this was torture to me--refined, lingering torture. It kept up a slow fire of indignation and a trembling trouble of grief, which harassed and crushed me altogether. I felt how--if I were his wife, this good man, pure as the deep sunless source, could soon kill me, without drawing from my veins a single drop of blood, or receiving on his own crystal conscience the faintest stain of crime.
The connotations of ice and cold that attend the imagery describing Rivers is readily apparent. The author describes him with a simile in which he is likened to a "sunless" source that is "pure" which is an apt description of snow and the ice it inevitably engenders. Furthermore, Bronte describes Rivers' conscience as "crystal", which is a form of imagery that also has connotations of ice crystals as well as suggests that Rivers feels he has done nothing wrong in his importuning of, and eventual rejection by, the young lady.
Yet what is most significant about this quotation is Eyre's reaction to the clergyman and his proposition. Her flaming passion has been softly muted to a "slow fire" that leaves her "trembling" and tortured at the distance that grows between them as a result of her rejection of him. Rivers' icy demeanor saps the passion, and indeed the will to live, that has characterized the majority of Eyre's existence. By artfully employing such imagery, Bronte suggests to the reader that Rivers is an ill suitor and is actually counterproductive to Eyre's pursuit of passionate life and the goals of happiness she has for it.
To that end, it is fairly important to note to analyze the fact that Eyre does not choose to marry Rivers, and instead reunites to consummate her feelings for Rochester. It is also very important to understand the progression of the symbolism behind the imagery of fire that the author uses to describe Eyre throughout the novel.
Although this imagery always is indicative of a passion that is virtually uncontrollable, early on in the young woman's life this fire manifested itself in turbulent outbursts of anger due to the misbegotten circumstances she found herself in. However, as Eyre was able to mature the symbolism of fire that represented her also matured, to the point in which it merely represented her ardor for life and the pursuit of happiness she was convinced she deserved.
Similarly, this passion was also reflected within the life and ardor of her husband, Rochester. Yet it is still fairly integral to the deconstruction of this story that the only one who truly threatens the warmth and the life that much of the imagery that characterizes Eyre throughout this novel is Rivers. His personification of the cold, hardened, icy imagery that is used to denote his moods and personalitiy nearly sap the vitality of Eyre herself. It is for this reason that the young woman decides to leave him and live out the rest of her days in the novel happily married to Rochester. Bronte's usage of imagery, therefore, is highly influential in presenting the sentiment that greatly shapes the lives of the characters within this novel.