Jane Eyre as a gothic novel

Activities (Literary Context, Language, Structure and Form)


Frightening fairy tales go back thousands of years, in the oral tradition.  In the dim, distant past of prehistory, people were telling each other dark stories of gruesome monsters.  There is little doubt that some fairy tales such as ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, originated before the Indo-European language split 5000 years ago and academics estimate that the tale of The Smith and The Devil is 6000 years old.  Even more astoundingly, Julien d’Huy of the Sorbonne believes that Homer’s Odyssey myth about the cyclops Polyphemus. who eats sailors without even roasting them (!), appears to stretch back 18,000 years into early Stone Age; he believes that the original tale spread with the haplogroup X2 as it dispersed around the world.  It may even be that the biblical myth of the serpent in the Garden of Eden could be 60,000 years old – this ultimate gothic story is buried deep in our prehistory and subconscious.

That said, with regard to our own more immediate history, we have an eleventh century written manuscript of the Old English story ‘Beowulf’ emerging from the oral tradition of The Dark Ages of England and set in sixth century Scandinavia; it is the first Scandi-noir, written in Old English!  This tale, interestingly, also deals with a man-eating monster, ‘a god-cursed brute’ called Grendell, who stalked the fens.  

The gothic is therefore an integral part of our cultural and anthropological heritage; at the very least, it is the subject matter in the ancient oral story-telling tradition. 

Elements of the Gothic Novel

The gothic novel dating from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) features elements from earlier texts and international traditions.  It is however, useful to consider some key elements of that novel and ask to what extent they apply to ‘Jane Eyre’.

 Gothic Elements include the following:

1. Setting in a castle. The action takes place in and around an old castle, sometimes seemingly abandoned, sometimes occupied. The castle often contains secret passages, trap doors, secret rooms, dark or hidden staircases, and possibly ruined sections. The castle may be near or connected to caves, which lend their own haunting flavor with their branchings, claustrophobia, and mystery.

ACTIVITY: Look at the description of Thornfield Hall when Jane first arrives.

2. An atmosphere of mystery and suspense. The work is pervaded by a threatening feeling, a fear enhanced by the unknown. Often the plot itself is built around a mystery, such as unknown parentage, a disappearance, or some other inexplicable event. Elements 3, 4, and 5 below add to this.

ACTIVITY: Find where Jane is unsettled on her first meeting with Rochester.

3. An ancient prophecy is connected with the castle or its inhabitants (either former or present). The prophecy is usually obscure, partial, or confusing. “What could it mean?” In more watered down modern examples, this may amount to merely a legend: “It’s said that the ghost of old man Krebs still wanders these halls.”

ACTIVITY: Consider whether this applies to ‘Jane Eyre’

4. Omens, portents, visions. A character may have a disturbing dream vision, or some phenomenon may be seen as a portent of coming events. For example, if the statue of the lord of the manor falls over, it may portend his death.

ACTIVITY: Look e.g. at the significance of the Chestnut Tree being struck by lightning and Jane’s dreams.

5. Supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events. Dramatic, amazing events occur, such as ghosts or giants walking, or inanimate objects (such as a suit of armor or painting) coming to life. In some works, the events are ultimately given a natural explanation, while in others the events are truly supernatural.

ACTIVITY: Find three examples of the supernatural/’praeternatural’, or what at first appears to be so, in the novel.

6. High, even overwrought emotion. The narration may be highly sentimental, and the characters are often overcome by anger, sorrow, surprise, and especially, terror. Characters suffer from raw nerves and a feeling of impending doom. Crying and emotional speeches are frequent. Breathlessness and panic are common.

ACTIVITY: Re-read the early chapter where Jane is incarcerated in The Red Room.

7. Women in distress. As an appeal to the pathos and sympathy of the reader, the female characters often face events that leave them fainting, terrified, screaming, and/or sobbing. A lonely, pensive, and oppressed heroine is often the central figure of the novel, so her sufferings are even more pronounced and the focus of attention.

ACTIVITY: Make notes on the chapters in which Jane decides to leave Thornfield and her subsequent wanderings.

8. Women threatened by a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male. One or more male characters has the power, as king, lord of the manor, father, or guardian, to demand that one or more of the female characters do something intolerable. The woman may be commanded to marry someone she does not love (it may even be the powerful male himself), or commit a crime.

ACTIVITY: Find examples of how St John Rivers fits into this category.

9. The metaphor of gloom and horror.  Use of pathetic fallacy (where some event in nature such as thunder is used to represent disruption in the human world).

ACTIVITY:  Find examples of the following in ‘Jane Eyre’: wind rain, lightning, coldness, sudden or unexplained noises, unusual noises, footsteps etc  ng  all suggest some element of mystery, danger, or the supernatural.



Robert Harris: Virtual Salt. Version Date: August 6, 1998







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