The Meaning of Mystery and Suspense in Jane Eyre
Gothic Elements in the Victorian Novel
Undoubtedly, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was one of the most successful and influential novels published during the era of Victorian England, which lasted from 1837 until 1901, and even today, Jane Eyre is regarded as one of the most important masterpieces in the history of world literature. Although Brontë’s novel primarily fulfills features of the romance novel – certainly a very popular and widespread genre among Victorian writers - Jane Eyre can be accounted a hybrid of three literary genres, which not only shares romantic elements, but also characteristics of the Bildungsroman and the Gothic novel.
However, Brontë’s novel basically follows “two traditional plot lines” (Heller 1993: 49) of Victorian women writing. On the one hand, Jane Eyre comprises a love story between a man and a women, represented by the relationship between Jane and Rochester, which clearly corresponds to romance elements, whereas, on the other hand, the story of Jane’s personal and psychological development, which is expressed by her different encounters with the external world over a large range of time, corresponds to the female Bildungsroman.
Nevertheless, in Jane Eyre, both plots are strongly interrelated with each other, what makes each plot rather complex and difficult to analyse (cf. Heller 1993: 49). Moreover, Charlotte Brontë repeatedly utilised several mysterious and horrific incidents - which are clear indicators for a Gothic influence - throughout the whole novel. The question may be raised, how and for what purpose did Brontë implant Gothic elements in her novel, although the period of ‘classic’ Gothic writing had already come to an end in the early 19th century. Was it just for the cause of catching the reader’s attention and making the story more interesting to read, or was there even more behind it?
In order to find a suitable answer to that question, this essay will first point out a couple of striking and important scenes which represent typical Gothic features in Jane Eyre, and then, it will try to analyse the causes for the application of these Gothic elements and their effect on the novel’s message which is aimed to be delivered.
2 Gothic Elements in Jane Eyre
2.1 ‘Classic’ Gothic vs. Victorian Gothic
Originally, the literary tradition of conventional or ‘classic’ Gothic was born in the late 18th century and brought up the Gothic novel as a new genre of writing, which usually addressed topics of spirituality and supernaturalism. During that time, the Gothic novel was basically characterised by weird stories in remote houses or castles, a heavy atmosphere with gloomy landscapes, a plentiful use of ghosts or demonic creatures, mysterious appearances, and other supernatural occurrences. Generally, the actual intention Gothic novels was to “to evoke chilling terror” among the readers “by exploiting mystery, cruelty, and a variety of horrors.”
Furthermore, Schabert (1997: 397-400) claims that traditional Gothic novels also reveal certain connections with the lyric poetry of Romanticism. However, the protagonist’s desire explained in Gothic novels does usually not only focus on interpersonal relationships, but also on interests “which are settled far beyond from any social and moral norms”. Thus, such ‘abnormal’ desires are associated with negativity and often experienced with fright and fear.
Since Jane Eyre is certainly not a Gothic novel in the first place, it does not fulfill every aspect of traditional Gothic writing; but, nevertheless, it shares some similarities. So, for example, the manor-houses at Gateshead and Thornfield, the Rivers family’s home at Moor House as well as the Lowood School are all isolated places, which are settled in a dark and gloomy atmosphere. Furthermore, Jane also faces some supernatural and even horrific incidents, and she is not only longing for a relationship with Rochester, but also for social and religious freedom.
However, the major part of the Gothic elements appearing in Jane Eyre rather concentrates on the tradition of Victorian Gothic, which emerged in the middle of the 19th century after the end of the ‘classic’ Gothic tradition. Since Jane is the heroine of the novel, who not only experiences a life of suffering and feels imprisoned in the world she lives in, but also undergoes a “gothic quest” (Schabert 1997: 404), in which she struggles actively for the realisation of her desires, it can be said that Jane Eyre shows features of the female Gothic tradition, which was very popular during the times of Victorian Gothic and often applied by Victorian women writers. Unlike traditional Gothic conventions, Brontë tries to convey the horrific and supernatural scenes in Jane Eyre to the world of the contemporary reader. Whereas ‘classic’ Gothic authors tended to use exotic and historical settings to build up a certain distance between the novel’s mysterious actions and the reader, the Victorian Gothic tradition – and also Charlotte Brontë - preferred to choose locations which the reader was much more familiar with, such as the bourgeois world or the urban landscape. Moreover, since the beginning of Victorian Gothic, the reasons for supernatural and mysterious occurrences in Gothic novels were not inexplicable anymore, but rather “projected onto the source of evil human characters” – which also applies widely to Jane Eyre.
 “Viktorianisches England – Ausbau des Britischen Empires”. Universität Trier. 26 February 2006 < http://www.uni-trier.de/uni/fb3/kunstgeschichte/nicolai/html/III_2.htm >.
 “Gothic, Novel, and Romance: Brief Definitions”. Ed. Donna Campell. June 2005. Washington State University. 28 February 2006 < http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/novel.htm >.
 Quote taken from my annotated bibliography on Ina Schabert’s article “Begehren und Angst: der Schauerroman” in Englische Literaturgeschichte aus der Sicht der Geschlechterforschung.
 Quote taken from my annotated bibliography on M. Mulvey-Roberts’ article “The Demonic”.