Jane Eyre in the red-room: Madeleine Wood explores the consequences of Jane's childhood trauma

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Author: Madeleine Wood
Date: Feb. 2006
From: The English Review(Vol. 16, Issue 3)
Publisher: Philip Allan Updates
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,890 words

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Jane Eyre's childhood ordeal in the red-room provides the dynamism for her adult story. Through forms of imagery and structures of desire, Bronte repeatedly invokes the scene, linking it to both Jane's romantic encounter with Rochester and the incarceration of Bertha. These interconnections imply an underlying problem in romantic love: the relationship between Jane and Rochester cannot operate wholly within a patriarchal system, but neither can it escape it. However, the primary concern in the red-room is the ambiguous relation between parents and children, which becomes the prototype for all male and female interactions within the novel. This gothic episode involves an encounter between Jane and the shadowy absent presence of her uncle, the focus for paternity in her early life with the Reeds. The significance of the initial absence of a father-figure--eerily present in this scene--is constantly reaffirmed throughout the novel. The structure of the novel suggests that we can never escape our childhoods in an adult experience of love.

Parents and children

Jane's longing for a loving family is compacted into the emblematic scene that takes place in the red-room. However, importantly, this incident does not take place until the second chapter of Jane Eyre. The first chapter is concerned with establishing Jane within a network of family relations in which she is excluded and despised:

He [John Reed] bullied and punished me; not two or three times in the week, nor once or twice in the day, but continually.

(chapter 1, p. 16)

We are asked to imagine a constant flow of abuse and potential trauma that underpins Jane's imprisonment in the red-room. Bronte depicts the Reed family as dysfunctional and, in Mrs Reed's adoration of her vicious son, a site of misplaced affection. The Reeds are symbolically linked through their dark 'unwholesome' skin (chapter 1, p. 16) and thick lips: they represent both the violence and inhumanity of the slave driver and the degradation of the slave. This paradox means that although it is Jane who is the outsider or 'the alien' in the family (chapter 2, p. 24), it is John Reed and his mother who are metaphorically correlated with otherness and aberrant desire. This is later reinforced by Bertha's similar racial otherness, which replays these childhood representations. The mother-son relation is retrospectively endowed with a deviant intensity as a consequence of this interrelation; and John Reed does, of course, finally precipitate his mother's death. The family dynamic established in the opening chapter is perpetuated in relationships throughout the novel: the relationship between mother and child is always problematised by being associated symbolically with Mrs Reed and Bertha Mason.

However, it is the father-child relation that takes precedence in the red-room scene and in its recurrence in the text. The scene is already a repetition of an alternative beginning in Jane's prehistory. It mirrors Mrs Reed's betrayal...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A141169742