The Bluebeard Reference in Jane Eyre
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Within Jane Eyre lies an explicit reference to the tale of Bluebeard. When first exploring the dark hall of Thornfield’s third floor Jane tells us, "I lingered in the long passage to which this led [. . .] with only one little window at the far end, and looking, with its two rows of small black doors all shut, like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle" (114; ch. 11). This allusion is not a casual one, for the plot of Jane Eyre has much in common with the tale of Bluebeard. Bronte uses Bluebeard to foreshadow Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, being locked away from society in a hidden room on the third floor. This reference also in part alludes to ideas of women’s obedience and how not following the patriarchal rules of society can lead to punishment. Bertha is isolated from society and held captive in a secret room because she is not the model wife and acts out despite her husband. This relates to Bluebeard because he murders his wives once they become disobedient. Bertha does die in the end of Bronte’s novel, though not at the hands of her husband. But even being isolated from society and held captive can be viewed as a symbolic death. Also Jane herself is often punished for not following the rules of patriarchal society. Bronte brings this poor treatment of women by society to light in the novel and shows her rejection of it through the characters of Jane and Bertha.
The tale of Bluebeard dates back to the seventeenth century. "Bluebeard as we know him first appeared in Paris in 1695 as La Barbe Bleue, in the manuscript version of Charles Perrault’s Histories Ou Contes Du Temps Passe, a collection which has become a seminal influence on the evolution of fairy tale" (Davies 33). The villain of this tale is a man with a blue beard whom everyone fears. After inviting his neighbors to stay and celebrate at his country home in attempts to persuade one of the their daughters to marry him, he convinces the youngest of his widowed neighbor to be his bride. All goes well until the new husband goes away on business, leaving his wife in charge with only one rule, to not open the door of one room in the castle. Of course curiosity overtakes the wife and she enters the room only to find Bluebeard’s previous wives murdered within the chamber.
Fear causes her to drop the master key, which is then stained with blood. Bluebeard discovers her disobedience when he comes home. He then vows to kill her. She stalls by asking for time to pray. In reality she is waiting for the arrival of her brothers, who are supposed to visit. The wife manages to stall long enough, because just as Bluebeard is about to kill her, the brothers come to her rescue and kill him instead. The wife then inherits all that he had, remarries and lives happily ever after.
It’s not surprising that this tale with its violent nature was never spun off into a Disney film. Yet when it comes to Bronte’s Jane Eyre, this story was a good match. Rochester even invites the Ingram sisters and their friends and family to celebrate at his estate in what appears to be a way of insinuating a marriage between him and Blanche. By the end of the novel readers are made aware that the Ingrams' and other friends were invited under false pretenses as a means of making Jane jealous. Yet Rochester purposely acts like he plans to marry Blanche. He even asks Jane’s opinion of her "You have noticed my tender penchant for Miss Ingram: don’t you think if I married her she would regenerate me with a vengeance?" (220; ch. 21).
As in the case of Bluebeard the neighbors are brought under false pretences. In Bluebeard’s case he is trying to persuade one of the young neighbors to marry him. In Rochester’s case he is openly pretending to do the same thing. Yet, in reality he is simply trying to make Jane jealous.
Another connection is the secret room. Bluebeard has his murdered wives kept in a secret and forbidden room. There is also a secret room that is hidden in Thornfield. This is the room that Bertha is locked in. Though he has not murdered her, Rochester has in a sense symbolically killed his wife in that she is non--existent to the outside world and kept against her will. It is Rochester who holds the master key and is thus responsible for her treatment just like Bluebeard. Jane even mentions this key in the text, "We mounted the first staircase, passed up the gallery, proceeded to the third story: the low, black door, opened by Mr. Rochester’s master key, admitted us to the tapestried room, with its great bed and pictorial cabinet" (289, ch 26). This is the room that leads to Bertha’s cell. In both the stories the patriarchal ways of society are revealed. Once married the husband becomes the wife’s master it appears. If she becomes disobedient, as is the case in both stories she is then punished.
Bronte uses the tale of Bluebeard and Jane’s reference to it as a means of foreshadowing the existence of Rochester’s secret wife Bertha. At the point in the novel when the tale is mentioned, Jane had not even met Rochester. Yet the reference to Bluebeard suggests that there are hidden secrets to be found and that there is more to Rochester than may first appear.
Through Bertha’s outrageous acts and other strange occurrences Jane becomes more curious as to the mystery of Thornfield. Early on she claims, "All I had gathered [. . .] amounted to this, -- that there was a mystery at Thornfield" (168; ch. 17). Jane curiosity is similar to that of Bluebeard’s wife. Like his wife, Jane finally learns of the skeletons in Rochester’s closet and it is her own happiness that is shattered. After the marriage ceremony between Jane and Rochester is interrupted, we are finally introduced to Bertha. Rochester admits, "Glad was I when I at last got her to Thornfield, and saw her safely lodged in that third story room, of whose secret inner cabinet she has now for ten years made a wild beast’s den -- a goblin’s cell" (305; ch. 3). Rochester claims Bertha was a lunatic. He also states, "I found her nature wholly alien to mine; her tastes obnoxious to me; her cast of mind common, low [. . .]." (302; ch. 27). From these statements it’s hard to tell whether Bertha was in fact a lunatic or whether Rochester simply did not find her agreeable. Rochester also confesses his short--lived relationships with other women; "What was their beauty to me in a few weeks? Giacinta was unprincipled and violent: I tired of her in three months" (307; ch. 27). We hear of these women and he claims he gave one money and sent her off. Yet what about the others? Rochester does not physically kill these women yet he does dispose of them. As for Bertha’s case her life was in a sense taken away from her in that she is locked away and kept from society. Jane’s character senses a secret mystery before we as readers do.
Bronte chose to include references to Bluebeard both explicitly and in terms of plot. It’s crucial to note how these relationships affect characterization. Bluebeard was monstrously evil in his tale. Bronte seems to link Bluebeard and Rochester. So in some ways Rochester himself is bad. Also Bluebeard’s murdered wives were most definitely victims. In Rochester’s case, Bertha is not dead, yet she can still be viewed as a victim. Jane flees Thornfield because she does not want to end up like Rochester’s wife or his discarded mistresses. It seems that Bronte is alluding to the fact that once a woman is in a committed relationship the man becomes her master and she must obey him or be punished. Jane only agrees to marry Rochester once he has been maimed and blinded. Also she has came into wealth and can hold her own in terms of finance. Therefore Rochester is not her superior nor will he ever be.
Charles Perrault chose to include two morals at the end of his story. The first moral expresses the idea that a maiden's curiosity will cost her. The second moral deals with modern women showing their husbands who’s really the master. Davies claims that Perrault’s "tale actually involves a strongly gendered culture narrative about curiosity and knowledge in western culture. [. . .] In the modern period what is a heroic drive for knowledge in a man is either vicious curiosity or madness in a woman, for which she will be punished" (Davies 34). This information could be applied to Bronte’s novel. We never hear Bertha and thus truly have no definite knowledge of her madness. Yet Rochester does in fact act as if she was mad and uses this as his reasoning for her punishment. Bronte could be using Bluebeard and Bertha to show how women are punished for being curious and seeking knowledge. Jane flees Thornfield when she learns of Bertha. Jane is running away from her own stagnation. She decides she does not want to be like the women of Rochester’s past. She progresses to an angry mindset as the wedding day approaches. Talking about her future husband she says, "He smiled; and I thought his smile was such as a sultan might, in a blissful and fond moment, bestow on a slave … I crushed his hand, which was ever hunting mine, vigorously, and thrust it back to him red with the passionate pressure" (267; ch. 24). Jane dislikes feeling belittled by Rochester. She does not want to end up like the women of his past. She does not return to be with him until he has been maimed and she is independent with her own wealth. Jane must have some control of her life and refuses to put herself in a situation where she can be disposed of. A connection can be made between Jane’s situation and the second moral of Bluebeard in that Rochester must accept her as she is. She does in fact master Rochester. He openly admits this, "I never met your likeness Jane. Jane: you please me, and you master me" (259; ch 24).
Bronte creates a female character who does in fact master her man. Jane will not marry Rochester until she can consider him to be her equal. She does not have to be obedient to someone who is not her superior. By creating a relationship on her own terms Jane deters the possibility of being treated like Bertha, or even Bluebeard’s wives.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996.
Davies, Mererid Puw. The Tale of Bluebeard in German Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.