The uses and development of Realism in "Armadale" by Wilkie Collins and "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Brontë

Essay, 2015

10 Pages, Grade: 2:1


The uses and development of Realism in Armadale by Wilkie Collins and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

While Realism is concerned primarily with representing the world objectively and truthfully, I will examine how Armadale by Wilkie Collins and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, use and develop the genre further by establishing representation as subjective to the perspective of the writer, and therefore dependent upon his inner reality. I will firstly clarify Realism as a genre limited to representation, and how this in turn is fuelled by the characters’ illusory self-consciousness. Focusing on Miss Gwilt and her interpretation of the dreams and shadows, this essay will argue towards her identity crisis and her fall in power. Similarly, by analysing Jane Eyre’s and Mr. Rochester’s relationship, this essay will discuss the ways in which each character is continually striving to dive into the depths of the other’s eyes, while simultaneously keeping their own inner-self hidden from the outsider’s gaze. When concealment fails, and the inner is open to manipulation, the narrative is placed away from them, and their power over their own destiny is reflective of the power we give away to the subjectivity of the perceived world.

Realism comes to be explained as the representation of what is. While similar to naturalism, it is concerned primarily with showing the mundane world, without any embellishment or exaggeration from the mind or senses and is concerned with everyday experiences rather than the stylized presentation of Romanticism.

This idea of observation and representing the ‘natural’ universe as it appears has much to do with the Victorians drive to understand the world. Nevertheless, here we encounter the problem of relativizing the universe in a particular perspective, while labelling it as objective under the guise of scientific observation. In Terry Eagleton’s introduction on the The English Novel, he comes to explain that representation is a movement away from the real: “To call something ‘realist’ is to confess that it is not the real thing.”[1] It is subjective to the author’s perspective and to the reader’s interpretation, and can never be more than the limited perception of the characters within the novel:

The realist novel quite often throws its weight behind a particular way of seeing the world, but it is ‘relativizing’ in its very form. It shifts from one perspective to another, hands the narrative to various characters in turn, and wins our sympathy for cases and characters we find discomforting by bringing them so vividly alive.[2]

What is real is our experience of the narrative, and the development of our relationship to the characters on their journey. Jane Eyre and Armadale create a realistic approach to the inner life of the individual, and how narrative, dialogue, and the supernatural all play an important role in our lives and the lives of Victorians. Imagination as having the primary role in dedicating life outside ourselves, and only when we can begin to understand the significance of our individual psychology can the empirical world begin to shed a light on its meaning.

Realism is primarily representation. By making the reader conscious of their part in a narrative, the writer creates a bridge where both characters and audience can meet. Both these texts bring the understanding of representation itself, through letters and communication. Realism is therefore not indicative of how it is, but how it can be seen, that all attempts at displaying the real are attempts at showing what lies behind the eyes of the author, and what hides in the minds of the ‘Moderns’. Wilkie Collins by creating a novel which seems to stand outside a realist approach is in fact better representing the state of mind of the society at the time. Using romantic notions, he is better able to present the importance of the individual. Armadale comes to show this through the very plot of the novel, when Allan, while entertaining Brock, finds himself telling the story of the ‘Three Bedouin brothers at a show’:

Ali will take a lighted torch, and jump down the throat of his brother Muli – Muli will take a lighted torch, and jump down the throat of his brother Hassan – and Hassan, taking a third lighted torch, will jump down his own throat, and leaving the spectators in total darkness.[3]

In Jenny Bourne Taylor’s essay Armadale: The Sensitive Subject as Palimpsest she describes the novel as “a story which ‘jumps down its own throat’” where the plots intermingled so much with one another that we are left without any authorial meaning.[4] The narrative, displayed from letters to diaries reflects the multitude of attitudes the reader can take in his interpretation of the dream, the characters’ fate, and the magnetic connection that exist between them. In fact, the characters themselves attempt at embedding their own meaning within the text, and creating stories which will hide them from the world: “In Armadale there are plots, and plots within plots, which in turn become the breeding ground for further plots, all proliferating around the name ‘Allan Armadale” – a name without an identity”.[5] Realism takes its stance in presenting an objective view of the world. Here Wilkie Collins is subverting the genre, using and developing the notion of multiple plots to symbolise the diversity of every individual’s take on the world.

Ozias Midwinter, a man whose name has no identity is free to create his own destiny, yet is left throughout the novel in believing that it is the name which holds power, rather than the belief. He believes in the reality of the dream, and in the determination of his fate and comes to view these both as truthful representations of his reality. In Jane Eyre, the narrator is directly addressing us, destroying the wall between reader and writer, and placing the story across the border between subjectivity and objectivity, merging both into the perspective of the protagonist. ‘Dear Reader’ is employed by Charlotte Brontë to create a bridge between reader and writer, and how “As reality grows more complex and fragmented, the means of representing it become more problematic as well; and this forces language and narrative into a more elaborate self-consciousness.”[6] This self-consciousness is the illusion of the reality and objectivity of the narrator. In the conclusion of the novel, the chapter begins with “’Reader, I married him.’”, indicating that Jane has finally got her life under control.[7] By subverting the plot and imprinting her identity into the narrative, she is able to create her reality from her perspective; she is no longer subject to the story, but now the plot is in her hands, and the reader is exposed to the whims of the objective world she wishes to create. In Sally Shuttleworth’s chapter Jane Eyre: Lurid Hieroglyphics in Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology, she places this emphasis on individual power, as an expression of the time: “Charlotte Brontë’ asks only how individual desires and ambitions can be achieved. In the mouth of an industrialist, such sentiments would express the spirit of the age.”[8] By alluding to the idea of representation through the narrative and language, Jane Eyre examines the importance of our subjective analysis of the world, of our own inner existence in contradiction to the objective reality of the Realists.

Realism comes to be about displaying truth, about representing the world as objectively as possible. Yet, by throwing a net over the world, we are not capturing it in its entirety, but creating two worlds, one within and one outside the net. Armadale comes to give a critical view of the display of the inner self against the outer self. Throughout the novel, we see that appearances are often misguiding, and lure the characters to make false assumptions about their world. When Brock first meets Midwinter, he sees him only as a rugged stranger:

Mr Brock could not conceal from himself that the stranger’s manner was against him. The general opinion has settled that if a man is honest, he is bound to assert it by looking straight at his fellow-creatures when he speaks to them.[9]

The whole passage is in reference to the eye and what it can see. Brock places his judgment firmly in the power of his gaze and its ability to observe and take apart the young man. Like a scientist, he relies principally on the importance of the empirical world, rather than form a conclusion through a communication with Midwinter’s inner self. Midwinter becomes a fragmented ‘creature’ in the eyes of the reader, taken apart by the subjective scrutiny of the clergyman. In Beginning Realism, Steven Earnshaw place this as “To view without sympathy is to place the observer, the subject, in a distorting manner to the object, it is to take up a particular, subjective role with regards to what is observed.”[10] The reader in this instance is then at the mercy of Brock’s judgment, only seeing as far as the interpretations he wishes to make of Midwinter. The relationship between characters becomes a blank space, one empty of determination and responsibility. In Jane Eyre, the relationship between inner and outer is parodied throughout the novel where the characters continually attempt at discovering the truth behind the eyes of the others. In his introduction to the novel, Michael Mason clarifies such affiliation as being “a relationship, as is often stressed in the text, founded on ‘sympathy’: on a full understanding and admiration of another’s inner being.”[11] In the passage where Rochester disguises himself as a gypsy, we see a direct representation at the attempt to discover what lies beneath the surface of Jane:

’The flame flickers in the eye; the eye shines like dew; it looks soft and full of feeling, it smiles at my jargon: it is susceptible; impression follows impression through its clear sphere; when it ceases to smile, it is sad; an unconscious lassitude weighs on the lid: that signifies melancholy resulting from loneliness.[12]


[1] Terry Eagleton, The English Novel, An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), p. 10.

[2] Terry Eagleton, p. 6.

[3] Wilkie Collins, Armadale (London: Penguin Classics, 1995), p. 62.

[4] Jenny Bourne Taylor , Armadale: The Sensitive Sujbect as Palimpsest (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998), p. 153.

[5] Jenny Bourne Taylor, p. 150.

[6] Terry Eagleton, p. 21.

[7] Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre: Introduction by Michael Mason (London: Penguin Classics, 1996), p. 498.

[8] Sally Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 182.

[9] Wilkie Collins, p. 64.

[10] Steven Earnshaw, Beginning Realism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), p. 59.

[11] Michael Mason, Jane Eyre: Introduction by Michael Mason (London: Penguin Classics, 1996), p. xxxiii.

[12] Charlotte Bront ë, p. 226.

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The uses and development of Realism in "Armadale" by Wilkie Collins and "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Brontë
Falmouth University
English with Creative Writing
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ISBN (Book)
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Realism, Literature, Victorian, Armadale, Jane Eyre, Classic, Representation, Subjectivity, psychological, supernatural, Identity, English
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Michael Amos (Author), 2015, The uses and development of Realism in "Armadale" by Wilkie Collins and "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Brontë, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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