The natural element fire: its symbolism and function in Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre"

Seminar Paper, 2004
14 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. A general definition

3. Symbolism of the element fire
3.1 Fire as a concept of friendship and harmony
3.2 Temper and passion expressed by metaphors of fire
3.3 Fire as a concept of destruction
3.4 Religious meaning

4. The element fire in relation to Jane Eyre’s state of mind

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is a lively composition of the imagery of landscape in correspondence to the experiences and the values of the heroine. Nature, one of the major themes in the novel, is expressed by four natural elements: fire, water, earth, and air, which are in a constant interaction.

Fire, the most important element, has a symbolic function in the novel. Above all, it forms the character of the heroine Jane Eyre. Moreover, the varying facets of fire are a basic component of the novel and a determinant part in each locale of the setting. The story is a classic example of the congruence of the natural and the spiritual: the natural existence of fire is always related to Jane Eyre’s state of mind and expressed by metaphors (Duthie 1986:134-137).

In the first chapter of my paper I will give a general definition of the term and analyse the symbolism of the different types of the element on the basis of examples. In the next chapter I will have a closer look at the element fire in relation to Jane Eyre’s state of mind.

2. A general definition

Martin (1966:63) describes the function of the element as follows: “Fire throughout the book is occasionally associated […] with comfort and love, the normal feelings of the healthy personality before the hearth, […]”.

Moreover, fire in its general function is a source of warmth and light as well as it is needed for physical comfort as a spring of cheer, and for the maintenance of life too. The example demonstrates all these functions of the element: Jane is in a desperate situation – standing in the moors of Marsh End without any hope and near her physical end: hungry, thirsty, and freezing caused by the penetrating rain. She needs a guiding light to find help and a domestic hearth to save her life. The “glimmering light” (Lodge 1986:124) symbolises her “last hope” (ibid.).

My eye still roved over the sullen swell, and along the moor-edge, vanishing amidst the wildest scenery; when at one dim point, far in among the marshes and the ridges, a light sprang up. […]

In seeking the door, I turned an angle: there shot out the friendly gleam again, from the lozenged panes of a very small latticed window, […]. […] I could see clearly a room with a sanded floor, clean scoured; a dresser of walnut, with pewter plates ranged in rows, reflecting the redness and radiance of a glowing peat-fire. […] The candle, whose ray had been my beacon, burnt on the table; and by its light an elderly woman, […]. I noticed these objects cursorily only – in them there was nothing extraordinary. A group of more interest appeared near the hearth, sitting still amidst the rosy peace and warmth suffusing it0,1 (Bronte, Jane Eyre: 370-372).

Beside this comforting and saving function, which is less significant in the story, there is also a symbolic aspect in the example. The ray of light can be associated with hope and rescue. The “glowing peat-fire” 1(372) connects with kindness and friendship. I will have a closer look at the symbolic aspect in the next chapter.

3. Symbolism of the element fire

However, the main function of fire is symbolic throughout the novel. The symbolism is always related to Jane’s state of mind and expressed by metaphors: a description of Jane’s emotions is usually followed by a metaphor. There are two points of view with regard to the example which demonstrate the relation. On the one hand, there is a reference to the heroine herself, found out by Martin (1966:64): in the red room, […]”. Bronte uses metaphors like “a terrible red glare”, “thick black bars”, and “hollow sound” 1(26) to express Jane’s frightful emotions after her locking up in the red room.

On the other hand, these metaphors are used to produce the reader’s association with hell fire.

[…] at this moment a light gleamed on the wall. […] I can now conjecture readily that this streak of light was, in all likelihood, a gleam from a lantern, carried by some one across the lawn: but then, prepared as my mind was for horror, shaken as my nerves were by agitation, I thought the swift-darting beam was a herald of some coming vision from another world. My heart beat thick, my head grew hot; a sound filled my ears, which I deemed the rushing of wings: something seemed near me; I was oppressed, suffocated: endurance broke down – I uttered a wild, involuntary cry - […]. […] The next thing I remember is, waking up with a feeling as if I had had a frightful nightmare, and seeing before me a terrible red glare, crossed with thick black bars. I heard voices, too, speaking with a hollow sound, and as if muffled by a rush of wind or water: […] 1(24-26).

Colours also play an important role in this context. In the example, “as elsewhere, the colour red becomes naturally connected with passion and the non-rational” (Martin 1966:64). In general, red is the colour of danger and warning. With regard to Gateshead Hall, red is the “prevailing tone” (Pinton 1975:109).

The red room clearly is a symbol of the non-rational: once the deathbed of Mr. Reed, now used as a “chill”, “silent” and “remote” 1(21) place for Jane’s punishment. In combination with her frightful thoughts and the mysterious ray of light it becomes a room of superstition.

Furthermore, Jane, in her “disturbed state” (Martin 1966:63), considers the nursery fire, actually “kindled as a comfort […] in her illness” (ibid.), to be the red glaring hellfire. Her association demonstrate “the terrors of hell” (ibid.) she experienced. Finally, the red curtains in the drawing-room, where Jane reads in Bewick’s History of British Birds, are a foreshadowing of the coming attack by John Reed and the punishment in the red room.

3.1 Fire as a concept of friendship and harmony

The “domestic, comforting” (Lodge 1986:128) fire is a symbol of terms like friendship, peace, kindness, acceptance, and tenderness (Lodge 1986:120).

Further, Lodge (ibid.) points out that the “important interviews, significant moments of communication, are lit by fires.”

There is an example of this type in each locale of the novel which is always a metaphor. I will have a closer look at Gateshead Hall and Lowood on the basis of examples. In spite of the fact that this type of fire markedly occurs in Thornfield Hall, I will analyse it in the next chapter.

Taking Gateshead Hall it is the nursery fire and the affinity to Bessie which give Jane the feeling of safety and acceptance after her exclusion from Christmas and the New Years’ celebration:

When tired of this occupation, I would retire from the stair-head to the solitary and silent nursery: there, though somewhat sad, I was not miserable. […] and if Bessie had but been kind and companionable, I should have deemed it a treat to spend the evenings quietly with her, […]. I then sat with my doll on my knee, till the fire got low, glancing round occasionally, to make sure that nothing worse than myself haunted he shadowy room; and when the embers sank to a dull red, […] 1(37).

In Lowood, the important conversations take place by the fireside. On the one hand, Jane gets to know Helen Burns better and they become friends by their dialogues by the fireside. Helen’s friendship and help is similar to a light and a rescuer during Jane’s hard start. Helen’s attitude and her belief in a better life after death, expressed in the talks, give Jane the power to get over the “semi-starvation” (Pinton 1975:109) and the “severity” (ibid.) of Lowood. Moreover, Jane internalises Helen’s wisdom without changing her own principles, and this determines Jane’s coming life:

Jumping over forms, and creeping under tables, I made my way to one of the fire-places: there, kneeling by the high wire fender, I found Burns, absorbed, silent, abstracted from all round her by the companionship of a book, which she read by the dim glare of the embers. […] ‘Now,’ thought I, ‘I can perhaps get her to talk.’ I sat down by her on the floor. […] Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears too short to be spent in nursing animosity, or registering wrongs. We are, and must be, one and all, burdened with faults in this world: but the time will soon come when, I trust, we shall put them off in putting off our corruptible bodies10; when debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit will remain11, […] 1(65-69, footnotes in the original).


0 In the following I will refer to the quoted works by numbers (in superscript) and page numbers

1 Bronte, Charlotte (2003). Jane Eyre. London: Penguin Books.

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The natural element fire: its symbolism and function in Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre"
Technical University of Chemnitz
Proseminar: Charlotte Bronte "Jane Eyre"
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Charlotte, Bronte, Jane, Eyre, Proseminar
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Corinna Roth (Author), 2004, The natural element fire: its symbolism and function in Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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