The Presentation of Isolation in Jane Eyre
Isolation in Jane Eyre and the Wide Sargasso Sea. The theme of isolation is explored in Bronte’s novel; Jane Eyre. This theme is also developed in The Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. Both pieces present different types of isolation, such as isolation due to location and the isolation of a character due to their social status, such as Jane’s status as a governess. The various ways in which isolation is present in each of the texts show how inescapable and unavoidable isolation is for the characters in both Jane Eyre and The Wide Sargasso, with it being present in such a large way in their lives.
Physical isolation is present in both texts, with Jane in Jane Eyre and Antoinette in the Wide Sargasso Sea experiencing absolute isolation from society due to their location. In Jane Eyre, Jane experiences such isolation in chapter II when her outburst toward her cousin and patriarch of Gateshead Hall, John Reed, results in her being confined to ‘the red room’. Bronte writes ‘it was silent, because remote from the nursery; solemn, because it was know to be so seldom entered’.
This description highlights the extent of the physical separation Jane faces whilst in the room. She is far away from any other beings, being unable to even hear other people, and with little possibility of the room being visited; it suggests there is little hope of escape from the separation from society she is presented with. By saying the room was ‘silent’, it reiterates the idea that Jane was isolated from all things and this highlights its severity and alienates Jane as she is out of touch with her surroundings, and the world.
It is clear that this isolation is effective enough to have a negative impact on an individual, as Mrs Reed knowingly uses it as a punishment; this suggests that the isolation is severe. Separation for those who had committed atrocities was seen as apt in this period of 19th century Britain, as it was during this decade that ‘The Separate System’ was being introduced. John Howard proposed that in prisons, criminals must be isolated and alone, as it was felt that they must have time alone to ‘stew in their thoughts’, and to be separated from others to avoid influencing innocent people.
The system, although having been used before, was taken up in many households as a punishment. This suggests that the separation from the Reed children, as Mrs Reed had ensured, was due to her fear that Jane would have a negative influence on her children, for fear that they too would learn her ‘ways of the devil’. A review of Jane Eyre, claimed ‘There is a low tone of behaviour (rather than of morality) in the book’, reiterating the point that Jane’s isolation was used to correct her behaviour.
Jane’s desperation to escape is shown when she screams ‘Take me out! Let me go into the nursery! ’, and her desire to end her isolation is resultant in her hysteria, attempting to use methods such as violence and pleading to escape her separation. In The Wide Sargasso Sea, Annette and her family inhabit an isolated residence, and subsequently, due to their location, also face separation from society, much like in Jane Eyre.
The house owned by Antoinette’s mother is rarely visited, Antoinette is aware of this blatant lack of interaction with other individuals as she asked ‘why so few people came to see us’, suggesting their isolation was severe enough to indicate, even to a child, that their isolation was not common. As Annette responds, it becomes clear that this is due to their geographical location, with the roads leading from Spanish town to their Coulibri estate in need of repair, they limit the accessibility of the residence to visitors and therefore , social interaction.
When Annette’s horse, which she uses to attempt to escape the isolated area, dies, she claims ‘we are marooned’. The hyperbole used demonstrates her exasperation and desperation as she is confined to such an isolated area. The term ‘Marooned’ paints a picture of an island, again a piece of land geographical separate from society. This term also demonstrates how helpless she feels in the situation, and suggests she is unable to see a means of escape. It also presents the idea that the separation her family experiences is potentially dangerous.
Evidence of isolation due to a characters place, or position, in society can be found in both novels. Bronte demonstrates the isolation Jane inflicts upon herself, coming as a result of her awareness of her place in society, in the Chapter 17 of Jane Eyre, which tells of Mr Rochester’s return from his unexpected departure to Gateshead hall, accompanied by numerous guests enjoying a social stay, comprising mainly of games and dinners. Jane intentionally separates herself from Mr Rochester’s prestigious guests as they gather in the study after dinner.
After firstly declining her master’s request for her company, anticipating the isolation she will face, stemming from her inferiority in her class, she then goes on to separate herself. Bronte uses the first person narrative to reveal Jane’s feelings, such as in the narrative “I sit in the shade-if any shade there be in this brilliantly-lit apartments; the window-curtain half hides me”. This demonstrates Jane’s need to physically isolate herself from the party, attempting to not only isolate herself from their conversation with a book, but furthermore their presence, trying to hide.
This also indicates her vulnerability, which contrasting with the confidence of the other women. This isolates her further. By saying ‘half hides me’ her reservations are highlighted, shown in the word ‘half’. This demonstrates how unsure she is about her position in society and the level of isolation she should therefore inflict upon herself, which reflects the confusion surrounding the matter in society in 19th century Britain. As a governess, Jane holds a position in society which, during this period, was unclear, as governesses were of the same class as their masters and their peers, but did not hold the same level of wealth.
As a result, people serving as governesses would often suffer separation and alienation from those in higher and lower classes as they struggled to determine how to act toward beings in such occupations, Miss Ingram’s mother stating “don’t mention governesses; the word makes me nervous”. Bronte was fully aware of such struggles faced by governesses at this time and wrote in a letter to a friend that his daughter ‘would be very unhappy as a governess’.
This suggests Bronte’s knowledge of governesses’ were genuine, as she exerts this knowledge in her personal life. The idea of a struggle to be included is reiterated when the wealthy characters talk about Jane as though she isn’t there, which is unusual social behaviour to exert toward those of the same class; “I noticed her; I am a judge of physiognomy, and in hers I see all the faults of her class. This only furthers Jane’s isolation and separation from the party. Resulting from this place in society and her inferiority in wealth, Jane’s ‘plain grey dress’ contrasts with the extravagant and expensive attires of the other females “Her black satin dress, her scarf of rich foreign lace, and her pearl ornaments”, furthering her blatant separation and isolation from such a group of people through even her clothing. The Wide Sargasso Sea also presents the theme of isolation due to place in society.
Antoinette’s mother, Annette and her spouse were previously slave owners. As a result of this, they are the only white people in the almost solely black community of Coulibri. Slaves in the 19th century were common and were often subject to harsh treatment and laborious tasks set by their owners. This would subsequently result in bitterness toward those who had enslaved them, bitterness which drives one man to suicide in The Wide Sargasso Sea.
In chapter one of The Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette talks about the late man’s house, ‘soon the black people said it was haunted, they wouldn’t go near it. And no one came near us’, groups the family with a house the black community think of as haunted. This suggests that Antoinette feels the black community also believe her family to be alienated and viewed as though from a different world, something to be feared and avoided. By saying ‘near us’, the severity of the isolation they faced is highlighted, with people refusing to even get remotely close to them.
This is more severe that Jane’s isolation in chapter 17, in the sense that she is still in the company of others, with Antoinette and Annette rarely experiencing this, furthermore Jane’s isolation is partly self-inflicted, whereas in The Wide Sargasso Sea, the two desperately wish to escape the isolation they faced, eventually seeking an escape in marriage, however, some could argue Jane’s isolation is consistent throughout her life, having no family, this type of isolation, unlike that faced in her situation in chapter 17, is not self inflicted.
Isolation is a theme explored in both Jane Eyre and The Wide Sargasso Sea, with both texts sharing many similarities, in the severity of the isolation faced by characters in each piece for example, and many differences, such as the way in which characters of both novels escaped such loneliness.