Jane Eyre | Study Guide

Charlotte Brontë

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Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University explains the symbols in Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre | Symbols



Images of fire throughout the novel represent passion, destruction, and comfort or regeneration. Fire, like passion, has the qualities of heat and light. When Rochester thanks Jane for saving his life, "Strange energy was in his voice, strange fire in his look." When Rochester is anxious to get to the church for their wedding, he tells Jane, "My brain is on fire with impatience." In this sense fire symbolizes vibrancy—intense aliveness.

Fire's destructive force visits Thornfield on three occasions. The first is the fire in Rochester's room, when Jane saves him. While Jane's introduction to the mystery of Thornfield occurs in Chapter 11, when she first hears the strange laughter, it is the fire in Chapter 15 that makes the mystery a threatening one. Jane saves Rochester from this fire, foreshadowing how, at the book's end, she saves him with her love after the final fire. The second instance of fire at Thornfield is the lightning strike on the chestnut tree just moments after Jane and Rochester become engaged to marry. Here the destructive force of fire is an omen. The destruction of Thornfield by fire is the most dramatic representation of fire's destructive force.

The image of a fire in a fireplace conveys a feeling of warmth and comfort and signals a pleasant experience, as when Helen Burns and Jane take tea in Miss Temple's room: "How pretty, to my eyes, did the china cups and bright teapot look ... on the little round table near the fire." In shock after her wedding has been abruptly halted, Jane experiences the regenerating effect of fire; Rochester takes her to the library, where she feels "the reviving warmth of a fire." The fire that destroys Thornfield can also be viewed as a regenerative force because it was the beginning of Rochester's redemption.

The red-room, which is the color of fire, provides another set of symbolic meanings of fire. The room is cold and unwelcoming "because it seldom has a fire." The absence of fire is the absence of comfort. Jane's sense that the room is, or may be, haunted gives another reading to its coldness. It is a room of death, without the fire of passion, of life. The light that Jane sees and is disturbed by is reflected lantern light. Thus, what should be a positive—firelight as a guide to where to move and a way to ensure safety—becomes instead strange and threatening.

Ice or coldness serves as a symbolic counterpoint to fire's passion and vibrancy. Early in Jane's life, when she is isolated and alone, she faces the coldness of the red-room and of Lowood, where Mr. Brocklehurst—a man without passion—forces the students to live in a place where they awaken to find pitchers with water that have turned to ice. St. John's coldness contrasts with Rochester's—and Jane's—fiery passion. While that passion can be destructive, so can its absence. St. John is described as being "cold as an iceberg," and his kiss makes Jane think of "marble kisses or ice kisses." With him Jane "felt daily more and more that I must disown half my nature, stifle half my faculties." His ice is stifling the fire of her passionate nature.

The Madwoman

Bertha, the madwoman on the third floor, represents hidden, shameful secrets. Because of her Creole heritage, her marriage to Rochester was outside the bounds of class conventions, and her madness could be seen as the price that both she and Rochester pay for ignoring convention. It is also a forced marriage. Rochester's father and brother trap him in it, meaning it is a loveless marriage, one based on financial concerns. Bertha represents the destructive force of unbridled passion, of the absence of self-control. Without self-control, humans are violent creatures. When she escapes from her third-floor confinement, she does not attempt to gain her freedom but attacks others.

Bertha is the opposite of the maturing Jane—completely dependent, confined, angry, unreasoning, and violent. She is Jane's double, the figure that mirrors Jane in negative ways. Indeed, in her dependence, the limits placed on her, and her anger, she is like the young Jane. If she is of mixed race, that provides yet another contrast to Jane, who is thoroughly British.


Jane mentions her dreams often, and these dreams may reveal her subconscious wants and fears, the passions that she is working so hard to control. When Rochester disguises himself as a gypsy to tell Jane's fortune, she feels her mind clouded, as though in a dream. When she realizes he is the gypsy, she wonders if she had been dreaming. Jane recognizes that dreams have significance. She says that she never laughs at "presentiments" (premonitions) "because I have had strange ones of my own" and then proceeds to recount the disturbing dreams she had after the attack on Mr. Mason. Before doing so, though, she confirms the potent meaning of dreams. Bessie Lee, she said, believed that dreaming of a child was an ill omen, a belief that was strengthened when Bessie dreamed of a child the night before learning of her sister's death. Jane's dreams were also of children, of her with a baby that sometimes laughs and sometimes cries. The next day Bessie Lee arrives and tells Jane that Mrs. Reed is dying.

Later, after Jane and Rochester are engaged, she has more disturbing dreams of children. In the first she is holding a child as she and Rochester walk, but he is ahead of her and gets farther and farther distant; she can never catch up. In the second she is clutching a baby while walking in the ruins of Thornfield, Rochester barely visible as he again moved away from her. The child might represent the still-young hope of happiness, her not-yet-real new identity as Mrs. Rochester, or her desire for motherhood—a chance to be the parent she lost. Clearly, though, the image of losing Rochester, so central to both dreams, is the disturbing presentiment that weighs most heavily on these dreams. The newly engaged Jane isn't dreaming of happily ever after here but of being abandoned and alone—with the added responsibility of motherhood—once again in her life.

After the wedding fiasco and Jane's departure, she dreams of Rochester from time to time, but these dreams are more hopeful. Seeing herself in his arms, "the hope of passing a lifetime at his side, would be renewed, with all its first force and fire."


Moonlight often signals a change is about to take place in Jane's life. Jane dresses by the light of a half-moon just before leaving Gateshead. Moonlight carries her to Helen Burns's room on the night she dies. Jane, out for a walk, watches the moon shining on a village just before she meets Rochester. The moon shines the night Rochester proposes to her and again the night before their interrupted wedding. The night St. John pressures her to marry him, moonlight fills the room just before she hears Rochester's voice. While the moon does not always bode well for Jane, when it appears, her life is about to change.

Questions for Symbols

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Oates has specifically mentioned the "Death and the Maiden" folktales as one inspiration for this story (see "Death and the Maiden" under " Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory "). Some literary critics have
Read the following passage and identify at least 3 elements of figurative language; explain how each element brings out the theme of the passage. "The Wrong Place" by Susan Michalski Lana woke up, cur
Write a one-page essay on how culture influences peoples’ attitudes toward fire and fire prevention. For instance, in some cultures having a fire in your home is looked at as a shameful event. In othe
Write a creative story about Halloween. You, or a character you create, is getting ready for a Halloween party. Unfortunately, strange things start to happen. (Is it vampires, zombies, aliens, or some
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