This text copyright © 2008 Dr Anne Wilson
I find Jane Eyre a rare example of a novel using a ritual plot. Structurally, I see the text as containing two entirely separate levels of narration which do not know about each other, the primitive plot and the author’s work as a novelist. The plot has come unbidden from somewhere else in the mind and has its own agenda over which the author has no control; yet it may have been triggered by the extent of the author’s personal involvement in her subject. Her work as an author has the status of an overlay, sharing story material with the plot to create a quite different narrative. Since the author’s work cannot change the course of the plot, texts of this kind usually show some conflict, but, in Jane Eyre, the two levels of narration co-exist harmoniously, even while raising questions.
The chief of the evidence for this textual situation lies in the way in which the plot culminates in the Moor House and Ferndean episodes. The heroine arrives at Moor House to a famous coincidence: she has escaped from Mr Rochester and wandered destitute in country new to her until she calls at a lone house where it turns out that unknown cousins are living. These cousins, St John Rivers and his two sisters, appear to be connected by name (Reed/Rivers) and by family structure, with John Reed and his two sisters. Peter Allan Dale¹ comments that ‘Moor House turns out to be more home than either [Jane] or we had any right to expect’: ‘three good cousins and their maternal housekeeper finally bring in the wanderer whom three bad cousins and their mother began the book by excluding’. Dale also asks why Jane does not tell Rochester about the ‘mysterious summons’ at Moor House. Doreen Roberts² asks why so few readers notice a ‘drastic and quite sudden shift in plotting’ in the novel. At Thornfield ‘there begins a progressive plot movement from realism to fantasy’: ‘The Ingrams belong to the Angrian world, there is the coincidence of Uncle Eyre in Madeira happening to know the Masons in Jamaica, and alerting them to the bigamous marriage; the still more remarkable coincidence that Jane, wandering aimlessly around England, should stumble first go on her unknown cousins; then come the handy legacy, the still more convenient conflagration (after umpteen abortive attempts by the culprit), and the final telepathic communication that rescues Jane from St John Rivers at the eleventh hour.’
When I came to work on Jane Eyre in the late 1970’s, I came with my models of medieval ritual plots, and I noticed that the events at Moor House had the appearance of a replay of those at Thornfield, reversing the vision of marriage with Rochester so that it was a vision of a loveless union with St John in the cause of service and sacrifice. Such a relationship, reminiscent of Horn’s ‘Goodmind’ move, was suggestive of a move structure.
In time I also realised that the Moor House and Ferndean moves were, once again, that pair of moves relating to each other as steps to a solution. The St John situation was a surrogate one, while the final return to Rochester was to the exact situation. The plot is finally ruthless, as only a ritual plot can be: the Rochester figure was no longer at Thornfield, but at Ferndean, his house and marriage destroyed by fire and he himself violently reduced in power. These last events in a ritual plot would finally remove a fear of dominance and also a fear of incest. While Brontë’s overlay can be concerned with a marriage of loving equals achieved by mature means, her ritual plot accomplishes marriage by means of the ritual removal of fear and guilt, and the ritual marriage represents a sense of sovereignty, all desires achieved.
Ritual plots do not arise from a neurosis which can be cured by therapy. These narratives occur in texts which have been exceptionally popular over many centuries and must therefore represent a normal situation. It can also be seen that they have their own, effective solutions at their own irrational level, and might play a useful role at that depth of the mind. Certainly, in the text of Jane Eyre, the presence of a ritual plot would account for much of its power.
Chart for the Ritual Plot in Jane Eyre
The plot I see has five moves and, typically, it becomes more obtrusive in the later moves. This is because these plots are engaged in bringing about a change in feeling, and greater efforts are needed as the ritual sequence advances.
The overlay, meanwhile, has its own concerns: characterisation, moral themes and other features relating to the author’s reflection on the social world belong exclusively to this level.
In the first two moves, the ritual plot is barely perceptible (except for the link in name between John Reed and St John Rivers). Its concern with a desire for status (it belongs to a group of plots I call ‘sovereignty plots’) underlies the novel’s exploration of a child’s yearning and struggle in the social world.
In Move 3, the plot’s concerns become a little more obtrusive. Sovereignty plots use the idea of marriage with some kind of royal figure, and, at the primitive level of such plots, royal figures are confused with parents and siblings; this gives rise to fear and guilt which the plot has to resolve before it can end. In Jane Eyre, the king-figure’s house is haunted by a hidden wife, an expression of the plot’s fear of incest. The plot also has to deal with fear of the king-figure’s power, and the ‘Madwoman in the Attic’³ will express this fear too. To deal with these problems, the plot enters another move.
In Moves 4 and 5, the plot becomes much more obtrusive, as it seeks to purify the heroine’s desires and reduce the king-figure’s power. In these two final moves, it uses the familiar pair of moves using the surrogate and then the exact situation as steps to a solution. There is an echo of Horn’s Goodmind move at the surrogate court of King Thurston in the first of the pair. The performance of a penance is quite common in ritual plots, and, in Move 4, the heroine is an outcast in the wilderness before making her famous arrival at Moor House. Purification is also a function of many of these plots, and Move 4 purifies the content of the Thornfield move by substituting for it the prospect of a loveless marriage with a dominant relative in the cause of service and sacrifice. Finally, the plot returns to the king-figure of Move 3. Only the overlay, meanwhile, could give us the striking character of St John Rivers.
The last move is the sovereignty move, where it is the heroine’s time to ‘assume ascendancy’, but when she enters this move it appears that her ascendancy can only be achieved by removing almost everything from the king. The themes of the overlay soften this ending by describing the love between the couple and Jane’s care of Rochester, but the plot has quite other imperatives and the alterations to the king-figure are strategic, dealing with a necessity; it is typical that the powerful St John move has not been able to solve all the problems. These primitive plots know nothing of morality and are concerned only to create a sense of well-being and remove sources of pain at a deep, unreasoning level of the mind. At that depth, they are normal and healing, with their own, inbuilt resolutions for desire and guilt, always ending in victory.
1. Peter Allan Dale, ‘Charlotte Brontë’s “Tale Half-Told”: The Disruption of Narrative Structure in Jane Eyre,’ in Heather Glen, ed., Jane Eyre, New Casebooks, Macmillan, 1997, pp. 207-8; 215.
2. Doreen Roberts, ‘Jane Eyre and “The Warped System of Things”,’ in Heather Glen, ed., Jane Eyre, ibid, pp. 48-49.
3. See Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, Yale UP, 1978.
My first study of Jane Eyre was published in my second book Magical Thought in Creative Writing, Thimble Press, Stroud, UK, 1983, pages 48-61.
This text copyright © 2008 Dr Anne Wilson