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Literary Symbolism in Jane Eyre

Novel Illustration: An Educational Approach to Jane Eyre

A truly brilliant work of literature conveys meaning on multiple levels, not merely in what the characters say and do but even in the artistic imagery the author incorporates into his or her work. Homeschool Connection’s own Eleanor Bourg Nicholson illustrates this admirably in a piece she wrote for the Spring 2024 issue of St. Austin Review entitled “Novel Illustration: An Educational Approach to Jane Eyre.”

The 1847 novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is one of the great literary works of the English Romantic era. On the surface, Jane Eyre tells the story of its eponymous protagonist, Jane, a governess in the house of the brooding country gentleman, Edward Rochester, as she navigates her feelings for Mr. Rochester while simultaneously striving to untangle his mysterious past. But there is so much more to the story for those who are adept at understanding the rich tapestry of symbolism in Brontë’s work—themes of head versus heart, the nature of marital love, and home and belonging are all explored.

Eleanor Nicholson’s article offers us a little glimpse into how Brontë skillfully weaves these themes into the visual imagery of the novel. In Volume I, Chapter 13, Jane is subjected to scrutiny by Mr. Rochester, who is curious about her creative achievements. He is particularly interested in her paintings. The paintings seem arcane and impenetrable—a cormorant perched upon the mast of a shipwreck holding a crown in its beak in the midst of a storm-tossed sea; the bust of a woman before a mountain with the evening star on her brow; and a colossal head wreathed in a shining turban before an icy landscape. While many readers over the years have found these images frustratingly opaque and been tempted to skip over them, Eleanor Nicholson warns against this, instead offering a delightful exegesis of Jane’s paintings based on the themes from the book. She says—

This would be a mistake [to skip the passage]. In fact, this is a critical passage for close-reading, providing insights into the character of the heroine and the central tensions of the novel. It also provides an opportunity for readers to consider the place and pedagogical virtue of visual art in depicting a fictional world. Illustration, like book covers good, bad, and indifferent, can enhance the study of a novel, and inspire conversation about themes, context, critical emphases, and artistic form. Illustrations can demonstrate understanding of the text—or the lack thereof…readers can ask why an illustrator chooses to depict one scene rather than another, and take that decision as a clue into what the illustrator deems of greatest importance. Illustrators can play a vital part in the formation of a character in the reader’s mind. In reading the Brontës, visual art goes beyond general utility to provide a particularly powerful lens for study.

She then offers insightful analyses of the three paintings of Jane Eyre, showing how they call back to the fundamental dilemmas faced by Jane throughout the book. Her observations are not only helpful in understanding the book itself, but also serve as a template for how we should approach literary images in general in order to tease out deeper layers of meaning in the text.

I’m, of course, not going to steal Eleanor’s thunder by divulging her interpretation of the paintings, but you can read Eleanor’s article here, courtesy of St. Austin Review. Speaking of St. Austin Review, it is a fantastic Catholic journal of literature and culture that merits your readership and support. I have derived great benefit from the articles of St. Austin Review over the years, and its editor, the illustrious Joseph Pearce, is a man of boundless wit and insight. I highly recommend you subscribe to support this worthy Catholic publication.

*NOTE: The illustration for this blog post was created by Kate Bartel. All of the illustrations in the article were created by Mrs. Nicholson’s students.

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