Jane Eyre as an Aarne-Thompson Type 425C Fairy Tale
by David Schlachter
Beauty and the Beast, a traditional fairy tale, is categorized in the Aarne-Thompson System as being of type 425C, “search for a lost husband.” Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, disregarding Jane’s formative years at Gateshead and Lowood, follows the plot and themes of Beauty and the Beast closely and can be seen as a fairy tale of AT type 425C. However, the fate of Mr. Rochester seems to undermine this comparison, presenting this analogy as flawed. This argument may be countered by more closely examining the redemptive features of Rochester’s final situation. The difficulty of Mr. Rochester’s situation being removed, it is clear that Jane Eyre can be categorized as an AT type 425C fairy tale, presenting interesting perspective. Jane Eyre is no more a ‘fairy tale gone wrong’ than Beauty and the Beast.
The Aarne-Thompson System defines type 425C as having four stages: the monster as husband, disenchantment of the monster, loss of the husband, and recovery of the husband (Ziolkowski 210). In comparing Jane Eyre to this type, the characters must first be established. Firstly, can Rochester, as the male protagonist, be considered a monster? As Brontë’s characters exist within a realist narrative framework, we cannot expect Rochester to be “an enormous beast with a long ugly snout, ears hanging down, and a shaggy coat and tail” (Bechstein)—it is clear that we must read these descriptive fairy tale elements of Jane Eyre loosely. However, Rochester is certainly described as physically ugly. His spiritual self is also disfigured and marred by his failed marriage to Bertha Mason. His marriage to Mason, and his consequent affairs and hypocritical deceit toward Jane are symptoms and causes of his spiritual ills: “I am little better than a devil at this moment; and, as my pastor there would tell me, deserve no doubt the sternest judgments of God.” (256) Rochester is also prideful; Jane, in retrospect, claims that he “disdained every part but that of the giver and protector.” (392) Additionally, Rochester feels melancholic. Says Rochester, “happiness is irrevocably denied me.” (120) Rochester, suggestive of a Beast in appearance, and oppressed spiritually as Beast was oppressed physically (and in some versions of the tale, mentally), is a clear parallel with Beast.
As for Jane, though she is not beautiful, her integrity and intelligence are her real beauty. Mr. Rochester, in speaking of previous mistresses, states the qualities which he despises: “What was their beauty to me in a few weeks? Giacinta was unprincipled and violent: I tired of her in three months. Clara was honest and quiet; but heavy, mindless, and unimpressible: not one whit to my taste.” (274) Jane, while lacking physical beauty, is “free and honest” (316); while Rochester despises “familiarly with inferiors,” (274) Jane is “a free human being with an independent will,” (223) who asserts her equality with Mr. Rochester: “it is my spirit that addresses your spirit … equal,—as we are!” (222) Thus, while Jane is not a physical beauty, she does have appeals to Mr. Rochester as “a good and intelligent woman” (273).
Returning to the AT classification, the plot of Jane Eyre follows the pattern of type 425C. As we have already established, Mr. Rochester is variously established as a monster (Parenthetically, his melancholy and spiritual ills are not innate—says Rochester, “Nature meant me to be, on the whole, a good man.” (119)—instead, his oppression is inflicted upon him by a woman, Bertha Mason. This is similar to the witch in some versions of Beauty and the Beast and stands as an interesting parallel in female power.) The disenchantment of the monster is shown in Jane Eyre as Jane’s evolving opinion of Mr. Rochester. First, both Jane and Belle acknowledge their respective monsters’ ugliness. Rochester asks Jane, “‘You examine me, Miss Eyre … do you think me handsome?’ … ‘No, sir,”’ (115) as Beast asks Belle, “‘But, tell me, do not you think me very ugly?’ ‘That is true.”’ (Le Prince de Beaumont 9) However, both Belle and Jane soon overcome their prejudices: “And was Mr. Rochester now ugly in my eyes? No, reader: gratitude, and many associations, all pleasurable and genial, made his face the object I best liked to see.” (129) This is very similar to Belle’s sentiments in the traditional tale: “I own I am pleased with your kindness, and when I consider that, your deformity scarce appears.” (10) In the classic tale, Belle “conquer[s] her dread of the monster,” (10) while in Brontë’s novel, Jane becomes devoted to Rochester “because [she is] comfortable” (390) with his person; he is thoroughly demystified in her eyes.
The third and final features of AT 425C are very clear in Brontë’s novel. Jane obviously leaves Rochester, her future husband, after his deceit is exposed. Though the motives are different, Belle leaves Beast with the consequence of her departure being that the beast must inevitably “die with grief.” (11) Jane considers the same fate of “misery, perhaps … ruin” (283) in Mr. Rochester’s case.
However, neither beast is utterly ruined, though the threshold is nearly reached. In Belle’s case, she returns to find Beast “stretched out, quite senseless, and, as she imagine[s], dead.” (13) Jane finds Rochester “helpless indeed—blind and a cripple.” (378) By her affection, Belle quickly revives Beast, at which point he is transformed into “one of the loveliest princes that eye ever beheld.” (14) The same is not apparently true for Mr. Rochester: Jane’s affection does not cure his compounded physical disfigurement.
Mr. Rochester’s apparent non-transformation seems a compelling weakness in this comparison. However, Mr. Rochester is redeemed more deeply than physically. Girard considers such a hero ultimately saved from his pride: “The hero triumphs in defeat; he triumphs because he is at the end of his resources; for the first time he has to look his despair and his nothingness in the face. But this look which he has dreaded, which is the death of pride, is his salvation.” (Girard 294) Because of Jane’s decision to abandon Rochester, coupled with his physical humiliation, his pride is destroyed. The destruction of his pride is his redemption and his transformation.
The destruction of Rochester’s pride is closely linked to his true union with Jane. According to Bubel:
Such renunciation is also the salvation of the love between Jane and Rochester. To ‘repudiate the human mediator’ … allows the object of desire to be a subject, as well. Jane and Rochester both ‘pass through the grave’ and come to stand, ‘at God’s feet, equal’. At the conclusion of the novel, they are united in matrimony, a rite that is traditionally symbolized in the circle of a ring that shows that ‘all true love is a reciprocal relation’. (Bubel 307)
Jane, “the object of desire,” can only be “a subject” or, “a thinking or feeling entity,” (“Subject” def. 4) in Rochester’s love because his pride is destroyed: Rochester’s humiliation made possible his union with Jane.
Second, Rochester is also renewed spiritually. He once claims, “I could reform … but where is the use of thinking of it, hampered, burdened, cursed as I am?” (120) Bereft of his pride, Rochester is prepared to fulfil himself spiritually; his pride, levity, and worldliness—even his melancholy—are replaced by nobler sentiment. His reformation, or, his willingness to reform, is stated simply in prayer after Jane’s acceptance of his proposal: “I humbly entreat my Redeemer to give me strength to lead henceforth a purer life than I have done hitherto!” (395) Not only is Rochester willing to change, but he is grateful: “I thank my Maker, that, in the midst of judgment, he has remembered mercy.” “My heart swells with gratitude to the beneficent God of this earth.” (395, 393) Thus, the melancholic bondage of Rochester’s soul is replaced with a grateful longing for spiritual renewal.
In these two instances—Rochester’s esteem of Jane’s equality and his desire to reform (both caused by the destruction of his pride)—Rochester is clearly transformed. His pride—the essence of his beastliness—is removed just as surely as Beast’s hideous visage was cast off. Thus is Rochester made whole; he is “disenchanted by affectionate treatment,” (Ziolkowski 210) and prepared for this disenchantment by his loss.
It is clear that Jane Eyre follows the pattern on an AT 425C fairy tale closely; Rochester is established and cursed a monster, demystified, lost, and finally disenchanted and redeemed. As mentioned previously, this provides perspectives on female power throughout the novel, particularly through Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason: Bertha’s power is clearly to curse Rochester, Jane’s to redeem him. By establishing Jane Eyre as an Aarne-Thompson type 425C fairy tale, motifs become more clear, and comparison with other fairy tales of the type, such as Beauty and the Beast, gives a richer understanding of Brontë’s fairy tale.
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