The moon is full this winter night;
The stars are clear, though few;
And every window glistens bright,
With leaves of frozen dew.
The sweet moon through your lattice gleams
And lights your room like day;
And there you pass, in happy dreams,
The peaceful hours away!
From Honour’s Martyr by Anne Bronte
The following article will reflect upon the symbolic representations of the moon in Jane Eyre. For Victorians, the moon was a magical, mystical, and mysterious celestial entity. Full moons especially were highly valued as useful providers of light in the long winter darkness, and facilitators of enjoyment in the warm winter nights.
There were also many superstitious beliefs surrounding the moon, such as the belief that during a full moon, a normal human being could transform into a big beastly, wolf-like creature, the werewolf. Some also believed that acts of lunacy were favoured on such nights. Jane Eyre has no such superstitious exaggerations, however, as we are about to explore, the moon is present throughout Jane’s life, representing love, or absence of love, announcing significant events, or the arrival of important characters, and bringing light and insight in crucial moments throughout the narrative.
Throughout Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, Jane lives in five different dwellings: Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfield, Moor House, and finally, Ferndean. Many authors have considered each abode as a stage representing a new phase in Jane’s experience and development.
Her early years as an orphan were spent at Gateshead Hall, where she was emotionally and physically abused by her uncaring aunt and cruel cousins.
Her aunt sends her to Lowood School, a harsh Institution for poor and orphaned girls, where she develops a resilient, disciplined character, as well as intellectual and creative skills.
The third stage is as governess at Thornfield Hall, where she meets and falls in love with Edward Rochester, thereby developing her emotional and affective persona.
The fourth stage occurs after leaving Thornfield, following her thwarted wedding to the bigamous Mr. Rochester. Jane is taken in by the Rivers siblings, Mary, Diana and St. John, at Moor House. Jane discovers a real, caring family in the Rivers, who were, in fact, her cousins. After Thornfield was burnt down and Bertha died, Jane returns to the widowed Mr. Rochester, who is now living at his Manor House, Ferndean.
Finally Jane has gained the financial security, family, and emotional stability she did not have when she first arrived at Thornfield Hall.
The moon, which is a major symbol in Jane Eyre, is the largest and brightest object in the night sky, radiating mystery and magic and inspiring writers and artists. It has fascinated humankind since time immemorial due to its constantly changing cycle, during which it grows, wanes, and vanishes every month. Consequently, it has become a symbol of time, change, and the unending cycle of life; birth and death, creation and destruction. Before any scientific knowledge of its origins, composition or function were available, it was venerated as a Goddess, and for centuries artists have drawn on her symbolism to convey many emotions from love to lunacy.
When Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre, Beer and Mädler had just printed a map of the moon, which was the first trigonometrically accurate study of lunar features, including the heights of more than a thousand mountains. Although scientific knowledge of the moon was not widespread during the 19th century, awareness of lunar phases was not only inevitable, it was also necessary. For the Victorians, the moon had three main practical uses: to tell the time, to establish location guiding people on their way, and most importantly, to provide light. The full moon is the most useful and fascinating of all the lunar phases because it radiates the strongest rays, and because it causes the highest tides, and therefore exerts the strongest influence on our planet and its inhabitants.
Darkness has always been a drawback for mankind. It has seriously limited activities, increasing the risk of accidents and leads to many hours of boredom. The full moon, providing the sky is cloudless, allows many activities to be carried out. Before electric lighting was installed in streets and houses, full-moon nights were important and welcome occasions for both work and play. Farmers depended on bright moonlight to extend the workday beyond sunset, especially when crops had to be harvested. The full moon closest to the autumnal equinox became the Harvest Moon, and it was always welcome. On the other hand, the full moon was a time of joy, especially in summer. One of the major events in upper class society was the dance. Dances were usually scheduled to correspond with the full moon, as most balls were held outdoors.
In Jane Eyre, from a practical standpoint, the moon is an indicator of the time of day, and a giver of light. The moon is mostly a positive omen, and the lack of moon, leading to darkness, is a negative omen. Symbolically, it announces positive events for Jane, and it guides her path, and helps her make important decisions. Part I of this article will discuss the symbolism of the moon in Jane Eyre during Jane’s early years and her stay in Gateshead and Lowood.
The first time the moon appears in the novel is on the fourth page. On a cold and rainy November night, while Jane is reading a vignette in Bewick’s History of British Birds in the breakfast room, after her aunt, the severe Mrs. Reed, had “excluded her from the privileges intended only for contented, happy little children,” because she had supposedly misbehaved. In the vignette she saw a “cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking.”
This is the only negative appearance of the moon as Jane views it. The moon in the picture overviews a disaster, as a dark omen, despite its apparent brightness. The shipwreck is a metaphor for her own unhappy, friendless life at Gateshead, and the ghastly moon indicates the lack of love.
The second time she mentions the moon is while she was convalescing in bed after having been locked in the ominous red-room, for defending herself from abuse and bullying from her cousin John Reed. She imagined she had seen her deceased uncle’s ghost. Jane had a fit, fainted, and woke up in her bed. Bessie, her aunt’s maid, sang a sad ballad, “Soon will the twilight close moonless and dreary”, which saddened Jane. There was no moon at Gateshead where she was so unhappy. Lack of moon is once a more negative omen.
The morning she left her aunt’s house to go to Lowood, Jane had washed her face, and dressed “by the light of a half-moon just setting, whose rays streamed through the narrow window,” Later as she left Gateshead, “The moon was set, and it was very dark” so Bessie had to carry a lantern. Although the moonlight allowed her to wash and dress, as she left the house, there was no moon. Gateshead was dark once more, denoting an absence of love, as she leaves the house for a new destination.
The first positive event in the novel occurs in Lowood after Jane is accused by Mr. Brocklehurst, the director, of being an evil liar, who should be shunned and avoided by the other residents. Her friend, Helen, consoled her. Then, while the two girls were embraced, the moon makes its first positive appearance announcing Miss Temple’s visit. “Some heavy clouds, swept from the sky by a rising wind, had left the moon bare; and her light, streaming in through a window near, shone full both on us and on the approaching figure, which we at once recognised as Miss Temple.” Miss Temple is the kind superintendent of Lowood School, who treats her students with respect and compassion. She gave Jane the chance to explain herself, and helps clear Jane of Mr. Brocklehurst’s false accusation of deceit.
The moon announced Miss Temple’s visit, which brought protection and honesty to Jane’s life. Miss Temple encouraged Jane to apply herself to her education and was an important role-model for the young Jane.
Some time later, while Jane’s friend Helen was sick in bed, Jane had gone out for a walk, and returned after moonrise. On hearing that Helen was poorly, she decided to visit her in Miss Temple’s room, where she was being looked after. The moon led the way to her friend’s bedside. Jane crept from her apartment, “and set off in quest of Miss Temple’s room. It was quite at the other end of the house; but I knew my way; and the light of the unclouded summer moon, entering here and there at passage windows, enabled me to find it without difficulty.” The moon led her to her ailing friend, thereby lighting the way to love and friendship. Unfortunately, it also heralded Helen’s death. She died that very moonlit night in Jane’s arms.
In this first part, we have witnessed how the moon has evolved from being a “ghastly” onlooker of Jane’s unhappiness, to announcing the arrival of the first positive influence in her life, Miss Temple, and allowing her to assist her best friend, Helen, in her final moments.
The moon will continue to be a key symbol during her stay at Thornfield Hall, which is addressed in the following article, The Moon in Jane Eyre Part Two: Thornfield Hall.