When it comes to analyzing and interpreting Jane Eyre, most tend to focus on the psyche of Bertha, the obvious madwoman in the attic, and the margins of (toxic) masculinity of Edward Rochester. However, in regard to Jane herself, the psyche of her characterization, personality, and mental state is unsuccessful in observing. Among the adaptations of the infamous novel, Robert Stevenson’s approach to Jane Eyre is the first major theatrical screenplay to air in 1944. Though the originary text is known for its Victorian gothic, suspenseful and supernatural-like aspects and elements, Stevenson’s and the studios focus was to emphasize on the romance. “What this meant for Jane Eyre was that all other elements of the novel had to work towards a central love story and if they did not, then they were changed or edited out” (Chalk 3). There are critics that state the fidelity from originary text to adaptation is a triumph. “The Stevenson Jane Eyre has much to commend it, and it has long been regarded as a model of successful adaptation… the production embraces the gothic aspects of the novel rather than shrinking from them” (Riley 146). Nevertheless, the film’s adaptation brings the romance at the center of attention and removes a handful of storylines essential to the originary text, further drawing back even more from representing and treating Jane’s mental state, which is at the core of her haunting, unreliable characterization, an issue that is far overlooked.
In the first half of the novel, Jane is constantly in her head. She spends most of her time by herself, and this gives her a chance to really be with her thoughts, emotions, to ask and answer questions about life that she ponders over, observes those around her, and speculates about the circumstances and situations she finds herself in. Jane’s first encounter of isolation, neglect, and loneliness happens in the red room, a punishment her aunt Mrs. Reed sets upon Jane for attacking John Reed. The red room is described to be that of “a constant flow of abuse and potential trauma that underpins Jane’s imprisonment in the red room… the Reed family depicted as dysfunctional and, in Mrs. Reed’s adoration of her vicious son, a site of misplaced affection” (Wood). The red room, one containing secrets, is symbolic in setting up the reader for Jane’s puberty and (repressed) sexuality, her idealization of fatherhood (a paternal figures in general), and her relationship with all the male characters within the novel. The red room is indeed the turning point in Jane’s life, an imprisonment that advances the severity of mania than preventing it. It is the starting point in Jane’s imagination, in her trying to decipher and comprehend the world and those around her.
It is also where Jane is aware of her sense of self, and the unjust and unfairness of punishment. Jane, only a child then, states her mind as “disturbed” (Brontë 16). It is here she exclaims, “why was I always suffering, always browbeaten, always accused, for ever condemned?” (Brontë 16). Jane’s throwing in the red room as a punishment is where her own thoughts pivot to the extreme low, which is concerning knowing she is only a child, where she “instigated some strange expedient to achieve escape from insupportable oppression—as running away, or, if that could not be effected, never eating or drinking more, and letting myself die” (Brontë 16). In the red room (and her time at Lowood) she develops a rage, which leads to outbursts she herself exclaims—throughout the entire novel—she has in no control over, and her vindictiveness.
She refers to herself as “one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp,” a “heterogenous thing,” a “useless thing,” an “uncongenial alien,” (Brontë 16, 17). Shuttleworth explains Jane’s own language for herself in childhood repeatedly stresses her lack of a sense of coherence (155). “The evocativeness of the red room testifies to the complex interrelation between fantasy and reality, particularly in memories of childhood” (Wood). Jane’s imagination reveals “the essential nature of her position at Gateshead… It is a genuine perception of the creative imagination… The interaction between fact and imagination, between external and internal, is such that we are compelled to accept a composite view of the child’s insignificance and her power” (Gribble 284). It is significant to mention that childhood trauma alters brain development as the individual progresses through their pivotal years. It further hinders the individual’s sense of self, time management, and distinguishing between reality and imagination. It is through Jane’s older self that the audience comes to know of Jane’s unfortunate childhood. The traumatic experience she has endured in her younger years with her time spent at Gateshead creates a long-lasting impact on her mental health. Bernard Paris explains that Jane is perceived as having “no rights and as being insufficiently grateful for the inadequate care that is so grudgingly bestowed on her… as a result of these conditions, Jane develops intense feelings of insecurity, vulnerability, and hopelessness… she lives with a constant dread of being abandoned… and always strives to defend herself and of vindication” (9). Jane’s journey in proving she is superior to those who devalue her, and her journey to find self-love, acceptance, and happiness is a way of representing that is the only thing Jane ever truly wants, since she was a child: to be loved and cared for.
Through Jane’s loneliness, and her frequent solitude, she develops a strength that lets her carry on throughout her childhood, to teen years into (young) adulthood. With her experience at Gateshead and Lowood, Jane has developed a strategy of coping with the circumstances and situations she finds herself in. She finds comfort in being alone; she finds ways to enjoy her own company (or, at least, not enjoy it, but rather she doesn’t reject it, either) which benefits her immensely later on in her life when she is abandoned or left by others. The audience gets a glimpse into her mind and what she is thinking about, and most of the time it’s Jane speculating the actions and behaviors of those around her, trying to justify the reasoning behind, and more than anything, talking to herself. Jane gets so caught up in her own mind and thoughts that she loses her sense of time. “I walked about the chamber most of the time. I imagined myself only to be regretting my loss, and thinking how to repair it; but when my reflections were concluded, and I looked up and found that the afternoon was gone, and evening far advanced…” (Brontë 78).
[bookmark: _Hlk26796511]The way Jane acknowledges and addresses her mental (and physical) health correlates to the narration of her own story. She has bouts—and bouts that keep her from sleeping—where she forces her mind to work, and gets to the point of exhausting herself, “feverish from vain labor” (Brontë 80). Jane’s solitude gives her a chance to become a detailed, observant person. Even so, the audience knows that traumatic experiences stick with an individual as they progress through life; Jane is no exception. What Jane has seen and gone through creates a sense of long-lasting impact on her health, both mental and physical. Since the novel is told through her perspective, and hers only, and with the audience’s knowledge of Jane’s past, it makes Jane an unreliable character. Jane just so happens to constantly remind the reader she is telling the story, and repeats herself in stating she is “telling the truth.” There are numerous sections within the novel that pinpoint to Jane’s unreliability, one of the most important in which Jane, and the audience, are introduced to Bertha. Stevens explains, “one page after insisting upon her delivery of ‘the truth,’ and just moments after first describing Bertha’s ‘eccentric murmurs,’ Jane again pleads, ‘oh, romantic reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth’ [Brontë 101]. If Jane indeed lies here and elsewhere in the novel, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between her truth and fiction” (210). Shuttleworth calls Jane as one who “possesses the ability to ‘mask’ herself” (165). Jane is a highly educated and intelligent woman, and her experiences from childhood into adulthood have paved a path for her to comprehend and develop a sense of self and reality to the point where she is observant enough to decipher and alternate truths, and how to present them.
In relation to the 1944 adaptation, what the film doesn’t convey well is Jane’s psychology—that is so well discernable in the novel. The adaptation’s representation and treatment of Jane’s mind and mental health is poor in relation to its severity in the novel. With Stevenson’s adaptation, critics of film and literary work defend and further explain that, as Chalk states, “Jane Eyre, like the other adaptations so popular in this era, existed in the nexus of both conservative and democratic concerns” (1). The production of Jane Eyre had to be revised and re-scripted to bring forth the romance of the novel. This was “not uncommon in the studio era as the industry favored a classic narrative model with a central romantic plot” (Chalk 1).
In Stevenson’s film, the story begins with Jane’s childhood at Gateshead, and is faithful to the important narrative elements of Jane’s isolation, loneliness, and distance—both physical and mental—to and from those around her. In three short scenes the Stevenson film makes Jane’s character and situation dramatically evident—the red room is the starting point of the abuse and agony Jane endures as a child. Though the film doesn’t go to the extreme to showcase that. The screenwriters also dismissed the importance of the violent fight between John Reed and Jane, and the impact on Jane of her banishment to the red room…” (54). Atkins goes on to further explain that Jane’s imagination runs wild as a result of her imprisonment, and ultimately “she has a seizure” (54). Yet the movie does not want to “portray her as a violent little girl, and the directors compensate for this omission with a harmless shoving match between Jane and John in a later scene” (55), further sugarcoating of Jane’s anger, as well as how the red room truly impacts Jane’s mentality and sense of the world, giving the audience little sense of Jane’s identity from within her childhood. Chalk briefly mentions another critic and film producer, David O. Selznick, in which he urged his writers to find out “what makes Jane tick” (qtd. in Sconce, 1995, p.148). He argued that what happened to Jane in her childhood had a profound affection on her future relationship with Rochester (3). Which is a plausible argument. On the other hand, to take what Jane has experienced in her childhood, in her time before Thornfield, and to apply it to only a romantical aspect of her life, belittles her character, her struggles, and her growth. What she has endured in her childhood and teenage years prepares her for more than just her relationship to Rochester; it is far beyond romance more than anything, and to romanticize her trauma (and growth) takes away from her humanity as a person and individuality that she achieves successfully because of her struggles and personal growth.
What audiences of the film don’t get to see is that of what readers of the novel see, the best and the worst of Jane: her humanity, empathy for others, humility and humble nature, to her stubbornness, her unwilling drive to accept herself, her questioning and concerning mentality. We see Jane on the brink of madness, or so on a line that just hinders her mentality, that makes her lose focus and touch with reality; contrarily, throughout the film, even from childhood, Jane is portrayed as an individual that seems to have herself put well together, despite the circumstances and situations she is put in, and the trauma that follows. Stevenson’s Jane is far more oppressed (in terms following the romantic plotline of an obedient woman and wife), reserved, and silent than book Jane, nor is she as creative and passionate (with her reading and drawing) as the Jane readers have come to love and relate so well to. The film fails to portray Jane’s characterization and unreliability, an aspect of her mentality that is evident in the originary text from the start that attests to her mental state. “She shows authority and self-awareness, addressing the reader directly and then seamlessly moving from one tense to the other so that she appears to dissolve into different states of consciousness” (Chalk 5). This is incredibly important to the novel. Though this is evident within the film—with narrations through voiceovers—it isn’t just Jane’s “individualism and power,” but rather her unreliability as a person to try and take control over a situation (or, in this case, a sequence of events throughout her life) and twist the story in manipulating the reader to divert their attention to her, to trust and care for her, something that has been missing for most of her life. In the film, audiences don’t get that same atmosphere nor curiosity and suspicion.
Jane’s mentality and the line of insanity is sugarcoated by the romantic genre and aspect of the (novel and) film. Jane’s characterization and mentality that is presented within the novel parallels to Bertha’s. Stevenson’s representation of Bertha is just of that: a mad woman. Because the film focuses on Bertha as the only manic, it leaves Jane in the shadows as a “sane” individual, and, for those who have read and further analyzed the originary text, know this is not the case. What the audience doesn’t get from the film is that Jane and Bertha are parallels, two sides to the same coin. Jane suppresses her emotions, her rage, her outbursts, and has better control of herself. Bertha, on the other hand, lashes out with no moral compass, no sense of self. She is the shadow that follows—lingers—just behind Jane, a representation of what Jane could have turned out to be. She has surpassed that line. Bertha is the mere representation of what Jane could have been. In the film, whenever Jane is in the presence of Bertha—and this is rare since Bertha is constantly kept in shadows, never shown—Jane is at times wide-eyed, silent, almost sympathetic. Though in the originary text, it is evident in those scenes, and later when Jane has processed what she has seen and witnessed, that there is a sense in which Jane realizes and is aware of Bertha being a foil of her own characterization, and the readers know this, too. But within the film, it isn’t evident. There is no way to correlate the two women who are much more similar than different.
The production’s decision of removing certain aspects, storylines, scenes, and phrases of Jane Eyre to fit the film standard of the era strips away Jane’s complex (and unreliable) character and the severity of her mental state that drives the story to what it is. It is indeed difficult to bring forth a character such as Jane from text to screen; however, to strip away a character’s psychology—a driving factor for their actions and behaviors—deprives them of well-rounded characterization and role. It’s clear—from further reading into the production of the film that the company, cast, and crew mainly cared about aesthetics and romance to fit in with the commercial film of the era. Chalk explains “In the case of Jane Eyre, steps were taken not just to bring high art to the masses, but reinterpret that art in a way that made it relevant to contemporary society” (6). Even going as far as to state “on the surface Jane Eyre may appear a simple gothic romance, yet what is central to the film is Jane herself, a plain poor orphan who raises herself up through education, determination and steadfast integrity” (7). In spite of that, one cannot talk about and present Jane Eyre as a character central to a film without depicting her psychology as shown and mastered throughout the novel. Jane Eyre cannot be Jane Eyre without her complexity, unreliability, her stubbornness and outbursts, her quick-witted and detailed thought-process, and her overall psychology that parallels and adds depth to the haunting, gothic, suspenseful, and supernatural-like theme and genre.
- Atkins, Elizabeth. “‘Jane Eyre’ Transformed.” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 1, 1993, pp. 54–60. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43797741 web, accessed 9 Dec. 2019
- Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Deborah Lutz. New York. Norton Critical Edition, 4th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2016. Print.
- Chalk, Penny. “Jane Eyre (Stevenson, 1944) – Adaptation, Cultural Capital, Democracy, Individualism.” Academia, Academia, https://www.academia.edu/12482794/Jane_Eyre_Stevenson_1944_-_Adaptation_Cultural_capital_democracy_individualism web, accessed 9 Dec. 2019
- Gribble, Jennifer. “Jane Eyre’s Imagination.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 23, no. 3, 1968, pp. 279–293. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2932556 web, accessed 9 Dec. 2019
- Jane Eyre. Dir. Robert Stevenson. Perf. Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, and Margaret O’Brien. Twentieth Century Fox, 1944. Film.
- Paris, Bernard J. Imagined Human Beings: A Psychological Approach to Character and Conflict in Literature. NYU Press, 1997. EBSCOhost, www.search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=48182&site=eds-live web, accessed 9 Dec. 2019
- Riley, Michael. “Gothic Melodrama and Spiritual Romance: Vision and Fidelity in Two Versions of ‘Jane Eyre.’” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 2, 1975, pp. 145–159. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43795400 web, accessed 9 Dec. 2019
- Shuttleworth, Sally. Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology. Cambridge University Press, 1996. EBSCOhost, www.search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=3907&site=ehost-live web, accessed 9 Dec. 2019
- Stevens, Kevin. “‘Eccentric Murmurs’: Noise, Voice, and Unreliable Narration in Jane Eyre.” Narrative, vol. 26, no. 2, May 2018, pp. 201–220. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/nar.2018.0010 web, accessed 9 Dec. 2019
- Wood, Madeleine. “Jane Eyre in the Red-Room: Madeleine Wood Explores the Consequences of Jane’s Childhood Trauma.” The English Review, no. 3, 2006, p. 11. EBSCOhost, www.search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsglr&AN=edsgcl.141169742&site=eds-live web, accessed 9 Dec. 2019