Jane Eyre 1: “Once Upon a Time in Thornfield…” Reading Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ as a Fairy Tale

When I began my re-read of Jane Eyre for our Hogwarts Professor Book Club, I chose to use the edition I used in high school (though I have, of course, read Charlotte Bronte’s classic often since then, I’ve not used this edition so much). I found that part of my joy in re-visiting this, one of my all-time favorites, came from also revisiting the person who made those notes in the margins over 20 years ago. Some of those notes were for an essay I wrote about the fairy-tale elements of the novel. The essay itself is, I fear, long ago nibbled up by attic mice to make little mousie beds (or in one of those boxes I don’t plan to open myself but expect my children to excavate), but reading the notes has given me pause to resurrect the concept for our discussion here. What about Jane Eyre makes it a fairy tale? After all, it is often considered a herald of the modern autobiographical novel, hardly the stuff of princesses and dragons, and yet, at its core lie some of the most resonant elements of fairy tale literature.

Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?

Though Bronte’s protagonist is neither a member of nobility nor a great beauty (of whom humble breeding is often forgiven in fairy tales), the tale of young Jane’s education, passionate love for Edward Rochester, and his subsequent redemption features a number of stock characters who seem to have wandered by on their way from an edition of the Grimms’ collected works to auditions for Into the Woods.

First on the scene are the wicked stepsisters, Jane’s cousins Eliza and Georgiana Reed. Though they also represent, especially as adults, the two extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence, in Jane’s childhood memories, they primarily fulfill the stock roles of tormentors and competitors, conspiring with their horrid bully of a brother, John, to make Jane’s life as miserable as possible. Their mother is also a recognizable wicked stepmother type. Like Cinderella, Jane has been relegated to a lower position within the household by the woman who is supposed to be her benefactress (though she is no blood relation), but who instead heaps upon her ward abuse and degradation and conspires to destroy her chances of success and happiness by lying to Jane’s would-be adoptive uncle and even under Jane’s deathbed kindnesses, refusing to acknowledge or beg forgiveness of our long-suffering heroine.

When Mrs. Reed finally agrees to give Jane the one thing the child wants, an education, it is only by sending her into the clutches of another familiar face from the pages of the storybooks, The Big Bad Wolf himself, Mr. Brocklehurst. Jane’s first impression of Brocklehust lacks only fur and claws to place him in her path on the way to Grandmother’s house: “…having examined me with the two inquisitive-looking grey eyes…under a pair of bushy brows… a bass voice….What a face he had now that it was almost on a level with mine! What a great nose! And what a mouth! And what large prominent teeth!” The better to eat you with my dear!

And yet, Bronte does not merely trot out these figures as stock types. She takes them from their fanciful stories into the “real” world of Jane’s life, where they blossom from their fairy tale roots. Brocklehurst’s wolfish nature is reflected in his spiritual bullying as well as his rapacious use of school funds: the students are poorly dressed, fed, and cared for, while his own wife and daughters are dressed so lavishly as to be shocking to everyone but him. Jane willingly makes herself the servant, Cinderella-like, to her wicked former caretaker, deepening theire roles and taking them far beyond their origins of poor servant-child and wicked stepmother.

Tale as Old as Time

The real fairy tale starts after Jane leaves school, of course, and journeys to Thornfield Hall, a place whose very name is evocative of the fairy tale world, specifically of Rapunzel’s prince, who, tricked by the Witch, is tossed from his love’s tower, landing in thorns, which pierce his eyes and blind him (Rapunzel’s tears later restore his sight). The master of Thornfield is also later blinded during the fire that destroys the great house and only regains partial sight under Jane’s loving ministrations.

Jane is pleased that this healing happens so that he can see his first-born son. In un-sanitized versions of her story, Rapunzel gives birth to twins while the prince wanders in exile, and he meets his children when he is reunited with and healed by his true love. Rochester, at least, is firmly convinced that Jane is a creature from a storybook, calling her a fairy or elf at every turn, both because of her diminutive size and her impish personality. When they first meet, Rochester is unsure if Jane is human or a supernatural creature, and he later claims he is unsure of her humanity when she returns from her visit to the Reeds.

But the fairy tale from which Rochester himself seems to have escaped is“Beauty and the Beast.” Gothic tales often require a castle or mansion like Thornfield, but Rochester’s home is more reminiscent of the Beast’s castle than of any stock set piece from a Gothic thriller (though countless later Gothic romances have sprung up from Jane Eyre’s roots). The Beast and Rochester both have odd rules (“Don’t pick the roses!” “Don’t talk to this injured man you are watching over!”) In fact, by morphing the original story’s rose element with Rochester’s house of forbidden rooms, we get the Disney version of the Beast in his off-limits wing of the castle, hovering over the rose that ticks away his time for breaking the spell.

Both the enchanted prince and the master of Thornfield are brooding, though caring in their pursuit a mystified young woman. While Beauty leaves the Beast to check on her father and sisters, Jane departs Thornfield to care for her dying aunt and visit with her cousins, who, like Beauty’s sisters, were never very nice people but who still drag the visit out to unnecessary lengths.

Soon Bronte’s narrative departs from the familiar path of the Beauty and the Beast story for a detour into its Scandanavian cousin “East O’ the Sun, and West O’ the Moon” (also known as “The Three Gold Nuts” and about a million other names). This version, drawing strongly upon the myth of Cupid and Psyche that is the predecessor of all such stories, requires the heroine, after revealing her husband’s true nature (he’s a bear in the day, a man at night), to undergo a harrowing journey, baby on her back, to find him and restore him to his fully human state. Along the way, she is helped by kind strangers and given three magical objects that help her once she locates her beloved.

In like fashion, Jane, upon learning Edward Rochester’s terrible secret, flees for the fairy-tale-standard three days, falls among three unknown relatives, and later travels back three days to find ruined Thornfield –just as she had dreamed it, but in the dream, she was carrying a child, just like the Scandinavian version of Beauty. Jane must then restore her beloved. He is not dying, like the fairy tale Beast when Beauty overstays her visit to her family, but he is also not very much alive until Jane arrives, feeds and grooms him, and declares her love for him regardless of his ruined physical condition. Just like the Beast, he can only be human when he is truly loved by his perfect soulmate.

The fairy tale of Jane does not end with a generic happily ever after, but with a more effective and believable, but satisfying ending. The damaged hero is restored by his true love, they are married and begin a real family, and Jane even manages to redeem her own painful childhood under an unrelated benefactress by creating an on-going positive relationship with Adele, and even rescuing Rochester’s not-actual love child from a bad school and bad upbringing to serve as a positive force in her life. After, fairy tales are all about restoration, of kingdoms, of relationships, of inheritances, of dead princess who turn out to have been merely sleeping. At its heart, Jane Eyre is a story of restoration, which makes it a fairy tale of the first order.

Book Club Notes

So that’s our inaugural Jane Eyre book club post! We look forward to chatting with you for the next few weeks about this great classic and its rich store of meaning for readers today. We have five or six more posts that will appear over the next week or  two, but, since it’s a book group, we crave group input — which means you!

Please feel free to share your thoughts on this post: even though this is far from a comprehensive study, did you notice glaring omissions of particular fairy tales? Want to bat around how this works with Tolkien’s and Lewis’s ideas about fairy tales? In what ways do you see Bronte NOT telling the tale as old as time?

We hope you’ll join us for subsequent posts, and if you don’t see something that you’d really like to discuss (conditions of working women in 19th century England, anyone? I can tell you I’m not going there, but I do plan to get to clothes and hairdos!), give us a shout, and maybe you’d like to guest post on that area!  Discuss away, gentle readers!

(And if you’re not joining us for the Jane Eyre and book club discussion, don’t worry, our other Professors will continue to be here for lively conversation on other subjects through the holidays!)


  1. Oh, how I loved this. Start to finish. Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books, but I’d never thought to compare it to fairy tales.

    Brocklehurst as a big bad wolf makes a perfect triangular connection to the Biblical imagery of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And the similarities to Rapunzel, Cinderella and the various forms of Beauty and the Beast are fascinating. I like Bronte’s twist in which the Beauty constantly emphasizes her lack of actual beauty, though as John or Mary says at the end “in [Mr. Rochester’s] e’en she’s fair beautiful”. The Beast’s love gives her the crown of beauty, as her love (and perfect inner loveliness) are his restoration.

    Your last paragraph was particularly wonderful. Well said.

  2. Carrie-Ann Biondi says

    I agree that this is an illuminating post, especially since I’m not very knowledgeable about fairy tale traditions. The parallels you note are striking and make me want to study fairy tale lore.

    You ask us “In what ways do you see Bronte NOT telling the tale as old as time?” Hmmmm….. I guess that from the few fairy tales that I know, the way in which Charlotte Bronte breaks out of the mold has to do with the depth of her heroine. Jane is not some outwardly beautiful cruelly treated princess-at-heart who mysteriously works a transformation on her prince. Jenna’s phrase “perfect inner loveliness” is exactly right here. Jane’s character unfolds before us in ways never seen in fairly tales, and it is precisely this–her intellect and slowly formed good character–that earns her life’s rewards. Her merit is explained and true-to-life. While “virtue rewarded in the end” is a “tale as old as time,” the way it is told here makes all of the difference so that something new is added.

  3. I almost want to use this as a part of my research paper for Jane Eyre..

  4. is this a reputable source? Can I cite this as a literary criticism at a college level alalysis?

  5. I am a real-live professor at a real-live college, Sophie, and I encourage my students to use the posts from this and other reputable blogs. You might want to run it by the instructor, though, just in case.

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