Jane Eyre 5: Crossing the Threshold with Jane—The Novel’s Liminal Elements

At first, when I realized we would be reading Jane Eyre during the end of December and beginning of January, I thought that was a little strange. After all, this seems more the time of year to read Dickens, or maybe Charlotte Bronte’s sister Emily’s great novel Wuthering Heights ( I still hold to the old traditions of ghost stories at Christmas). Then  I realized there is probably no better time of year to read this novel which, in many ways, is a story that focuses on the meeting place between one state and another, making it a threshold or liminal (from the same root word that gives us “limbo”) story of the first order.

January, of course, is named for Janus, the Roman doorway good, whose two faces looked in opposite directions. The Romans took their thresholds seriously, giving us the tradition of the groom carrying the bride over the threshold of their new home (though a Roman groom had a group of his buddies heft the little woman in rather than trying to take on the task alone!). Romans recognized that the threshold was a tricky place, an in-between spot that was neither one place or the other. Threshold places are those that, like Lewis’s Wood Between the Worlds in The Magician’s Nephew, connect two places.

Less exotic threshold places are found all around us, as Polly and Digory realize the Wood is very much like the attic space where they play. Liminal events are those that are experienced in the transition from one state to another: birth, death, marriage, dreaming, etc. ( I always do the “liminal” talk when I teach Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” a story that centers on several such events). Jane spends an usual amount of time in places that can be seen as ways between worlds, and she undergoes a number of threshold experiences in her story, emphasizing her role as a person who is neither one thing nor another but who can travel between different worlds.

A Shadowy Childhood

Jane’s threshold experiences color, or rather, shadow, her childhood. When we first meet Jane, she is sitting in a windowseat reading as she hides from her brutish cousin John Reed (if Dudley Dursley had read Jane Eyre, maybe he would have learned that meatheads who bully their orphaned cousins seldom come to good ends). A windowseat is a truly liminal place, neither outside nor inside the house. Shortly after her unpleasant encounter with her cousins, her tyrannical Aunt Reed has her locked up in the red room. Here Jane has her first supernatural encounter of the book (more on those when we get to religion and the supernatural) when she thinks the ghost of her late uncle, who would have cared for her had he lived, visits her. A ghost is the very epitome of a liminal creature: neither alive nor dead, neither in one world or the other, terrifying to some but comforting to others.

This transforming experience leads indirectly to another crucial threshold moment in young Jane’s life. After being sent to Lowood school, she befriends Helen Burns, the sickly but spiritually focused child. In an unequivocally liminal scene, Jane cuddles up with her sick friend, and drifts off to sleep, only to awaken to the realization that Helen has died in her arms in the night. Jane has accompanied her friend in the ultimate threshold moment, death, made even more liminal by the fact that it happens during sleep. The living child holding the dead one is a perfect picture of a threshold moment.

A Liminal Love Affair

During her time at Thornfield, Jane also functions within the liminal sphere. The governess was a threshold figure in the gentry of Britain: an employee, but more educated and involved in family life than a maid or cook, she often knew the family’s children better than their parents did, but was not really part of the family. Jane’s meeting with Rochester is also marked by threshold elements. Jane is sitting on fence stile, a crossing place, a threshold for fences, basically. She meets him just after the sun has gone down and the moon is rising. Not only is twilight a critical liminal time, but the time of day when the moon and sun are opposite each other in the sky, as one rises and the other sets , is a very important event in Celtic belief: the time between times, the time of day when the walls between the worlds are thinned and mortals may travel to fairy lands, or the fey themselves may enter our world.

Rochester and Jane thus meet in an atmosphere of both fading sunlight and rising moonlight, and Jane knows that this is an important moment. Its role as a liminal experience is emphasized by Jane’s words when she returns to the house and, thinking she is returning to her usual dull routine, does not want to enter Thornfield :” to pass its threshold”; for she is crossing a threshold, beginning her life-changing relationship with Rochester.

Even though it does not take place at the liminal moments of dawn or dusk, and is apparently even after the transitional hour of midnight, Jane’s rescue of Rochester, a moment that is pivotal in their changing relationship, still has the threshold element. When Jane is awakened, thinking she had heard someone touching her bedroom door, she reassures herself by the reminder that it must be Pilot the dog, who often “found his way up to the threshold of Mr. Rochester’s chamber,” and, of course, it is at her own threshold where Jane finds the candle and then rushes to Mr. Rochester’s aid, altering their relationship and deepening the Grace Poole mystery.

Another critical moment with Jane and Rochester happens at the stile and at twilight. Here Jane, returning from attending her Aunt Reed’s funeral, thinks Rochester is a ghost, again ,the threshold creature. Just as the first meeting was the transitional moment when Rochester came into Jane’s life, so this one shifts their roles again. Rochester, at this meeting, actually jokes that Jane has come from the “the other world” since she’s been with a woman who is now dead, and teases her for being an elf or illusion, both liminal in nature. As if to make the point even more clearly, Bronte brings in the word itself again; in urging Jane to go back to Thornfield and rest, Rochester encourages her to rest “at a friend’s threshold.” Okay, Charlotte, we’ve got it now!

Always a Bridesmaid

Rochester actually proposes to Jane on one the big threshold dates of the year, Midsummer’s Eve, the shortest night of the year and one with very little darkness at all in northern countries. The role of the bride is a truly liminal one, even without the carrying over the threshold tradition we inherited from the Romans. She enters the church a single woman and leaves a wife, a role illuminated by her veil being lifted ( some traditions also include a bride removing her gloves and giving them to her father). Jane, who is, incidentally, veiled at the second stile meeting, too, has a little veil problem on the night before the wedding. The mad Bertha breaks into Jane’s room and shreds the fancy new veil (Jane goes with a backup), and, instead of believing her eyes, Jane thinks she’s had a vision or nightmare, both liminal, not-quite-reality moments, of a vampire, a threshold figure if there ever was one.

Of course, the wedding fiasco leaves Jane in limbo: she is not married to Rochester, but she is not free, either. She cannot commit to him in a life of sin, so she flees, consigning herself to a lengthy exile in limbo with the Rivers family, who live in a house called Marsh End. Anyone who’s ever gotten a shoe sucked into marshy earth knows it is a transitional element: not really water, but certainly not land. In addition, the Rivers family also serve as threshold reminders not because rivers themselves are particularly liminal, but they are crossed by a threshold—a bridge—and St. John Rivers’s namesake, Saint John (or the Revelator as some of the old folks still call him) is the most liminal of the New Testament writers, clearly illustrated by any comparison of him with the other Gospel writers: they seemed to be writing documentaries, while John was writing with one foot in the spiritual, and one in the physical, worlds.

Though Jane settles into her new life, she is still , in spirit, with Rochester, herself neither one place or the other.

How Low Can you Go?

When Jane and Rochester are finally reunited, it is at Ferndean, a house that is almost completely enveloped by the surrounding woods, making it a threshold between the natural and human worlds. And, no big surprise here, Jane arrives at dusk. The blinded Rochester, upon reunion with Jane, begins to slowly regain his sight under her care, placing him into a liminal state of vision as she restores him body, soul, and mind. When we last hear from Jane, of course, she is a wife and mother, having undergone the two most prevalent threshold experiences for women, but she is soundly in the human world, just as poor old St. John Rivers is surely bound for another one.

So, it seems pretty clear that all this threshold business is all over the novel; that begs the question of why? Does dusk just make a nice setting for a Gothic story, and are ghosts just something for atmosphere, or is there more? Jane’s very transitional nature is part of what makes her so very appealing, to Rochester, to generations of readers, to us here. She is both someone to whom we readers can connect (after all, we are her “dear readers), but also someone who is having amazing experiences we can share only through her. Jane is both fascinating and familiar so that we, like Rochester, find ourselves drawn into her spell. The liminal natural of the story also emphasizes the “not-one-thing-or-the-other” aspect of Jane’s position. As an orphan, she is part of a family but without a family, and, as this is the story of her growth and development, the threshold elements of the story add to the transitional, developmental aspect of this narrative. And perhaps, the liminal qualities of Jane and her story create the mystical, almost magical air of this novel, an aspect that we’ll explore further in a forthcoming post on the spiritual and supernatural elements of the story.

So, what purpose do you see the threshold theme serving? What other threshold moments and elements do you find worthy of discussion?


  1. Thanks for this, Elizabeth, as I’ve rarely had interest in this novel. Now I do, you’ve sold it too me.

    Is this for your reading class?

  2. I’ve read this book many times, both in leisure and academic settings and have never before counted out all of the individual liminal elements included in it’s pages! In two days I start an English class where we are reading Ms. Bronte’s work (yet again) and I feel I am going in with a stronger understanding now. Thank you!

  3. There aren’t words for how much I love this. 🙂

    I’ve always loved the haunting, hovering-on-the-brink feeling carried throughout Jane Eyre. I’d never thought to look so closely at the details.

    One of my favorite scenes is when Jane returns to her chained eagle and all his liminal imagery for her comes out in full. It’s even playful. “You mocking changeling,” he calls her, “fairy-born and human-bred!” And she teases him about “rising on his hearth” (appearing out of nowhere, for anyone who doesn’t recall the reference) with ham and eggs.

    And of course, their reunion itself is sparked by a startling brush with the supernatural. I’m guessing that’ll be covered in the next post…

  4. Thanks so much for the feedback, gang! I loved picking out the “threshhold” references, which really were all over the place when I started to look! And the big finale is my favorite, too, Jenna!
    Lancelot, I do wish I were teaching JE in class, but some of my star pupils do come here to hang out, so we get some “class” time here!
    Henry–I hope you’ll report on your real live class discussions! Happy reading!

  5. Carrie-Ann Biondi says

    Thank you for yet another wonderful post! I had not thought about this in terms of threshold imagery, but now that you’ve put out there this theme I have to say that one of the threshold moments that really grabs my students when I teach this novel occurs in the first three paragraphs of Chapter XI. Here is some of the magical language of threshold/transition from this travel scene that makes this such a stage-appropriate novel for college-age students:

    “A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see….”

    “It is a very strange sensation to inexperienced youth to feel itself quite alone in the world: cut adrift from every connection; uncertain whether the port to which it is bound can be reached….”

  6. This examination of the text evokes for me the sense of danger that was considered apparent in the novel by Victorian contemporaries. Many disparaged it because it would give governesses in particular ideas above their station and from time to time it was worthy of a ban as reading matter for young women and school girls. A good example of this is given in the Edwardian novella published in 1908 by Mary Braddon called ‘Dead Love Has Chains’. In this, her young heroine has been led astray in part, it is thought, by her fondness for the situation of Jane and her dramatic love affair with her employer. Crossing boundaries indeed!
    Thanks again for this.

  7. Two or three mornings ago, I woke with the idea in my head that Jane Eye is all about thresholds. As I lay there between sleep and waking (the liminal state par excellence) I backtracked to some of the examples that my memory of the book had entertained me with while I slept.
    I might mention at this point that I am retired, having spent 45 years teaching English literature to university students. I taught Jane Eyre a few times and have always greatly admired it, but it is not a work that I have been thinking of at all of late; I’m working on quite other matters. This evening, though, thinking that I might write up my intuition, I googled “Jane Eyre” + threshold and lo! your page was top of the list. So I discovered your very nice little essay and more examples.
    You end by asking about the purpose of the threshold theme. Well, the repeated motif serves to give coherence to the novel. But also …
    My intuition is that it functions within a wider framework. We put frames round everything we do and generally limit our actions to what is socially permitted within the current frame. Students may surreptitiously hold hands during a lecture, for instance, but to kiss would be to step outside the accepted frame (at least, it would be in the part of the world I am familiar with: frames are culturally determined). Every social situation and social artifact (like a novel) has a frame, an invisible threshold over which we step at our risk.
    Jane Eye is novel that plays constantly with frames of all kinds. Because of this it was considered shocking, unsuitable reading for young ladies: it might give them ideas of stepping out of line.
    Take the frame of the behaviour expected of a young orphan like Jane in her aunt’s home: she steps out of it when she stands up for herself and tells her aunt a few home truths.
    At the other extreme, we have the frame of what the Victorian reader expected of a novel, particularly one written by a woman. Charlotte Brontë dodged that one by adopting a gender-neutral pseudonym. But she shattered another frame or two with that famous sentence, “Reader, I married him!”
    So crossing thresholds is what the book is doing at almost every level, literally and metaphorically stepping out of frames of all kinds, each with its own threshold.
    Charlotte Brontë lived in Haworth, on the edge of the west Yorkshire moors, above the towns where spinning and weaving was the major industry. When mechanized looms were introduced at the beginning of the 19th century, countless workers were laid off because the new machines required far fewer hands to work them. Some of them banded together (as Luddites) and raided the mills, breaking the frames. “The Luddites met at night on the moors surrounding the industrial towns, practising drills and manoeuvres, and often enjoyed local support. The main areas of the disturbances were Nottinghamshire in November 1811, followed by the West Riding of Yorkshire in early 1812” (Wiki, entry on Luddites). In 1812 frame-breaking was made a capital crime.
    Should we call Charlotte Brontë a Luddite of literature? She was certainly courageous.

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