Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre combines physiognomy and interiority.

What Do Appearances Mean in Jane Eyre?

What Do Appearances Mean in Jane Eyre?

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April 5 2016 8:30 AM
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A Power Beyond Beauty

What do appearances mean in Jane Eyre?

Jane Eyre
How much can characters’ surfaces really tell us?

Project Gutenberg

This article is part of A Year of Great Books, a Slate Academy. To learn more, read Laura Miller’s introduction to the series, or visit Slate.com/GreatBooks.

Jane Eyre, which crackles with fantasy elements like a pond with ice, deepens its quality of myth or dream by making physical appearances predictive. But what do they predict? There is plain Jane and craggy Rochester; glamorous Blanche Ingram and statuesque St. John Rivers. Charlotte Brontë’s focus on looks is more than spare fabric borrowed from the fairytale genre. It also reflects Victorian England’s preoccupation with the pseudosciences of phrenology and physiognomy. By 1847, the year Jane Eyre came out, many respectable Londoners had embraced the idea that one’s inner traits were legible in the slope of one’s nose or the curve of one’s brow.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.

Yet Brontë also witnessed (and half-belonged to) a movement in literature that aimed to “instruct and delight” readers with clear, luminous representations of virtuous behavior. Like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot, she wrote fiction that idealized the faculty of penetration: sympathetic insight into someone’s true nature. Brontë and her near-contemporaries wrote about the need to subordinate outside to inside; to snatch away the veils of class, prejudice, and superficial appearance. Establishing a distinction between characters’ external and internal selves, these authors were the first to identify interiority as the novel’s central concern.

All of which leaves Jane Eyre in a fascinating position, looks-wise. Is its novelistic world built on physiognomic laws? Or are bodily descriptions more likely to beguile and mislead than to reveal the truth? How much can characters’ surfaces really tell us?

It is tempting to argue that characters in Jane Eyre turn out to be the opposite of what they appear. Jane, “small and plain,” with features in which (according to St. John Rivers) “the grace and harmony of beauty are quite wanting” emerges as a passionate, radiant spirit. The grim-jawed, square-faced ugliness of Rochester belies his romantic allure. Blanche Ingram, Jane’s rival for Rochester’s affections, is limned in incandescent detail, all “fine bust” and “sloping shoulders,” her “long, graceful neck” supporting a “jetty mass of curls.” But she is rude and silly, incapable of winning over the characters we care about. Likewise, St. John Rivers is “tall, slender; his face riveted the eye; it was like a Greek face, very pure in outline: quite a straight, classic nose; quite an Athenian mouth and chin.” But for all his harmonious lineaments, St. John is cold, exacting, and ungenerous—less an Apollo than a Dickensian hypocrite. “Appearances,” insists one study guide for the novel, “are almost always inversely related to the actual nature of the characters in Jane Eyre.

But that reading feels too simple. Characters’ physical and personality traits intertwine in complicated ways, not least because, for instance, the haughty Blanche is accustomed to preferential treatment based on her beauty, while perceptive, unassuming Jane is more used to looking than being looked at. In her essay Watch and Learn: The Power of Seeing in Jane Eyre and Villette, Angela Keithsuggests that Jane herself is a physiognomist, able to marshal what Michel Foucault called the “clinical gaze” to obtain “an exhaustive, clear, and complete reading” of those around her. Key here is the notion that interpreting a person’s appearance requires more than two working eyeballs—it demands “expert decoding.” Jane, whose judgments of Rochester, Blanche, and St. John land with unerring accuracy, knows how to unlock physiognomic secrets invisible to the untrained eye.

Readers exercising the same clinical gaze might be able to discover essential truths about Brontë’s characters by consulting their features. Consider St. John in his chilled marmoreal loveliness—“It is seldom, indeed, an English face comes so near the antique models.” St. John is like a statue: hard, immovable, severe. He seeks to marry Jane though he does not love her, his heart locked tight within his will’s “despotic constriction.”

Jane sees beyond Blanche Ingram’s glossy plaits and fine shoulders to “the habitual expression of her arched and haughty lip.” The lady’s “olive complexion” evokes the dangerous exoticism of Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester’s mad West Indian bride; her voluptuous breasts conjure that oversexed creature’s decadence and degradation. To the student of physiognomy (which, it should be said, enfolds into its inglorious history a lot of racist nastiness), Blanche Ingram is bad news.

As for Jane herself, she is indeed “plain” in the sense of honest and direct. “Do you think me handsome?” Rochester queries her, the night they meet. “The answer somehow slipped from my tongue before I was aware—‘no, sir.’ … ‘sir, I was too plain; I beg your pardon.’” Jane’s integrity and grave good sense form part of her charm as a heroine; her straightforward nature allows us to trust her storytelling. Elsewhere, she “felt it a misfortune that I was so little, so pale, and had features so irregular and so marked.” But Jane’s fairylike smallness and strange features are of a piece with the otherworldly reveries she entertains pacing to and fro on Thornfield’s roof: “I allowed my mind’s eye to dwell on whatever bright visions rose before it—and, certainly, they were many and glowing.”

Like a sprite, she flickers into Rochester’s life and vanishes when her conditions are broken; he can secure her return by sacrificing his sight and retiring to a woodland grotto. (This is not to underplay Jane’s status as a human woman in search of identity, only to point out that her elfin oddities play into the overall phantasmagoria.) Rochester, disguised as a gypsy, infers his love’s determination and autonomy from something as trivial as the set of her forehead: “The brow professes to say—‘I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.’”

Of course, in this scene Rochester is only pretending to meet Jane for the first time. (He may be ugly, but he is not plain.) His insight flows not from physiognomy but from months of association with the governess at Thornfield. And yet the gentleman’s close knowledge of Jane teaches him just how to interpret her face. It gives him a lens through which to understand what her features are implying: the existence of an “inward treasure” he cannot see.

“Don’t address me as if I were a beauty; I am your plain, Quakerish governess,” Jane chides Rochester. She also speaks of a “Quakerlike” black frock and describes her dress as “my usual Quaker trim.” Along with theories of physiognomy and the imperative to show penetration in action, Jane Eyre flares with the Friends’ doctrine of the inner light. This belief held that the lowly body contained and concealed seeds of divinity. Outer ugliness and humility went hand-in-hand with an inward glow. A careful reader of Jane’s “Quakerish” presentation would know that her interior landscape was noon-bright, that she nourished “an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive.”

So Brontë allows physiognomy and penetration to reach a kind of truce. Outer appearances can provide a clue to inner qualities, but the clue is often hidden in plain sight—and sometimes it merely hints at an imperceptible soul, a presence outside the scope of vision. “To the soul made of fire, and the character that bends but does not break,” vows Rochester, “I am ever tender and true.” Truth: loyalty but also accuracy, perspicacity, an essential ingredient in love. “I never met your likeness,” he continues, meaning Jane’s equal but also her ephemeral reflection in the mirror. No wonder Rochester is such a swoony Romantic hero. His passion runs deeper than skin-deep.