Echoes in Gothic Romance: Stylistic Similarities Between Jane Eyre and Rebecca

By Stephanie S. Haddad
2012, Vol. 4 No. 11 | pg. 1/2 |

When Daphne DuMaurier's acclaimed Gothic romance novel Rebecca debuted in 1938, it was devoured by the female readers of its day. Ultimately, however, criticisms of DuMaurier's most famous novel were quick to point out its irrefutable resemblance to another Gothic romance novel written nearly 100 years prior: Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847). Whether it was intentional or not, DuMaurier never commented on the novels' similarities, but the evidence speaks for itself, extending far beyond heroines and plotlines.

Today, the two classics are still read and discussed in modern literature classrooms, offering readers many parallels. In capturing the essence of their genre, DuMaurier's and Brontë's classic works provide prime examples of many of the common elements, rhetorical devices, and characterizations of the Gothic romance novel.

I. The Gothic Romance: Origins & Elements

Before examining the similarities between Jane Eyre and Rebecca, it is necessary to understand what elements make up the literary genre of Gothic romance. The Gothic genre first came into popularity in the mid-eighteenth century with the publication of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. Although it has no ties to the Gothic era of history, Gothic fiction did mirror the rise of Gothic architecture at the same time. Many speculate this fact contributed to the name “Gothic fiction,” although The Castle of Otranto was set in Gothic times and may have also given the genre its name.

Described as a blended form of prose fiction, the Gothic aims to combine the narrative, dramatic, and lyric styles of writing into a powerful tale of dark themes, sometimes supernatural elements, and social repression. Common elements of the Gothic novel include: a setting in a castle or mansion, supernatural or inexplicable events, overwrought emotions, one or more women in distress, and a metonymy of gloom and horror (Harris). Sometimes called the literature of nightmare, Gothic fiction includes dream landscapes, figures of the subconscious imagination, and the fears common to all mankind in one powerfully told story, riddled with suspense and drama (MacAndrew).

The ‘true’ Gothic novel maintained its popularity through to the early nineteenth century, “although a small but consistent demand for this form combining romantic fantasy with a mystery and an apparent upsurge of supernatural evil continued well into the twentieth” (Radway). This new blend, known as Gothic romance, evolved over time. In a typical work of this nature, readers will find elements of the Gothic interwoven with those of Romance, particularly a focus on the relationship that develops between the hero and heroine (Russell). In addition, the primary element found in a Gothic romance is a feeling of dread, not the terror associated with pure Gothic fiction. This dread can be physical, psychological, or metaphysical and involve the body, mind, or spirit, but the Gothic romance must create an atmosphere that blends suspense and fear with mystery (Thompson). Finally, one last distinction between the two genres involves the novel’s end: a Gothic hero is ultimately destroyed by his demons, while a Gothic romance hero works through his past evils and the darkness of his own mind to achieve some form of victory (Thompson).

One of the most popular works of Gothic romance, Jane Eyre was written at the beginning of Gothic fiction’s second wave of popularity in the mid-nineteenth century. Known as Victorian Gothic, due to the monarch reigning at the time, Jane Eyre and Brontë’s other works were characterized by a “heroine who acts as a focus for social critique… lost in the world of her tale” (Hogle, 146). Additionally, she must liberate herself from the hold of her past as she is repositioned into a new atmosphere, a new architectural space, and a new political or social climate (Hogle). In her novel Jane Eyre, Brontë demonstrates a range of Gothic influences to form a more complete Gothic structure, one of the first of the truly “Female Gothics.”

As the Gothic romance genre continued to develop and evolve into the twentieth century, writers like Du Maurier led the charge. The Romantic strand of the Gothic got something of a reboot in the 1920s and 1930s, introducing new settings by way of mansions instead of castles and new social struggles, while also staying true to the essence of the genre. In Du Maurier’s novels, especially her most famous work Rebecca, she echoes the drama and suspense found in Brontë’s novels, while also adding her own flair. “It is no exaggeration to say that Du Maurier was the twentieth century’s Charlotte Brontë and Rebecca the twentieth century’s Jane Eyre” (Yardley). Both of these novels demonstrate the common elements of the Gothic romance genre and have become classics in their own right today.

II. The Female Gothic in Practice

When discussing these works, it’s important to note that they are both sub-categorized as works of the “Female Gothic,” a term first coined to describe the works of the Brontë sisters and their contemporaries. Inspired by the Gothic works of the late eighteenth century, Charlotte Brontë borrowed many elements from popular authors at the height of the first wave of Gothic fiction. Her characters, often versions of the models from this era, included confined and threatened women, ambivalent and dynamic anti-heroes, and weak, ineffectual heroes (Spooner & McEvoy). Although her works were based around these character archetypes, Brontë’s fiction was much more than a “crude reproduction” (Spooner & McEvoy, 30), however; Brontë’s own contributions to the genre helped to heighten the suspense of her Gothic romance novels by creating claustrophobic and psychological dramas focused around the relationships between men and women . Her characters are always “modern women seeking a place for themselves in a world that is hostile to them” (Spooner & McEvoy, 31), leading to a climate of high drama and social struggles. As a result, the definition of Gothic evolved to include Brontë’s contributions and a new Gothic revival was born in the mid- to late-nineteenth century.

Like Brontë, Daphne Du Maurier employed many of these similar character types and dramatic elements to put her own spin on the Gothic romance when the genre was revived for a second time in the 1930s. With the postmodernist climate of her modern world to draw upon, Du Maurier crafted her own brand of Gothic romance, turning her character’s very anxieties into a form of entertainment for the reader (Spooner & McEvoy). Much of the suspense found in Rebecca is psychological, with a tremendous amount of focus placed on the heroine’s internal feelings and thoughts—a revolutionary way to tell such a story at the time.

In their own ways, Brontë and Du Maurier each advanced and shaped what has come to be known as the Female Gothic: a sub-category of dark romance novels with elements of horror, written exclusively by female authors with females at the center of the drama. In The Routledge Companion to the Gothic, editors Spooner and McEvoy include a careful dissection of the most common elements found in the Female Gothic, which include the explained supernatural, the importance of narrative perception, and the heroine’s connection to the natural world.

The Explained Supernatural

In Jane Eyre and Rebecca, the authors employ elements of the supposed supernatural to heighten the tension and suspense of the story. As is common in the Female Gothic, however, these “supernatural” forces are always found to have very natural explanations (Spooner & McEvoy). These explained supernatural elements serve their purpose as a literary device without asking the reader to accept improbabilities and elements of the paranormal, as is seen in strictly Gothic works.

In Jane Eyre, several supernatural events occur, each working to create a more suspenseful atmosphere. On the night before Jane’s wedding, a strange figure appears in her bedroom and destroys her veil. The next morning, she recounts her tale to Rochester:

...A woman, tall and large, with thick and dark hair hanging long down her back… I saw the reflection of the visage and features quite distinctly in the dark oblong glass… Fearful and ghastly to me—oh sir, I never saw a face quite like it! It was a discoloured face—it was a savage face, I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!... The lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrowed; the black eyebrows wisely raised over the blood-shot eyes (Brontë, 285-6).

Jane goes on to explain that the figure reminded her “of the foul German spectre—the Vampyre” (Brontë, 286), something her would-be husband considers foolish and ridiculous. This event, perhaps Jane’s most terrifying encounter in the entire novel, and several other “supernatural” occurrences wound throughout the story are explained as the doings of Rochester’s first wife Bertha Mason, a so-called madwoman who is kept in the attic at Thornfield Hall.

In Rebecca, Du Maurier also relies on the explained supernatural to build tension within the plot. Although not as overt as a nightmarish encounter, the supernatural elements in Rebecca are often dark feelings or premonitions the narrator experiences as she explores her new home at Manderley. Upon her first visit to Rebecca’s private boat house on the coast, the novel’s nameless protagonist (known to literature experts and critics as simply I) fights against unexplained feelings of dread as she opens a mysterious door: “I went to it, and opened it, a little fearful now, a little afraid, for I had that odd, uneasy feeling that I might come upon something unawares, that I had no wish to see. Something that might harm me, that might be horrible” (Du Maurier, 113). This passage demonstrates how heavy and foreboding the supernatural presence of Rebecca’s ghost seems to I. Of course, the something she “might come upon” is the secret of Rebecca’s death, not her ghost, but the narrator has no inkling of the truth at this point in the story.

Both of the above examples demonstrate how the explained supernatural works to increase tension and suspense within a typical Female Gothic novel. Other similarities exist, specifically that both events are connected to the heroine’s predecessors, another element that Jane Eyre and Rebecca have in common.

The Importance of Narrative Perception

Of course, the ability for Brontë and Du Maurier to heighten the reader’s anxiety with supposed supernatural events is closely tied to the importance placed upon narrative perception in the Female Gothic novel. Jane and I each narrate their respective stories in the first person, past tense voice while also revealing their inner thoughts as they occur. Thus, the reader experiences events as they happen to the narrators, along with descriptions of their thoughts and feelings in the moment.

Without using the limited first person narration in both novels, neither author could ask the reader to believe an event to be supernatural and then explain it away as a natural event. Readers learn only what the narrator knows at the time, taking them on a journey right alongside these women, which allows for much more confusion-based suspense. Stressing the nature of perception in the Female Gothic, Brontë and Du Maurier capitalize on the of free, indirect narration which grants them access to the heroine’s thought processes and also details this unique perspective on events (Spooner & McEvoy). This privileged status is paramount to creating the air of mystery and suspense that is the core of any Gothic novel.

The Heroine in Nature

The final element common to works of the Female Gothic is the use of the heroine’s reaction with the natural world as a running theme. Authors of the Female Gothic often demonstrate an interest in the relation of the two, presenting the reader with a series of beautiful vistas through the eyes of the heroine (Spooner & McEvoy). Her reaction to these scenes is what categorizes the scenic descriptions in the Female Gothic style; without the heroine’s introspective on the natural world, the scenes would be only mountains, grand landscapes, and elegant mansions. In Jane Eyre and Rebecca, the heroines’ internal reactions to their beautiful new homes demonstrate the authors’ interest in their relationship to nature.

When the narrator of Rebecca gets her first glimpse of Manderley, a grand mansion she once admired on the front of a postcard, her reactions capture her internal feelings of dread and reluctance:

The gates had shut to a crash behind us, the dusty high-road was out of sight… This drive twisted and turned as a serpent, scarce wider in places than a path, and above our heads was a great colonnade of trees, whose branches nodded and intermingled with one another, making an archway for us, like the roof of a church. Even the midday sun would not penetrate the interlacing of those green leaves, they were too thickly entwined, one with another, and only little flickering patches of warm light would come in intermittent waves to dapple the drive with gold. It was very silent, very still…Even the engine of the car had taken a new note, throbbing low, quieter than before (Du Maurier, 64).

In the above passage, many words are cleverly used by the author to connote a special sense or association. The art of connotation, or using a word to convey a certain overtone, is woven throughout the narrator’s first impressions of Manderley, affecting her perception of both sight and sound (Kolln & Gray). The gates crashing, the twisting serpent-like drive, and the roof of branches impenetrable by even sunlight: all of these images evoke a foreboding sense of dread, of being trapped, and of something evil lurking around the bend. Even as the engine’s rumbles take on a new sound to the narrator, her very feelings are shifting from a state full of hope to one of dread. Almost to the contrary of these feelings, however, is the comparison of the branches intermingled into an archway like the roof of a church. This observation by the narrator suggests something different; perhaps coming to Manderley seems like a kind of sacrament to her, something holy and other-worldly. Manderley, to the narrator and now to the reader, becomes a sacred place shrouded in mystery, like a church with a long history and a certain supernatural mystique. By using connotation within her description of what could have been a picturesque scene, Du Maurier skillfully examines her heroine’s relationship to her natural surroundings.

Jane Eyre, upon arriving at Thornfield Hall, experiences many similar feelings towards her new environment. She arrives in the dark of night, the manor gates crashed closed behind her, and the road winds on and on before her. Her description of her drive to Thornfield reveals her trepidations about her new residence and occupation. As it is night, Jane is unable to view the exterior of Thornfield Hall right away and instead recounts her first impressions of its interior. This inability to view her new environment as an exterior is the perfect illustration of her situation; Jane is thrown straight into life at Thornfield without a full understanding of what it will entail or “look like.” Brontë uses Jane’s limited scope of her environment as a metaphor for her heroine’s limited perspective at this point in the story.

Many of descriptions of the landscapes surrounding I and Jane, strewn throughout their respective novels, help to illustrate the heroine’s feelings as the stories progress. By using imagery, connotation, and metaphors to deepen the reader’s understanding of the heroine, Du Maurier and Brontë both demonstrate a mastery of tying the heroine intricately to the natural world that surrounds her.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

Charlotte Brontë invests gothic elements in Jane Eyre with a symbolic meaning to create a new, ‘female’ language. It is through this female Gothic language that Brontë creates a heroine whose autobiographical mode of writing is used to trace a story of female rebellion and search for identity.... MORE»
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Rebecca West’s 1918 novel The Return of the Soldier dissects the socioeconomic and psychological tensions wrought by the upheaval of the First World War. In a nuanced reiteration of the typical trope of a soldier’s return, Christopher Baldry is dispatched from the Western front when it becomes apparent that selective amnesia has trapped his mind fifteen years in... MORE»
The 2005 film Pride & Prejudice opens with sound rather than picture, but it is not the expected man-made musical score that fills the air. Rather it is nature’s music: the song of birds, particularly blackbirds. As Lydia Martin’s article “Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice: From... MORE»
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