"The Gallery of Memory": The Pictorial in 'Jane Eyre.'

Article excerpt

Jane Eyre describes her first encounter with Rochester as an event of "no moment." Her act of kindness in helping the fallen man to his horse is merely an "active thing," significant only because it provides a welcome change to an otherwise "monotonous life." Jane's characterization of the incident as "trivial, transitory," however, is disingenuous as her subsequent reflection on how and why this encounter becomes momentous makes clear. "The new face was like a new picture introduced to the gallery of memory; and it was dissimilar to all others hanging there." Contradicting her assertion that the event was of no consequence,Jane adds, "I had it before me when I entered Hay and slipped the letter into the post-office; I saw it as I walked fast down hill all the way home" (140).

The haunting image of Rochester foreshadows the romance that develops during the remaining two-thirds of the novel. Jane's admission that this image, "dissimilar" to all others mounted in her mental museum, represents her first encounter with a masculine figure "dark, strong, and stern" (140), evidences a young, impressionable woman ready for romance, whose bias in men is towards the Byronic. This important encounter and the way in which Jane reflexively processes the event are detailed in the chapter immediately preceding the chapter in which Rochester examines Jane's portfolio and critiques the three water colors that have received so much critical attention. The purpose of this essay is to examine a number of critical issues without which discussion of specific pictures (such as those Rochester examines in chapter 13) becomes superficial. Specifically, I intend to examine Jane's aesthetic "creed" (20), the centrality of the pictorial in the development of her world view, and the ekphrastic tendency (and its narrative implications) that makes of this autobiography the verbal exegesis of the mute images stored in Jane's museum of memory.

Our first encounter with Jane reveals a young child temperamentally disposed toward and socially coerced into "double retirement." As consolation for and security against the Reed children's abusive behavior toward her,Jane "shrines" (4) herself in the window seat of the family breakfast room, drawing the red moreen curtains close to isolate herself. The gesture is highly significant for this estranged and abused child of ten: to be seen is to be threatened; to hide one's self is to be secure. Ironically, to see is an essential measure of power for it provides the gazer with an authenticating power over a "seen" otherwise consigned to insignificance, even nonexistence. Jane's self-imposed and defensive act of isolation is the introductory gesture to the more determinative act of looking at something, in this case Bewick's History of British Birds. For the "letterpress" or text, Jane "cared little," being entranced rather by the drawings of birds amid "`the solitary rocks and promontories'" (5) of formidable and forbidding places like Siberia and the Arctic regions. To a child, these illustrations, what Wordsworth calls a "dumb Art," render the accompanying prose or verse of a printed page the "lacquey" of the visual ("Illustrated Books and Newspapers" 7). Jane admits that Bewick's text provided significance to the "vignettes," specifically to a rock, a broken boat, and the ghastly moon (5). But the undeniable relationship between these discrete elements of landscape suggested by Bewick's drawings and the three water colors Rochester critiques in chapter 13 indicates that Jane stores up and employs these images as Wordsworth does--translating the picture born of the original contemplated in tranquillity or crisis into its verbal "kindred."(1) "Each picture told a story," Jane claims in her commentary on her first recollected experience in isolation; "mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting" (5).

Two significant criteria inform Jane's appraisal of this essentially Wordsworthian reflection: (1) interest end (2) indeterminacy. …

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