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The Possibility of Taking a Walk:
Jane Eyre’s Persistent Mobility
abstract

This article discusses the role of physical mobility in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Moving away from the critical trend of viewing Jane’s journey in abstract, metaphorical terms, it focuses instead on her material movement, specifically her travels on foot. These shorter trips function as a powerful source of agency and a structuring device for the narrative. As Brontë repeatedly links self-sufficiency and growth to her protagonist’s mobility, she forges a model for individual development that seeks to elude the constraints of a restrictive gender ideology.

keywords

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, space, movement, walking, Bildungsroman

THROUGHOUT Jane Eyre’s rich critical history, most scholars classify Charlotte Brontë’s novel as a female Bildungsroman and, consequently, regard the protagonist’s journey toward maturity as an essential interpretive avenue. Yet, surprisingly few critics have moved beyond the “journey” as an abstract notion to address Jane’s physical mobility. Those who investigate Jane’s progress often gloss over her material movement, taking a broad approach to her travels and thus eliding the core of the protagonist’s development—her shorter excursions on foot.1 These walks embody not only her progress along a lengthier metaphorical path [End Page 116] but also her essential role in creating that path. A reconsideration of the “journey” in Jane Eyre begins by exploring perambulation’s theoretical implications and its formative role in Jane’s development. Examining travel and outdoor environments highlights the ways in which movement from one place to another structures the novel.2 While each stop on the protagonist’s journey provides a locus for personal growth, her persistent mobility reinforces and extends her agency throughout the novel, allowing her to challenge class and gender expectations and repeatedly improve her circumstances. Capitalizing on the powerful self-sufficiency which perambulation affords, Jane effectively casts off the stagnant, claustrophobic life prescribed to members of her sex, thus presenting an effective model for individual development that eludes, yet does not disrupt, the oppressive machinations of a prescriptive social order.

Given that the Brontës were legendary walkers, it is unsurprising that Charlotte’s work conveys a sense of perambulation’s utilitarian, psychological, and symbolic characteristics.3 Like Jane, Charlotte and her sisters hiked out of necessity (as a means of free transportation) but also for enjoyment. Their long, often unchaperoned treks across the moors butted against convention, as did their practical but unfeminine attire. Drawing on these biographical details, Deborah Lutz’s study of the Brontë sisters places them within a tradition of female pedestrians, such as Dorothy Wordsworth, who leveraged solitary travel as a kind of protest: “Because of the widespread belief that there was something not quite correct with wayfaring women, the act of walking became a recognized form of defiance” (79).4 Personally liberating and potentially rebellious, to journey through the moors serves to “exchang[e] the rule-bound home with a freer space” (77). These elements of defiance and liberation prove essential to perambulation’s function in Jane Eyre; in Brontë’s hands, it emerges as a versatile element which remains inseparable from Jane’s progress toward maturation.

Walking, Jane’s primary mode of transportation, fortifies and articulates her independence as she shapes her life’s trajectory. Whether lengthy and dramatic or brief and uneventful, her travels on foot can be understood as a productive channel for defiance, self-sufficiency, and linear progress. Her techniques for allying navigation with social resistance bear a certain relevance to Michel de Certeau’s theory of lived space and the maneuvers [End Page 117] he calls “spatial practices” (xiv). De Certeau’s model, which revises Foucault by claiming that creative action allows bodies to evade discipline without disrupting dominant structures, offers a way to read Jane’s walks as a key to her trailblazing abilities.5 Brontë’s heroine uses her mobility to “reappropriate the space organized by techniques of sociocultural production” and thus to take control of her development in ways that often oppose convention (de Certeau xiv).

This is not to say that Jane emerges as a warrior for gender equality. Although she repeatedly undercuts restrictive social norms, her mode of resistance is unabashedly individualistic, focused on promoting personal growth rather than attacking an oppressive system. Walking, as a self-sufficient mode of transportation, highlights and reinforces this individualism. Following Edward Casey’s assessment of the body as both “agent and vehicle, articulator and witness of being-in-place” (48), I read Jane’s perambulation as generating a heightened consciousness of her position in space and enhancing her status as a discrete, rigidly bound subject—that is, as a monadic, non-porous self that generally prioritizes autonomy over flexibility or openness. This empowering yet limiting developmental template undergirds Brontë’s Bildungsroman, emerging most forcefully in Jane’s small but persistent and creative acts of movement.

Because Brontë links this ability to leverage her mobility to a process of maturation, Jane’s early life is characterized by a lack of control over her movements. The novel’s opening line, “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day” (JE 5), gestures to this limited agency and provides a counterpoint to her later independence. Although the early actions which lead to her imprisonment in the red room indicate her growing spirit of rebellion, she remains unable to dictate her future. Brontë emphasizes this helplessness in her description of Jane’s carriage ride to Lowood: “I remember but little of the journey: I only know that the day seemed to me of preternatural length, and that we appeared to travel over hundreds of miles of road” (35). Here, the carriage distorts distance and time as Jane becomes mentally and physically alienated from her surroundings. This description of coach travel sets up an important contrast between the passivity of riding in a carriage—requiring little involvement from the commuter—and walking, which necessitates the traveler’s full participation. A sense of passivity governs the entire journey to Lowood: Jane is “taken from Bessie’s neck,” “carried into an inn,” “stowed away in the coach,” and “lifted out” at her destination (34). Brontë not only uses passive voice to highlight Jane’s vulnerability: she also situates the protagonist’s body as an object for others to carry, move, and place wherever they please. Although coach travel does not always signal nonparticipation—for example, Helen Graham’s escape from Grassdale in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Jane’s flight from Thornfield later in the novel both serve as key moments of agency that depend on carriages6—Brontë [End Page 118] certainly uses this particular mode of transportation to underscore her protagonist’s lack of control and to set the stage for walking’s key role in her development.

In order to appreciate the greater physical autonomy that arises as Jane matures, we must first recognize how her use of agency through purposeful movement sets her growth apart from a template of inverted development known as the “voyage in.” Studies of the female Bildungsroman explore various ways to characterize female protagonists’ growth; generally, they conclude that, unlike the male Bildungsroman, women’s developmental stories are often stunted or diverted. Lorna Ellis argues that, for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century female protagonists, “growing up” means learning to “understand and work within the limits of their societies” (18). Only by operating within a patriarchal regime can a woman retain some authority without total alienation; yet, working within oppressive social structures easily clouds the distinction between preserving autonomy and forfeiting selfhood. These restrictions are so limiting that they actually reverse patterns of growth, leading second-wave feminists to coin such terms as “the voyage in” or “growing down” to characterize inverted developmental trends.7 While both terms involve directing the gaze inward and surrendering subjectivity so that the protagonist grows down and in, rather than up and out, “the voyage in” carries particularly severe connotations, describing an isolating confinement which drains the very life from its forbearing female victims.

Brontë’s work demonstrates an attentiveness to this ominous inward turn. She explores this danger in Shirley, in which Caroline Helstone’s heartbreak plunges her into a state of retreat that threatens to destroy her: “Winter seemed conquering her spring: the mind’s soil and its treasures were freezing gradually to barren stagnation” (Shirley 158). Here, the threat is one of total immobility, first indicated by Fanny’s observation that Caroline refuses to take walks and instead sits “very still … always bent industriously over a piece of work” (150).8 Given Brontë’s treatment of Caroline’s toxic stasis, Jane’s insistent activeness and forward progress intentionally defy such destructive behavioral trends. Thus, her walks are part of an alternative pattern for female development in the nineteenth-century novel, one which supports de Certeau’s notion that particular “tricky and stubborn” spatial practices “elude discipline without being outside the field in which it is exercised” (96). Although Jane’s mobility does not dismantle hegemonic social norms, including those that keep many women confined to the home, she does forge her own path rather than contorting herself to fit existing developmental templates.

Jane’s drive to channel internal turmoil and longing into movement—an external, observable marker of progress—sets her in opposition to the “voyage in,” even in those moments where she might seem to sacrifice her desires to the realities of social limitations. [End Page 119] This pattern emerges as Jane enters adulthood and begins with her famous “liberty” speech and the short walk that follows. After many years at Lowood, Jane becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her constrained, monotonous life and yearns for something more: “I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer” (JE 72). This pivotal declaration both captures her desperation and anticipates her process of channeling passion into constructive action. What begins as an internal “desire” transcends to an audible and almost involuntary “gasp,” which she then articulates more coherently through “prayer.” This transformation from inchoate emotion to external articulation is further linked to the idea of active mobility through the image of the white road. Moments before verbalizing her prayer for liberty, Jane looks out her window at Lowood and rests her eyes on the “hilly horizon”: “I traced the white road winding around the base of one mountain, and vanishing in a gorge between two: how I longed to follow it further!” Here, Brontë links “tracing” with the eyes to a yearning for physical enactment. The symbolic white road, which reappears at key points throughout the novel, prefigures a longer metaphorical path of development; its meandering nature and disappearance into the gorge indicate the awaiting journey’s unpredictability. Rather than suppressing her burgeoning desires, Jane looks ahead to an as-yet undetermined future and allows her psychological need for variation to propel her into action.

Jane’s moment of longing inspires a short journey on foot, a small but agentive moment that demonstrates walking’s critical role in her development. Although most critics read the wistful contemplation of the white road as pure fantasy and suggest, as Eithne Henson does, that the “proposed quest [for liberty] contracts itself back into the static female enclosure” (37), I argue that Jane’s walk to the Lowton post office, where she places an advertisement seeking a governess position, signals a momentous break with her confined, tedious life at Lowood. This seemingly inconsequential trip marks the first time she has taken action to alter her circumstances. The short, business-like description of the trip contrasts with Jane’s initial impassioned moment of longing, underscoring the transition from desire to action: “I went. It was a walk of two miles, and the evening was wet, but the days were still long; I visited a shop or two, slipped the letter into the post-office, and came back through heavy rain, with streaming garments, but with a relieved heart” (JE 74). Brontë’s short, concise clauses emphasize the walk’s productivity and even mirror the steady pace of footsteps. Bookended by the simple action “I went” and the triumph of a “relieved heart,” this brief excursion satisfies a desire that, for Jane, nearly defies expression. Further, by venturing out alone and escaping Lowood’s prescribed patterns of movement, Jane uses one of de Certeau’s “clandestine forms” to evade Foucauldian discipline.9 Thus, this short trip presents a step toward her longed-for liberty and conveys mobility’s essential function in advancing her development. Even though she does not yet know her letter will secure a position at Thornfield, the fact that movement produces immediate relief gestures toward its greater potential as a mechanism for self-fulfillment. [End Page 120]

This initial walk demonstrates Jane’s ability to escape domestic confines and the monotony of routine; it also signals that her mobility outside the home can incite real, sustainable development. With a few exceptions,10 scholars who address space in the novel have tended to focus on interiors and architecture, giving less weight to Jane’s movement through outdoor spaces. For example, Sharon Locy emphasizes the protagonist’s mobility but glosses over natural spaces and pedestrian excursions (with the single exception of Whitcross). Instead, Locy takes interior spaces to be the core unit of analysis, while the outdoors emerges only in the brief transition between scenes. Yet such an approach elides the pattern of self-sufficiency and growth which links Jane’s development to her outdoor walks. Carol-Ann Farkas highlights the potential of the “outside world,” which she describes as a brief “release … from the socially imposed barriers of convention” (53). Although this alleviating effect may be cumulative and durable, rather than temporary, Farkas’s analysis does point to the shifting strictures which accompany threshold crossings in the novel. When Jane steps outside the walls of Lowood, and later, of Thornfield, she escapes the inflexible routines and expectations of everyday life. Her short trip to the post office disrupts the daily monotony and sets into motion a radical shift in circumstances. Although she claims to seek only a “new servitude,” obtaining a governess position entails an alteration in society, occupation, and location; in essence, it signals a radical life change and a new, potentially disruptive social role (JE 72).11 Here and at Thornfield, Jane develops a pattern of introspection, movement, and transformation that signals both action and creation. Whereas her journey from Gateshead to Lowood and her transition from student to instructor required only passive acceptance, Brontë’s heroine now shapes her own plot. Taking her beyond the home’s boundaries, this first walk advances Jane’s burgeoning independence and opens up new possibilities for future development.

While Jane’s desire for freedom and her subsequent journey to the post office set up the key elements of her self-expansion, perambulation’s role in the novel initiates a developmental pattern. Brontë defines this trend through a parallel scene at Thornfield. Aching under the “viewless fetters of a uniform and too still existence,” Jane again finds her life devoid of variety (JE 99). While she describes this stasis as internal, the language of bondage underscores the direct association between mental and physical agency. Because her embodied movement and her mental growth depend on one another, the specter of captivity—whether physical or psychological—conjures up the genuine threat of a “voyage in.” At Thornfield, as at Lowood, she articulates her discontent through a longing for movement: [End Page 121]

[When I] looked out afar over sequestered field and hill, and along dim sky-line … I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen: … I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character, than was here within my reach.

(93)

Here the evident connection between this introspective moment and her earlier desire for liberty from Lowood—when she contemplated the white road and “longed to follow it further”—indicates her expanding consciousness. Although a repeated process could seem static rather than dynamic, parallels between the two scenes draw out certain indicators of Jane’s developmental progress that might otherwise go unnoticed. Initially, while looking through her window at Lowood, Jane limits her contemplation to her field of vision, reaching to the “hilly horizon.” Now, having recognized her capacity for self-actualization, her imaginative scope extends beyond visual constraints. The “sequestered” fields before her signify an illusory freedom: ostensibly natural and free to the open air, yet also fenced and contained. While Jane once hoped only for a “new servitude,” she now looks beyond the image of carefully bounded land and seeks to “overpass that limit,” pursuing the liberty she had previously dismissed as impossible.

Jane’s strong self-prioritization again compels her to act on her longing for variety by taking a walk; but here, too, Brontë elaborates on the pattern by underscoring a new element—loneliness—that demonstrates her protagonist’s evolving desires: specifically her growing need for companionship. Brontë signals the similarity between this trip and Jane’s earlier walk at Lowood by using the same destination—the post-office. Earlier, Lowood’s numbing routine drove her to set out on foot; now, the stagnancy of her quiet domestic life with Mrs. Fairfax and Adèle motivates her walk. Recalling that “the ground was hard, the air was still, my road was lonely” (JE 94) and describing her surroundings in detail, Jane establishes an intimate connection between her psychological condition and her walk. She is attuned to the earth beneath her feet and the motionlessness of the air around her, while the landscape’s “utter solitude and leafless repose” reflect her isolated state. While Jane is fiercely individualistic and repeatedly reasserts her self-sufficiency through walking, she also longs for friendship and for stimulating conversation. In this excursion, the two desires work together; her movement from interior spaces to outdoor arenas opens up the possibility for chance encounters and thus sets the stage for Rochester’s arrival and the psychological rejuvenation it inspires.

Using walking as a tool for rebellion, Jane reworks a tiresome situation by asserting her prioritization of self through activity, vigorously opposing the tradition that would keep women fettered to the home. Rochester’s theatrical entrance answers Jane’s desire for stimulating companionship and shatters her solitude,12 showcasing the powerful changes [End Page 122] that occur when she ventures outside. From his arrival’s “rude noise” to his dramatic fall, he brings immediate variety to Jane’s life while creating a space for purposeful activity (JE 95). In this first encounter, Brontë presents a fractured version of the heroic cavalier and the damsel in distress; although the mounted “knight” enters in dramatic fashion, the “damsel” becomes the rescuer. This situation, which highlights Jane’s agency and prefigures her later role as Rochester’s “prop and guide,” advances her capacity for disrupting the active/passive gender binary (382).13 Although Jane views the incident as trivial, her reaction also belies the event’s underlying significance: “it was yet an active thing, and I was weary of an existence all passive” (98). In other words, Jane banishes her specifically female tedium by adopting an active, purposeful role. Thus, perambulation proves to be an adaptable tool which responds to her evolving needs. Whether or not her loneliness brings this new companion into being, the concurrence of her mental state, her decision to take a walk, and Rochester’s arrival indicate her continuing ability to alter her circumstances. Rather than merely lamenting her position, she exercises independence through walking and capitalizes on the aleatory nature of the open road. That she never again complains of her life as inert signifies the lasting changes wrought by this trip and speaks to her growing ability to eschew gender limitations.

Brontë underscores this ability to escape Thornfield by juxtaposing Jane’s productive mobility with Bertha Mason’s punishing confinement well before their first encounter: “While I paced softly on, the last sound I expected to hear in so still a region, a laugh, struck my ear” (JE 91). Later, Jane reveals that she “not unfrequently heard [the same] laugh” whenever she “walk[ed] along the corridor of the third story, backwards and forwards” (93). Her pacing parallels Bertha’s own movement within her prison: “In the deep shade, at the further end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards” (250; emphasis added). While various critics, most notably Gilbert and Gubar, have paired Jane and Bertha, I stress in particular Brontë’s intentional association of the characters’ movements.14 By linking the two women in this way, Brontë aligns Bertha’s physical confinement with Jane’s capacity to leave the house (even for something as simple as a trip to the post office), an ability which is vital for her continued development. Sally Shuttleworth notes this key distinction by linking Jane and Bertha to two models of energy—one sane and productive, the other insane and self-destructive (151).15 While Shuttleworth claims that Brontë blurs the line between these two models, I argue that Jane’s power to further her own interests through walking marks a [End Page 123] clear delineation between them. Bertha’s rebellious nighttime wanderings, while purposeful in their destructive intent, do not offer an outlet for individualist development or expansion. Instead, they remain confined to Thornfield’s darkened passages; ultimately, death provides the only escape from her domestic prison. Whereas Bertha’s loud and violent actions seem to condemn the patriarchal system that allows women to be confined under lock and key, Jane’s individualistic advancement relies on evasion rather than protest. Her clandestine, self-serving mode of resistance epitomizes Spivak’s notion that “feminist individualism in the age of imperialism, is precisely the making of human beings, the constitution and ‘interpellation’ of the subject not only as individual but as ‘individualist’” (244). Brontë invites readers to rejoice in Jane’s successful excursions even as her fellow sufferer remains imprisoned. The novel thus presents a model for solitary progress based on rationality and mobility, while the “madwoman” looms as an image of self-destruction and rebellion which Jane must reject in order to continue her advancement.

Jane’s mode of independent, linear progress necessitates her rejection of Bertha’s insane rage and requires her to walk the thin line between autonomy and isolation. Although maintaining a clear separation between self and other is crucial to her development, she also craves human connection. Her powerful attraction to Rochester throws the tension between these desires into sharp relief and upsets Jane’s ability to master and channel her emotion into productive action. Brontë exposes this danger well before Rochester’s proposal, using the journey motif to signal the uncontrollable passion that threatens to consume Jane’s individuality. After visiting the dying Mrs. Reed, Jane nears Thornfield on foot: “I felt glad as the road shortened before me: so glad that I stopped once to ask myself what that joy meant: and to remind reason that it was not to my home I was going” (JE 207). This moment marks a significant departure from Jane’s past experiences on the road. Normally pleased to have a long path stretching in front of her, now she struggles with “reason” yet fails to overcome her eagerness to reach the destination. Unable to appreciate the scenery or to enjoy her freedom of movement, she can only tick off the landmarks that separate her from Rochester. Brontë shifts temporarily into the present tense, bringing immediacy to Jane’s agitation; as she moves toward him, she confesses: “every nerve I have is unstrung: for a moment I am beyond my own mastery” (208). Here, the term “nerve” connotes both a physical and psychological “unstringing,” a disjunction that tellingly disjoins her mental and bodily “mastery” within the one activity designated to symbolize her progressive potential. The very idea of Rochester disrupts Jane’s walk and with it her means of self-assertion, providing an early warning that this ungovernable romantic attraction could jeopardize her independent subjectivity.

Given this threat to Jane’s mobility, her refusal to live with Rochester outside of marriage and her subsequent flight from Thornfield constitute both a moral decision and a necessary defense of selfhood. Further, this new journey allows her to resume the kind of travel that has helped her accrue agency throughout the novel. Unable to strike a balance between individuality and passion in her initial courtship with Rochester, she must defend and confirm her individualistic, mobile identity—rejecting first her overwhelming passion and, later, St. John’s iron will—before she can seek the intimacy of marriage. Thus, although Jane’s choice to leave Thornfield remains agonizing and emotionally wrenching, it can also [End Page 124] be read as an essential consolidation of individual agency. Her journey through the moors is often read as a moment of weakness. Shuttleworth, for instance, equates cartographical lost-ness during Jane’s “animal-like existence on the moors” with a loss of self, claiming that her rehabilitation at Marsh End marks a “re-entry into selfhood” (176). More recently, Deborah Denenholz Morse suggests that the struggle for survival in the wilderness reduces Jane to an animal state, forcing her to confront Nature’s indifference to her survival. While acknowledging the physical danger and frightening isolation that characterizes her wandering journey after Thornfield, I suggest that, given the imminent threat that Rochester poses to Jane’s identity, the moment signals preservation rather than loss. In fact, Shuttleworth’s claim that Jane’s subjectivity “threatens, imminently, to fragment and rupture” on the moors better characterizes the tumultuous state of Jane’s identity during her engagement (176). Her determination to move forward ultimately reaffirms the pattern of assertiveness that develops throughout the novel and ensures that her spirit will not “rupture” but, rather, consolidate and endure.

The journey motif again emerges in Jane’s flight from Thornfield, reinforcing the connection between her mobility and her rigorous self-preservation. The white road reappears as “a road I had never travelled, but often noticed, and wondered where it led: thither I bent my steps” (JE 273). That she has “often noticed” this particular path and yet “never travelled” it corroborates its connection with her two previous self-reflective moments at Lowood and Thornfield. Here, the immediate transition from contemplation to action suggests self-assurance. Her subjective strength has grown such that she immediately realizes her potential for actualization. This time, rather than replacing her desire to follow the distant path with a humbler destination, Jane’s “steps” take her to the untraveled road. The culmination of her shorter trips, this dramatic assertion of selfhood entails a longer journey, one without a definite endpoint: an unprecedented break from confinement which ushers in a new stage of autonomy. Despite the scene’s emotional turmoil, Brontë emphasizes physical movement, highlighting Jane’s mental strength through her material progress. When she falls, she crawls forward on hands and knees, “and then again raised to my feet—as eager and as determined as ever to reach the road” (274). Brontë acknowledges Jane’s bodily limitations, yet willpower outweighs those restrictions and allows her to continue forward. Once again, her mind serves as the impetus and the strength for her physical fortitude.

On the moors, the absence of all possessions and human connections suggests not a parallel loss of spirit but rather a stripping away of everything except Jane’s core. This phenomenon has been viewed as a spiritual trial, a reduction to animality, and a return to childhood—all of which share a common interest in the protagonist’s bare, essential nature. Like J. Jeffrey Franklin, I see this as a foundational moment in the protagonist’s formation “as a woman and as an independent subjectivity” (476). Jane’s body remains a site of agency and fortitude as she insists on moving forward, even when she is “brought low” by despair and hunger (JE 279). The approach to Marsh End, near the end of her ordeal, captures this interplay between self-preservation and movement: “The light was yet there, shining dim but constant through the rain. I tried to walk again: I dragged my exhausted limbs slowly towards it”; though falling twice, “I rose and rallied my faculties” (282). Emphatically rejecting a passive existence, Brontë’s heroine literally drags herself towards shelter. Here, her [End Page 125] labored passage reflects the monumental challenges confronting a destitute, solitary woman acting to create a new and fulfilling existence. While Jane’s need for human connection sharpens during this journey, the episode nevertheless confirms that her individualistic mobility remains the key to her survival and growth.

At Marsh End, Jane’s final defense of selfhood pits her powerful mobility against St. John’s unyielding will. The conflict, played out on a mental terrain, adopts the language of forced stasis. Brontë likens Jane’s mind to “a rayless dungeon” and her fate to an “iron shroud contract[ing]” around her, while St. John’s influence has a “hold on [her] limbs” (JE 343, 344, 346). These rigid confines figure metaphorically as the limited, subordinate, and specifically female selfhood in which St. John would imprison his cousin. Furthermore, these images connote a literal imprisonment even more severe than the “viewless fetters” of her previous life at Thornfield (99); thus, they endanger that mental and physical freedom of movement which is all but synonymous with her development. His restrictions threaten to bar her from creating her own path and thus to curtail her active pattern of growth. As her internal conflict reaches its apex, her cry, “Show me, show me the path!” privileges the journey as a route to liberty and development (357). Rather than requesting truth, rescue, or strength, the protagonist seeks the road which repeatedly facilitates her progress.

Rochester’s answering voice, which is most often interpreted as a supernatural expedient to deliver Jane from conflict, simply elaborates on the pattern of contemplation followed by action depicted throughout the novel. While she takes Rochester’s voice calling her name as external intervention, and certainly he remains an important motivating factor in her decision, this moment also represents the imposition of Jane’s own authoritative intuition. Seen in such a light, the dramatic moment of self-assurance which follows presents another example of her creative plotting abilities: “It was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play, and in force” (JE 358). The emphasis on “my” and the unabashed display of her “powers” launch the protagonist confidently toward her final destination, her triumphant decision to take to the road once again. While Ellis and Case both argue that Rochester’s intervening voice represents Brontë’s nod to social accommodation as she seeks to mitigate the negative connotations of the plotting woman, the moment can also be read as an extension of Jane’s ability to marry introspection with bodily action. Although Brontë certainly remains aware of social limitations—Jane’s stint on the moors demonstrates the fearful prospect of exile from human connections—she nevertheless envisions an open, unapologetic feminine authority.

Jane’s “ascendancy” continues through the novel’s conclusion, solidifying her position as a progressive new model for female development. As she reaches Ferndean—her literal and psychological destination—on foot, the walking motif comes full circle, signaling her continuing autonomy at her journey’s end. The path’s description echoes the longer passage she has completed. The track “stretched on and on, it wound far and farther … I thought I had taken a wrong direction and lost my way” (JE 366). By exaggerating the road’s length and uncertain destination, Brontë emphasizes her protagonist’s substantial development and recalls the winding white road which repeatedly fostered her growing agency. Although this road “stretches on” toward an uncertain fate, the text confirms Jane’s path—“I looked around in search of another road. There was none”—perhaps suggesting that the figurative [End Page 126] road she has travelled thus far, however long and difficult, was the only correct path.16 This final leg also confirms her now fully developed self-control; when she sees Rochester, she remarks: “I had no difficulty in restraining my voice from exclamation, my step from hasty advance” (367). Compared to the scene in which Jane arrives at Thornfield and finds herself “beyond [her] own mastery” at seeing Rochester, her easy restraint and control over her “step” indicates her total self-command. Having successfully defended her secure, bounded selfhood against both Rochester and St. John, she concludes her journey independent, confident, and powerful.

This arrival, which suggests neither passivity nor entrapment but rather Jane’s continued, purposeful mobility, undermines traditional critiques of her final destination. Feminist readings have so often acknowledged the conclusion’s ambiguous treatment of female power that Ferndean has come to represent the concession of (if not an end to) freedom and agency;17 but tracing Jane’s selfhood through her perambulation allows us to recognize her authentic, linear development. Focusing only on the various homes Jane inhabits, Sharon Locy concludes that “the spaces [she] occupies from the beginning of the novel to the end do not … evolve from narrowness and enclosure to expansiveness and freedom as they do in the male maturation story” (108). However, this approach eliminates Jane’s crucial movement between spaces and ignores the fact that, while the homes she inhabits do not follow an expansive trend, her options and her ability to choose among them increase throughout the novel; she moves from narrowness to expansion each time she steps outside. Furthermore, the tendency to read the protagonist’s journey as a movement toward confinement demands an unachievable (and undesirable) ideal. As geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has demonstrated, enclosed “place” provides an essential counterbalance to expansive “space.”18 While space constitutes a necessary component for development, affording room for growth, place provides an equally crucial complement. That Jane eventually decides to stop traveling and make a stable home indicates freedom of choice and signifies the apex of development—a contradictory reconciliation that, as Franco Moretti has demonstrated, lies at the heart of the traditional Bildungsroman.19

Thus, Jane Eyre’s conclusion may be read as success rather than sacrifice, with Ferndean a site of triumph rather than confinement. In each home Jane occupies along her journey, [End Page 127] the desire for change, figured as a road in the distance, spurs her into movement. That this final location does not offer an obvious avenue for departure implies that Jane has found a satisfying destination.20 Indeed, the convenient use of dialect in Mary’s question, “Is it really you, miss, come at this late hour to this ‘only place’?” underscores the fact that Ferndean is not simply a “lonely place” but rather the “only place” for the protagonist who, having arrived at her ultimate destination, needs no escape route (JE 368). Further, the cottage’s seclusion gives Jane a chance to showcase her expansive agency. As in Jane and Rochester’s first encounter, Brontë plays with expected gender roles: her power and activity rescue him from his confined, passive situation. She now acts as an expansive, brightening force, playing the “skylark” to his “caged eagle” (374, 367). Having fully embraced her subjective capability, Jane’s power extends to create change in another’s life. As she leads him to “cheerful fields” and they spend the day in “open air,” Jane’s role as “prop and guide” emerges in its full significance (374, 382). She herself becomes a force for improvement, projecting her vitality into Ferndean, which soon becomes the site of birth rather than decay. Here, Brontë presents a powerful yet unapologetically individualistic model for female development. Ultimately, Jane’s insistent mobility generates a sense of total self-assurance. Secure in her identity and content in her final destination, she can truly share her life with another.

Trish Bredar

Patricia Bredar is a doctoral student in the English Department at University of Notre Dame. Her research focuses on gender, space, and the body in the Victorian novel. She is particularly interested in the intersections between social critique and women’s movement and mobility.

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Norton, 2001.
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Footnotes

1. See Sandra Gilbert’s “Plain Jane’s Progress” (1977); Locy (2002); Monahan (1988); and Tommaso (2012). Senf notes that “the various points in Jane’s journey each signify a point in her development” (140). In reading Jane’s evolution “through a clearly defined progression of houses,” these critics overlook how the movement between these particular sites promotes and facilitates her development (Tommaso 84).

2. Tornfield is all but synonymous with the “idea of the house as metaphor” (McAleavey 55). The proliferation of critical readings concerned with Jane Eyre’s architectural structures (a trend prominent since the publication of Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic) creates a skewed vision of Jane’s development that overlooks the novel’s outdoor spaces and her movement through them.

3. Although this discussion emphasizes Jane Eyre, walking emerges as a key trope throughout the sisters’ novels. While Brontë biographers highlight the sisters’ penchant for walking, scholarship on the function of perambulation in their fiction remains relatively scarce. An exception is Lucy Morrison’s analysis of Villette, which reads Lucy Snowe’s character as a “peripatetic traveller whose walking enables, facilitates, and even excuses and evokes her psychological reveries” (186–87). While Jane Eyre’s perambulation is more often linked to decisiveness and action than reverie, Morrison’s work helps to illuminate walking’s role as a potent and versatile tool in Brontë’s work.

4. This suspicion toward wandering women emerges in Jane Eyre as well. Afer leaving Tornfield, Jane appears in a small village on foot; with neither connections nor possessions, she is “seized with shame” and painfully aware of “how doubtful must have appeared [her] character, position, tale” (278, 279).

5. Walking inevitably evokes the peripatetic artist, particularly the Romantic poet, who uses perambulation to spur creativity. While this connection lies outside the scope of this discussion, I suggest that Jane’s walks generate a different but related type of creativity, one linked to the desire and ability to shape her future. Tus, the term “creative action” here refers to the combined acts of imagining and enacting a new life rather than to creative artistic production.

6. Although coach travel offers the means to escape oppressive and dangerous situations in Jane Eyre and in Anne Brontë’s Thenant, these journeys also begin with walking. Both examples connect the initial desperate flight on foot with the greatest surge of agency, even when the carriage provides the primary means of transportation. Tus, while travelling by coach does not always correspond with inactivity, walking maintains a stronger connection to representations of self-sufficiency and independence.

7. On “the voyage in,” see Abel, et al., The Voyage In, Fictions of Female Development. See Ellis (1999) for a history of the term “growing down.”

8. Although Caroline’s convalescence is full of ups and downs, it is worth noting that Brontë foregrounds walking as her heroine’s primary strategy for resisting depression. Caroline takes “walks in all weathers—long walks in solitary directions” and returns only to “pace her apartment” (Shirley 158). While this unceasing activity at times appears obsessive and unhealthy, it also reveals Brontë’s recurring impulse toward movement as a cure for stagnation.

9. David Amigoni’s The English Novel and Prose Narrative connects Lowood’s strict regime to Foucault’s theory of discipline. Caroline Levine’s Forms also uses Lowood’s careful regulation of bodies and movements to highlight the types of formal arrangements inherent in social discipline (1–2).

10. Notable exceptions include Eithne Henson, who makes a case for the importance of landscape in the novel, particularly as it mirrors Jane’s psychological state, and Deborah Denenholz Morse, whose work on “animal places” (2017) draws fresh attention to the novel’s outdoor environments (157).

11. While nineteenth-century governesses occupied a liminal social position and generally received little pay, scholars have argued that the governess figure is inherently powerful in the threat she poses to the social order and to the notion of separate spheres. In Uneven Developments, Mary Poovey argues that the governess’s status as both domestic ideal and working-class woman threatened to collapse the distinction between separate spheres; Esther Godfrey describes the “potentiality and instability” that Jane’s position brings to middle-class gender norms (858). In both accounts, Jane’s new situation gestures to the larger social implications of her potential to blur social boundaries.

12. Carla Kaplan, who frames Jane’s narrative role as both a project of legitimizing an authoritative female voice and a quest for an appropriate listener and respondent, also links Rochester’s appearance to the pattern of desire and action. She sees his entrance into the story as “the answer to Jane’s call” for companionship and dialogue (13).

13. This exemplifies the “complex reversals” of gender and power Brontë promotes throughout the novel (Godfrey 861).

14. Gilbert and Gubar view Bertha as Jane’s double and as a manifestation of the Victorian woman writer’s rage. This perspective has been echoed repeatedly throughout the novel’s critical history in readings of space—Carol-Ann Farkas refers to Bertha as “the symbol, and victim, of the Gothic enclosure”—and of psychological and emotional development (57, emphasis in original). Others, including Spivak, view Bertha through the lens of colonialism. These readings highlight Bertha’s racial ambiguity and the imperialist project that undergirds Jane’s privileged individuality.

15. Similarly, “Jane absorbs Bertha’s anarchic rebellious energy and rage and converts it to usable form—to self-preserving indignation, will to survive, and desire to reform Rochester” (Gilead 315). Both Gilead and Shuttleworth frame Jane’s ability to channel desire and emotion into productivity as a key difference between the two characters.

16. The cohesive notion of the overarching journey arises only in hindsight. Rather than following a prescribed track, Jane actively creates her path throughout the novel, without a clear idea of where each trip will lead.

17. Monahan describes Ferndean as a dead end, the termination of a quest which “affords no exit for the female hero” (605). Others read the space as one of hope as well as sacrifice and accommodation. For example, Gilbert and Gubar argue that the couple must withdraw “into a remote forest, a wilderness even, in order to circumvent the strictures of a hierarchal society” and suggest that Brontë is unable to imagine a realistic, fully triumphant future for her rebellious heroine (369). There have also been several attempts to cast Ferndean in a positive light. James Buzard describes the space as “the idealized home” (200), while Michael Clarke claims that the novel’s conclusion “rais[es] the domestic to the level of the mythical” (695).

18. Tuan discusses the drawbacks of limitless possibility: “to be open and free is to be exposed and vulnerable” (54). Aside from gender and historical contexts, Tuan suggests that the need for security and some sense of enclosure is nearly universal.

19. See Franco Moretti, The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture, trans. Albert Sbragia (New York: Verso, 1987).

20. The notion of Ferndean as a final, permanent destination is primarily metaphorical. Rather than presenting Jane and Rochester’s lives as isolated and confined, Brontë explicitly refers to the trips they will take to see Adèle, visit Mary and Diana, and consult a doctor in London.