Interpreting Jane Eyre: Tradition and Innovation

by Isobel Armstrong, Vermont faculty member

SKN-3-Reduced.jpg"Just one novel?” said everyone I talked to, raising eyebrows. And consider my syllabus: the days charted at first by groups of chapters; then two weeks headed “Visual Art”; another week headed “Photography”; and lastly, the final days taken up with “Sound and Movement.” The days after each category were blank, because students would generate the content, so that content was as yet unknown. There were none of my usual day-on-day detailed reading tasks and scholarly resources. The course description in the catalogue warned the students: after a traditional in-depth reading of the text they would work in groups to make art work that would interpret the text. It was an experiment driven by the belief that a truly critical and analytical imagination could be released by these methods and that these were as rigorous as any customary mode of literary analysis.

Panorama-Detail.jpgThe students did receive a bibliography for Jane Eyre, but otherwise we worked through making art. For all of us the process was exhilarating, intimidating, and always intense. Our first moment of exhilaration came early on when I asked students to bring into class something they had made relating to one of three objects in the first ten chapters: beds (at the heart of life and death in this novel); food (nurture and starvation is at stake); and textiles (Brontë’s tactile imagination). As students showed each other their work, there was an explosion of delight and creative understanding.

Book-Bertha-Detail.jpgThe students worked on their art projects out of class—work analogous to the research and preparation undertaken in an orthodox course. What did we do in class for five hours a week? For me the most intimidating task was to find a methodology-a protocol-for class sessions. I will instance two. First, each group was asked to present the core passage that had triggered their art projects but not to describe the projects themselves. Each class member responded by naming the associations the passage created—the colours it suggested—and by presenting an extemporized four-line poem. Everyone thus had input into the as-yet incomplete project and, reciprocally, the group learned from everyone. Second, when each group presented four photographic images of objects in the novel, the rest of the class had to find captions for them relevant to the text.

String-Detail.jpgWe created an exhibition in the library. For instance, Bertha’s hidden artwork (in parallel to Jane’s explicit account of her own); a panorama of Jane’s paintings; a dream map of spaces in the novel; a kaleidoscope representing five characters’ views of Jane. I do not have the space to show how each project probed deep into the text. One example suffices: one group made a photocollage of the terrible night Bertha tears Jane’s wedding veil in half. They based their design on the repetition of the word “half” in many contexts throughout the chapter, as if both women belonged to a severed world. 

Kinder-Details.jpgMy greatest reward was that every student’s copy of Jane Eyre was by the end worn, thumbed, and heavily underlined.