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

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

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.

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