Disclaimer: I will be comparing only Jane Eyre and Rebecca (1940), the movie not the book, because I have only seen the movie and not read the book and don’t know if there are huge differences between them.
Even though Jane Eyre is mostly regarded as a Romance novel, I believe like Rebecca, which is known as a Gothic novel, it should also be known as a Gothic novel. There are many reasons for this, being that almost every romantic scene is accompanied by a Gothic element. The thing that really drives this novel isn’t the perfect romantic relationship between Jane and Rochester. It is the haunting Gothic elements Jane experiences throughout the novel. Similar to Rebecca, there are aspects of romance but what the reader is really interested in is the horror aspect. Both works deal with the main protagonist feeling as if she is being haunted and deal with the madness of women. Even though there is a hundred-year difference from when Jane Eyre was released in 1847 to when Rebecca (1940) was released and directed by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, they share several themes. These novels both share a main plot of romance, but with hints of gothic horror.
Rebecca, stars Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, and was Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film. The film tells the story through flashbacks, similar to how Jane Eyre is read as an autobiography and how Brontë speaks directly to the reader. The film starts with the unnamed protagonist (we never learn her first name, she just goes by her husband’s last name, de Winter, and also “love” and “my wife” throughout the movie) at an old age reminiscing of the events that took place at Manderley (where she lived with her husband, Maxim, in the movie). The film opens with the iconic line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” (Hitchcock, Rebecca). The narrator starts to tell us her life story, beginning with meeting her husband, Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo, and after only two weeks of knowing each other, get married and move to his house (Manderley) in England where he previously lived with his first wife, Rebecca before she died in a boating accident. As the two live there, de Winter is continuously feeling she is living in the shadow of her. Maxim seems to ignore her most of the time, and she is frightened of Mrs. Danvers who isn’t afraid to tell her that she’ll never live up to Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers even talks about Rebecca like she is still around, even going as far to break up de Winter and Maxim. There are several similarities to Jane Eyre, including Rochester and Maxim’s personality, Danvers and Grace Poole, Manderley and Thornfield, but most significantly the question of madness for both female protagonists when they move to these new places.
Both Jane and de Winter move to a new place (Thornfield and Manderley, respectively) they’re not familiar with. The gothic element of both texts come in when these characters are in these new places and notice strange happenings at night. In Jane Eyre, she continuously hears things at night and even sees Bertha, who she mistakes for a vampire. She wakes up the next morning and wonders if what she had seen was real or if she was dreaming.
She tells Rochester about what she has seen, “It seemed, sir, a woman, tall and large, with thick and dark hair hanging long down her back. I know not what dress she had on: it was white and straight; but whether gown, sheet, or shroud, I cannot tell” (Brontë, 305). She then tells him about her face, “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!” (Brontë, 306) She tells him what she reminded her of, “Of the foul German spectre—the Vampyre” (Brontë, 306). We later find out that she only has seen Bertha, Rochester’s mad wife, so although she has thought she has seen something supernatural, it was her imagination.
This is very similar to what Mrs. de Winter sees at Manderley. She never explicitly sees Rebecca’s ghost, but she continuously feels as if she is being watched or even haunted by Rebecca. This even happens with other characters, too. Mrs. de Winter convinces her husband to throw a party to show him she is the perfect wife and to make him forget about Rebecca. As de Winter is planning her outfit, she is persuaded to follow the advice of Mrs. Danvers, who is hoping to drive a wedge between de Winter and Maxim. She shows up to the party and ends up horrifying all of the guests because she is wearing the same dress Rebecca wore the year before, shortly before her death. Just like Jane thinking she is seeing a vampire, and Maxim and his guests thinking they are seeing Rebecca’s ghost, there is a real explanation for both.
There are several scenes between Mr. Rochester and Jane where either before, after, or even during, there is some aspect of Gothicism. One scene in particular that shows this is one of the most well recognized scenes in the novel where Jane and Rochester talk about his impending marriage to Blanche Ingram. Rochester ends up forgetting all about Blanche the second he learns of Jane’s feelings for him. They continue to have this conversation, and he proposes under the Chestnut tree. Jane tells him that Blanche, his bride, stands between them and he will soon be wed to her and Jane will have to move away. Rochester responds, “My bride is here,” he said, again drawing me to him, “because my equal is here, and my likeness. Jane, will you marry me?” (Brontë, 273). This scene is regarded as a highly romantic scene in the novel (as proposals usually are) but it ends with a haunting image of what their future will look like. The next morning, Adele comes up to Jane and tells her that the very same chestnut tree that she had been sitting at with Rochester had been, “struck by lightning in the night, and half of it split away” (Brontë, 276). This is an extremely gothic element, and along with it, also foreshadows the future of Jane and Rochester’s relationship.
Both works also have the setting (either Thornfield or Manderley) being set ablaze near the end of the novel and acting as solving the problem. In Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers ends up setting Manderley on fire after learning the real reason behind Rebecca’s death. Maxim reveals that Rebecca was really a “vile” woman, despite the perfect image that everyone else had painted of her. He says that she had been having affairs with multiple men and revealed to Maxim that she was pregnant with another man’s child. Learning this, he shoots her and buries her at sea. Mrs. Danvers, still feeling faithful to Rebecca, sets fire to the house, saying that no one deserves the house but Rebecca. She stays inside the house while it burns to be together with Rebecca again.
The ending of Jane Eyre almost identically mirrors this scene. After returning to Thornfield, Jane finds that the house has been burned down, and later finds out that Bertha set fire to the house because she had been told to. She jumps out the window as the house gets set ablaze, like Mrs. Danvers’ death. Both characters seem like they are being told to do this. Bertha has a dream and hears voices telling her to do this, and Mrs. Danvers seems almost possessed by Rebecca to always do what she says, even after her death. There is even an otherworldly experience that Jane has when she just seems to know that Rochester is in danger from the house burning. Of course, she doesn’t yet know of the fire, but she still has a gut feeling and feels called by Rochester.
Another big similarity in Jane Eyre and Rebecca is that both Rochester and Maxim lie to Jane and Mrs. De Winter. In Jane’s case, she continuously hears strange noises at night, which the reader knows is Bertha Mason, but Rochester keeps telling her that it is just a servant living on the third floor, Grace Poole. Although it was true that Grace is living up there, she is not alone, and she is not the one making the noises at night Jane was wondering about. It wasn’t just this one time that Rochester is not truthful to Jane. In chapter 15, Bertha sets the curtains on fire in Rochester’s room, and even after Jane saves his life, he still is not truthful and tells her again that it was Grace. He never is truthful until at their wedding, he is finally forced to reveal that it was Bertha all along.
In Rebecca, Maxim also continuously lies not just to Mrs. de Winter, but to everyone else. When the reader first learns about Rebecca, it is revealed that she drowned in a boating accident a few months back. Of course, later we learn that Maxim had killed her and buried her at sea. He again, only finally tells the truth once he is forced to. I also noticed huge similarities between Bertha and Rebecca. We only know about them from what we are told from their husbands who have been lying for this entire novel/film. Rochester tells us that Bertha is mad, but do we have any proof (in just Jane Eyre)? Maxim tells us that Rebecca was a “vile” woman as reason for killing her. But we also have Mrs. Danvers who loves Rebecca, so who do we believe? I think both works have unreliable characters telling us things and the reader doesn’t know what to believe.
Finally, I think looking at both texts helped me really understand the madness in both and the gothic elements overpowering the romance. I do believe, like Rebecca, which is known as a Gothic novel, Jane Eyre should be too known as a Gothic novel, not a purely romance novel.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London, Smith, Elder & Co. 16 October 1847.
Rebecca. Alfred Hitchcock. Selznick International Pictures. 1940. Film.