One of the words that comes to mind when reading Jane Eyre is “tolerant.” Not Jane, herself, but everyone around her. They all just tolerate being around her. From the very first page of the novel, readers are shown how badly she is treated by her cousins and aunt, through to her schooling at the Lowood Academy and her job as a governess at Thornfield. No one that Jane comes across in the novel, not even Rochester, really puts her first. This immediately reminded me of a song that Taylor Swift released this year called, “tolerate it.” Swift had read a lot of British literature and poems during quarantine when she was writing these songs for folklore and evermore, and she even said that “tolerate it” was written as a reaction to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which is about a woman who is now living in the shadow of her husband’s first wife, Rebecca, which is very similar to Jane’s journey. Swift said, “When I was reading Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier and I was thinking, ‘Wow, her husband just tolerates her. She’s doing all these things and she’s trying so hard and she’s trying to impress him, and he’s just tolerating her the whole time.”
The song starts out, “I sit and watch you reading with your head low / I wake and watch you breathing with your eyes closed / I sit and watch you” (Swift, 0:25). When Jane sees Rochester after he had returned from a long trip, she watches him, “No sooner did I see that his attention was riveted on them, and that I might gaze without being observed, than my eyes were drawn involuntarily to his face; I could not keep their lids under control: they would rise, and the irids would fix on him. I looked, and had an acute pleasure in looking, — a precious, yet poignant pleasure; pure gold, with a steely point of agony: a pleasure like what the thirst-perishing man might feel who knows the well to which he crept is poisoned, yet stoops and drinks divine draughts nevertheless” (Brontë, 185). When Rochester returns to Thornfield with his party guests, including Blanche, who Jane thinks he is intending to marry, she watches him from the other side of the room, knowing that it was bad to look, but finding the pleasure in looking anyway.
Another line that bares similarity to the novel Jane Eyre as a whole is, “You’re so much older and wiser” (Swift, 0:50). When Jane meets Rochester, she is 18, and he is 35. Throughout the novel, Rochester likes that he is this much older and also wiser and even richer, he likes that he holds the power in their relationship. In Chapter XIV, Jane tells him that these things don’t matter to her, and that just because he has seen more of the world, he is not “better” than her, “I don’t think, sir, you have a right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience” (Brontë, 141).
The song continues, “I wait by the door like I’m just a kid / Use my best colors for your portrait” (Swift, 0:56). Portraits and paintings have a big impact in Jane’s story. They first become apparent when Jane first meets Rochester, and he is interested in watercolor landscapes Jane shows him what she did at the Lowood School. Jane plays the piano for him, which he finds average, but he takes an interest in three of her paintings. This is a pivotal scene in the novel where Jane and Rochester finally find something they both enjoy. Painting also comes up again later in the novel, in chapter XVI, when Jane realizes that Rochester must marry Blanche Ingram, who is more of his social status than Jane. She draws a portrait of herself in crayon, and a portrait of Blanche on ivory, which she does to show herself that she will never be able to marry Rochester because of her social status by thinking of herself as crayon, and Blanche as ivory.
Jane continuously has feelings for Rochester throughout the novel, but mostly keeps it to herself because she thinks she will never have a chance with him due to her lower social status. In chapter XXIII, Jane is walking around outside in the garden when Rochester approaches her. She tries to find an excuse to leave but is unable to think of one. Rochester jokingly tells Jane she’ll have to leave Thornhill and move to Ireland once he marries Blanche Ingram. They move their conversation to under a chestnut tree where Rochester admits, “I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you—especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame” (Brontë, 270). This line is similar to another song of Swift’s, “invisible string,” which includes the line, “Time, curious time / Gave me no compasses, gave me no signs / Were there clues I didn’t see? / And isn’t it just so pretty to think / All along there was some / Invisible string / Tying you to me” (Swift, 0:50). The song references a red string of fate between two soulmates. This line shows how Rochester feels that he is forever tied to Jane.
Finally, Jane confesses her feelings for Rochester, and tells him he was right about her leaving. She never wanted to leave Thornhill, it is the one place in her life she has felt like she truly belonged, but she must because of Rochester’s marriage, “I grieve to leave Thornfield: I love Thornfield:—I love it, because I have lived in it a full and delightful life,—momentarily at least. I have not been trampled on. I have not been petrified. I have not been buried with inferior minds, and excluded from every glimpse of communion with what is bright and energetic and high. I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence, with what I delight in,—with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind. I have known you, Mr. Rochester; and it strikes me with terror and anguish to feel I absolutely must be torn from you “for ever. I see the necessity of departure; and it is like looking on the necessity of death” (Brontë, 271). Jane tells him again, that she must leave, expressing her feelings for him, “I tell you I must go!” I retorted, roused to something like passion. “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!” (Brontë). Jane takes a past instance of them in this argument where she had said that he has no right to command her just because he has seen more of the world than her. She tells him outright, that just because she is a different social status than him, she has as much soul as him or anyone else. She tells him they are equal. Comparing this to the line in “tolerate it,” that goes, “If it’s all in my head, tell me now / Tell me I’ve got it wrong somehow” (Swift, 1:23), Jane would rather be told now if her feelings are wrong and one-sided than to continue not saying anything to Rochester, and not knowing how he feels.
The novel, Jane Eyre also bears resemblance to another song of Swift’s, entitled “mad woman,” since one of the biggest tropes in the novel is the mad woman, Bertha Mason. The reader learns right when Jane does of the existence of Rochester’s first wife, the mad Bertha, who he has had living in the attic at Thornfield. Although the reader is told that Bertha is mad, it begs the question if this is a case of the unreliable narrator. The only one who is telling Bertha’s own backstory is Rochester, who wants her to be mad so that Jane can see why he has never told her about his first mad wife. The reader is left to wonder if Bertha really is mad and has always been or did Rochester make her this way.
The song’s chorus states, “And there’s nothing like a mad woman / What a shame she went mad / No one likes a mad woman / You made her like that” (Swift, 1:03). These lyrics from “mad woman” are fairly reminiscent of Bertha. In Jane Eyre, the reader does not get any backstory directly from Bertha, herself, and is left with countless questions about her past and her supposed madness. The reader is left to wonder if Rochester was just convinced she would become mad because of her family succumbing to it. Was he just so convinced that she would become mad that he just locked her in the attic where she eventually became mad as a result of being locked away?
The song also includes many animalistic adjectives which is also how Bertha was first described when Jane saw her for the first time in the attic, after also mistaking her for a vampire earlier in the novel. The song includes lines, “What did you think I’d say to that? / Does a scorpion sting when fighting back?” (Swift, 1:19), “And you’ll poke that bear ‘til her claws come out” (Swift, 1:17), and “Now I breathe flames each time I talk” (Swift, 1:45) that all match the descriptions of Bertha when she is first introduced. “In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face” (Brontë, 316).
Describing Bertha this makes her seem more animal than human which Swift shows with these lines in “mad woman.” Using words like “bear” and “claws” and “scorpion sting” from the song, and “growled,” “on all fours” and “mane” from the novel both evoke a picture of this wild woman to both the reader and the listener. The line, “It’s obvious that wanting me dead has really brought you two together” (Swift, 2:06) shows that Rochester and Jane couldn’t be brought together again until Bertha died. Also, the line about “breathing fire” (there are also flames as the backdrop of the lyric video) could also be a correlation with how Bertha died in the house fire.
All in all, it was pretty interesting finding parallels between Swift’s latest lyrics and passages in Jane Eyre. Doing this showed that although so much has changed from the time Jane Eyre was written, the main message can still be connected to lyrics in 2020/2021. Looking at these passages again also helped get an in-depth look and close reading of Jane as a whole, but also with her relationship with Rochester, and Bertha’s story of being the madwoman. Connecting these to lyrics gave me a better understanding of the story.
Nicolaou, Elena. “Did Taylor Swift Read ‘Jane Eyre’ While in Quarantine? An Investigation.” Oprah Daily, Oprah Daily, 26 Mar. 2021, www.oprahdaily.com/entertainment/a33418301/taylor-swift-folklore-lyrics-jane-eyre/.
Swift, Taylor. “tolerate it.” Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukxEKY_7MOc.
Swift, Taylor. “mad woman.” Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DP4q_1EgQQ.
Swift, Taylor. “invisible string.” Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OuFnpmGwg5k.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York, New York; Bantam Books.