Jane Eyre is a feast of clues, symbols, allusions – all kinds of writerly stuff. Many of Brontë’s messages and subtleties get left out in movie and tv adaptations, and I’m having a blast incorporating some into my retold version.
When Rochester “interviews” Jane right after he shows up at Thornfield, his questions are abrupt and to the point as he determines the extent of her capabilities and gets an idea of what sort of person she is. Everyone remembers Rochester dissing Jane’s piano-playing, but I think the conversation about her drawing is more interesting.
Rochester singles out three paintings: A shipwreck in the ocean, a mystical woman in the sky above a mountain, and a floating head wearing a turban with a ring of fire circling the temples. They’re all clues to other aspects of the story.
According to Peter Bolt at the Victorian Web, the shipwreck alludes to the effect Blanche Ingram could have on Rochester. A carrion bird perched on the sinking mast holds a jeweled bracelet in its mouth, hovering above the bare forearm of a dead body in the water. Blanche has come to Thornfield not because she loves Rochester but to marry into security – feasting on the wreckage of Thornfield.
Jane calls the second painting The Evening Star, but Rochester will hear none of that. He’s sure the woman is the moon, and the mountain is Latmos. In Greek mythology, Latmos is where the shepherd Endymion has fallen into eternal sleep because Selene, the moon, fell in love with him and asked her father Zeus to preserve Endymion’s beauty. In this light, Rochester is Endymion, frozen in suspended animation by Bertha’s (Selene’s) selfish entrapment.
The third painting, according to Polk, is a scene from the bible, Job 24. “I was eyes to the blind and feet was I to the lame.” It foretells the end of the story, when Jane will be Rochester’s eyes and crutch after the fire.
The paintings are also significant in contrasting Jane to Blanche Ingram. (Almost everything in Jane Eyre is about contrasts and oppositions.) We learn that Jane’s paintings are inartfully done, lacking in trained technique – yet they possess a truth in vision and passion. Everything Blanche does appears to be perfect, but all is lacking in spirit or a sense of meaning.
Mrs. Fairfax tells Jane at one point: I heard him say her execution was remarkably good. From Rochester, this is damning with faint praise.