Of Windows and (Imaginary) Walking in Jane Eyre

Men in 19th century literature like walking. For some, like Wordsworth, it was not only a spur to prick the sides of his imaginative intent, but also a tactile reaction to the creeping industrialisation that took humans further each day away from nature; for others, like some of Charles Dickens’ characters, they walked because they have to, like Jo in Bleak House who has ‘always been a moving … ever since [he] was born”. Great Expectations opens with Pip walking to and from a graveyard, his walk opening up to the reader the dreary marshland of his home, whilst opening up to himself a future of endless possibilities. The growth in urbanisation, the exodus of humans from the country to the city, brought with it a distinctly urban flânerie that is most famous in Baudelaire’s investigations of the Parisian boulevards. European fiction is replete with walking protagonists: The Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun begins Hunger (originally published in 1890) with his starved protagonist wandering around Christiania; much of Dostoevsky’s work involves his characters walking around the city – Crime and Punishment begins with Raskolnikov’s walk through St Petersburg. In America, Poe wrote Man of the Crowd, inspired himself by Baudelaire. And then of course there is Stephenson’s Enfield and Utterson whose walks help to unfold the labyrinthine narrative of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Walking is an indicator of social status (Mathieson, 2015). As I have said, some people walk because they have to, whilst walking for leisure was seen as very much an activity for the affluent. It can also be seen as a representational structure which opens up a form of gender politics (Mathieson): it is okay for men to go walking through the city streets but what happens when a woman does so? Whilst the male street-walker exudes power and authority, surveilling the city streets beneath his male gaze, the notion of a female street-walker possesses some very different connotations, ones that are linked to promiscuity and prostitution for example. George Sand, a female French writer dressed up as a man in order to walk the city streets without the negative assumptions that such actions might bring to bear. For women in classic nineteenth century fiction, walking was very much a rural activity: think of Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice (although I am also reminded of Tess’s long walk to Stonehenge in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles where walking is far from a leisurely activity – it is a means of escape from the weight of society). Julianne Pidduck (1998) argues that a leisured walk in the country, especially those taken by middle-class female protagonists, offered “moments of respite and respiration away from the pressures of social convention” although even then social pressures “made it suspect or even dangerous for a respectable young woman to travel unaccompanied through the countryside”.

Given that the Bronte’s were keen walkers, it is interestingly to see that Charlotte’s Jane Eyre begins, not with a walk, but with Jane’s relief at not taking one.

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

Walking is vital to Jane’s development: later in the novel, walking will open up new worlds for her and according to Trish Bredar it is Jane’s ‘primary mode of transportation’ which ‘fortifies and articulates her independence as she shapes her life’s trajectory’. (Bredar 2017): walking for Jane throughout (the rest of) the novel is a ‘productive channel for defiance, self-sufficiency’ (Bredar).

So why does Jane dislike walking at the start of the novel? Essentially, walking is a way of shaping Jane’s independence; later on in the novel Jane looks out of the window at Lowood and remarks on the distant landscape: “I traced the white road around the base of one mountain, and vanishing on a gorge between the two: how I longed to follow it further!” However, at the start of the novel, this independence is not hers to own: ‘Wandering’ is a collective act, one done by the ‘we’ that includes the family Reed and Jane. Rather than something life-affirming, walking with the Reeds is linked to lethargy, gloom and despondency: the ‘leafless shrubbery’, the ‘cold winter’, the ‘clouds so sombre’. Walking is something done under duress and although it brings with it a tactile, sensory immersion in nature, it is a stunted mobility, one that fails to open up for Jane any possibility of agency or change. This is reinforced in the next paragraph when Jane declares that she ‘never liked long walks’. Her reasons for this dislike are telling: ‘dreadful to me was the coming home … with nipped fingers and toes’ and her spirit depressed by her sense of ‘inferiority’ to the Reeds. Implicit here is the notion that it is not walking per se that Jane dislikes; it is the company, the atmosphere and the fact that walking is an activity that results in ‘coming home’, itself a place of misery and confinement. The opening to the novel thus conveys an atmosphere of repression and a senses of Jane’s own confinement within the walls of Lowood. Her inferiority is increased by her physical separateness from the family: she is ‘dispensed from joining’ the little group of Reeds as they ‘clustered round their mama’. Therefore, dismissed and superfluous to this cosy domestic idyll, Jane does eventually go for a walk, but it is one that takes place in her imagination.

Julianne Pidduck writes that for female protagonists in Victorian literature, walking provokes a “longed-for pleasure” in mobility for its own sake. Jane’s lack of physical mobility in this opening sequence is compensated for by her imaginative one. Sitting by the window reading a book, Jane becomes lost in the descriptions of ‘the solitary rocks and promontories’ that populate Bewick’s History of British Birds’. Here, she can inhabit the ‘forlorn regions’, the ‘Alpine heights’, thus beating Wordsworth at his own sublime game. Or else she haunts ‘the solitary churchyard’ and discovers the frisson of the supernatural in the ‘fiend’ or the ‘black horned thing’. Here, imaginary spaces and places become ‘profoundly interesting’ and a way for her to escape the closed environs of Lowood and her growing sense of alienation and difference from the Reeds themselves. Perhaps she sees herself reflected in the ‘ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud’ or a ‘rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray’, or perhaps the ‘broken boat stranded on a desolate coast’. It is in these images of isolation and despair that Jane finds familiar and familial connections.

It is no coincidence that Jane’s imaginary wanderings occur as she is seated by the window. For Pidduck (again) the woman at the window is a symbol of many layers of female desire – that of “social mobility and individual freedom”

“If the woman at the window evokes both constraint and potentiality, the ‘outside’ to this constrained interior space – class relations, colonialism and, indeed, race and ethnicity – impinge on [its] careful interiors.”

Windows are thresholds, what Mikhail Bakhtin calls a ‘chronotope of crisis and break in life’ and Jane’s habitual residence at the window seat where she can escape the brutality of John Reed clearly signifies this domestic space as not only a form of retreat but a symbol of the crisis in her own life. Pidduck argues that the woman at the window “resonates both as condensed expression of social constraint and social repression and as a figure of potentiality”. Jane talks of ‘the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating me from the drear November day’. The window is both a barrier and a portal to the freedoms that exist in her imagination. It is as if they are soluble, and the words on the pages of Jane’s book are an incantation that dissolves the boundary between reality and imagination, taking her on dream-like journeys to places beyond the stifling world of Lowood.

  • Bakhtin, M. (1981) Forms of Time and the Chronotope of the Novel
  • Bredar, T. (2015) The Possibility of Taking a Walk: Jane Eyre’s Persistent Mobility. in Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature, Volume 132, Winter 2017, pp. 116-129
  • Mathieson, C. (2015) Mobility in the Victorian Novel: Placing the Nation
  • Pidduck, J. (1998) Of Windows and Country Walks in. Screen 39 (4) pp.381-400


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