Jane Eyre and “Bluebeard”

In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the narrator alludes to “Bluebeard,” a figure in a fairy tale: “ […] like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle!” (91). Upon reading this, I immediately drew connections between the “Bluebeard” fairy tale and the novel. In Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard” tale, an ugly man with a blue beard wishes to take his neighbor’s daughters as his wife. She agrees to marry him because of his wealth despite her disgust with his appearance. After they marry, Blue Beard leaves for a trip and gives his wife all the keys to every room in his castle. Blue Beard, however, forbids his wife from entering one specific room. Curiosity and temptation overcome the wife and she enters the forbidden closet to find the dead bodies of her husband’s previous wives; she drops the key to the room on the bloody floor. Blue Beard comes home from his trip and the bloodstained key proves the wife’s disobedience. The wife’s brothers arrive in time to kill Blue Beard and save their sister from his sword.

Perrault’s version emphasizes the curiosity of the wife and her betrayal of her husband, but also punishes the murderous husband in the end. In other versions of a similar tale, such as the Grimms’ “The Robber Bridegroom,” the young maiden, before her marriage, witnesses her future husband murder a young woman. She also receives a warning from an old woman about her future husbands murderous actions that, ultimately, saves her life.

After Brontë’s direct allusion to the Bluebeard tradition, I paid close attention to the parallels between the texts. On the surface, for example, the romantic relationship between Jane Eyre, a young woman, and Mr. Rochester, and ugly, wealthy man seems to parallel, in some ways, the relationship between the young woman and the murderous husband in these fairy tales. Mr. Rochester also has his own secrets, such as the forbidden chamber in that attic of his house and the “mystery of mysteries” (173) of Grace Poole’s role and existence in the house. Finally, when Jane gets close to the secret room after the attack of Mr. Mason, the narrator repeatedly refers to the “key,” an important trope in the Bluebeard tradition. For example, the narrator states, “he turned the key and opened the door” (177) and “I felt a strange feeling as the key grated in the lock” (178). While Mr. Rochester brings Jane into this locked room, there is still another secret chamber or “inner apartment” (178) that she does not enter and a secret that Mr. Rochester forbids Mr. Mason from sharing. As I read, it was impossible for me to separate these events from those in the “Bluebeard” tale. At the end of the assigned reading, Mr. Rochester even addresses this mystery and claims he will reveal an explanation in the future.

In a critical essay by Rose Lovell-Smith, “Anti-Housewives and Ogres’ Housekeepers: The Role of Bluebeard’s female Helper,” Lovell- Smith explores this parallel between Jane Eyre and these versions of the Blue Beard fairytale. Lovell-Smith highlights a “female helper” figure in these tales that warn the protagonist directly (the old woman) or indirectly by showing her possible future (the dead women). According to Lovell-Smith, they both serve the same function – to guide or warn the heroine: “the underlying sympathy between the macabre bodies of Bluebeard’s dead wives and his living wife: they too are her helpers, the ghastly signs that inform her and insist on their kinship with her ” (Lovell-Smith 202).

Lovell-Smith also highlights this connection or “kinship” between the dead women and the wife or future wife. Lovell-Smith highlights Mrs. Fairfax as a “female helper” for Jane:

But it is Mrs. Fairfax who has most of the other necessary qualifications for a Bluebeard’s helper, being an “elderly” woman, a dependent relation of Rochester’s, and his housekeeper: she plays the helper’s role in volume 1 chapter 11, welcoming Jane to the Bluebeard’s castle, seating her by a warm fire, plying her with food, and informing her about the house and its inhabitants. (Lovell-Smith 201-2)

This connection forced me to look closely at Mrs. Fairfax’s warning to Jane when she heard of their plans to marry. Mrs. Fairfax warns, “but believe me, you cannot be too careful Try to keep Mr. Rochester at a distance: distrust yourself as well as him” (226). In this way, Mrs. Fairfax directly acts as a “female helper” who warns the young maiden of some foreboding future. Lovell-Smith also highlights Grace Poole’s role as somewhat of an “old crone” figure, similar to that in “The Robber Bridegroom” and other versions of this tale. Even the mysterious woman who rips her wedding veil in the middle of the night takes on this “female helper” role. While the critical essay also explores other parallels, we haven’t read far enough in the book to discuss them. Through this comparison, I wonder –  How does Brontë use this “Bluebeard” allusion and loose framework to transform the representation of women (particularly Jane) and the relationship between females in this “Bluebeard” tradition?

I will warn you – the critical essay will spoil some details for you if you haven’t finished reading the book!

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2 thoughts on “Jane Eyre and “Bluebeard”

  1. Jason Tougaw

    Fascinating– all those locks and keys point to a running theme about the confinement of women in Brontë’s novel. “Bluebeard” represents a particularly horrifying version of such confinement. Your post is interesting in relation to Kim’s, about feminism and Jane Eyre. Might all those keys represent Jane’s attempt to unlock a social hierarchy that confines women like her–to institutions, to houses owned by men, to lives circumscribed by social convention?

  2. davidginsberg

    I’ve never read Bluebeard, but your comparisons of the similarities of both Jane Eyre and Bluebeard are spot on. The hidden room, the old woman who warns the heroine, the air of mystery around a particular room. It just goes to show that even classic books and great authors draw their inspiration from other tales.
    The few occurrences surrounding Grace Poole are pretty terrifying and horrific. I have no idea of the direction the book will go in since I don’t like reading ahead, but I can’t wait to find out.
    Early in your blog post you mentioned Grimm’s fairy tales which were extremely morbid. If Charlotte Bronte was influenced by those as well, who know what might happen? Great comparison.

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