A Corpus Stylistics Study of the Biased Narrative Voice in Jane Eyre – Yifan Zhai

A portrait of Charlotte Brontë from 1873


Yifan Zhai is a young critic from Beijing. She is currently pursuing an MA in English Literature in Beihang University, China. She used to be in an exchange program to the St.Mary’s University of Texas, USA, where she developed an interest in studying and criticizing literature. Her focus is reading the classics with new perspectives in narratology, especially 19th-century British novels written by female writers. She also loves to read romance novels and detective stories. She’s currently working on another thesis on J.R.R.Tolkien and the world of Middle-Earth World he created.


Over 171 years ago, Charlotte Brontë published her semiautobiographical novel Jane Eyre under the name Currer Bell. No sooner than that this novel and its real author have become household famous, and intensely discussed and thoroughly studied since then. The journal Brontë Studies constantly introduces new insights into the Brontë Sisters’ works even today. While it seems almost impossible to explore these classic pieces of literature in innovative ways, with the help of newly designed corpuses and more advanced computing methods, scholars are now able to find more interesting topics to talk about and new angles to look at.

CLiC is one of the web corpuses that enables scholars to use it freely as a tool to analyze literature. It is a part of University of Birmingham’s Dickens project, but right now it includes other 19th century references as well. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre – as a must-read for literary studies – has been carefully input in the system. This essay, therefore, would like to identify a tendency of narration in Jane Eyre mainly based on a stylistic interpretation of the data results shown by CLiC. To give more detailed analysis and narrow down the research scope, this essay intends to select the chapters where Miss Ingram, the first marriage and love competitor of Jane Eyre, Adele, the girl Jane teaches and the reason she meets Mr. Rochester and, Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester’s mad wife, are introduced in the novel.  In order to find out whether a certain kind of narrative feature can be deduced and defined, the results shown by CLiC Concordance search will be adapted and the text will be carefully examined.

            The Women-focused Narration

Supported by the corpus concordance search, the results of the entries of “woman”, “women”, “girl”, “girls”, “lady” and “ladies” as representative terms for females, and in comparison, “man”, “men”, “boy”, “boys”, “gentleman” and “gentlemen” those male terms are found. To be more specific, there are 89 entries of “woman” appearing in the full text, together with 22 “women”, 78 “girl”, 42 “girls”, 94 “lady” and 78 “ladies” accounting for 403 entries in the total, largely outrun 144 “man”, 32 “men”, 9 “boy”, 3 “boys”, 37 “gentleman” and 45 “gentlemen”, together 270 entries in the sum, which shows clearly that the narrator in Jane Eyre does pay more attention to the descriptions and assessments of women than those of men. And since the narrator, presumably Charlotte Brontë, is a woman, then there comes a question why she should be more interested in observing and judging her female peers other than males.

A part of the reason might be that Jane does spend more time with female characters, thus it’s natural for her to “say” more about them. Other explanations might be that Charlotte prefers to chatter about her female fellows just like ordinary gossip women in real life. But in regard of narration, simply putting the difference between female and male concordances as a proof of Charlotte’s pick is just not solid enough. Thus, a detailed textual study is requested.

            The “Haughty” Miss Ingram

In chapter 16, a noble lady called Blanche Ingram has been introduced to Jane, but not in formal manners due to their different social status. Jane firstly hears about Miss Ingram from her chatting with Mrs. Fairfax, in which the lady and her sister are depicted as “the Honourable Blanche and Mary Ingram, most beautiful women” and “Miss Ingram was considered the belle of the evening” (Brontë 188). Apart from her beauty, Blanche Ingram’s talent in music also leaves a deep impression on Mrs. Fairfax as she says, “it was a treat to listen to her” and she adds Mr. Rochester’s praise as if to increase the credibility of her words, “I heard him say her execution was remarkably good” (189). Jane says nothing negative in response, but from her actions, “eat nothing” and “have scarcely tasted”, it’s not abrupt to deduce that she feels uncomfortable on the thought that a prettier, talented noble lady is likely to marry Mr. Rochester (189).

In chapter 17, Jane gets to see Miss Ingram in person and begins her assessment,

“I regarded her, of course, with special interest. First, I wished to see whether her appearance accorded with Mrs. Fairfax’s description; secondly, whether it at all resembled the fancy miniature I had painted of her; and thirdly — it will out! — whether it were such as I should fancy likely to suit Mr. Rochester’s taste.” (204)

And the result is not quite satisfying as Jane used to think,

“[B]ut her face? Her face was like her mother’s; a youthful unfurrowed likeness: the same low brow, the same high features, the same pride. It was not, however, so saturnine a pride! she laughed continually; her laugh was satirical, and so was the habitual expression of her arched and haughty lip.”

“Genius is said to be self-conscious. I cannot tell whether Miss Ingram was a genius, but she was self-conscious — remarkably self- conscious indeed. … I presently perceived she was (what is vernacularly termed) TRAILING Mrs. Dent; that is, playing on her ignorance — her TRAIL might be clever, but it was decidedly not good-natured.” (204)

Jane even concludes every aspect of Blanche Ingram’s attraction in contrast with her haughtiness and decides that Mr. Rochester “did admire her” (205). Up till this point, Jane admits Miss Ingram’s beauty and charm, and thinks herself incomparable to her. But underneath, a sense of jealousy and despising is built up in Jane’s tone, especially when she found Mr. Rochester keeps paying no attention to her direction (209).

Professor Shen Dan, in her book Narratology and the Stylistics of Fiction, claims that “the real feature of literature is of its implication of two communicational contexts. One is out of literary text, in the real life and, concerning author the message sender and reader the message recipient. The other one is in the literary text, aka, the virtual world. It is consisted of narrator and narratee” (120 – my translation from the Chinese). As a semibiographical writer who might not be sincere enough to record real facts, Charlotte has to defend herself by turning these two women characters into grudge, to diffuse Jane’s being hurt by Miss Ingram other than her jealousy and dislike towards her and, to invite readers to feel compassion and sorry for Jane. So she did what she has to do, which is providing some literary proof that Miss Ingram is indeed an arrogant, impolite, frivolous, and even loathsome woman.

In chapter 18, Jane watches every interaction between Miss Ingram and Mr. Rochester. When she sees them playing as “bride” and “groom”, the narrative voice can no longer suppress her jealousy and confess her love to Mr. Rochester,

“I have told you, reader, that I had learnt to love Mr. Rochester: I could not unlove him now, merely because I found that he had ceased to notice me — because I might pass hours in his presence, and he would never once turn his eyes in my direction — because I saw all his attentions appropriated by a great lady, who scorned to touch me with the hem of her robes as she passed; who, if ever her dark and imperious eye fell on me by chance, would withdraw it instantly as from an object too mean to merit observation. I could not unlove him, because I felt sure he would soon marry this very lady — because I read daily in her a proud security in his intentions respecting her — because I witnessed hourly in him a style of courtship which, if careless and choosing rather to be sought than to seek, was yet, in its very carelessness, captivating, and in its very pride, irresistible.” (219-220)

But curiously, this essay has found that even though the narrator seems to be sharing her feelings, mainly emphasizing the uneasiness of her love for Mr. Rochester, she couldn’t bear to leave nice remarks of Miss Ingram. She wouldn’t want to admit that she is jealous by saying that “Miss Ingram was a mark beneath jealousy: she was too inferior to excite the feeling” (220). And later very bluntly, the narrator simply comments that “She [Miss Ingram] was not good; she was not original” in a sense of feeling herself nobler and wiser than the lady, but the fact might be completely opposite (220). And although the narrator knows it’s suitable for the gentleman to marry the lady, “her rank and connections suited him” and both of them seem to enjoy being accompanied by each other, she still refuses to recognize it and decides, “I felt he had not given her his love” and concludes pretentiously, “she could not charm him” (220-221).

Susan Sniader Lanser claims in her book Jane Eyre’s Legacy: The Powers and Dangers of Singularity that, “[a]s character Jane has squelched every attempt to take over her story; as narrator she has been equally aggressive in suppressing points of view that differ from her own” (185). Lanser thinks that, by giving this kind of monologue, Jane gains her power and confidence and establishes her authority in the novel. And in this case, Jane almost succeeds in convincing readers that she is totally innocent and perhaps deserve Mr. Rochester’s love better. But the person who holds the power of narration, manipulating readers’ reaction and polishing her own thoughts, shouldn’t be simply taken as Jane, as it is inevitable that Charlotte stands in Jane’s back and inserts her instructions to her. Every time the “I” talks with readers, it’s more like Charlotte communicates her own thoughts, which is an “unconventional narrative act” as Lanser once pointed out in her book (185). She also argues that even though it is unclear if Charlotte has adopted the narrative act consciously, the “narrator’s self-conscious relationship with her narratee” is clearly observed in the novel (Lanser 185). Thus with the guidance of the presumptuous narrative voice, it is no surprise to find the scene depicting Miss Ingram’s first glance of Jane as unkind, “she cast on me an angry glance, as if I were in fault” (Brontë 225). And the description about Miss Ingram goes on as haughty and proud. As “I” narrates, Miss Ingram even “cut[s] in” her own mother’s words, which is very rude under any circumstances, in order to be the first one to see the fortune-teller at the end of chapter 18 (228). But the result for her is “more dissatisfied” as she returns quietly to the crowd and refuses to share much, and the narrator is dutiful enough to keep on observing and recording all the details suggesting Miss Ingram’s “disappointment” (230).

Entering into chapter 19, however, Jane finds out that the fortune-teller is disguised by Mr. Rochester and deduces that Miss Ingram has failed to pass his test of loyalty. After that, she gets involved with Mr. Rochester’s secret about Mr. Manson and considers herself as a true helper and friend[2]. And in the meantime, the appearance of the depictions of Miss Ingram diminishes, as if Jane no longer considers her as a competitive rival and thus the animosity between Blanche Ingram and Jane Eyre vanishes.

As results shown by CLiC, the concordance of “Miss Ingram” appears 58 times in the novel, and “Blanche” standing for her 19 times, together 77 entries ranging from chapter 16 to chapter 24 and 27. Although she is only shown in 10 chapters (chapter 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 27) out of 38 chapters in the whole book, and been mentioned only once or twice in the last several chapters from 19 to 27, Blanche Ingram does once impose a threat to Jane’s marriage with Mr. Rochester and is of certain importance. Therefore, the study of Jane’s narrative voice towards Blanche Ingram could shed light on how the narrative voice shifts throughout the encounter of a very important fictional figure, which in return supports the idea that Jane Eyre is a semibiographical fiction and Charlotte Brontë does from time to time manipulate the narration of the story.

            The “Submissive” Adele and “Lunatic” Bertha Mason

To further support the above argument, I have done two extra analyses of concordances “Adele” and Bertha Mason. The analysis of Adele is comparatively simple as the results indicate clearly that there are 135 “Adele” entries and 5 “Adela”, a misspelling of “Adele”, ranging from chapter 11 to 38. Most of the time, Adele is considered as “unsophisticated”, “not bright” and “has no talents” in Mr. Rochester and servants’ eyes (143). But Jane seems to like her, or more precisely, like the idea that she is going to train her. She comments on Adele’s performance, “very unusual indeed at her age, and which proved she had been carefully trained” when she sees her for the first time in chapter 11 (119). She and Mr. Rochester is more concerned by the training result than childhood story of Adele, “thinking her a curious study” (164). With a closer look into the descriptions of her, this essay finds that Adele has been depicted in passively submissive ways, as the verbs describing her actions are often used in passive voice, “occasionally watched”, “the subdued chat of Adele”, and she often “obeyed” or “observed” orders from Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre. Furthermore, the adults often treat her as an object or a duty, “where he had placed her”, “assign Adele to me”, “send Adele to”, “take Adele with you”, “Adele must”, “Adele will”, and “forbidden Adele to talk to me about her presents”. And the end of the story, the narrator remembers to update the story of Adele to readers,

“She looked pale and thin: she said she was not happy. I found the rules of the establishment were too strict, its course of study too severe for a child of her age: I took her home with me. I meant to become her governess once more, but I soon found this impracticable; my time and cares were now required by another — my husband needed them all. So I sought out a school conducted on a more indulgent system, and near enough to permit of my visiting her often, and bringing her home sometimes. I took care she should never want for anything that could contribute to her comfort: she soon settled in her new abode, became very happy there, and made fair progress in her studies. As she grew up, a sound English education corrected in a great measure her French defects; and when she left school, I found in her a pleasing and obliging companion: docile, good-tempered, and well-principled. By her grateful attention to me and mine, she has long since well repaid any little kindness I ever had it in my power to offer her.” (546-547)

From which this essay identifies Jane’s care and love for Adele, but the major focus of Jane, as of narration, remains to be the training result of her, “docile, good-tempered, and well-principled”. The narrator is more than proud to announce at the end that she has finally helped teach Adele to be totally submissive and accustomed to English ethics and education just as which she and Mr. Rochester would have expected her to be.

As for Bertha Mason, this character is introduced in chapter 20 but the name is unmentioned until chapter 26, thus the conduct of corpus analysis of it meets much difficulty to make a comprehensive assessment on the narration concerning this character. But in the contents where the name does show up, in chapter 26, 27, 33 and 36, it is often connected with another term, “lunatic”, which shows contempt and hatred by the word itself (see, chapter 26). And the depiction of the monstrous look of Bertha, reflects the narrator’s fear, disgust and contempt. The narrator refuses to see her as a person, and keeps using “it” to identify her, “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” (351). Instead of sympathizing the poor woman, who has been hidden by Mr. Rochester in the attic for decades, the narrator believes that the human sense has gone out of her and now she is only a trouble and threat. A scene is recorded by Jane to show how mad and dangerous the woman is,

“Mr. Rochester flung me behind him: the lunatic sprang and grappled his throat viciously, and laid her teeth to his cheek: they struggled. She was a big woman, in stature almost equaling her husband, and corpulent besides: she showed virile force in the contest — more than once she almost throttled him, athletic as he was. He could have settled her with a well-planted blow; but he would not strike: he would only wrestle. At last he mastered her arms; Grace Poole gave him a cord, and he pinioned them behind her: with more rope, which was at hand, he bound her to a chair. The operation was performed amidst the fiercest yells and the most convulsive plunges.”(352)

Thus, the narrator exchanges the position of Mr. Rochester and Bertha Mason successfully by leading readers to believe that Mr. Rochester acts only out of defense, and Bertha is not worthy of compassion. Later on, when Jane hears about the fire in Thornfield in chapter 36, she records the servant’ remarks of Bertha Mason, “as cunning as a witch” and blames the tragedy all on her (517). This is quite contradictive with the previous descriptions, for a real lunatic wouldn’t know how to find keys to run away and set fire in specific spots like Jane’s bed and yet the narrator thinks somehow Bertha completely loses her mind but conserves the ability to revenge on certain people (517). In her eyes, the innocent and helpless Bertha Mason becomes a life threat, an arsonist and a murderer. Her Rochester is the one who has done nothing wrong, but has to put up with such a lunatic and almost dies in “its” hands.


The findings of this essay show that Jane Eyre is not as feminist as some scholars might think, at least in the selected chapters. And somehow, she has displayed the misogynist side, disliking other females, looking down upon them, neglecting their sufferings and wouldn’t hesitate to stand in line with males rather than her female fellows. She admits other women’s charm with the premise that they don’t get in her way, and envies them at the same time. But as soon as the competition suspends, Jane Eyre simply stops paying attention to them, which is quite natural if one considers the plot in this fiction as Charlotte’s expectation of her own life story. And about the girl, Adele is the reason why Jane could enter Thornfield and meet Mr. Rochester in the first place, she only shows less tender love and care to her, but looks her more like an object of training and achievement. Last, for the madwoman, the victim and legitimate wife of Mr. Rochester, Jane erases Bertha’s unjust sufferings and only emphasizes on Mr. Rochester’s misfortune. She picks her side firmly with the man she loves, even if that means having to forgive Mr. Rochester’s lies and to hurt and desert an innocent and helpless woman.

This essay tries to make some contributions to the application of corpus stylistics into literature, as well as once more stresses that the narration in Jane Eyre is biased and unreliable because of the narrator’s attitude. But corpus concordance search does have its limitations as it could not locate characters who has no name and yet very influential, for example Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the text. Further studies may pay more attention to the application of corpus analysis into literary studies, probably adjust the method. I really looks forward to further improvements in this field.

See Further

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre[M]. Tianjin: Tianjin People & Holybird, 2016

CLiC Concordance Search. University of Birmngham. Web. 22 June 2018. <http://clic.bham.ac.uk/concordance?&gt;

Shen, Dan. Narrotology and Stylistics of Fiction[M], 3rd ed. Beijing: Peking University, 2004 [申丹. 叙述学与小说文体学研究,第三版. 北京:北京大学出版社,2004]


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