From the opening chapter of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre the reader becomes aware of the powerful role that art plays. There is something extraordinary about the pictures Jane admires from other artists, as well as the work she creates herself. Her solitary pastime often operates as an outlet of pain, either past or present, and offers her the opportunity to deal with unpleasant emotions and memories. Jane’s art transcends her isolation by bringing her into contact with others who see it; it functions as a bridge between her desire to be alone and her need for companionship. Despite her struggles with inner conflict and the people in her life, Jane’s art helps her find personal power, marking her true identity as her own woman. Whether it is her love of drawings or the creations of her own, artwork has provide Jane a means of agency to survive the harrowing conditions afforded to the orphan child, allowing her to emerge as a wealthy, independent social equal.
The first glimpse of Jane’s resourcefulness and mental escape comes from one of the first activities in the novel. She escapes from her powerless place in the hostile Reed household temporarily through a book “taking care that it should be one stored with pictures” (2). She retreats to a solitary window-seat, “having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close... shrined in double retirement,” and buries herself in Berwick’s A History of British Birds (2). The window offered protection, but not separation from the outside: “At intervals, while turning over the leaves of my book, I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon” (2). Through the images and quotes contained therein, Jane manages to acquire the only kind of power to she access to- knowledge, “Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting” (3). Her interpretation of the illustrations provides training for the young girl, who will later produce her own images. Her quest for identity and power has begun, and the young orphan begins to discover how she can begin her journey to find her place as a social equal.
Interrupting her happy retreat, looking at the pictures, is her wretched cousin John Reed. He claims that Jane, as a dependent in his household, has no right to look at books without his permission. As punishment for her transgression, he throws her favorite Berwick’s Birds at her, physically knocking Jane down with its force (3-5). A fight ensues, with Jane comparing Reed’s actions to those of murderers, slave drivers, and Roman emperors. Adults intervene; Jane is blamed for the conflict and is confined to the “red room” where she experiences terrible suffering. In this incident, Jane’s visual pleasure takes the form of looking at art objects in prints and illustrated books. Instead of being a harmless leisure activity, “this looking is regarded by the male character as a provocation, setting off various stratagems aimed to reconfirm rights of ownership by laying down restrictive or subordinating conditions of access” (Kromm 374). Confrontations between Jane and male authority would follow her from her removal from the Reed home to her schooling at Lowood.
Early on in her education at Lowood, Jane finds herself in a situation similar to that of the breakfast room incident at Gateshead. Trying to escape the notice of the headmaster Mr. Brocklehurst. With no massive curtain to shield her this time, she “held [her] slate in such a manner as to conceal [her] face” (62). The “treacherous slate” slipped from her grasp and crashed to the floor. As she “rallied [her] forces for the worst. It came” (62). In a humiliating flight of indignation, Mr. Brocklehurst, placing Jane on a stool for all to see, publically admonishes her for dropping school property. He further attempts to ostracize her from the others by condemning her a liar (information he received from Mrs....