Sensational Realism? Jane Eyre and the Problem of Genre

Jessica Cox

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Abstract :
This article explores the issue of Jane Eyre and genre, examining the novel's relationship to a multitude of literary genres, including gothic, realist, fairytale, bildungsroman, and sensation.  Critical assessments of Brontë's novel have tended to explore the text's relationships with these various forms of fiction in isolation, focusing, for example, on the narrative's gothic tropes, or its relationship with the Victorian realist novel.  This article seeks to explore the tensions inherent in the text's relationship to these differing, often contradictory genres: to what extent are the realist elements of the text undermined by the narrative's reliance on supernatural, sensational, and distinctly unrealistic occurrences?  At the heart of this tension is arguably a conflict between high-brow and low-brow literature.  How, if at all, does the narrative negotiate and resolve these tensions?  In particular, I posit that Brontë's novel can be read as a forerunner to the sensation novel - a form which became popular in the 1860s, and which is marked by a combination of realism and sensationalism.  A number of sensation novels, including Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862) - one of the defining texts of the genre - are directly influenced by Jane Eyre, reworking elements of Brontë's narrative (in particular the bigamy plot, and the character of the mad wife).  In light of the conflicting aspects of Brontë's novel, I question how useful it is to attempt to pigeonhole the text within a specific literary genre, and to what extent this may in fact limit our reading and understanding of the narrative.  I seek to ascertain the extent to which the conflicting elements of Brontë's novel are ultimately resolved, or whether the narrative as a whole is undermined by these contrasting features.  In exploring Jane Eyre from this perspective, I seek to highlight not only the diversity of Victorian fiction, but also the problematic nature of genre itself, the boundaries of which, as Brontë's narrative illustrates, are fluid, blurred, and at times imperceptible.
Published : 2010-03-08


Jessica Cox, « Sensational Realism? Jane Eyre and the Problem of Genre », Cycnos, 2010-03-08. URL :