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Layers of Masonic Meaning in Jane Eyre

In Charlotte Brontë’s Thunder, I investigate the influence of Freemasonry on Charlotte Brontë’s novels and on her family. The following essay covers symbolic connections that I briefly refer to in the book but, because of space constraints, was unable to explore in detail.

Jane Eyre provides excellent examples of Brontë’s strategy and clues that demonstrate her deeper commentary about the Masons and their actions. She would have learned much about their rituals and symbols and known their ancient history.

Egyptian Origin.
As stated in chapter nine of Charlotte Brontë’s Thunder, the Egyptians use a Hierophant, or usher, to guide the candidate through the dark before showing him the holy volume of secret hieroglyphics. The Masons borrow from this tradition by placing a blindfold over the initiate’s eyes in the first degree ceremony. In Egyptian and Masonic rituals, when the apprentice comes out of the darkness, when the blindfold is removed, he sees the “material light,” which symbolizes his newfound wisdom.

Resurrection as Metaphor
The Freemasons also borrow both the symbolic death and figurative resurrection or rebirth from ancient initiations. As in those past ceremonies, the Masons believe the risen brother attains wisdom when he accepts the concept of immortality, but before the initiate can learn this lesson and share the secrets of the order, he must be willing to let go of the darkness of his ignorance and see the light of his new-found knowledge. The Masons’ allegorical ritual involves placing the Fellow Craft in a bed or coffin where he must stay confined in the darkness for a short time, and in the frenzy of the ritual, the frightened initiate might imagine seeing a ghost or a celestial being, which is said to bring a message from the world of the spirit.

In ancient Egyptian rituals, for instance, the being from the other world brings the knowledge of immortality to the initiate. The initiate may experience some dread and faint, but when he regains consciousness he arises from this false death, happy to know he has passed the test, learned that life exists after death, and is now enlightened about his own immortality. The rebirth ritual also refers to the quest for the lost secret buried with Hiram Abiff, the master. The man, having received a divine truth, rises from his coffin, reborn as a Master Mason. He has successfully experienced a metaphorical death to mirror the legendary death of Hiram Abiff.

Persevere and be Vigilant
Prior to the ritual death, the candidate begins his first degree ceremony enclosed inside a sombre room for the purpose of meditating on whether he is fit for initiation into Masonic society. Inside this cave or tomb are written the words “perseverance” and “vigilance,” two qualities that the initiate must possess if he is to continue through his journey in a Masonic life. The fraternity’s allegories as well as its symbols and rituals are not immediately clear to the initiate, so he must observe them carefully and with steady persistence if he has any hope of understanding their profundity. He must be zealous about learning the history and teachings of Freemasonry and be vigilant that the lessons will be remembered.

The Purpose of the Mirror
If he perseveres, he will be purified and enlightened, but first his must face the darkness of his ignorance. In the Chamber, he ponders questions to help him consider his life and his future. A mirror in the Chamber of Reflection symbolizes this reflection that is concerned more with the contemplation of his inner being than his external appearance. His enemies may not be the ones he must fear but his own self, where the enemy lurks within. He must scrutinize himself and the symbols in the room to prepare for the deeper metaphorical initiation when he takes that first step on his individual, internal process toward wisdom. Men may guide him, but the individual alone must learn the skills and secrets necessary to effect his transformation. The Chamber of Reflection symbolizes the beginning of this process.

Jane Eyre’s Red Room–Chapter Two
The Mirror
Jane Eyre’s uncle John died in the red room and lay in state before the undertaker removed his coffin: “since that day, a sense of dreary consecration had guarded it from frequent intrusion,” and cast a spell of loneliness among its grand furnishings. The dictionary meaning of “consecrate” is “to set apart as sacred, to initiate a priest into the order of bishops, to make hallow or venerable,” a definition that implies something holy about the red-room, perhaps in the form of religious rites, or a dedication to a deity, or death by sacrifice.

Jane sits on the white stool in front of this throne and notices a large mirror between the two windows. She rises to confirm, unhappily, that the door is indeed locked and then catches her reflection in the glass where she stays to explore its visionary depths and come face to face with her own spirit.

Chamber of Reflection
Another symbolic ritual Masons have borrowed from the ancient mysteries is carried out in their Chamber of Reflection, a chamber that can be symbolic of a cave. In this primitive enclosure, the man can regress to that earlier time of childhood innocence to consider if his motives to join the brotherhood are pure. The cave can also symbolize a sepulchre or tomb where an eminent man was once buried. The chamber, therefore, indicates childhood innocence and death, or in an echo of a resurrection, the beginning and end of one’s life as an uninitiated person and, accordingly, the advent of a new life as a Freemason in search of light, truth, and wisdom.

Like an initiate in a Chamber of Reflection, Jane contemplates the tyranny in her life and questions her existence: “Why was I always suffering, always browbeaten, always accused, for ever condemned? Why could I never please? Why was it useless to try to win any one’s favour?” Jane’s assertions about her life with the Reed household could mirror Brontë’s own experiences among Masons: “I dared commit no fault: I strove to fulfil every duty; and I was termed naughty and tiresome, sullen and sneaking, from morning to noon, and from noon to night.”

Her contemplation continues as her head and soul ache from the injustices. Her consternation leads her to see clearer why she suffers so much. The family feels no love for her because her temperament and appearance are out of harmony with theirs, which allows them to treat her poorly and regard her as nothing more than a slave, “the scapegoat of the nursery.” She comes to realize that she is “opposed to them in temperament, in capacity, in propensities; a useless thing, incapable of serving their interest, or adding to their pleasure; a noxious thing, cherishing the germs of indignation at their treatment, of contempt of their judgment.”

As this bleak wisdom begins to settle in her brain, the room darkens and she imagines the spirit of her dead uncle in his vault. She questions if she should kill herself and join him: “was the vault under the chancel of Gateshead Church an inviting bourne?” The word “bourne” is an interesting archaic word that means destination, and makes an interesting choice when viewed in terms of a rebirth ritual. The thought of entering the vault ends as she considers the dreadful possibility that, angered by his family’s harsh mistreatment of his niece, her uncle would emerge from the world of the dead to avenge her suffering.

Jane’s Experience in Dreary Rooms
She uses the word “vault” when referring to Mr. Reed’s final resting place but also adds the word throughout the novel to describe rooms that feel particularly cold. In chapter eleven, when Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall to begin her employment as a governess, she finds parts of the house are dreary: “A very chill and vault-like air pervaded the stairs and gallery, suggesting cheerless ideas of space and solitude.” The dining room is damp like a vault, and the attic is as black as the inside of a vault.

Brontë chooses her words carefully, to provide hints to her overall scheme and to suggest connections to Masonic terms. In Freemasonry, the symbol of the vault has its root in ancient mysteries once performed in caves that also represented the grave. According to the Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, the doctrine of resurrection was aligned with the teaching that to die and be initiated were the same, so the symbol of the vault as a replica of the grave became an essential image for the Masons. They believe that if their earthly Temple is above ground, they “must descend into the secret vault of death,” where they pass from the grave to their eternal Temple. The rebirth motif and its ancillary themes are central to their fraternity and could be seen as “cheerless ideas of space and solitude.”

Is the Red Room a Lodge?
The red-room is in the shape of a square, which could signify that Brontë is alluding to one of the most important symbols in Freemasonry. The square refers to the power of Hiram Abiff and symbolizes morality, but is also presented to the Entered Apprentice as an example of the three great lights of Masonry: the Volume of Sacred Law, the Square, which reminds the Mason to square his actions, and the Compass, which determines the limits of his desires. Brontë could be using the term to establish a relationship with the Lodge because the room in which the rituals take place is an oblong square.

For Masons, the Lodge represents the very solemn place found in ancient temples. Prior to the building of temples, the Ark of the Covenant was contained in a taberna, signifying a soldier’s tent, which was situated in the centre of camp and whose entrance would be covered with curtains. The words tabernacle and tavern derive from taberna, the Latin word for temporary shelter, and Masons, including the ones in Haworth, held Lodge meetings in taverns before moving into private rooms.

The sanctum sanctorum of a temple or the Holy of Holies is supported by four pillars and surrounded by veils and symbolizes the consecrated tomb of the risen god, a sacred room housing the Ark of the Covenant. The red-room, a grand chamber, could, therefore, not only be a Chamber of Reflection but also be the sanctum sanctorum of Gateshead Hall with its miniature portrait of the eminent being, Mr. Reed, kept in a secret drawer. Brontë’s inclusion of the biblical word “borne,” to be carried, and the archaic “bourne” obviously echo the word “born” with regards to an ancient rebirth ceremony that takes place in the red-room.

Masonic Symbols in Jane’s Trials
Throughout the novel, Brontë also incorporates terms used by Freemasons during actual degree rituals. For instance, in the first chapter of the novel, Jane conceals herself on a window seat behind a curtain. In Freemasonry, curtains are the symbolic veils, and each one is lifted as the candidate successfully overcomes a trial on his journey to search for and acquire truth. The curtain symbolizes the Veil of Isis, goddess of light in Egyptian mythology. Under her mysterious and sacred covering is concealed the mysteries and learning of the past; therefore, the passing through the veils is symbolic of the problems encountered and overcome during one’s search for Truth.

Symbol of Curtains
Before Jane’s trials throughout the novel, Brontë specifically mentions curtains. Her ordeal in the red-room is foreshadowed by her sitting in the window-seat where “having drawn the red moreen curtain” almost closed, she is “shrined in double retirement” until fourteen-year-old John calls for her. The curtains foreshadow that a difficult ordeal is about to occur: at Thornfield Hall, she forgets to draw her curtain before an anxious event; a heavy tapestry or curtain is drawn back to reveal a secret door; she pulls back curtains at a friend’s death bed, and again when she visits a dying relative, but after a final test, she peers through a window that has no curtain to show the reader that Jane’s struggles have ended and her search for the truth is close at hand. Secrets are hidden behind veils and, as Jane becomes stronger, more secrets are uncovered to reveal the ultimate truth about herself and her desires.

A Young “Master” Mason
Prior to Jane’s experience in the red-room, young John gestures his command for her to stand before him as he sits in an armchair like a Worshipful Master. He spends three minutes sticking out his tongue and then strikes a blow. He reminds her of her poor status: “you have no money”and hurls a book at her head. Jane states, “I instinctively started aside with a cry of alarm,” as the book cuts her head and makes it bleed. “Master John” then attacks her, which incites pandemonium in the house as servants and family members rush to the scene.

In Masonic ceremonies, gestures, hand signals, winks, and nods are important forms of recognition between Masons, and the ceremony must remain solemn even though the candidate may be tapped on the head with a maul, pricked in his chest with a compass, or constrained by a rope while the Masons hold rods above his head. Brontë seems to be satirizing the accepted form by having Master John gesture with his tongue, fight with Jane, and then create chaos among the household before Jane’s “initiation” into the stages of her journey to womanhood.

Masonic Clues and Brontë Puns
Brontë also includes her hints in the appropriate place in the narrative. Jane “started” before John throws the book, and then she cries in “alarm.” In the Lodge, whenever someone seeks admission, the Mason hears the knock at the door, and “starts” the ceremony by announcing, “Worshipful Master, there is an alarm at the inner door of our Lodge.” The Master has already advised the attending members that there must be no disruption of the peace in the Lodge, or the brothers will suffer penalties of expulsion or suspension. He also expects that the centuries-old rituals will be strictly adhered to in every detail, three of which include the candidate emptying his pockets of money, wearing a blindfold, and having the bonds of a noose around his neck. The candidate enters the Institution penniless, in symbolic darkness, and under the control of the Deacon.

Jane’s initiation begins with the chaotic fighting and yelling, but she, too, has no money, and must remain in the darkened red-room where she expects “strange penalties.” The servants threaten to tie her to the stool with their garters, but Jane promises not to move. In Freemasonry, the Deacon greets the candidate and ushers him into the lodge. “Deacon” is derived from the Greek word meaning “servant.” In Jane’s case, her “deacons” lock the door behind them after telling her to try to be a “useful and pleasant,” member among the family, and to say her prayers, which is also the next step in the Entered Apprentice ceremony when the Worshipful Master recites a prayer invoking God’s aid in making the candidate a true and faithful brother among the Freemasons.

Unlike a willing candidate, Jane resists her initiation in the red-room, which is also a reversal of the protocol in a normal ceremony. Brontë provides more hints that, while she borrows from the Masonic system to show Jane’s progress through her life, she does not necessarily approve of their arcane practises, so she adopts their symbols and rituals but inverts and jostles them to suit her disdain for their secret rites. An example of a Brontë jeer arises when she has Jane describe herself after being taken to the red-room: “I was a trifle beside myself; or rather OUT of myself, as the French would say.”

The word “ecstasy” comes from the Latin ecstasis and the Greek exstasis and means the state of being beside one’s self, or being beyond all reason and self-control, but it also means a state of joy or rapture, and offers an association with the techniques of ecstasy when a mystic induces a trance to feel the effect of an out-of-body experience. For Masons, the figurative death in the third degree ceremony resembles the rapture of the mystic, a form of ecstasy that has been called a beatific vision, or recognition of God, or a union with the Divine. The New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry describes ecstasy, not just in symbolic terms, but “as an experience through which it was thought that the candidates were caused to pass,” and adds that “the figurative death of Masonry typifies the death of the mystic.”

Brontë re-enacts the mystical rapture with her tongue lodged in her cheek, but cloaks the message in her double meaning. Jane’s explanation of her feelings could also mean she is out of control, which is how we are meant to read the words, but Brontë adds another clue that she may be communicating something quite different to her readers. She has Jane say, “I was a trifle beside myself,” and then adds, “as the French would say.”

The word “trifle” can mean a thing of little importance or value, a small amount, or be used to describe a dessert of sponge cake and fruit, but trifle’s primary definition as a noun means mockery, raillery, or trickery, and is derived from the Middle English word trufle which means idle talk or deceit and from the French truffe which means deception. Also, if we trifle with someone’s feelings, we are not treating them with due seriousness or respect; consequently, when she says, “I was a trifle beside myself; or rather OUT of myself, as the French would say,” Brontë is trifling with the Masonic rites and hiding her raillery in her clever understanding of the etymology of words, but she is also signalling to her readers to be on guard for wilful distortions of the fraternity’s legends and rituals.

Jane’s Second Degree at Lowood
As we follow Jane, we notice other trifles Brontë has placed in our path that point to her design. In order to recognize the majority of these hints, we need to observe her choice of words in the remaining portions of Jane Eyre to decipher which terms she drops into her story as secret signs. When the secrets are properly mixed with the selected portions, we find Brontë revelling in her passion for making Mason trifle.

Jane’s favourite teacher at the Lowood School is Maria Temple (ch. 4). Brontë joins her mother’s and eldest sister’s first name Maria with the highly significant surname Temple to signal that this character is a true representation of courtesy and kindness. In Freemasonry, the Temple is a symbol for the Lodge, but Brontë introduces her own connotation. For Jane, Miss Temple is a kind and trusted friend whose room at the school provides a true sanctum for Jane, not one where superstitious rituals occur, but a safe place where Jane broadens her education in moral values, love, and friendship.

This instruction provides Jane with the tools that will help her in life, much like a Fellow Craft receives tools to help him in his masonry trade: the Fellow Craft is “raised” to this next degree “to contemplate the intellectual faculty.” He learns more secret signs and passwords and receives the “tools” of his craft: the square, level, and plumb rule, representing morality, equality, and uprightness of life and actions.

The second level teaches him the necessity of holiness of work and of knowledge. He is expected to study the liberal arts and sciences that he may be able to discharge his duties as a Mason: “Tools and implements of architecture and symbolic emblems have been selected to imprint on the mind wise and serious truths,” and to transmit to the Fellow Craft “the most excellent tenets of our institution.” His instruction in his trade resembles that of Jane’s at the Lowood School for girls. Lowood, with its “rules and systems,” its “duties,” “habits and notions,” “phrases,” and “costumes,” has prepared her for the next phase of life, just as Freemasonry with its rules, old charges, regulations, hand shakes, secret words, aprons, and ornaments prepares the brother for his advancement within the fraternal order.

After several years, Jane “grows by degrees” and excels at Lowood, even though she has had to overcome the difficult trials. She must face humiliation, cold, and the death of her friend Helen, but her education continues throughout the challenges, and she rises to the stature of teacher after eight years. If we regard her successful employment as a teacher at Lowood as her advancement from initiate to Fellow Craft, we can expect the passing of her third degree to occur at her next position. To foreshadow the upcoming change, she “undrew the curtain” of her window, like lifting the veil, and feels inspired to advertise in the newspaper for work as a governess.

Masonic Terms and Symbols at Thornfield
At Thornfield Hall, Jane seems to encounter more Masonic symbols. A servant ushers her across a “square hall,” and Miss Fairfax, the housekeeper “ushers” her into the drawing room that is as cold as a vault with mirrors hanging between the windows, and red couches, red ottomans, and white carpets that complete the décor (ch.11). With its similarity to the red-room, and Brontë’s use of the Masonic symbol of the square and the term “usher,” which refers to the Deacon (servant) who “ushers” the Candidate into each ceremony, we can infer that Thornfield is another Masonic Lodge, one where Jane will experience more trials and tribulations. In order to observe her design, we need to take a more detailed look at Brontë’s specific prose to see how she sets up her pattern of clues.

The Relevance of the Number Three
The number three appears constantly throughout Masonic teachings, and Brontë uses it ninety-two times in Jane Eyre: three weeks, three minutes, three o’clock, and she uses “third” and “thrice” with more regularity than any other numerical measure. For Masons, the number three represents the perfect number and, as a symbol, has particular significance in all cultures as a sign of mystical power. The Masonic triangle joined to another triangle, the three great lights, the three knocks on the Lodge door, the three degrees, and the Masonic emblem of life–the tau cross in the shape of the Greek letter “T” with its three points are all examples of the prevalence of this number in Masonic society.

Peculiar Furniture
At Thornfield Hall, as the housekeeper Miss Fairfax leads Jane on a tour of the Hall, she explains that Mr. Rochester is “peculiar” but “a very good master.” Freemasonry itself is defined as a “peculiar system of morality” with its Master Masons; consequently, the word suggests another Masonic connection. In terms of the allegorical function of the story, in order for Jane to experience her rituals and be promoted through the hierarchy of Freemasonry, she would need to have access to a proper Lodge, so Brontë sets her up with a Master at Thornfield.

Miss Fairfax shows Jane to the third story where the dark, low rooms “were interesting from their air of antiquity.” One room in particular contains hundred-year-old bedsteads, oak or walnut chests with “strange carvings of palm branches and cherubs” heads,” that make the furniture look like “types of the Hebrew ark.” Jane notices, “rows of venerable chairs, high-backed and narrow; stools still more antiquated.” The people, who had once embroidered the cushions, were long dead; their fingers now “coffin-dust.” She adds, “All these relics gave to the third story of Thornfield Hall the aspect of a home of the past–a shrine of memory.” She comments on the “hush, the gloom, the quaintness of these retreats,” but has no desire to spend a night in “one of those wide and heavy beds: shut in, some of them, with doors of oak” and surrounded by “old hangings” that portray “effigies of strange flowers, and stranger birds, and strangest human beings–all which would have looked strange, indeed, by the pallid gleam of moonlight.”

Brontë selects specific words in her description of this “strange” room. She uses words like “antiquity,” “cherub,” “ark,” “venerable chairs,” “antiquated,” “stools,” “coffin,” “dust,” “relics,” “third,” “shrine,” “hush,” “gloom,” “retreats,” “shut in,” “effigies,” “strangest human beings,” “pallid,” and “moonlight.” Her repetition of the word “strange” is highly suggestive. Is Brontë dropping clues that the rooms are distant shrines or retreats used for strange, dusty old rites that involve the hush of solemnity as a candidate is shut inside a coffin and men who sit in rows of chairs practise ancient rituals like relics on an antiquated ark?

If we use Brontë’s own peculiar system of inserting clues into her narrative, we can deduce that she is describing a room that contains the atmosphere of an ancient time. The dark adds a mystery to what might have been, not a shrine, but an old Masonic Lodge with its antiquated furniture, especially its rows of chairs, with human relics sitting against the walls of their Lodge in silent observation, creating that gloomy “hush” throughout the room.

The “ark” is an obvious reference to the Ark of the Covenant, and the “cherubs” are the winged celestial beings that carry messages of eternal life to the candidate. The Cherubim are the second order of angels, and King Solomon added their images to the Ark and ordered their faces be woven into the veil that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple. The word “strange” can easily be substituted for “peculiar,” and Brontë gives it significance by repeating it in a comparative form: strange, stranger, strangest, but the superlative degree of “strangest” is assigned to the human beings.

Her most striking image is of the wide, heavy bed with its oak doors that shut in the sleeper. Reminiscent of the curtains concealing the holy of holies or the ark inside the Temple, the bed has “old hangings” like thick tapestries surrounding it. The closed-in bed represents the grave or cave where the candidate experiences his rebirth and witnesses a visit from a cherub or eminent being who brings a message of truth. Jane forgoes the fear of a night shut in an old oak bed but, as outlined in chapter eleven, she must participate in a ritual on the third floor of Thornfield Hall that introduces her to another trial that involves a brother called Mason.

Jane Eyre–Master Mason
Richard Mason publicly unveils the truth of Rochester’s existing marriage to Bertha. By learning more mysteries and hearing her Master’s “secret,” Jane is ready for the final phase of her journey to selfhood. She continues her ascension throughout the ranks of the secret fraternity and survives her final ordeal out on the moors where she longs to die, where she feels her hopes are dead, but just when her soul is at its weakest point, she sees the light from a cottage.

For Masons, the light of mental illumination is “the first of all symbols present to the neophyte and continues to be presented to him in various modifications throughout all his future progress in his Masonic career.” Almost dead from hunger and thirst, the clergyman St. John Rivers rescues her and helps her return to her true character, which enables her to see the light of her truth: she loves Rochester and must be with him.

Jane recognizes her true identity and, as a financially independent woman, returns to the man she loves, having successfully passed through all the trials and tribulations inherent in life and in ritual.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Carter