“Tale as old as time. True as it could be” While these words, from Disney’s 1991 rendition of Beauty and the Beast, refer to the plotline of a man turned beast and the pivotal nature of true love’s kiss, they can also be applied to the fairytale archetype itself. Whether it’s the similarities between Beauty and the Beast and Princess and the Frog or Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, this archetype is present in countless movies from a myriad of eras. This enchanted model isn’t limited solely to Disney animation and live-action remakes, but also classics like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Although Jane Eyre can be compared to countless tales from Harry Potter to Star Wars, it’s parallels to Cinderella are uncanny, for the characters, plot, and themes are strikingly similar. However, Jane Eyre does differ from the traditional princess tale in its characters and complexity.
Appreciating the connections between the stories may change how we read the novel. By borrowing the traditional storyline to create a not-so-traditional novel, the author exposes the reader to comfort and radicalism simultaneously. Acknowledging and analyzing Brontë’s usage of the familiar archetype with the daring new portrayals of women’s roles and capabilities create a new, and in my opinion, intensified, the experience of the book.
BackgroundWhile there are several variations of this timeless tale, some gorier than others, the basic plotline stays constant throughout retellings. In the story, Cinderella loses her mother and is forced to live with and serve her harsh stepmother and malicious stepsisters. Aided by birds and mice who ease her subservient existence, Cinderella is shockingly forgiving and sympathetic to her family. Her real moment of defiance is attending a ball the royal family has organized to find the Prince a wife. To attend, Cinderella seeks the help of her animal friends and her supernatural fairy godmother. In the Grimm version, Cinderella is assisted by a magical tree that sprouts from her mother’s grave and a mystical dove. At the ball, Cinderella and the Prince fall in love, but as she must be home by midnight, she hurries to leave the party, leaving, to the Prince’s dismay, only a glass slipper. To find his true love, the Prince searches his entire kingdom for the allusive woman whose foot fits into the glass slipper. Ultimately, despite the attempts of Cinderella’s stepfamily and the logistical barriers, the two reunite and live “happily ever after”.
Beyond titling the work after the main character, Jane Eyre resembles this classic children’s tale in many ways. One such way is the recurrent parallels in the characters and plot. Swapping a stepmother for an aunt and stepsisters for cousins, Jane Eyre opens to a conspicuously similar family. Jane, like Cinderella, is an orphan who lives with a less-than-loving extended family. Both stepfamilies do so unwillingly, one due to a paternal linkage and the other due to a promise to Jane’s uncle.
Additionally, both damsels in distress are painfully aware of their subpar class. Jane, similar to Cinderella, is also subjected to obvious reminders of her family’s disdain for her such as when John Reed, her cousin, berates her, saying, “You have no business to take our books; you are a dependent, mama says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen’s children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mama’s expense” (10).
Furthermore, both protagonists find solace in a non-mother maternal figure. For Cinderella, she seeks comfort and support from her fairy godmother while Jane bonds with a teacher from Lowood school, Ms. Temple, and to a lesser extent Bessie, Jane’s childhood nursemaid.
In addition, there is a justifiable comparison between Mr. Rochester, Jane’s employer and eventual husband, and Cinderella’s Prince Charming. One likeness between the two is their mutual and ongoing searches for true love when they meet their partners. In the aftermath of the discovery of Bertha, Mr. Rochester confides in Jane saying, “I sought my ideal of a woman amongst English ladies, French countesses, Italian signoras, and German Grafinnen. I could not find her” (316). In this section, Mr. Rochester expresses to Jane that he has traveled far and wide in hopes of finding his soulmate, but it wasn’t until he met Jane that he found his “ideal of a woman”. This is similar to Prince Charming who hosted a ball to scrutinize eligible woman for a wife.
Lastly, both Cinderella and Jane Eyre as names are related to the situations of each character. Cinderella is called ‘Cinderella’ because of how often she would be covered in cinders and soot. Jane Eyre’s name is also noteworthy, as her first name is plain and unremarkable, as she is characterized to be, and her last name is a homophone for ‘heir’ which Jane becomes when her wealthy uncle in Madeira dies. When the amount of correlating characters is so abundant and so crucial to each storyline, it is warranted to state there is a similarity.
More than just corresponding characters, Jane Eyre also shares plentiful plot points with this beloved children’s tale. Both characters share a similar exposition complete with unloving families, dead parents, and negligent and even cruel treatment. Later, Cinderella and Jane each encounter a man who they will ultimately marry as a resolution to their individual stories. However, the journey to eventual marriage and happiness is not linear nor easy. Both will meet their husbands in situations shrouded in mystery and subsequently be separated for an extended period. When Jane first meets Mr. Rochester it is by circumstance on a dark night, and as he never gives his name she is unaware of his true identity until the following day. In Cinderella, the prince is similarly uninformed of his mystery woman’s identity. The two couples are also both separated from their partners, Cinderella due to a time constraint and Jane out of moral one. The men in both romances scour ‘the kingdom’ and are finally reunited with their maidens.
Another example is when reunified, the couples complete each other in some way. In Cinderella, her foot fits the Prince’s shoe, and in Jane Eyre, Jane’s exquisite attention to detail and functioning eyes complete Mr. Rochester’s blindness. Jane, like Cinderella, also lives “happily ever after”, but instead develops the infamous phrase “Reader, I married him” (457) to express the same sentiment.
Indeed, part of this picturesque ending is the rise in social class for these initially socially ambiguous characters. As both begin in wealthy families in an inferior role, they are difficult to categorize to a class. Sentences into the novel, Jane writes that she was “humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed” (1). This quite clearly details her subordination to her relatives. The unique sub-class created within Victorian hierarchies creates confusion on Jane’s initial standing. By the end, both protagonists rise to a superior social class in part or entirely because of their marriages. In this way, these stories share the “rags to riches” storyline, thus increasing their equivalence.
In addition to major plot points, this fairytale and novel respectively, share several details with each other. For instance, in Cinderella, the “stroke of midnight” is an important concept as it moment her magically transformed carriage, horses, and dress will return to their earlier, less glamorous states. In Jane Eyre, midnight also signifies several important moments in her life. When Jane and Mr. Rochester first get engaged at Thornfield, they enter the home at “at twelve o’clock” (269) and when Jane arrives at Thornfield for the first time she does so when “the clock was on the stroke of twelve” (260). When a non-related story shares a momentous detail in similarly crucial circumstances, it creates a likeness between the two. The featuring of midnight, a crucial time in Cinderella, in Jane Eyre suggests a parallel between the two works.
Lastly, both stories feature supernatural qualities. In Jane Eyre, the supernatural has a significant, but not major, influence. While there are mystical elements sprinkled throughout the novel, including Jane’s metaphorical “kind fairy” (87) and her terror induced pseudo-supernatural red room experience, none is more prominent than the mysterious prevention of Jane accepting St. John’s marriage proposal. Described by Jane as “not like an electric shock; but it was quite as sharp, as strange, as startling” which acted on her senses “as if their utmost activity hitherto had been but torpor; from which they were now summoned, and forced to wake.” (427), the experience is one of the strangest in the autobiography. Following with “Jane! Jane! Jane” in the voice of Mr. Rochester, this unnatural experience propels Jane to reunite with her fiancé. Cinderella is also aided by the supernatural in a more obvious way, including a magically appearing fairy godmother, pumpkin turned coach, and talking mice.
Both stories also include a tree with supernatural and odd circumstance. In the Grimm version of Cinderella, it is the tree that grew on her mother’s grave and in Jane Eyre, it is lightning struck chestnut tree. When two books share their characters, plot, and even in the particulars, the two have a strong resemblance to each other. Because of the numerous of comparisons between them, Jane Eyre and Cinderella are remarkably similar.
Jane Eyre also shares numerous themes with its counterpart, Cinderella. One example of their thematic comparability is the almost immediate and predestined true love. Although Jane’s romantic feelings for Mr. Rochester do not develop as instantaneously as Cinderella’s, they are expedited. In Chapter 17, Jane even confesses to the reader, “He made me love him without looking at me” (177) suggesting a natural connection. In Cinderella, and most fairy tales, the prince and princess are made for each other, and because of this, are destined to fall in love. This concept of destiny and fate is present in both, for despite the odds – a single foot fitting into a glass slipper and an unknown distance – both heroines find their true love in the end.
Lastly, Cinderella and Jane Eyre alike offer moral themes. In Cinderella, the main character is characterized as kind, considerate, and forgiving. As the protagonist, she is consistently described in a pleasing way making the audience root for her ultimate success and happiness. Because Cinderella is traditionally good and moral, she marries Princes Charming swapping her life of chores for the life of royalty.
This theme of “good things happen to good people” is also apparent in Jane Eyre, specifically in Jane’s expressed desire to serve others. One notable example is during her tenure as a teacher for low-income and working children. Despite her initial dissatisfaction with her new occupation, she soon finds enjoyment in her work stating, “the rapidity of their progress, in some instances, was even surprising; and an honest and happy pride I took in it: besides, I began personally to like some of the best girls; and they liked me.” (372). A character’s ability to put others before themselves is often an agreeable trait. Even though Jane is a likable character throughout the novel, the compassion she shows and attention she takes in her students redeems her from any faults she may have. After displaying generosity and consideration, Jane is rewarded with her own Prince Charming, Mr. Rochester, following Cinderella’s moral theme.
However, despite the overwhelming comparisons in these two works, they also differ in a multitude of ways, including characters in the respective stories and the complexity of Cinderella, a children’s fairytale, compared to Jane Eyre, an adult novel.
One character inconsistency is between the two main characters, Jane and Cinderella. Though from similar backgrounds and though they reach similar conclusions, the two are different in disposition. In Cinderella, Cinderella is unexplainably docile and passive. For years, she endures the abusive torment of her family without any expressed vengeful thought or action. Jane, contrarily, can only withstand a limited amount of mistreatment and eventually reacts exclaiming that John Reed is “like a murderer…like a slave-driver…. like the Roman emperors!” (10).
Another related moment of volatile outbursts is when Mrs. Reed falsely attributes deceitfulness to Jane. Boiling with anger, Jane retorts to Mrs. Reed, “I am not deceitful: if I were, I should say I loved you, but I declare I do not love you: I dislike you the worst of anybody in the world except John Reed; and this book about the liar, you may give to your girl, Georgiana, for it is she who tells lies, and not I” and “I will never call you aunt again as long as I live” (36).
In addition to Jane’s situational responses, the reader is also given a glimpse into her internal thoughts on revenge when she converses with Helen Burns on the subject, “If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way: they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should—so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.” (58) When a person reacts so strongly to maltreatment, they are not easily willing to overlook injustices directed towards themselves. Regarding forgiveness and retaliation, Jane and Cinderella differ greatly.
Moreover, there are discrepancies in the existence of certain characters. For example, the presence and consequential internal conflict Jane experiences due to St. John is exclusive to Jane Eyre, as is the character, Bertha. Perhaps an accidental contrast can be made to Cinderella being hidden when the Prince arrives at her home, but overall, Bertha is widely absent in the fable. Other unaccounted characters include Helen Burns, Mr. Brocklehurst, and Blanche Ingram. Due to multiple additional characters in Jane Eyre, the two narratives are not identical.
In addition to alterations in characterization and characters, Jane Eyre and Cinderella differ in complexity. One such distinction is in their individual representation of womanhood. Although Cinderella and Jane Eyre both share marriage as a resolution for a female protagonist, Jane Eyre’s employment of marriage as a plot point is more nuanced and proto-feminist than Cinderella’s attempt. In Cinderella, the main character ends her chronicle by advancing in social status and wealth through marrying a prince. When a character’s sole conflict is resolved through an increase in rank and affluence, without effort or skill, they can be considered superficial and lack of self-sufficiency. This ending suggests shallowness in Cinderella as well as dependence, specifically financial dependence, on a woman’s husband.
Contrarily, Jane Eyre explores themes of female independence and has even been described as an early feminist novel. One worry of Jane’s prior to her first engagement with Mr. Rochester is her inferior social class and possible dependency. For example, Jane experiences discomfort when Mr. Rochester, who at the time is superior to her in wealth, body, and status, buys her jewels, “Glad was I to get him out of the silk warehouse, and then out of a jeweler’s shop: the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation” (272).
Another example is her persistence in avoiding donning jewelry bought by him as exemplified in chapter 24, “Not at all, sir; I ask only this: don’t send for the jewels” (266). Alternatively, when Jane has the opportunity to wear her own nicer clothes, she expresses lesser qualms. When a person is this avoidant of luxuries bought by someone else, they are often uncomfortable accepting gifts they could not afford. This characteristic suggests Jane is uneasy being in a subordinate position. When Jane ultimately regresses to marry Mr. Rochester, she is financially secure and physically superior to him creating greater equality within the relationship. Unlike Cinderella, Jane Eyre explores feminist themes through the creation of an autonomous female lead.
Furthermore, Jane even advocates for greater equality for women when early in the novel she muses “Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex” (111) This call for a greater consideration of women and a disendowment of the polite, calm, emotionally repressed woman is more akin to the feminist movement than the marriage-dependent, timid, and underdeveloped character of Cinderella. For its portrayal of an early independent woman and its call for equality, Jane Eyre is more equivalent of a proto-feminist book.
Finally, Jane Eyre analyzes social class in a more complex fashion than Cinderella. In Jane Eyre, Jane experiences an abnormal amount of social mobility, ranging from homelessness to upper class. Jane also occupies several different positions within society including orphan, governess, and wealthy woman. Additionally, while Jane’s mannerism and intelligence are that a higher-class woman, her social class is contradictory to her education and actions. This dichotomy in Jane’s character and her representative social class can be seen as a critique of nineteenth-century hierarchies.
Cinderella, on the other hand, offers a simplistic view of the class system her story operates in. In Cinderella, wealth can either be extrapolated to signify merit or randomness. For the former, Cinderella, who is established to be a worthy character, rises in social status suggesting that those who are “good” will eventually be rewarded. However, for the later, the Prince, who is largely undeveloped, demonstrates no traits warranting his capital and prosperity, and Cinderella’s stepfamily are antipathy of those deserving of good fortune. The contradictory message conveys little to no comment on this particular subject. When a story’s plotline can be generalized to a social commentary on the larger systems influencing it, the story can be considered complex and well developed on the subject. This intricate commentary on social systems in an outwardly unrelated plot is suggestive of complexity and social awareness in Jane Eyre. When comparing Jane Eyre and Cinderella in their observation of social class, it is clear Jane Eyre is superior.
AnalysisThe comparison of Jane Eyre to Cinderella is relevant because of the influence it has on the reader’s experience with the novel. Two simultaneous supplemental experiences it can stimulate is to simulate the satisfaction of a fairytale ending while also creating a more complex, proto-feminist version of the traditional tale.
Fairy tales are quintessentially known for their standard ending ‘happily ever after’. This allusion to any fairy tale is partially recognized for its satisfactory and resounding ending. The final and non-negotiable nature of this model conclusion is so appealing it has been recreated in countless works from romantic-comedies to self-help books. One reason, Charlotte Brontë may have inadvertently or advertently donned this classical storyline is to reap from this historically pleasing ending. At the end of the novel, most of the character’s conflicts have been resolved; St. John spends his life serving God and is content on his deathbed, Jane and Rochester are happily married with a child, the River cousins are both thriving and married, and even Adele’s story is explained. With the exception of Bertha, who isn’t overtly painted as a heroine or relatable character, the story follows the prototypical fairytale ending. This gives the reader a fitting and resolute conclusion they can be content with.
In addition, by building on the familiar fairytale plotline, Brontë is able to establish a multifaceted, somewhat revolutionary original character. Jane Eyre’s independence and narrative was a relatively new development in literature, deviating from the typical grandeur of and male-dominance in fiction. Brontë’s decision to adopt the conventional plotline allows her to mask or dilute the radical aspects of her ‘autobiography’ with a more regressive, accustomed archetype. In this way, borrowing the Cinderella plot, Brontë creates a more satisfactory and revolutionary Jane Eyre.
To end, Cinderella and Jane Eyre share a multitude of resemblances including their characters, plots, and themes, but also a number of differences, specifically the characters represented and the intricacy of the respective tales. Though Jane Eyre is altered significantly compared to Cinderella, the similarities they contain are too frequent to be coincidental. This usage of a traditional narrative applied to a then-contemporary work imitated a fairytale ending, and therefore fairytale fulfillment, and camouflaged the less established, more ground-breaking aspects of this early proto-feminist novel. However many ways there are to compare and contrast these two well-known classics, there is no better way to describe the comparability of Jane Eyre and Cinderella than, the 1991 version of “Tale As Old As Time” in Beauty and the Beast, “Just a little change. Small to say the least.”