I propose to you that Jane Eyre follows sonata form. Whether it’s just good form in art generally or if it’s more specifically the influence of eighteenth century Classical ideals on literature in the nineteenth century, I lack the breadth of knowledge to state. But I will herein narrate the parallels between book and musical form.
I’m not going to summarize the story or sonata form itself. So, SPOILER ALERT! Don’t read further if you haven’t read Jane Eyre yet. In fact, if you haven’t read it, go read it now. It’s my favorite book, which means I like it; but further, I think it’s the best book I’ve ever read. There are lots of books I like which I can’t defend as literature, and other books that I acknowledge their greatness but don’t enjoy reading. Jane Eyre is both great and good. I recommend you drop everything and go read it now.
The exposition begins with Theme 1: misfortune-cum-injustice. The abuse of Jane by her cousins and the misunderstanding of her aunt are a result of her parents’ deaths. Theme 2 is the role of the supernatural, fear faced by Jane in the red room and then in the threats and pseudo-instruction of Mr. Brocklehurt about hell for bad little girls. These core ideas are presented in our primary key, the key of Jane, although she herself is not fully formed.
The long, uneventful, reflective journey to Lowood stands as a medial caesura, a half cadence preparing us for the development, which begins with Jane’s arrival at the school.
Theme 3 is presented in Jane’s relationship with Helen and then Miss Temple, in which she learns self reflection, to see drama as a temptation, and the regulation of emotion as the tool to resist it. The Injustice Theme returns, this time varied with the role of other characters and Jane’s personal growth, resulting in a more stable cadence. The Supernatural Theme develops as Jane’s sense of God and religion matures and develops. The result of these three themes working together is a 4th Theme, representing the emergence of adult Jane with awareness of self, strength of individuality, and measured approach to justice, who is the woman who travels to Thornfield to teach Adele and becomes the object of Rochester’s affection. In the development of both those relationships, she is the teacher about the themes already presented, which sort of means this has already returned to the primary key, but the development ends in Rochester’s key. Jane is under his influence, not standing quite as herself.
In an exception to the rule, the recapitulation begins not in the tonic, but in the secondary key–Rochester’s key. When he retells his story to Jane, he presents the same themes as Jane’s, beginning with Theme 1 with misfortune-cum-injustice in the form of his father and brother’s duplicity, then Bertha’s insanity; then Theme 2 gets completely distorted when he rejects God’s laws and attempts to recreate his own. We now briefly return to the primary key as Jane presents him with Theme 3, advising him to live sinless and die tranquil. And then Jane leaves, supreme act of individuality and strength of character, presenting us with a culmination of Theme 4. The trials of her departure from Thornfield echo her journey to Lowood–a kind of codetta, or the recapitulation’s version of the medial caesura.
At her new home, three new characters reinforce Theme 1, the Injustice Theme. Diana, Mary, and St. John’s poverty are due to the bad relationship between their father and uncle, but Jane rights that wrong. Theme 3, the Self Theme, is in counterpoint with Theme 1 here, as her relationship with her new-found family allows her to come more fully into herself and heal and modulate out of Rochester’s key back into her own. Once we have returned to Jane’s key, Theme 2, the Supernatural Theme, comes seriously into play when Jane hears Rochester’s voice, and (it turns out) he hears her reply. That supernatural sort of event brings them back together, allowing her to choose her own happiness, but also presenting Theme 3 for the first time in Rochester’s key (he has finally learned humility through his trials, rather than defiance). And, finally, we can end with a satisfied, fully-formed Theme 4, the Jane Theme, as Jane is wed to Rochester; his secondary key becomes the dominant that leads to her tonic.
There you have it. Sonata in the key of Jane.