Literature: Covered with a Curtain in Great Expectations and Jane Eyre

June 19, 2022 by Essay Writer

Bennett and Royle, in their book `An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory’, state that `the relationship between literature, secrecy and secrets is fundamental1’. In the novels I have chosen, this `fundamental’ dynamic is seen in their representation of secrets as being both hidden and obscure, and yet holding a pervasive power; this power is seen in their influence over the narrative structure and diegetic worlds of the text. This total command over both plot and discourse can be seen in the sheer multiplicity of mysteries within Great Expectations, where both open and unanswerable secrets mingle and obscure one another, creating moments of explosive revelation and defining the murky, secretive interiority of the novels protagonist, Pip. This dual supremacy and prevalence of secrecy is seen again in Jane Eyre and Frankenstein, now under the guise of `secret spaces’ within their narratives; these domestic crypts, occluded from the everyday, act as a locus for both entrapment and empowerment in their respective figurations as repressive tombs and potent wombs. Through exploring these diverse depictions of enigma and mystery, I hope to prove the enduring narrative power and thematic dominance of secrecy within the texts I have chosen.

As previously mentioned, Great Expectations is an excellent example of a novel nested with secrets which both direct and dictate the direction of the plot. Yet, perhaps the greatest mystery in the novel- the identity of Pip’s benefactor- is initially presented as an open secret. This oxymoron is best explained by Jacques Derrida, in his essay `Passions: An Oblique Offering’, when he states `There is something secret. But it does not conceal itself’. Derrida’s particular interpretation of the peculiar paradox of the open secret is anticipated by Great Expectations, where despite being told that the name of his benefactor is a `profound secret’ Pip immediately assures the reader that `Miss Havisham was going to make my fortune on a grand scale’. By having the novels central mystery be an open one- for, despite how `profound’ it is, it initially `does not conceal itself’-Dickens creates an elaborate red herring; for as we know, the identity of Pip’s benefactor is not Miss Havisham at all, but the criminal Magwitch. Yet, despite this intricate creation of a double-secret within the narrative, the identity of Pip’s benefactor is always `in principle discoverable’; Pip himself states that `It would all come out in good time’. This turn of phrase clearly illuminates the paradoxical nature of secrecy in the novel; its central mystery is both secret and not. Therefore, all plot enigmas in Great Expectations are essentially all open secrets, riddles with a solution that will be neatly revealed `in good time’ to both Pip and the reader. However, beneath the surface veneer of these `solvable’ mysteries lies a murkier secret that defies both clear interpretation and closure.

This more obscured mystery is of course the secret of Pip’s nebulous guilt, which both defines his character and manifests itself through his `deep affinity with the criminal world. In his essay `The Hero’s Guilt: the Case of Great Expectations’, Julian Moynahan recognises `a certain discrepancy’ between Pip’s guilt and actual wrong-doing, identifying an almost primal sense of fault buried deep within Pip’s character. This innate guilt is best perceived in Pip’s description of how his secret had `so grown into me and become a part of myself’. The verb `grown’ lends an uncanny, organic quality to the persistent growth of Pip’s liaison with Magwitch into all aspects of his character, providing a psychological context for the continual reoccurrence of the leg iron, the file, and convicts throughout all stages of his expectations. Therefore, Pip’s sense of fault can be ascribed to what he defines as his `secret terms of conspiracy with convicts’; this contamination with the `taint of prison and crime’, combined with what Mr Hubble defines as his `Naterally wicious’ nature, provides a powerful motive for Pip’s attempts to occlude his secret criminality under the mask of gentility; a gentility ironically entirely funded by his `secret terms of conspiracy’ with the convict Magwitch.

Another way in which the supremacy of secrecy is represented within the novels I have chosen is through the prevalence of `secret spaces’ within their narratives. In his essay `Derrida’s Topographies’, J. Hillis Miller writes that `every secret, it might seem, is hidden in some kind of crypt’. These `crypts’ are defined as secret spaces that `are there and not there7’, existing within the domestic everyday but also occluded from it; it is from this paradoxical position that these `crypts’ hold their uncanny power. The hidden, taboo and yet thematically dominant nature of Bertha Mason’s enclosing `room without a window’, and the red room concealed inside Gateshead, are evocative examples of this dynamic in Jane Eyre.

The `goblin’s cell’ buried within the genteel country seat of Thornfield is the most explosive secret space in the novel. The revelation of the existence of this space brings the anxiety over domestic entrapment, latent within previous depictions of `thick black bars’ and the `wide enclosure’ of Lowood, to its thematic peak. It is this explicit naming of the room as a `cell’ and its prisoner as a `goblin’ that finally refigures the mundane domesticity of Thornfield into an oppressive dungeon, with monstrous consequences for continued female existence within it. Much earlier in the narrative, the red room that briefly entraps Jane acts as both thematic precursor to Bertha’s attic and a powerful secret space in its own right. Jane remarks that `no jail was ever more secure’, and it is in this figuration of the red room as a hidden domestic `jail’- one that is `silent’, `remote’ and `seldom-entered’- that it acts as a powerful mirror to Thornfield’s own secret `cell’. By acting as both prelude and reflection of this other secret space, the red room has its own potent thematic charge; it is the foundation and genesis of the unease over domestic oppression and enclosure that echoes throughout Jane’s entire narrative.

As well as acting as compelling symbols of entrapment, the secret locations within the novels I have chosen can also function as potent spaces for self-empowerment and creation within the narrative. The most powerful secret space in these terms is Frankenstein’s `solitary chamber, or rather cell’, hidden within his student apartments, in which he hopes to create his `new species’. This `workshop of filthy creation’ is explicitly feminized, with Frankenstein described as suffering `midnight labours’, before finally birthing his `filthy creation’; the adjective `filthy’ reinforcing the both biological and taboo nature of this unnatural conception. This figuration of Frankenstein’s `cell’ as a place of empowered feminine creation anticipates Gilbert’s and Gubar’s interpretation of hidden rooms and caves as being an intensely female space, in which `dark knowledge’ is attainable and `a goddess’s power of maternal creativity’ can be channeled.

This redemptive reading of oppressive secret spaces can be applied to the red room in Jane Eyre, as its warm, biological coloring- the `curtains of deep red damask’, the `crimson cloth’, and the `red’ carpet- means the room itself can be read as an archetypal example of the powerful `womb-shaped cave…the umbilicus mundi’. Whilst Jane’s experience in the womb of the red room does have a transformative outcome, in that it triggers her escape from Gateshead, this emancipation comes at a cost which subverts this optimistic reading. Jane’s traumatic experience gave her `nerves a shock, of which I feel the reverberation to this day’; it is the nightmare of entrapment within secret spaces, not their potentially empowering aspects, that reverberate throughout the text of Jane Eyre.

In conclusion, secrets and secrecy exert a malignant hold over narrative sequence, character interiority and development, spatial ordering and thematic meaning in the novels I have chosen. The plot of Great Expectations and Jane Eyre both revolve around a dynamic of enigma and discovery; the subversion of the open secret of Pip’s benefactor, in which the fairy godmother figure of Miss Havisham is switched for the convict Magwitch, is easily comparable to the explosive spatial revelation of Thornfield’s hidden cell and its monstrous inhabitant, in terms of its effect upon plot sequence and the character maturation of both Pip and Jane Eyre respectively.

Whilst the narrative of Frankenstein may not be as predicated upon the revelation of a secret as the novels I have previously mentioned, the creation of the Creature within an occluded space, coupled with the fact of the Creature’s very existence being a secret closely guarded by Frankenstein, ensure that enigma still maintains a powerful control over narrative progression. The thematic dominance of secrets in all three novels can then be attributed to their obscure nature; their enigmatic character ensures they can be read as being relevant to a number of themes simultaneously. A potent example of this dynamic would be Pip’s discovery of Magwitch being his secret benefactor; this revelation can be interpreted as commenting on the secret affinity between criminality and gentility, a study in class relations and dependence, a key stage in Pip’s intellectual development, and the triumph of reality over fantasy. The supremacy of secrets and secrecy, above all other narrative devices, is a powerful reflection of Bennett and Royle’s hypothesis that the question `What is literature?’ can be seen as synonymous with the question `What is a secret?’.


  1. Bennett, Andrew, and Nicholas Royle, An Introduction To Literature, Criticism And Theory (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2009)
  2. Bronte¨, Charlotte, and Stevie Davies, Jane Eyre (London: Penguin Books, 2006)
  3. Derrida, Jacques, and Thomas Dutoit, On The Name (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995)
  4. Dickens, Charles, and Charlotte Mitchell, Great Expectations (London: Penguin Books, 2003)
  5. Gilbert, Sandra M, and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman In The Attic (New Haven [u.a.]: Yale Univ. Press, 1984)
  6. Miller, J. Hillis, `Derrida’s Topographies’, South Atlantic Review, 59 (1994)
  7. Moynahan, Julian, `The Hero’s Guilt: The Case Of Great Expectations’, Essays in Criticism, X (1960)
  8. Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Maurice Hindle, Frankenstein (London: Penguin Books, 2003)
  9. Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, An Introduction To Literature, Criticism And Theory (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2009). Pg. 270-278
  10. Jacques Derrida, On The Name (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995). Pg.21
  11. J. Hillis Miller, “Derrida’s Topographies”, South Atlantic Review, 59 (1994),
  12. Julian Moynahan, “The Hero’s Guilt: The Case Of Great Expectations”, Essays in Criticism, X (1960), 60-79 Ibid.
  13. J. Hillis Miller, “Derrida’s Topographies”, South Atlantic Review, 59 (1994) Ibid.
  14. Sandra M Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman In The Attic (New Haven [u.a.]: Yale Univ. Press, 1984) Pg. 93-104 Ibid.
  15. Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, An Introduction To Literature, Criticism And Theory (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2009). Pg. 270-278
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