Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre, like the works of Jane Austen, is one of those novels that you feel you know from cultural osmosis. For instance, I knew the basic plot of Jane Eyre well before I tucked into the novel for class—I’m a literary critic-in-training, for Pete’s sake! But I’d never read it—or, if I did attempt it at an early age (y’all know how bad my memory prior to fourteen is), I didn’t get very far. So I felt a little cocky as I began Jane Eyre; there couldn’t be any surprises in store for me. And then I couldn’t stop reading it—I had to know what happened next. The moral of the story is—don’t trust cultural osmosis. (Except when it comes to Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a work ruined by cultural osmosis. Whoops.)
Jane Eyre is a Bildungsroman about a young woman in the mid-1800s, beginning with her unfortunate childhood. Jane Eyre was orphaned as a babe and taken in by her uncle Reed, who soon followed her parents to the grave. As a child, she was left at the thin mercy of her aunt Reed and her three children; she is unloved, physically abused, and told that she is wicked. When her aunt Reed can stand her no longer, Jane is sent to Lowood, a strict Christian school where Jane discovers, for the first time, her inner strength. Now an adult, Jane seeks a position as a governess and finds one at Thornfield Hall, in the employ of a Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester. As Jane and Rochester find themselves drawn to each other, the dark secrets of Thornfield Hall threaten to tear them apart.
I think what impressed me most about Jane Eyre was, well, Jane herself. She’s not a witty, clever young woman or a beautiful innocent; instead, she’s a fiercely moral woman whose stoic exterior masks the fire raging within. The novel is framed as an older Jane writing her memoirs, looking back at her life up to where she is now. Naturally, it’s written in a clear-eyed past tense—but not completely. There are occasional moments where Jane encounters Rochester and gives way to a more passionate present tense before calming herself again. As Jane herself says late in the text, she’s a woman with an extreme temperament—either ragingly passionate or coldly dispassionate. Her journey as a character is to find that medium she lacks.
Further emphasizing this conflict are Jane’s two romantic suitors in the novel, Rochester and, later, her cousin, St. John Rivers. Rochester is initially the very picture of a Byronic hero; ugly, yet charismatic, and passionate—there’s even a nod to Byron’s interest in the East when Rochester plays a sultan in a game of charades. (Jane finds it to be quite becoming on him.) St. John Rivers, however, is as dispassionate as Rochester is passionate; his sole interest in marrying Jane is procuring an eternal helpmeet in his missionary work in India. But Jane’s choice isn’t between these two men. Rochester and St. John are united in the way they can overpower Jane and keep her at one extreme. While Jane doesn’t see this herself with Rochester until after everything goes horribly wrong, she definitely sees this in the possibility of becoming Mrs. Rivers, imagining herself “as his wife—at his side always, and always restrained, and always checked—forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low, to compel it to burn inwardly and never utter a cry, though the imprisoned flame consumed vital after vital” (Brontë). Jane’s romantic life dominates the work because it is, ultimately, her spiritual life writ large in reality and beautifully rendered by Brontë.
I was also pleased to find Jane Eyre a remarkably feminist text. Jane rebuffs being with the man she loves if it can’t be on her terms—which are morally Christian terms—and can only be with him when they’re equals. (However, I think there’s something to be said about the fact that Jane and Rochester are only equals after his accident.) While Jane’s attraction to Rochester naturally dominates her thoughts, she’s always working; you get the feeling that Jane could just as easily go through life unmarried, although she would always miss him terribly. What I found most striking, however, were the comparisons of Jane and Rochester to nonromantic couples, such as the biblical Saul and David, and Jane’s own comparison of herself to a male suitor discovering his female lover dead when she comes across the ashen remains of Thornfield late in the novel. I found these little touches endearingly destabilizing, insinuating that Jane and Rochester would still be drawn together had they born in different circumstances.
But Jane Eyre doesn’t get a free pass; it’s mildly racist and definitely xenophobic. Rochester finds mistresses and dissolution on the Continent, while India and the West Indies are presented as disturbingly and damagingly hot and depraved—in fact, there’s a hierarchy of depravity here, from India and the West Indies to the Continent to pure, protected England. People of color go largely ignored, save for the fact that St. John has to go out and save the residents of Calcutta from their own religion and Mr. Rochester’s wife, who is racially ambiguous. I’m not quite sure when Creole began to take on non-white connotations, but this feels like the right window. I’m looking forward to seeing the racism and xenophobia challenged and addressed in Wide Sargasso Sea. Isn’t fanfiction grand?
Bottom line: Jane Eyre is a remarkably gripping story about a woman torn between the two extremes of her nature—passion, as embodied in Mr. Rochester, and distance, as embodied in St. John Rivers—and making her way in life on her own terms. It certainly shows its age through the racism and xenophobia presented, but it’s still a worthy read.
- Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London; Service & Paton, 1897. Project Gutenberg. Web. 1 March 1998.