Reader, it’s Jane Eyre.
Bronte published this book in Victorian England under a male pseudo name (of course), Currer Bell. Much of Jane Eyre’s experiences can be drawn to Bronte’s personal life.
What’s The Story
Jane Eyre, the primary character of the book, is an orphan and lives with her aunt. She’s felt alone and unloved all her life. To leave this situation, Jane goes to a charity school where many girls die of typhus (Bronte also went to a charity school where many of her peers died of tuberculosis). After completing her schooling, Jane begins teaching at the school herself.
But after realizing that she wants a wider experience of the world, she takes a job as a governess at Thornfield Hall. It is owned by Mr. Rochester, who Jane eventually falls in love with. The love story of Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester has been read by generations and serves as a staple of love in popular culture, literature, and music.
When Rochester and Jane finally decide to get married, it is revealed that Rochester is already married to Bertha, a woman he keeps locked up in the attic. He keeps her wife in unforgivable cruelty captive for her mental health issues and implied race. Jane leaves after Rochester begs her to live as his mistress.
After Jane leaves, she is found by people, who are, conveniently, her cousins. Her brother, John, proposes marriage to her and asks her to come with him to India as his wife. When she rejects the proposals and begs God for help, she “hears” Mr. Rochester – whose real estate has now burned, who is now blind, and whose wife is now dead.
Jane and Rochester marry. Later, Rochester magically gains some of his sights and the couple has a son.
“Reader, I married him.”
Why Jane Eyre Is A Classic
Jane Eyre is a breath of fresh air from the usual way women are displayed in 19th-century novels. She’s fierce, non-submissive, and she’s not created as the epitome of physical beauty. In fact, the book does a good job of not making Jane’s appearance a primary focus of the story.
Jane Eyre is a female protagonist that’s also a feminist (although some of her beliefs might not sit well in modern-day feminism):
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
Jane struggles with love vs independence, with self-esteem, and with conscience vs passion. The whole novel is a retrospect version of Jane’s life and is written in the first person, addressing its reader as “Reader.”
I once read that a classic is a book that has never finished what it wants to say. Jane Eyre is that kind of classic. When I first read this book at 14 or 15, I thought of it as just a love story set in the backdrop of Victorian England. But I reread it during the lockdown last year and found so many themes I had missed the last time.
Rereading the book last year I realized that it is not the “romantic novel” it is marketed to be. Edward Rochester would fall into the community of men who belittle their female workers, remind them of their inferiority, and then praise their wit. In one scene, he dresses up as a fortune teller to know how “she truly feels about him.”
Jane Eyre had to literally shout this masterpiece to remind Rochester that she’s her equal:
“Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!”
Jane’s refusal to marry Rochester after learning about Bertha is where the story shines. Rochester tempts Eyre to run away with him to France, where no one knows or cares that he is married, but she refuses. She faces the betrayal with shocking strength. She rejects economic and social culture and knows that she can fend for herself, financially and emotionally:
“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”
Jane Eyre is a bildungsroman: a novel dealing with a young person’s education. Jane develops with each subsequent scene in her life, she develops a mind of her own and begins to think for herself. Everything Jane learns with each experience helps her make her way in the world. And it is at the end of the novel when Jane Eyre approaches Rochester as an equal rather than a dependent is when her education is complete.
Not to mention the writing of this novel is not prose. It’s poetry. Each sentence is written with so much clarity, so much care, and so much delicacy, it’s beautiful to hold it.
Why Jane Eyre Is Not A Good Love Story
The returning of Jane Eyre to Mr. Rochester has vexed readers for more than 170 years. It has troubled me too. After all the individualistic development that Jane Eyre does, her return to Rochester is demeaning. It’s marrying the patriarch, developing autonomy, and then defying it.
To be fair, this “returning” of Jane is still up for debate. Many readers argue that she meets Rochester on an equal footing – when she learns to “see” for herself and when she is financially independent (and superior to Rochester in this regard).
I read a theory that Bertha is a dark mirror for Jane: Bertha is every part of Jane’s soul that she has to discard/repress to be Mr. Rochester’s perfect Victorian wife. Every time that Jane is upset, Bertha acts out.
It’s no surprise that Bertha has to die for Rochester and Jane to get married.
In this sense, the novel hardly seems “happily ever after.”
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