(Warning: This is a very long post.)
Chad Hull, author of the blog Fiction is So Over-Rated, and I have been having a discussion about Jane Eyre. Chad just read it recently, and was irritated with Jane. He wasn’t the only one; one other commenter used the word annoying to describe 19th century women characters, alluding to Jane Eyre and also the characters in Emily Bronte’s book Wuthering Heights.
Chad also wondered why Edward Rochester has to lose a hand, and his sight (although that is partially restored), before he and Jane can be together. He thought that in addition to being unfair to Edward, it weakened Jane. “Does he really have to fall so far before she can be his equal?” It’s a powerful question, and I think the answer is, “Yes.”
Large parts of Jane Eyre, of course, were drawn directly from Bronte’s life experience. She and her siblings were half-orphaned by the death of their mother when Charlotte was five years old. Charlotte, Emily and their two older sisters, Elizabeth and Maria, were sent to a school for clergy’s children, where Elizabeth and Maria died. Much of the section of Jane Eyre that takes place in Lowood came from her time at that school.
Any book worthy of the label of classic, however, must be able to stand on its own, not merely as a reflection of the author, and Jane Eyre does this ably. Bronte’s artistic choices go beyond fantasy wish-fulfillment or personal reactions to events in her own life. In writing Jane Eyre, she offered up a great popular novel and a subversive critique of the values of her society. She is particularly determined to shine a bright—even harsh—light on religion and its dangers; not only hyprocrisy, but the cold soulless sanctimony that is incapable of compassion; and she wanted to show what it was like to be a woman of intelligence, insight and pride but no social standing.
When we meet Jane, she is that most vulnerable of society’s members; an orphan, being raised by her unloving and resentful Aunt Reed. Already her options are limited. With a caring guardian, she might have had a position as a companion, or a chance to make an adequate marriage, but even those avenues are blocked. Jane can grow up to become a governess, a teacher, a dressmaker, or go to a poorhouse.
At the age of ten, Jane is sent off to Lowood, a hellish school run by the corrupt and hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst. Though starved, slandered and mistreated, Jane learns, and makes two friends at least, Miss Temple and Helen, a fellow student. Helen dies of typhus, but this proves to be the scandal that sheds lights on the poor management of the school, and things get better.
In the second part of the book, eighteen-year-old Jane comes to Thornfield Hall, a remote manor house, to accept a position as governess to the absent master’s “ward,” Adele. Jane’s love for Rochester kindles quickly but Bronte weaves in enough weird gothic clues to build suspense; there is a strange humorless laugh that sounds through the house, a mysterious servant, and dangerous, spontaneous fires. She adds a further complication when Rochester appears to be planning a wedding to a local aristocratic beauty, Blanche Ingram. This nearly breaks Jane’s heart, but it turns out that Rochester is merely toying with Blanche and Jane, and that he intends to marry Jane. It seems that she will have a chance at happiness, but the day of the wedding, a mysterious stranger reveals that Rochester is already married, that his wife is mad and he has shut her up in the attic.
Rochester explains the story of his ill-fated first marriage to Jane and begs her to stay, but she refuses to become his mistress. She creeps out of the house at night and wanders away across the moors, nearly dying, until she seeks shelter at a house and is rescued by Diane and Mary Rivers. Recovering from exposure, she soon meets their clergyman brother St John Rivers, Cambridge educated, bound for India to do missionary work. Jane regains her strength, and after this period of introspection, she reaches out to Aunt Reed, forgiving her and asking for forgiveness herself. As her reward for this act of maturity, Jane gets an inheritance, enough to keep her independent, and discovers that the Riverses are, in fact, her cousins.
St John, who is cool and classically handsome, nothing like Rochester, turns away the woman who genuinely loves him because she is unsuitable for missionary work, but asks Jane to marry him. He sees Jane as a partner and helpmeet. Theirs would not be a union of passion but a partnership of good works. Jane says no. After a troubling psychic incident involving Rochester, she returns to Thornfield to find it destroyed by fire, and finds Rochester nearby, maimed and blinded. The mad wife escaped from the attic and set the house on fire. In attempting to rescue her, Rochester was caught when the roof fell in. In his moment of extremity he called out Jane’s name, which is what she heard many miles away. Jane and Rochester are married; soon she gives him a son and his sight begins to return. Jane, the powerless orphan, draws around her a family of husband, children and cousins.
All three of the surviving Bronte sisters wrote and all three were published, but only Charlotte wanted to make a name for herself as a popular writer. She went on to write three more books, two of which, Villette and Shirley, were published in her lifetime. While Villette is a more mature work, neither was as successful as Jane Eyre. Clearly, Bronte touched a chord in women readers throughout England with Jane’s story.
Jane Eyre hewed pretty closely to the conventions of the popular novels of the time, novels written by writers like Elizabeth Gaskill. Bronte skillfully and deliberately lays the traps into which her character will fall. The first, at Thornfield, is the choice of passion over self-respect. Jane can have love. All she has to do is sacrifice everything for it; her identity, her integrity and her honor. Jane says “No;” but then, in an act that seems impulsive and unthinking in such a cerebral character, runs away into the night. Surely she could have waited until morning? This part of the book is Jane’s dark night of the soul, and in her despair, she slips back to when she was an unloved child. She is psychologically transported back to the time the Reeds locked her in the room where her uncle had died. Powerless, helpless, Jane acts as a child and flees, without thought or sense. This is one of the character flaws Jane must overcome; before the book ends she must recognize that she is not a helpless, unwanted child but a strong woman.
The interlude with the Rivers family provides that insight. Jane grows spiritually by resolving things with Aunt Reed. Then Bronte gives her the second test; the loveless marriage offer from St John. St John, while supercilious and cool, is a handsome, well-educated man, and he offers Jane a chance to be useful, something she seeks throughout the book. (In fact, Jane has a debate with Hannah, the Rivers family servant, about how a person without a house or money can still be useful and worthy of respect.) This is the more difficult choice; a virtuous marriage without passion. If Bronte had chosen this ending, the book would probably still have been popular, for that was the choice the readers were expecting. It would not have been a classic, because choosing it exposed none of the issues underlying a woman’s place in the Victorian social world.
Jane refuses St John’s proposal, not once but many times, as the severe clergyman tries to wear her down with logic and by appealing to her sense of religious duty. She is “saved” by a supernatural moment; an eerie connection with Rochester that inspires her to go back to visit him. After a long journey, she finds Thornfield a hulking ruin, Rochester a “ruin” himself, and widowed.
Thornfield, of course, had to be destroyed, purged by fire, because it was tainted by secrets and deception. Bertha’s lunacy and Rochester’s lies mean that the house would never be truly Jane’s. In that house, she would always be the little governess, the dupe, the second wife. But why does Rochester have to be so seriously injured? The reasons are layered.
The first reason is simply that Rochester is a hero, and like true heroes, is injured while behaving with courage and self-sacrifice. His loss stands in stark contrast with Rivers, who will risk his health and life for the souls of strangers, never once caring for them as people. Passionate Rochester risks his life for his servants and even the mad wife he loathes. Having him escape unscathed would cheapen that heroic act of sacrifice.
Secondly, Rochester is a sinner. He has sinned before the book starts, and his treatment of Bertha, the local beauty Blanche and even Jane is selfish and unkind. He lies. He tries to trick the woman he loves into becoming his mistress. Bronte had a keen eye for the foibles of churches, but she was a preacher’s daughter, and she knew about right and wrong, sin and redemption. Rochester has to pay for his bad acts. He could have lost the rest of his fortune, but this would have been another obstacle to marriage, and Bronte’s readers would have lost respect for him as the hero.
Chad’s point was, “Did he really have to fall so far in order for Jane to be his equal?” Jane and Edward are equals intellectually and spiritually, certainly, and in their pride. In all other respects, they are completely unequal. Edward occupies a lofty perch of money, position and gender. When Jane first encounters him on the road, he takes no more notice of her than of a willow tree. It takes a fall from his horse to bring him down to earth, to her level, before he can see her. This is not a version of “meet cute;” this is Bronte foreshadowing the reality of this relationship. In their first meeting, Rochester must lean on Jane to get where he needs to go.
When Jane discovers the truth about Bertha, she clings to her morals, even though she is assailed by Rochester and her own desires. Even when she is walking away from him, she calls him “sir,” and “master.” This is not equality. Throughout the Thornfield section, Rochester, who plainly does love Jane, refers to her in diminutive, child-like terms. He loves her; he does not respect her and he does not have to. Had Jane married this Rochester, a man who had not been tempered by physical suffering, he would have loved her, cosseted her, indulged her, and they would never have been equals.
If this had been the love story of Edward and Jane, Rochester could probably have escaped with a wicked scar or two. The name of the book, however, is Jane Eyre. Bronte wanted to demonstrate what it could cost a woman in her time to have a fulfilling, egalitarian relationship within the framework of marriage. Women of that time could not divorce, they could not own property, and they could work at a limited number of occupations. Is Jane settling for damaged goods? Bronte is prepared to address that as well. Jane creates a family, deepening her relationships with her newly-discovered cousins the Rivers; she gives Rochester an heir, and then, because “God is merciful as well as just,” Rochester’s sight begins to return.
The books ends with Jane ruminating on St John’s life in India. For St John, good looks of an Apollonian nature, a logical mind, and the cold duty of sanctimonious virtue. For Jane, a life battered, cluttered, not a bit pretty, but passionate and authentic.