Jane Eyre’s Sisters, by Jody Gentian Bower, takes a look at the old Hero’s Journey as delineated by William Campbell and analyzes it as a model for literature about women (and women’s own experiences). It’s no surprise to me that she finds the model doesn’t fit. Scholars have spent the last twenty years trying to force it into place, hammering it down over books like Middlemarch, Jane Eyre and The Color Purple. Bower points out that the woman’s journey is different in key ways and addresses those in this book. She reaches back to mythology. She uses contemporary fictional characters from science fiction, fantasy and TV. She leans heavily (a bit too heavily in my opinion) of the works of Carl Gustav Jung and his disciples, but ultimately she creates a working model that addresses women’s issues in a satisfying way.
One of my goals for 2015 was to read more literary criticism. Bower’s theme helps me look at classic works and contemporary works through a slightly different lens, and I always like that. It’s very accessible; so much so that I might recommend it more as a “pop” non-fiction book than an academic text – and I mean that in a positive way.
Right off the bat, Bower says that the word “hero” doesn’t work, and neither does heroine or “shero.” Bower wants a different word entirely for female main characters like Jane Eyre, and she chooses “aletis,” the Greek word for “wanderer.” The book charts the journey of the aletis in real life, myth and fiction.
Bower reviews the hero’s journey. The boy is often an orphan or a foundling. There is a Call to Action; a prophecy, a visitor to town who calls the hero to his quest. He may be a prince who has to save his kingdom, or a little boy living under a staircase.
The boy goes out into the world. He has a powerful male mentor (Galdalf, Merlin, Dumbledore). He learns much from the mentor but soon the mentor falls away, or the hero leaves him. The hero endures hardships and temptations. Temptations are often female, the witch or the temptress. The witch is someone who must be conquered or destroyed. Then the hero faces the Big Evil and beats it. He returns home in triumph where he is lauded.
Bower points out that the hero’s journey is a circle or a loop. Somewhat surprisingly for a male character, the Hero always returns home, raising up his community by bringing the crown, freeing the sword, winning the battle or whatever.
Women characters in the hero’s journey are few and far between. Mothers are usually dead or missing. Women who appear along the road are sometimes “helpmeets,” more often the beautiful temptress or the wicked witch. The “princess” is not a character; she is an object, a prize for good behavior – for winning.
Like the male hero, the aletis is often an orphan or a foundling. Like the hero, she has no mother. Unlike the hero, she hears no Call to Action. The aletis leaves her home or is driven out because she does not fit. Her beliefs, her passions, her selfhood are somehow not a fit, and often reflect a critique on society. Jane Eyre’s mother committed the social sin of marrying, for love, a man who was below her in social class. When Jane’s loving uncle, who took her in, dies, her cold and socially ambitious aunt shows Jane no love or affection and actively mistreats her. Jane get sent to a “Christian” school where the treatment is even worse. At a young age, she is making her own way in the world.
For the aletis, the home she is pushed out of often is a marital one. Part of the aletis story is the “wrong marriage.” Bower uses The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as an example with a protagonist (Helen) who runs away from her increasingly abusive husband, while Dorothea from George Eliott’s Middlemarch basically waits hers out. Jane Eyre escapes from a “wrong marriage” twice, in a matter of speaking; she refuses the illegitimate relationship Rochester offers her (and actually he offers it twice, in a way) and the offer of a cold, loveless marriage St John Rivers tries to force on her. Jane’s strength of will is such that even the intellectually impressive and super-controlling Rivers cannot order her about.
Like the hero, the aletis spends time in the wilderness or “the wild wood” too. Her reasons for going there are different, and the wild wood isn’t a place to be conquered, it’s a place to learn. When she encounters the Witch in the Wood, this person is not an adversary but a teacher – even if the approach is adversarial. Bower uses the Russian folktale of the Vasilisa the Beautiful, who travels into the wood and meets Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga has a habit of eating her guests, but most of them are male. Vasilisa is respectful to the witch and does not get eaten. When Baba Yaga gives her impossible housekeeping tasks to perform, the handless maiden does not complain but, with the aid of a magical helper, accomplishes them. When she has met the witch’s tests, she is given a magical gift.
Jane Eyre goes out into the world and meets Rochester in a magical, fairy-like way. His house is haunted; not by a spirit of the dead, but by a living being. Bertha, the madwoman in the attic, escapes from her room several times, and threatens damage to Rochester and her own brother. She approaches Jane twice and never injures her. She does tears in half Jane’s wedding veil; this seems more like a helpful hint about Rochester than a threat. It is Bertha that brings Jane to the truth of Rochester’s plans and allows her an escape that protects her own integrity and reputation.
The journey of the aletis is not a loop, because the wanderer does not end up back where she started. She always ends up in a new place. She is not cheered for saving society. Often, by being true to herself, she changes those around her for the better. Jane Eyre, by clinging to her morals, forces Rochester to become the hero he is meant to be. Dorothea marries a man who was squandering his intellect and together, they begin helping the poor. In The Color Purple, Celie reunites with the violent, controlled Mister at the end of the book. Because of her independence he becomes a helper instead of a batterer.
Bower ranges as far forward as Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold, which follows the journey of Ista, a grieving woman with a great magical power. She touches lightly on pop-culture female heroes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and uses a lot of late-twentieth century fiction to make her points.
The book made me think and gives me a new template to use as I read current books with women main characters. It’s published by Quest Books. Recommended.