Title: Jane Eyre
Author: Charlotte Brontë
Publication Date: 1847
LC Call Number:PR4167.J5 B55
I apologize in advance for the long and rambly nature of this post. I’d revise, but I’ve sunk a few days into this already…
I was really excited when this book was announced as part of the Year of Feminist Classics, because it was a book I’d intended to revisit for quite some time, as I keep coming across it in various contexts, especially professionally, but haven’t read it since childhood. In some ways, it’s another good study of how differently I read things now than I did then. My first time through, I’d come away with the impression that it was a realistic narrative about a young woman who did very ordinary things like go to school, get a job, and try to sort out her love life. I encountered Brontë’s Shirley many years later and for a long time went around saying I preferred it to Jane Eyre based on this impression.* I’d been surprised, since then, to come across many references to Jane Eyre as a gothic novel, and thought this assessment must be based on a few moments in the book, or some subtle similarities, some unnoticed characteristic of the characters or the setting, that had escaped my juvenile eye.
Thus, it was pretty amusing to find out how far that was from being the case. In fact, this is a full blown gothic novel complete with spooky houses and an apparently (but not actually) supernatural mystery. My experience with the gothic isn’t extensive and is mostly based on much earlier novels, especially those of Ann Radcliffe, but it was certainly interesting to note the ways in which these conventions were followed. Bertha, the famous madwoman in the attic, is actually strangely reminiscent of the lost mother in A Sicilian Romance, though ultimately much more sinister. The isolated and spooky locations, the big, empty houses, the stormy weather and the taciturn proprietors are all very gothic, not subtly gothic-esque but strikingly, obviously gothic—just as gothic as her sister Emily’s novel (Wuthering Heights). In fact, the book plays on some commonplaces of the gothic. Instead of a romantic foreign (often Italian) landscape, it takes place among some gorgeous, rural English settings. Instead of bringing in mysterious nobility, it introduces us to a lot of solidly middle-class characters, and the introduction of realistic psychology to a genre that, ah, does not exactly specialize in that certainly creates a new perspective. The effect is to domesticate the gothic a little, but also to take it down a peg. The characters play charades in the spooky old manor—a great metaphor for the story itself. It’s impossible to have the same sense of awe and romance about a story when the characters seem more like people one might know, which, for a middle class English audience, would have held true. The most notable way in which Brontë plays with these conventions, though, is the substitution of Jane for a gothic heroine.
Most of the gothic heroines I’ve come across are described as beautiful and virtuous, but are in fact rather insipid. They do not exert control over the plot but are tossed about from place to place by a series of Improbable and extreme events. They get into trouble, and they’re constantly terrified and running away from something or other, and often need help from someone, possibly the hero, or sometimes a nursemaid.
Jane doesn’t fit this mold, and it isn’t just because she is described as plain. The book begins with her childhood, during which she is a powerless orphan who is bullied by her cousins and locked in a room by her slightly despotic aunt, until eventually a kindly doctor arranges for her to go to school. But that’s her childhood. Once she becomes an adult, she works for a living, maintains her independence, and always talks back. In other words, the way that most gothic heroines exist in their respective novels is seen as appropriate to a child—that is, it’s infantilizing. Jane-the-adult laughs at these expectations. When she meets an alleged fortune teller, she scoffs at the supposed supernatural powers involved. The “fortune teller” questions her:
“…[W]hy don’t you tremble?”
“I’m not cold.”
“Why don’t you turn pale?”
“I am not sick.”
“Why don’t you consult my art?”
“I am not silly.” (246)
She lacks the “exquisite sensibility”—that is, the foolish nervousness—of most heroines. While she is certainly capable of strong feelings, she also has agency, and an ability to think through situations to decide what she ought to do. There are four main stages of action in the book, each a place where Jane lives, and except for the Reed home, which she leaves as a child to go to school, she leaves each of them under her own power. In each case she makes a decision and takes care of the practical difficulties herself, even undergoing homelessness and near-starvation when she leaves Thornfield. Nor is she pliant and yielding; ultimately, she always makes her own decisions.
So on that level, it’s really great to see a character like Jane; instead of a vapid picture of idealized womanhood as imagined by some would-be patriarch, she’s a realistic female character who is perfectly capable of moving the plot on her own, thank you, and narrates the story in the first person, because it’s her story. At the same time, she presents a different version of virtue for women; Jane has a strict moral code which the reader is strongly encouraged to admire. True, there are times when she seems a bit extreme—her strict insistence on the plainest wedding clothes that she can find comes close to a condemnation of finery that I find a bit harsh (and I’m not a fan of dressing up, myself)—but this is revealed to have been necessary when she needs to leave. In the case of her departure from Thornfield, her strict morality is also a way for her to protect herself. She has seen how Rochester has treated Bertha, and she explicitly voices concerns that this will be her own fate, but she cannot say she is leaving for that reason. Instead, she frames it as a refusal to consort with someone she cannot marry. But then, the strength of her conviction is such that she’s willing to be homeless and starving as a result of it, so I don’t think we can hold the usefulness of her philosophy against her.
Oddly, this makes her flaws more troubling, since I am not convinced that they are intended to be her flaws; they may instead be Brontë’s. Most noticeable is her classism. It’s consistently there throughout the book, but the most striking moment is in her conversation with Hannah in the Rivers household. She came to their door penniless and starving and collapsed at the threshold after wandering around homeless for three days and occasionally begging for food. They took her in, prevented her from dying, and nursed her back to health. However, she is offended when Hannah refers to her as a beggar, and insists that “the want of house or brass… does not make a beggar in your sense of the word” (435). It’s very important to her to maintain that separation. It’s a curious moment and one I’d like to think more about. It’s part of an overall tendency to judge everyone, whether this is laughing at Adèle for being French and liking fancy clothes, or forming a strong opinion of Grace Poole based strictly on her facial features.
In fact, in general, the unfortunate thing about the character of Jane Eyre is that it often seems to come at the expense of others, and she’s often contrasted with less virtuous women. Sexually, she strikes a balance between the Celine Varens-type women on one hand and her cousin Eliza, who joins a convent, on the other. She is more sensitive and imaginative than the likes of Grace Poole, but she isn’t fanciful in a self-absorbed way like Blanche Ingram, or (to take it a little farther) mentally ill like Bertha (is this the implication? It may be). This is of course an inherent problem with setting up one character as a model—it doesn’t leave much space for diversity (though there are other female characters we like—Helen Burns, Miss Temple, Mrs. Fairfax and the Rivers girls).
Jane’s relationships with women in this novel, though, aren’t as important as her relationships with men. St. John is very interesting, but more important is Rochester.
Theoretically, Brontë wants us to like both of them, and as a character, Rochester does have a lot to recommend him. He’s funny, and engages in entertaining repartee with Jane throughout the book. He has taken Adèle in, despite his insistence that she is not his daughter*** and everyone who knows him seems to think well of him. But, even aside from the secret wife thing, he’s also deeply manipulative and his behavior ought to raise all kinds of red flags. Dressing up as a fortune teller to get Jane to tell him what she thinks of him is one thing (ridiculous and unnecessary and appropriative, but you know), but following it up with the sustained fiction of a courtship of Blanche Ingram, explicitly in order to arouse Jane’s jealousy, is a little more troubling. Then, once his secret is exposed and Jane is about to leave, he threatens her, hints at suicide, and criticizes her for failing to stick around and serve as a moral improvement to him:
“Then you condemn me to live wretched, and die accursed? … [Y]ou snatch love and innocence from me? You fling me back on lust for a passion—vice for an occupation? … Is it better to drive a fellow-creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law—no man being injured in the breach?” (404-405)
Okay, so in case you are keeping score: Rochester marries for money and regrets it. Several years later, he courts his governess (a young woman who lives in his house, works for him, and has nobody to fall back on in case of an emergency) by pretending he wants to marry someone else. He doesn’t happen to mention that he is already married, but eventually finds out anyway. Then, when she wants to leave, he tells her that the fact that his life is ruined will be all her fault, since obviously it’s her job to look after his happiness and spiritual well-being. Gee, that’s not creepy at all. RUN AWAY, JANE. RUN AWAY.
His story about Bertha is supposed to make us feel better about him. He admits he made a terrible decision in marrying her, cites her “drunkenness” (is she an alcoholic, or does she just drink more than he thinks she should?) and her mental illness, and claims that he is doing his best to make her life as comfortable as possible. He also uses dehumanizing language when discussing her (she is often referred to as “a beast”) and asserts that he is not married because being married to Bertha doesn’t count, but let’s set that aside for a moment. There are not a lot of great options for Rochester upon finding out that he’s married to someone he can’t stand, and who is possibly physically violent. Sending her to jail or to a madhouse would be cruel. I don’t know about the divorce laws in England at the time, but the world of the novel doesn’t appear to regard that as an option. Living with her is unacceptable. So Brontë encourages the reader to identify with Rochester by presenting an impossible situation and implicitly asking, would you do better? I don’t buy it. I don’t know what the right answer is, but I know that locking her up, pretending she doesn’t exist, and using her money to gallivant around Europe looking for love is not the right answer.
The plot punishes Rochester for his sins, but he gets a happy ending and he gets to marry Jane after Bertha conveniently dies in a fire. Now Jane only marries him on her own terms, after he is severely injured and she can take care of him, but given the relationship dynamic described above, I find this worrisome. Will Jane really retain control over her destiny? Does Rochester really deserve this sort of ending? And isn’t it weird to conflate the villain, who keeps a woman prisoner in a spooky mansion, and the hero, who faithfully loves and eventually gets to marry the heroine, in this way? I suppose some of the problems with Rochester are attributable to this use of the gothic wherein he has to fulfill both roles. But it seems very sad to me that, although Brontë can successfully imagine a female character who is the opposite of what a gothic heroine is supposed to be, who can think and act for herself and tell her own story, she cannot imagine a corresponding male character who could carry out a healthy relationship with such a heroine.
(Oh, and don’t even get me started on St. John Rivers, who responds to Jane’s rejection of his marriage proposal by arguing with her. For weeks.)
*Not to knock Shirley, which is a really interesting portrayal of the relationship between two very different women, and a fascinating book itself.
**Actually, there’s a recurring theme in the book of phrenology and physiognomy—this notion that you can predict people’s character based on their physical features, especially those of their face and head. It’s a little odd—are we to admire Jane in spite of her lack of beauty, or is her plainness itself meant to be a virtue?
***I don’t see how he can possibly be certain of this, but whatever.