Well, there has been no major outcry since I admitted on November 30 that I hadn’t finished Jane Eyre yet, so either my readership has forgiven me or the naysayers are right and no one really cares about book blogs anyway. I’m going to choose to believe the former. It’s December 5th now (or, at least, it was December 5th when I started writing this review), and I am no longer moving. I arrived in San Francisco on Sunday afternoon and spent most of Monday and Tuesday reading Jane Eyre. I haven’t even fully unpacked the car yet. I did, however, squeeze in a little bit of time to get reacquainted with my cats and a little bit more to complain about how much my thumb still hurts. But mostly I was reading Jane Eyre.
Everything I said in my thoughts on Part I still holds. This is an engaging, accessible novel that in my opinion should be everyone’s introduction to what 19th century literature is like. If I were still teaching, I would definitely think about adding this novel to the sophomore curriculum in place of Hard Times – which is also a good text at that level, but Jane Eyre is easier. I think this novel could work at the 9th grade level too, except that at 500 pages it might be too long.
But for those of you who really don’t care about high school reading lists, here is a basic summary of the plot: Jane Eyre is an orphan who at the outset of the novel is ten years old and living with her aunt (the wife of her mother’s dead brother) and her three cousins. Jane is poor because her mother’s wealthy family didn’t approve of her marriage to a poor curate and therefore disinherited her. Jane’s uncle never stopped loving his sister and did care about Jane, but after he dies his wife hates Jane for a variety of vague reasons (for “watching people,” for not being “childlike enough,” etc.) and treats her horribly. Jane is pathetic in the way that only an orphan in a 19th-century novel can be pathetic, but she also has a very fierce side of her personality that makes it impossible for her to stomach hypocrisy. Much later in the novel, Jane reflects that “I never in my life have known any medium in my dealings with positive, hard characters, antagonistic to my own, between absolute submission and determined revolt. I have always faithfully observed the one, up to the very moment of bursting, sometimes with volcanic vehemence, into the other” (446), and this kind of transition from passivity into activity is exactly what happens when she is unfairly accused of a variety of misdeeds by her aunt. When Jane refuses to back down, her aunt sends her to the terrible Lowood school, where starvation is the order of the day and every so often a typhus epidemic wipes out half of the school.
(You know what would be so much fun? To design a mock website for the Lowood School. A couple of nights ago, when I was starting to write this review, I became so excited about this idea that I stopped writing and am just returning to finish the review now. After a little bit of excitement at my fabulous idea, I stepped back and realized that such a website probably already exists. Surely some teacher has given this task as a class assignment, right? Or some other unemployed book blogger – I mean someone other than me – has already fashioned such a thing, right? I mean, if each of the main characters from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried has his/her own Facebook page [haven’t seen them yet? Click here and here and here and here and here], surely the Lowood School has a website or two. I looked, but all I found was this, which, oddly enough, I actually think is a real site. Do you think this school has had a PR difficulty or two at some time in its history? If it were an American school, it would probably be fine, but it’s Australian, and I think Australians actually read books – or so people tell me. But I digress.)
Back to the story. After the typhus epidemic, the school is taken over by a board of directors of some kind (excuse my venturing into the parlance of contemporary independent schools – I forget exactly which terminology Brontë used in the novel), and the living conditions improve somewhat. Jane stays on for six more years as a student, after which she is offered a position as a teacher and remains for two more years. She learns French and Latin and other subjects, excelling particularly in the fields of drawing and painting. After a while, Jane’s favorite colleague, Miss Temple, leaves the school to get married and Jane begins to feel herself wanting to leave too – to move on to a different chapter in her life – so she applies for a position as a governess and is soon hired by Mrs. Fairfax, a distant-relative-turned-servant (why can’t I have one of those?) of the wealthy and tormented Mr. Rochester, who has recently taken in his illegitimate daughter Adele and needs to find a governess for her.
In my hazy memories of this book from high school, I remember being aware of the existence of Mr. Rochester, but I thought that he didn’t appear until fairly close to the end of the novel – or at least not until the second half. I was very surprised when he popped up on page 129, with his big dog and his sprained ankle. This earlier-than-anticipated appearance of the novel’s romantic lead was especially troubling because I was fairly sure that I had stopped reading the book before Mr. Rochester appeared. If this is true (and I think it is), then I stopped reading this book before I was even a third of the way through it – which is pathetic even for my seventeen year-old self.
My embarrassing ignorance of the plot of this novel did lead to one interesting side effect, however. In her pre-reading notes, Jill characterized Rochester as a blind man. Now, in the novel, Rochester goes blind at the very end, but I didn’t know that, and when I first encountered Rochester I assumed that he was blind from the beginning. I knew (from my general storehouse of accumulated literary knowledge) that Rochester is known as sort of a Byronic hero or anti-hero – good and loveable at his core but also irascible and mercurial and temperamental, especially in the time before he meets and is sort of “tamed” by Jane, as the archetype dictates, and blindness seems fairly consistent with this kind of character. When we meet Rochester, he has fallen off his horse and sprained his ankle, and he is very reluctant to take help from Jane. This seems like a plausible situation for a blind man to be in – proudly and stubbornly refusing help even when he needs it – and the presence of the big dog (whose name is Pilot – get it?) seemed to support that interpretation, even if they didn’t officially have guide dogs for the blind in 1847 (or did they? I don’t know). So I just registered in my mind that he was blind and that Charlotte Brontë was just holding back on that detail in order to build suspense. Reasonable enough, right?
Well, of course, Rochester isn’t blind – or, at least, not until much, much later. And it became clear to me relatively quickly that he couldn’t be blind, largely because of a number of prescient comments that he makes about Jane’s appearance, and – on one notable occasion – about her paintings: “These eyes in the Evening Star you must have seen in a dream. How could you make them look so clear, and yet not at all brilliant? for the planet above quells their rays… And who taught you to paint wind? There is a high gale in that sky, and on this hill-top” (144). Blind people can perceive a lot, and I was willing to believe that his observations about Jane’s appearance were gleaned somehow from her demeanor, but an observation that Jane has successfully painted wind? I don’t really know what that means, myself, but it sounds like the remark of a sighted person.
My mistake about Rochester’s blindness, however, led me to pay close attention to visual imagery in this novel, and what I found is that there is tons of it. Both Rochester and Jane comment constantly on one another’s eyes, and Jane regularly notes tiny changes in the eyes of all of the major characters. Rochester uses an image of blindness to characterize Jane’s naïvete: “You think all existence lapses in as quiet a flow as that in which your youth has hitherto slid away. Floating on with closed eyes and muffled ears, you neither see the rocks bristling not far off in the bed of the flood, nor hear the breakers boil at their base” (161), and Jane notes how expressive Rochester’s eyes are when he stares at Thornfield Manor, his home: “Lifting his eye to its battlements, he cast over them a glare such as I never saw before or since. Pain, shame, ire – impatience, disgust, detestation – seemed momentarily to hold a quivering conflict in the large pupil dilating under his ebon eyebrow. Wild was the wrestle which should be paramount; but another feeling rose and triumphed: something hard and cynical; self-willed and resolute: it settled his passion and petrified his countenance” (162). Later, Jane watches Rochester when he is not looking back at her, and her description of this moment incorporates both her fascination with his eyes and her own self-conscious awareness of her own eyes: “my eyes were drawn involuntarily to his face: I could not keep their lids under control: they would rise, and the irids would fix on him. I looked, and had an acute pleasure in looking, – a precious, yet poignant pleasure; pure gold, with a steely point of agony: a pleasure like what the thirst-perishing man might feel who knows the well to which he has crept is poisoned, yet stoops and drinks divine draughts nevertheless” (198). This scene – in which Jane watches Rochester interacts with his guests and Jane tries both to stifle her own love for him and appraise the possibility of his love for her as well as what she thinks is the reality of his love for Blanche Ingram – reminds me of the play-within-a-play in Hamlet, in which Hamlet uses the visiting acting troupe to test Claudius’ guilt.
Jane settles in happily at Thornfield, enjoying her job as Adele’s governess and the intensity of her conversations with Mr. Rochester. She becomes aware of an enigmatic servant – Grace Poole – who lives in the house, and every so often Jane hears creepy, preternatural laughter late at night that she attributes to Grace. One night, she is awakened by this laughter and also smells smoke and rushes to Mr. Rochester’s room in time to rescue him from a fire in the curtains that surround his bed. She and Mr. Rochester become somewhat closer after that incident – it is during this scene that he calls her by her first name for the first time. Shortly thereafter, though, he leaves Thornfield without notice, returning several weeks later with a group of friends in tow, including Blanche Ingram, to whom he is rumored to be engaged. At first Adele’s insistence and later at Rochester’s, Jane spends each evening in the drawing room watching Rochester and his friends socialize, and she begins to seethe with jealousy at what she interprets as Rochester’s love for Blanche. At one point, Jane berates herself for her jealousy – “I pronounced judgment to this effect: – That a greater fool than Jane Eyre had never breathed the breath of life: that a more fantastic idiot had never surfeited herself on sweet lies, and swallowed a poison as if it were nectar” (183) – and assigns herself a very curious punishment that involves her artistic talent. Her self-imposed punishment (which seems in keeping with the discipline of humility that is taught at the Lowood School) is to draw first a self-portrait and then a portrait of Blanche Ingram, and to use these two portraits as constant reminders of her inferiority: “Listen, then, Jane Eyre, to your sentence: to-morrow, place the glass before you, and draw in chalk your own picture, faithfully; without softening one defect: omit no harsh line, smooth away no displeasing irregularity; write under it, ‘Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain.’ Afterwards, take a piece of smooth ivory – you have one prepared in your drawing-box: take your palette, mix your freshest, finest, clearest tints; choose your most delicate camel-hair pencils; delineate carefully the loveliest face you can imagine; paint it in your softest shades of sweetest hues, according to the description given by Mrs. Fairfax of Blanche Ingram: remember the raven ringlets, the oriental eye; – what! you revert to Mr. Rochester as a model! Order! No snivel! – no sentiment! – no regret! I will endure only sense and resolution…” (183-4). What fascinating self-talk! For me, one of the most interesting parts of Jane’s character is how she manages to be this tough on herself (which she is, consistently), with all kinds of overtones of whatever breed of Calvinism dominated her education at Lowood school, without ever really losing what I think is actually a very healthy self-regard – a self-regard that allows her also to make speeches like this: “I tell you I must go!… Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you! 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 now is 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!”
I think the only way these contradictions make sense is with the idea that Jane is absolutely equal in her fierceness toward herself and toward others. I don’t know about you, but I think that quality might be sort of rare. Aren’t most people either tougher on themselves than on others or vice versa?
I’ll make the rest of the summary very brief: Jane and Rochester become engaged, and around the same time Jane learns from her aunt, who is now dying, that she has a wealthy relative living in Madeira, and she writes to him to tell him of her engagement. On their wedding day, Jane and Rochester are at the altar getting ready to receive communion together, when the minister makes that open request (just like in sitcoms!) for anyone who knows of a reason for which the marriage should not take place to come forward – and, well, someone does. It turns out that Grace Poole isn’t just any creepy laughing servant – she’s actually the caretaker of Mr. Rochester’s wife, whom he was compelled to marry for reasons relating to his family’s finances and who now is crazy and lives in the attic at Thornfield. And, of course, it is Mrs. Rochester who does all the laughing and bed burning and what-have-you that gets blamed on Grace Poole. So Jane leaves Thornfield and spends three days wandering around without food or shelter (three days – get it? Last Supper – Passion – Resurrection? Sorry – once an English teacher, always an English teacher) before stumbling upon the Rivers family, who play a key role in helping Jane figure out who she is and what she wants her future to be and, of course, she ends up going back to Rochester.
It really is a shame that I had to skim over such a long chunk of the novel, much of which is exquisitely written and deserves greater attention. Charlotte Brontë has an incredible prose style (her horrific punctuation notwithstanding!) that blends eloquence, wisdom, and perfect timing in a way that anticipates writers like Fitzgerald and Cheever, and she really has a knack for the vivid simile as well. It’s also a shame that I didn’t get to delve into the connections I see between this novel and The Scarlet Letter (with which it is almost perfectly contemporaneous), but enough. Reviews end, and it is time for this one to do so.
If, like me, you read this novel in school (or read part of this novel in school) and never thought much of it, or if you were never assigned it and never thought to pick it up yourself, I highly recommend it – for all of the reasons I’ve discussed above and plenty more as well. It’s a fantastic read, in both 19th-century ways and in more modern ways as well. And by the way, I do still plan to read Wide Sargasso Sea and Madwoman in the Attic as I promised in my pre-reading notes, although maybe not absolutely right away. But soon – and when I do, I’ll let you know what I think.