Wherein I (finally) share my final thoughts on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (by Jill)

Jane Eyre CoverI really thought I would blaze through Jane Eyre this time around, but it took me two weeks, and I was worried I wouldn’t finish by the end of November.  I’m sure when I was twelve it took me even longer, but at the time I was reading above my grade level a bit (by the way, according to amazon.com Jane Eyre’s reading level is ages eighteen and up).  My love of the book has not changed, not that I was concerned about that, but I noticed some new points this time around that I hadn’t before (or at least I don’t remember noticing them), and that’s always nice.

Jane Eyre is a good and moral and honest and brave person.  I admire her.  When she is a child living with her horrible aunt and cousins, she stands up for herself, even though it would have been easier to suffer silently.  When her bully of an older cousin abuses her (this is the scene that precipitated the long speech by Fr. Murphy about how we needed to be careful about who we let touch us) by throwing a book at her head, she says to him, “’Wicked and cruel boy!  You are like a murderer—you are like a slave-driver—you are like the Roman emperors (p. 3)!’”  And when he makes a run at her, she fights back.  As an adult, she refuses to run off with the man she loves because he’s married, even though he is married to a lunatic who lives in the attic and who likes to set stuff on fire.  Adultery is wrong, and she will not engage in it. When she and Rochester are arguing after his marriage is revealed during their wedding, she thinks, “’Who in the world cares for you?  Or who will be injured by what you do?’  Still indomitable was the reply—‘I care for myself.  The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.  I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man.  I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now.  Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; involate they shall be.  If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?  They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs.  Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot (p. 221).’”  Her moral compass points true north and even though she is tempted by her great love for Mr. Rochester, she doesn’t run off with him.  She runs away, penniless and alone, rather than let herself be corrupted.  What struck me in this reading was that she really did want to stay and be with Rochester.  I don’t remember the temptation she felt to stay.  But this time, there are myriad passages such as this: “I longed to be his; I panted to return: it was not too late; I could yet spare him the bitter pang of bereavement (p. 224).”  And this: “I would have got past Mr. Rochester’s chamber without a pause; but my heart momentarily stopping its beat at that threshold, my foot was forced to stop also.  No sleep was there; the inmate was walking restlessly from wall to wall; and again and again he sighed while I listened.  There was a heaven—a temporary heaven—in this room for me, if I chose: I had but to go in and say—‘Mr. Rochester, I will love you and live with you through life till death,’ and a font of rapture would spring to my lips.  I thought of this (p. 223).”  And what is the deal with the panting and the rapture?  Is Bronte talking about—dare I say it—sex? No, of course not.

I have almost no memory of her travails after she leaves Thornfield, before coming upon the Rivers family.  The despair in this section of the book was almost palpable.   “This was the climax.  A pang of exquisite suffering—a throe of true despair—rent and heaved my heart.  Worn out, indeed, I was; not another step could I stir.  I sank on the wet doorstep: I groaned—I wrung my hands—I wept in utter anguish.  Oh, this spectre of death!  Oh, this last hour, approaching in such horror (p. 235)!”  Bethany likened her three days of wandering alone to the passion of Christ and the three days before he was resurrected.  I didn’t think of that (but I’m not an English teacher), but I did think a little on Christ imagery when she kept asking for shelter and going from door to door and getting turned away.  You know….  Like Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem.  Jane’s “manger” ends up being in the home of the Rivers family, where she finds her first real family (in more than one sense) and her first real home that isn’t associated with school or work.  In this place, Jane finds that she is not without family and connections, and that knowledge give her strength and a kind of happiness she has never known.

I just thought of this right this minute, here on day twelve of working on this post.  Jane has two sets of cousins, St. John, Mary, and Diana Rivers; and John, Eliza, and Georgiana Reed.  Isn’t it fascinating that there are two women and one man on each side of the family?  Interesting parallel, don’t you think?  I have no idea what Bronte was trying to accomplish here, but it bears more thought.  Both John and St. John are strong male characters, each of whom bring a different set of challenges to Jane’s life.  Where John is cruel and dissolute St. John is devout.  John abuses Jane (he may have been a sociopath) physically.  St. John challenges her spiritually and also challenges her will and desire to lead her own life.  She almost gives in to St. John, just as she almost gives in to Rochester, but her strong sense of self prevents her from doing so.  “By degrees, he acquired a certain influence over me that took away my liberty of mind: his praise and notice were more restraining than his indifference.  I could no longer talk or laugh freely when he was by, because a tiresomely importunate instinct reminded me that vivacity (at least in me) was distasteful to him….  When he said ‘go,’ I went; ‘come,’ I came; ‘do this,’ I did it.  But I did not love my servitude: I wished, many a time, he had continued to neglect me (p. 280).”  The long argument between St. John and Jane about whether or not she will go with him to India as a missionary and whether or not she will go as his wife was possibly the best interaction of the entire novel, even better than Jane and Rochester’s adorable bantering early on.  I wish I could put all of it in this post.  I suppose I could, but it’s probably twenty pages.  So no.  I loved it.  I wanted to stand up and cheer as Jane grows more frustrated with her cousin and, after months of him telling her what to do and her trying to be the person he wants her to be, she stands up to him as herself.  And he backs off.  Now, St. John is a kind man, and devout.  He does take Jane in and help to nurse her back to health when she appears on the doorstep of Moor House.  He is devoted to his work, and simply does not understand how someone such as Jane could not acquiesce to his request to marry him and go to India.  He does not understand the viewpoints of others and this, to me, is very frustrating, and why I initially planned to start this paragraph with the words, “St. John Rivers? Asshole.”  Thanks to a discussion on Bethany’s post about Jane Eyre, I have seen that he is not as simple a character as I initially made him out to be.  In rereading his sections, he is single minded and devout, and a bit arrogant.  But like I said, he is also kind.  He is possibly the most well-rounded character in the entire book, now that I think about it.

Had Jane and Rochester’s marriage gone off without a hitch the first time around, things would have been much different in their relationship.  When they do finally get married, after Thornfield has burned down, and Rochester has repaid his bad karma, they are true partners.  “No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.  I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together.  To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company.  We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking.  All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character—perfect concord is the result (p. 320).”  It seems to me that if things had worked out initially, there is a very real possibility Jane would have lost herself in Rochester’s life, as she almost lost herself in St. John Rivers’ plans for her.  Because of her relationship with St. John (and of course Rochester’s change in circumstances) she becomes more able to maintain the sense of self she was so concerned about losing before the debacle that was her wedding.  “Mrs. Rochester!  She did not exist: she would not be born till to-morrow, some time after eight o’clock a.m.; and I would wait to be assured she had come into the world alive before I assigned to her all that property.  It was enough that in yonder closet, opposite my dressing-table, garments said to be hers had already displaced my black stuff Lowood frock and straw bonnet: for not to me appertained that suit of wedding raiment (p. 193).”  She is talking about “Mrs. Rochester” like a completely different person than herself.  It’s odd to me, but I suppose that’s how things must have been in the nineteenth century.  When a woman married, her name changed, often she moved away from her family and rarely saw them, and went to her husband’s home and lived a life with him.  In Jane’s case, it would definitely have been the Rochester show—all Edward, all the time.  The plan was for them to go off to Europe for an undetermined period of time, which was not quite to Jane’s simple tastes.  In the end, the life Jane has is the life she wanted all along.

I read Wide Sargasso Sea in 1995, which is Jean Rhys’ telling of the story of the lunatic in the attic, Bertha Rochester.  Now I remember about as much about this book as I do about Ibsen’s plays that I need to read before the end of the year, and I’m thinking I need to revisit it sometime soon.  I did not find the information about Bertha’s life in the Caribbean provided in the text of Jane Eyre to be quite sufficient.  She did have a whole life apart from the attic, and how did she end up there anyway?  I’d love to know her modern psychiatric diagnosis.  Schizophrenia?  Bipolar disorder?  We’ll never really know, I suppose.  And I don’t remember that Jean Rhys made it clear in her version of events either.  Back then villains were just that, villains, and no attempts were made to get to know them or show their sides of things.  Dracula was just evil.  It’s the twentieth century versions that try to imbue him with a sense of purpose and give him a tragic history with a dead wife.  Back in the 1800’s things were simpler.  So maybe it doesn’t matter what exactly short-circuited in Bertha Rochester’s brain to make her like to set fire to things.  And maybe it doesn’t matter why St. John Rivers is a man of God but one who is pushy and arrogant.  They’re there to be foils for Jane and Rochester, not to have their own stories told.  That’s sort of enough for me.  Kind of.  Most of the time.

Something I meant to expound upon in my progress report which I never wrote was to discuss my multi-media Jane Eyre reading experience.  I recently broke down and finally bought a Kindle.  I have had mixed emotions about e-readers for years.  The part of me that loves gadgets WANTED one.  The part of me that loves the smell and feel of a book HATED them.  The part of me that loves instant gratification fantasized about being able to have whatever book I wanted in my hand the minute I decided I wanted it NEEDED one.  The part of me who knew that I have an impulse control problem, especially where books are concerned screamed at me to STAY THE HELL AWAY. Finally one day, which will go down in infamy in the history of my life as “Bad Decision Friday,” I walked into Best Buy and before I knew it I was checking out with a brand new Kindle Fire HD in my hand.  I swear it happened that fast.  My mind went blank and when I came to I was paying for my new toy.  Ostensibly it was so my husband who is too cheap to get his own laptop fixed would stop either trying to steal my computer or constantly using his iPhone to screw around on the internet.  Whatever the reason, I’ve got one.  And the best part about e-readers?  All the classics you can download for free, of course.  So I put a number of freebies on the Kindle, including Jane Eyre.  I thought it would be cool to have a multi-media reading experience with some of the AP English Challenge classic titles.  Also, my copy of Jane Eyre is not looking so well and after a couple days of reading it and carrying it around I noticed pieces of the cover were flaking off.  I did not want this book to go the way of my original copy of Great Expectations.  It’s not pretty.  I’ll talk about that more when we get to that one.  So what I did was read whichever version of the book was handy: e-reader or hard copy.  I put the screen on the Kindle on the smallest font and in sepia tone, which I found more forgiving.  The smallest font size is about the right size so I didn’t feel like I was turning “pages” too often.  I enjoyed being able to read in the dark in bed after my husband had gone to sleep.  On the Kindle it’s really easy to mark passages with the highlight option.  A word I didn’t remember the meaning of was easily looked up with the dictionary option.  It was a little heavy, though.  And I had a hard time getting back to where I had left off the last time.  This problem got to be so annoying that I stopped with the Kindle for about 200 pages in the middle of the novel.  I’ll figure that out though.  Also, it’s a lot easier to find highlighted passages than in a hard copy: you can just open up your list of highlighted things and scan them then go to the text when you find what you’re looking for.  And it’s easier to copy them into your blog post because an e-reader will sit flat.  Not so with a lot of books.  So the final word on the Kindle?  Not terrible, though it lacks that wonderful smell of paper.  I will likely never switch entirely to an e-reader format, but it would be nice for vacations when space is a premium, and Amazon does have good deals on newer fiction for the Kindle every month.  I bought Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk for $3.99 or thereabouts.

I think that part of the reason I’ve taken so long to finish this review is that I don’t want to be done reading Jane Eyre.  It’s easy reading for an adult who has recently read Faulkner and Martel, but it’s a great, inspirational story about an orphan who succeeds by following the moral high road.  It’s not a complicated story, not really, but it invites discussion.  Maybe all the good simple stories have already been written and that’s why twenty-first century novelists have to push the envelope further and further and further (carnivorous meerkat island, anyone?).  So what I’m trying to say is this: read this book.  Read all of the Bronte books.  Read and think and talk about them.  Don’t just sit on the couch and watch TV.  Exercise your brain.  Jane Eyre learned German in the evenings around the fire with her cousins.  Who these days just decides to learn a new language after work in the evenings?  Certainly not me.

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5 Responses to Wherein I (finally) share my final thoughts on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (by Jill)

  1. lfpbe says:

    “Everything” was NOT new in the 1840’s! Aaaaah! That’s a horrible thing to say! And the Ben Fountain novel that you referenced is about Billy Lynn, not Bobby Lynn, and the bullying scene in Jane Eyre didn’t make Fr. Murphy throw up – it just made him repeatedly (and sometimes out of context) make a speech about not letting people touch us. It was the whipping scene in Light in August that made him throw up. In every other way, great review.

    Also, I do think the panting and the rapture is Bronte writing about sex. In my review, I meant to reference the spontaneous orgasm Jane has when she is talking to St. John in the middle of the night and then hears Rochester calling to her. I don’t have my book here right now but can give you the quotation later if you want it, and it’s pretty explicit for 1847 (although sex was not new then, by the way. 🙂

    • badkitty1016 says:

      Billy Lynn… Bobby Lynn…. That’s what I get for writing right before bed and deciding not to proofread the Kindle paragraph this morning before posting. I fixed the parenthetical comment about fr. murphy (I knew it was something violent that made him vomit). And I removed the part wherein i said everything was new in the 1840s. I hate to upset my coblogger. But, for me, not much was written before that era, because I’m afraid to read anything much earlier than Austen; it was barely English before the early 1800s.

      • lfpbe says:

        You didn’t have to remove the part about everything being new… if it generates discussion, it’s worth including. But I’m of the opinion that nothing is ever new, just recycled.

      • badkitty1016 says:

        But stories/plots/storylines had to be new at some point? Didn’t they?

  2. lfpbe says:

    Only in the sense that human beings had to be new at some point, but we still can’t identify a single moment when that happened because the evolution was gradual. And stories evolved the same way. There is a very interesting book about the relationship between biological evolution and narrative evolution, by the way – On the Origin of Stories by Brian Boyd. I haven’t read it but I’ve skimmed it and read reviews.

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