I read this book maybe six or seven times when I was in my twenties. I thought then, and still think, that its one of the best books ever written. I'v...moreI read this book maybe six or seven times when I was in my twenties. I thought then, and still think, that its one of the best books ever written. I've since come to realize that Melville is a phenomenally good writer, but a pretty bad novelist. And that's the impression I'm left with on this re-reading, some twenty years later.
I know lots of people dislike this book because there's too much Cetology and not enough adventure. I feel the opposite. I love the whaling chapters. Give me whales in scrimshaw, give me metaphorical leaps of fancy having to do with the coiling of rope. I still eat this stuff up. I have less patience with the characters and the story. Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Queequeg, Pip... They work fairly well as types, but none of them are fully realized characters. And they aren't meant to be. And for the most part, there isn't much of a story at all. In terms of plot, it's probably thinner than Hemmingway's The Old Man and the Sea. The characters and story, however, do work for this book, but it doesn't make for anything that resembles a standard novel. Instead, the book works, for me at least, as a series of over the top sketches and essays. And everything in this book is over the top. much more so than I realized when I was younger.
I have no idea how I would have reacted to this book if this were my first reading of it, instead of being closer to the tenth. I will admit that this time around I found it somewhat tedious, especially the seemingly never-ending soliloquies of Ahab toward the end. But I still love the book, and still think its one of the greatest things ever written. (less)
I don't know how many times I've read this. There was a time in my mid-twenties when I decided to stop reading new books, and for close to half a year...moreI don't know how many times I've read this. There was a time in my mid-twenties when I decided to stop reading new books, and for close to half a year, all I did was re-read, again and again, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and Don DeLillo. I've often wondered what the three have in common, and about the only thing I can come up with is how often I've read each of them.
On this re-reading, I can still say that this book thoroughly delighted me. It's one of my favorite novels, even if I think it is her third or fourth best. I went into this reading trying to keep a sympathetic eye out for all the things that I have seen other people criticize. That lasted almost up to the point where Darcy snubbed Elizabeth at the first ball. By then, I was hooked again, and once again thoroughly charmed.
I promise that I'll finish this review without calling you Reader, even once.
Early on, having learned that Jane was a naughty girl, Mr. Brock...more6/18/13
I promise that I'll finish this review without calling you Reader, even once.
Early on, having learned that Jane was a naughty girl, Mr. Brocklehurst asks her if she knows what happens to naughty little girls after death. Jane answers:
"They go to hell."
"And what is hell? Can you tell me that?"
"A pit full of fire"
"And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?
"What must you do to avoid it?"
"I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionale: "I must keep in good health, and not die.""
It's a very funny line, but it also sums up for me why I love Jane so much, and why she scares me a bit. At the core, she's utterly intractable. If the alternatives before her are going to hell or changing her character, then her answer is "I must not die." And that's exactly what plays out in the book. Since I don't have much English Lit trivia, its worth noting that Jane is the first woman in an English novel to sleep outside. The only other one in Victorian Literature is Tess. And Jane probably goes through more hell than any other heroine of the period, with the possible exception of Tess. And through it all she remains an almost perfect passive aggressive.
Having looked again for this quote, it also strikes me that Jane ultimately gets given the possibility of spending her life with the ice that is her St. John. But Rochester, like her, is basically all fire at the core. So when Jane says that she would not like to spend eternity burning in a pit of fire, she does not yet fully know herself, because it turns out that that is exactly what she want. The fire, it turns out, is more simply the fire of the hearth, but the heat at the core remains.
I do wish that Bronte could have made St. John a better, more appealing foil. His proposal to Jane works in almost an exact inverse to Rochester's proposal to run off to the South of France. Rochester offers true love, the union of their spirits, and a life of leisure and bliss, but no marriage. St. John offers marriage without love, a life subjugated to St. John's work, and a short, difficult life of nearly endless labor. St. John's offer appears so thoroughly evil nowadays that it's hard for me to believe that it almost looks like a straw man. I wonder how people at the time viewed it. I'm aware that there were lots of loveless marriages, but were any entered into on terms as cold and unappealing as what St. John actually offers.
I also have a hard time on this reading figuring out what, precisely Rochester's appeal is. He lies to Jane from the start. As a foolish youth, he let himself be led into a loveless marriage and paid the price. A friend of our family used to say "Anyone who marries for money earns every penny of it." Then, when he got the chance, he shut away his wife, and went traipsing over Europe taking one mistress after another. His good points: He took charge of Adele, even though she probably isn't his daughter. He learned something from his mistakes as a youth. He's a great conversationalist. And, this above all, he sees the worth in Jane, and from the outset treats her as an equal. Maybe that last is enough.
Lastly, I had forgotten how charming and spellbinding the prose is. I've been reading so much schlocky YA stuff recently that I had almost forgotten what graceful writing can be like. And there, I've made it through without once calling you Reader...
On reread 6/12/14 -
OK, Reader, its less than a year later and I've read this one again. I don't have all that much to add to what I said above.
I mentioned before that Rochester lies to Jane from the start. He lies about his wife. He enlists Jane in his deception to cover up the stabbing of Mason, and she acquiesces. On the eve of their wedding, she tells him that she was nearly assaulted in the middle of the night by a horrid creature. He dismisses it as her nerves, and then tries to pin the blame on Grace Poole. There''s a hint that he's disturbed that he left his fiance in mortal danger, but the cover-up is more important to him. And then, when Jane discovers all this, she's not angry with him. It was even harder for me to swallow it this time around. She does say that she could no longer trust his absolute honesty. But, as many things as Jane gets wrong in this book (and its kind of startling how much she gets wrong), she certainly knew even before the marriage that Rochester was capable of being dishonest for his own ends.
Next, there's his treatment of women. The two women closest to him before Jane arrives are his mad wife and his illegitimate daughter. He's disowned them both. His wife never suited him. And he's not willing to own up to Adele, because he insists that she might be someone elses. Once again, I don't buy it.
Finally, I would have liked it better if Bronte had some idea of what a human being can endure. Three days on the road and Jane is about to die? I would take this as mere exaggeration, but the Rivers think this of her as well. Later, St. John says that a little rain or snow won't kill Jane because she's made of stronger stuff. But we know that three days, with only a small bite to eat each day, and some rain, were enough to put her at deaths door. Without adding anything to the text, Bronte could have made this believable by having the privation last for longer.
To add to this quibble, on the first day she got a ride. On the second day she stopped at a parsonage but the parson was attending his dying father, three miles away. She ends up at that house on the third day, so only travelled three miles in the third day. And yet, later we find out that she is a 36 hour carriage ride away from Thornfield. If she rode in the carriage for 12 hours the first day, and that's a stretch because the carriage man put her out when her 20 shillings was up, then she would still have 24 hours of carriage riding to make up for with walking. Let's call that 100 miles. She walked 3 miles on her last day. So that means she must have walked at least 97 miles on her second day. It's a quibble, but it again points to the three day part of the narrative seeming false. She needed the Rivers to be far away from Thornfield, but she also needed to moderate the amount of suffering she put Jane through. The compromise doesn't work.
All in all, however, I still love this book. I love Jane's voice. I love how smart she sounds, and I love contrasting that with how much she gets almost everything wrong along the way. What is not wrong with her, is her core. Perhaps the same is true of Rochester. The greatness of the book lies in Brontes ability to communicate that in a way that resonates.(less)