I've read this twice now, and I don't think it holds up very well on the second reading. It's definitely enjoyable, but has a great many "first novel"...moreI've read this twice now, and I don't think it holds up very well on the second reading. It's definitely enjoyable, but has a great many "first novel" problems.(less)
02/23/11 1. I remembered that I loved Jane Eyre - I even watched that stupid Timothy Dalton adaptation! - but I was slightly afraid to read it again, f...more02/23/11 1. I remembered that I loved Jane Eyre - I even watched that stupid Timothy Dalton adaptation! - but I was slightly afraid to read it again, five years after (and for class!): I was worried its charms would fade for me. They didn't. In fact, I have rather a higher opinion of it than before.
2. Imagine my surprise when I discovered I'd entirely misremembered the book.
2a. Well - not entirely, obviously. For some reason I'd retained the entirety of the plot and forgotten what I usually latch onto in books, the struggles, themes, dynamics, and characterizations. For some reason, Jane and Rochester had been reduced to their cultural status in my head. This was particularly unfortunate, as Jane and Rochester are one of literature's greatest pairs for a reason, and they are even less clichéd than they sound. Because it does sound kind of like a cliché: drab, poor governess meets brooding rich man with a secret wife in the attic, and they can only be reunited once he's been maimed by whatever catastrophe kills his mad attic wife and she's had a close call somewhere else. That's the bare bones of Jane Eyre, sure: but actually, it completely misrepresents everyone in this novel.
2b. I did remember this: reading Jane Eyre makes me want to be in love.
3. And, of course, given the timing, I was thinking about the upcoming adaptation (which has truly spectacular casting). Jane Eyre actually is a horror story, in that it's a book about people trying to trap Jane, to subdue and control her, and sometimes they come really, really close. She begins the novel this way, at her aunt's house, where she is disdained and ridiculed, and frightened so much she passes out; all because she is too passionate. At Lowood, the restraints tighten and then they loosen, slightly, but only after banking the fires of Jane's character. She's smoking when she gets to Thornfield, and eventually she gets to blaze, letting out light and heat. Rochester doesn't want to control Jane - he delights in her wildness (how often does he call her a witch, a fairy, an elf?) - he just wants to be wild with her. But not, you know, crazy. (He tried that. It didn't work out.) When she escapes, she runs straight into a man who wants to control her, he actually wants to make her into an imperial and colonial tool.
And he doesn't understand her, look how St. John describes Jane: "God and nature intended you for a missionary's wife. It is not personal but mental endowments they have given you; you are formed for labor, not for love," and: "You are docile, diligent, disinterested, faithful, constant, and courageous; very gentle, and very heroic; cease to mistrust yourself - I can trust you unreservedly." Well, he's not totally wrong, right? Not in the second statement, which does identify some of Jane's good qualities (particularly "faithful, constant, and courageous"). But he gets some very important things wrong and misses out entirely on the qualities that make Jane attractive and make her herself: her mischief, her wit, her passion. And Jane doesn't mistrust herself - the horror in the last part of the novel comes from the knowledge that St. John's will is so powerful he can almost talk her into mistrusting herself, and present her with a false idea of who she is.
Jane says, "My iron shroud contracted round me" and reading about this is the most agonizing part of the book for me. Jane is just good enough, and at this point she is close enough to despair, that St. John could take her to a point where she would not longer recognize the iron shroud for what it is, and embrace both it and the man who placed her there.
She doesn't, thankfully. Jane leaves one man blinded by ambition and ideology for another blinded by his past, but who loves and cherishes her, and recognizes their kinship. Rochester can learn from his mistakes, he's not a cool rationalist (St. John is probably the worst parts of Kantian morality combined with Christian evangelism); in fact Jane herself thoroughly embraces the emotions, and her will. She is not afraid of her desire, only that she might not be able to accomplish it.
4. Which brings me to my next point, which is that the relationship between Rochester and Jane is kind of kinky. I noticed when I watched the Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine version that there was an odd subtext to a lot of their interactions. First, every sentence Orson Welles spoke sounded as if it should end with, "in my pants." Second, there seemed to be the beginnings of a serious bondage/domination relationship there (and Joan Fontaine's breathy Jane was not the submissive party). I actually think that dynamic is supportable by the text - yes, I know, I'm projecting the 21st century onto the 20th and the 19th centuries - which embraces the uncertainties, the denial and temptation, the power dynamics, and the teasing that characterizes Jane and Rochester's flirtation (and so on). Jane's even more in charge at the end of the novel, of course (she's telling the story, so she's always in charge; the end of the novel bears that out), but she has more power than I think we might realize. Interestingly . . . I think Rochester realizes that, an insight that seems to me to be rare in any relationship, let alone intense fictional 19th century relationships.
5. So, maybe my reactions to Jane Eyre are not entirely rational, but they are sincere and I hope they are at least somewhat thoughtful. I've rarely been so pleased to reread a book, perhaps never so richly rewarded, either: there were so many elements and subtleties of the book and of Jane that had faded from my mind, if I'd ever noticed them at all. The humor is just one element, it is sly in a way that lets you know Jane is not an entirely nice person. (Ferndean, where she and Rochester reunite, after Jane has rebuffed future-missionary-St. John, is "as still as a church on a week-day.") She is a prickly woman, too, which I think we can forget in our haste to remember her plainness. Anyway: this rewarded a second reading, and will presumably reward many more, and I'm no longer worried about attempting them.
02/26/11 Virginia Woolf knows what I'm talking about!
As we open Jane Eyre once more we cannot stifle the suspicion that we shall find her world of imagination as antiquated, mid-Victorian, and out of date as the parsonage on the moor, a place only to be visited by the curious, only preserved by the pious. So we open Jane Eyre; and in two pages every doubt is swept clean from out minds. . . . There is nothing there more perishable than the moor itself . . .. Nor is this exhilaration short-lived. It rushes us through the entire volume, without giving us time to think, without letting is lift our eyes from the page.
(From the essay "Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights." Woolf has a higher opinion than I do of Wuthering Heights though.)(less)
This is probably a really good book, but what 17 year old white girl is going to realize that? I should reread it. (But what if 17 year old me was rig...moreThis is probably a really good book, but what 17 year old white girl is going to realize that? I should reread it. (But what if 17 year old me was right about it being super super obvious and literal? I mean, that paint scene? Maybe it has the same problems as Another Country.)(less)
02/12/11 1. It's been four years (almost exactly, apparently) since I read Frankenstein. I think that I Noticed more things about it, this time - well,...more02/12/11 1. It's been four years (almost exactly, apparently) since I read Frankenstein. I think that I Noticed more things about it, this time - well, we sort of hope that is what would happen, since I have four extra years of reading experience and most of an English major under my belt - and so there are a number of striking elements I found in Frankenstein. Some of them made me sad, but then as I don't like the book itself very much, some of them made reading it better: when I have something to think about while reading a book, it can make it better. (And, I've noticed that, particularly for books I dislike, having questions and critical preoccupations can make it a significantly more bearable experience.) So this review is less of a proper review and more of a list of things Frankenstein made me think about.
2. You could probably treat Frankenstein as a morality tale - I want to treat it as a tragedy, but it lacks the important element of self-knowledge that tragedy "requires." Certainly, Victor Frankenstein never learns anything, here is one of the last things he says, to Walton's sailors who have decided that maybe this whole journey isn't such a great idea (emphasis mine):
"What do you mean? What do you demand of your captain? Are you then so easily turned from your design? Did you not call this a glorious expedition? And wherefore was it glorious? Not because the way was smooth and placid as a southern sea, but because it was full of dangers and terror; because at every new incident your fortitude was to be called forth and your courage exhibited; because danger and death surrounded it, and these you were to brave and overcome. For this was it a glorious, for this was it an honourable undertaking. You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species; your names adored as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind. And now, behold, with the first imagination of danger, or, if you will, the first mighty and terrific trial of your courage, you shrink away, and are content to be handed down as men who had not strength enough to endure cold and peril; and so, poor souls, they were chilly and returned to their warm firesides. Why that requires not this preparation; ye need not have come thus far, and dragged your captain to the shame of a defeat, merely to prove yourselves cowards. Oh! be men, or be more than men. Be steady to your purposes and firm as a rock. This ice is not made of such stuff as your hearts may be; it is mutable and cannot withstand you if you say that it shall not. Do not return to your families with the stigma of disgrace marked on your brows. Return as heroes who have fought and conquered, and who know not what it is to turn their backs on the foe."
I mean, really. Someone has failed to learn anything from his hubris! This is a man who failed in his attempts to win glory, and also failed to learn anything about himself, the world, or ambition from that failure. His failure is so enormous that it almost stretches credulity, since he also spends so much time excoriating himself for his part in the death of everyone he loves. (Possible paper topic: "The Tenth Doctor as Victor Frankenstein," haha just kidding. Not really.) Basically, Victor Frankenstein is a loser and an asshole.
3. So, of course, everyone in this book is a Romantic. (Even though, apparently, Frankenstein is supposed to be Swiss?) Walton, who develops an intensely romantic friendship with Frankenstein - it is even one-sided! there must be some queer theorists who've got hold of this somewhere - admits his romanticism quite openly:
But I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy; and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil. I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection. I shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true; but that is a poor medium for the communication of feeling. I desire the company of a man who could sympathise with me; whose eyes would reply to mine. You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend. I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans. How would such a friend repair the faults of your poor brother! [. . .] It is true that I have thought more, and that my day dreams are more extended and magnificent; but they want (as the painters call it) keeping; and I greatly need a friend who would have sense enough not to despise me as romantic, and affection enough for me to endeavour to regulate my mind.
Frankenstein himself gets at least one romantic friendship (Clerval), and maybe two (the Monster?). After running away, the Monster learns to read from Plutarch, The Sorrows of Young Werther (!!!), and Paradise Lost (!!!) - of course, he identifies with Milton's Satan, prototype of the Byronic hero. (Except Byron had a sense of humor, something this book needs.) Frankenstein later compares himself to Lucifer, there is a great deal of swooning over landscapes . . . and swooning in general. Basically, everyone reacts to stress by collapsing into oblivion and getting ill. There are selections from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner AND from "Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey." If you had to sum up Frankenstein visually, it would be this Caspar David Friederich painting. That's not up for debate; even Mary Shelley would agree with me. I find the wholehearted Romanticism kind of adorable and cute, and probably Mary Shelley wouldn't agree with me there . . . she'd want to slap me, probably. Anyway - it's kind of a "How To Be a Romantic" guide, although you could probably debate how Shelley feels about the "people are basically good" tenet of Romanticism. Or maybe I only think that because I'm not a Romantic, and so things that look complicated to me would be simple to her.
4. Frankenstein is also interesting for its off-hand Orientalism. There's an East/West dichotomy running through the book. Clerval, Frankenstein's bourgeois BFF (and the closest thing to a foil the book offers), studies Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit, and plans to go to India to help the Brits out with their colonial schemes. (The Monster kills Clerval before he gets there. He kills him in Ireland. Come on, Mary Shelley!) Frankenstein joins in the study, finding solace from his failed/successful scientific adventures in Eastern poetry:
I . . . found not only instruction but consolation in the works of the Orientalists. . . . I read merely to understand their meaning, and they well repaid my labours. Their melancholy is soothing, and their joy elevating, to a degree I never experienced studying the authors of any country. When you read their writings, life appears to consist in a warm sun and a garden of roses, in the smiles and frowns of a fair enemy, and the fire that consumes your own heart. How different from the manly and heroical poetry of Greece and Rome!
Okay, then! I know (from a very thorough Google search for "Frankenstein + Orientalism") that some people argue Safie, the Turkish woman (who is, nevertheless, referred to throughout as "The Arabian," oh dear) who marries into the French family the Monster stalks, is supposedly the most liberated character in the novel. I'm not sure what gave the critic that impression, but I actually think Frankenstein is kind of a useless book for looking at women, and Safie hardly strikes me as particularly liberated. She belongs to the long tradition of (secretly Christian) Eastern women deserting their tyrannical (and straightforwardly Muslim) fathers for the love of (straightforwardly Christian) European men. The Merchant of Venice? Orlando Furioso? Jerusalem Delivered? Don Quixote? Yes, yes, yes, yes. Frankenstein buys into Orientalism without questioning it that much - it certainly never questions the necessity or veracity of the dichotomy.
5. The other thing that bothered me throughout was that 19th century habit of using beauty as a signification of, like, being too good for x, where x usually equals poverty. So basically, ugly people can be poor, but pretty people deserve better. This always makes me want to bang my head against a wall, and it shows up in literature a lot.
6. I should mention, though, that actually I really admire Frankenstein, despite the slight characterizations and the fact that I don't enjoy any of it. It's such an achievement, and it's had such amazing cultural resonance throughout history - it's hard not to admire it, I think. Also, it raises interesting questions, which is sometimes more important than enjoying a book, I think.
Crime and Punishment is the best example I can think of for a book I have a love/hate relationship with. Reading it is miserable, until the last fifty...moreCrime and Punishment is the best example I can think of for a book I have a love/hate relationship with. Reading it is miserable, until the last fifty or sixty pages, when you can see the light. But every time I step back from it, or close the covers, I am simply blown away.(less)
I forgot how conventional Wilde's morality is. Perhaps that's why The Importance of Being Earnest is (supposedly) the most enduring - it deals least w...moreI forgot how conventional Wilde's morality is. Perhaps that's why The Importance of Being Earnest is (supposedly) the most enduring - it deals least with explicit morality, and most with absurd verbal sparring and gymnastics. (What really nails his coffin shut for me, why despite the five stars and my willingness to attend productions of his plays, I actually cannot love him, is his vested interest in impressing everybody else by how much more X he is than they are.)
Have now seen three of these plays in theaters (of varying repute): Salomé (C-), The Importance of Being Earnest (A), An Ideal Husband (A-).(less)