Madeline's Reviews > Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
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Feb 23, 11

it was amazing
bookshelves: love-story, westernish-canon, coming-of-age, class, women, the-victorians, 2011, family, houses, school, novels, governesses, tam-lin
Read in December, 2006 — I own a copy, read count: 2

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.

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.)
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Quotes Madeline Liked

Charlotte Brontë
“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 is now 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!”
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë
“I would always rather be happy than dignified.”
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Bonnie I really liked your review. I read Jane Eyre in 9th grade and feel like I need to read it again before I can really judge it. I didn't like it much in 9th grade, but I also found Pride & Prejudice slow at that age (sacrilege, I know!). I now adore Jane Austen and the other Bronte sisters' books. And your review gave a lot more depth to Jane Eyre than I got from my first reading of the novel.

Madeline I know what you mean about Pride and Prejudice, because I didn't really appreciate it until I read it this fall. It probably took me four or five times to really get it.

Hopefully, you can rediscover Jane Eyre! I was kind of embarrassed not to pick up on the subtleties and richness on my first reading; I need to get over that.

Riley Johnson Amazing!! It's potentially my favorite novel. I read an essay about the parallels between Jane Eyre and slave narratives, including the idea of literacy as an emancipator. So many layers!

Madeline Do you remember the title or author of that essay?

Riley Johnson The (Slave) Narrative of Jane Eyre by Julia Sun-Joo Lee. I'm rereading Jane Eyre now, and it amazes me because I pick up on something new each time I read if.

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