What makes Jane Eyre such a great read? In the middle of my reading and rereading of Jane Eyre, I would have said Mr. Rochester. Rochester and Jane, maybe, but definitely Rochester. I will probably always feel that way, but lately I have been thinking if it isn’t Jane Eyre that really makes the book. Duh, OBVIOUSLY, I hear some of you thinking, THE BOOK IS CALLED JANE EYRE, RIGHT? And yes, so it is. But she is a hidden presence at times, I feel. Subdued almost. At times irritatingly so. But in the end, I think she wins out. Not in a weak, “I want to serve my master” way, but because she holds to her ideals, makes her own way in the world. If she wasn’t so annoying at times, she might easily be the greatest literary role model.
Somehow, for years when I thought of Jane Eyre, I thought of a meek woman. I silently accused the Brontës of a very patriarchal perspective that doesn’t leave any space for women’s self-development. I know, I know, how wrong I was! Blasphemous, almost. I wonder if it is because for years I solely concentrated on Jane Austen, or if it is just a weird personal twist in my thoughts. Either way, looking back, I do kind of see where this idea came from. If the passages you remember are things like this (which, by the way, make me gasp and want to shake some sense into the girl all at once):
“I like to serve you, sir, and to obey you in all that is right.”
and the rest of the story gets muddled into: falls in love with her “master”, the man has his first wife locked in a tower, she runs away, then comes back to him and forgives him. Somehow, somehow, I forgot the most important parts of Jane Eyre’s character or twisted the situations in the book into ones in which she is an almost helpless bystander. Now, I don’t feel she is annoying at all. But certainly, I like her better as the story progresses, as she learns to stand up for herself.
Example: Jane’s inner dialogue when she listens to Mr. Rochester pleading for her to stay with her, even if he already has a wife, was surprisingly similar to my own reaction while reading these scenes. Part of me wanted her to stay with him, to hell with virtue, let’s choose love! But you know, just know, that that is what she shouldn’t do. And Jane comes out all the stronger for not giving in. Maybe you could see her as an uptight, rather prim and small-minded girl who is following the rules far too often, but I disagree. Even if part of me wants her to give in, step into that room to see Rochester before she leaves Thornfield Hall, I know she would not have been happy. I know that had she done that, she would truly have given herself up. She would have defined herself solely on her relationship and love for Rochester.
I started to like Jane even more when she confronts St. John and tells him that she will not accompany him as a wife to help him in his missionary work (even if I was surprised that she would consider accompanying him anyway, what happened to not wanting to have too much distance between her and Rochester?). Her resistance, and once again keeping to her principles, keeping to her experience of love, even if no one else agrees, touched me. And St. John might very well be one of those characters that redeems Rochester along the way.
And let’s not forget about the many times Jane saves Rochester. Literally, from a fire, but most of all, from a wasted and miserable life.
Rereading this, I learned to admire not only Jane Eyre, but Charlotte Brontë. Her text can very well be read as a feminist text, even if the word was non-existent at that time. She enables her heroine to create her own life, her own space and her own character, in the limited space a woman at that time had. I love the thought that Jane Eyre asserts herself, not as a woman, but as an individual. I think this quote, on Jane’s feeling of dissatisfaction with her life at Thornfield before she met Rochester, even though she knew people would say she should be happy with what she had, pretty much sums it up:
“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”