Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, 1847
Oh, Jane Eyre, how I love you. Let me count the ways.
1) I love your rigid, adamantine character. Miss Eyre has her own ideas of proper self-conduct and the four horsemen of the apocalypse couldn’t drag her off the straight and narrow path. She will crawl away from temptation over the freezing moors and starve to death under a shrub rather than violate her own code of ethics. It’s a bit hypocritical that I love this quality in Jane, because I often get frustrated with characters who do the honorable thing even when it’s the thing that causes the most pain for everybody (think Mr. Bates season 1 and 2). However, it’s nice to see a female character who is not tossed around by the inclinations of others. Jane refuses to let male desires rule her life and when she’s refusing she says wonderful things like “I am no bird; and no net ensares me!”
2) I love your British school girl days. My family lived in England for a year when I was nine. I remember huddling close to my only friend, trying to survive the bleak, cold, foggy weather during “recess.” I can relate to Jane’s school days and I like that they are included in the story. Most earlier literature considers the time right before she gets married to be the only noteworthy part of a woman’s life.
3) I love your plot twist. We all know what happens in Jane Eyre, right? Stop reading now if you don’t already know the twist. Secret crazy monster wife! Secret crazy monster wife is such a surprise. I have probably read Jane Eyre four times and Mr. Rochester’s insane secret wife still blows my mind.
4) I love your moral ambiguity. Gone is the Arthurian proto-type of the noble knight and the valiant maiden struggling against outside forces. The love between Jane and Mr. Rochester has plenty of conflict without the interference of the outside world. The power dynamics between them are unsettling. She refers to him as her master. He is always trying to trick her into accidentally revealing her true feelings for him. His eventual blindness makes him dependent on her and obligates her to be his nurse. It’s all very strange, which makes Jane Eyre an interesting book to pick up and read again.
5) I love your mysticism. Jane is constantly having dreams and presentiments. When she and Mr. Rochester first meet they both think they are having an encounter with a creature of the Fae. In my opinion, Charlotte Bronte pulls off these Gothic elements better than any author I have encountered on this list so far, because her language is ornate, precise and original. Jane’s visions are so well described that they are hard not to enjoy and they don’t come off as trite, as Gothic elements sometimes do in the hands of lesser authors.
6) I love to hate your horrible cousin. St. John makes my top ten list of the most despicable characters in literature. He attempts to use religion to coerce a woman into marrying him. And because marriage inevitably leads to sex, he is also using religion to manipulate his own cousin into having sex with him. So gross. He actually says this “take that space of time to consider my offer: and do not forget that if you reject it, it is not me you deny, but God.” Let me translate that into modern English for you: “Jane, let me mansplain something to you real quick. I personally know the will of God way better than you, because, you know, he made me a man, so he must like me more. So, whatever I want is essentially the will of God, including your everlasting devotion and body. Duh. Now, just do what I want, because God and I say so.” This guy makes me want to vomit. However, adamant Jane does not give in! This line of logic does not work on her. She feels that her interpretation of God’s will is just as valid as St. John’s and God wouldn’t want her to marry this tool. Did I mention that he wants her to go be a missionary with him? Which is the worst thing a person can do. I honestly don’t understand why anyone was ever gullible enough to be a missionary. Missions were and are never about saving souls, they are about establishing an economic foothold for the benefit of corporations and/or the government. The side effect is the spread of disease and destruction of culture. Kids, don’t be missionaries. It’s an incredibly misguided thing to do. There’s a difference between acting “for God” and acting “for The Church.”
7) I love that I know you so well. Jane Eyre is long, because it provides a detailed portrait of Jane’s inner life. You really get to know and understand the workings of her mind. It’s not the type of novel that you rush through. Instead you spend time getting intimate with the protagonist. That’s not really how novels are written today. Now, authors like mysterious, inscrutable protagonists. There’s something to be said for the Bronte’s Victorian level of detail. By the end of the book, I felt like Jane was an old friend.
You might like Jane Eyre if:
- you like Wuthering Heights.
- you like a bit of magic.
- you like Victorian fiction.
- you’re an Anglo-phile.
You might not like Jane Eyre if:
- you can’t handle the length of it. It’s lengthy.
Final thoughts: I really enjoyed rereading Jane Eyre. The strange romance is more intriguing from an adult perspective. This is one of my favorite novels of all time. Most stories about a young person’s religious coming of age put me straight to sleep. To me, the answer to question “How do I reconcile my faith with the realities of my life?” is very simple: Stop torturing yourself and do what you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. So, when a character feels tormented, because they want something that their religion tells them they can’t have, I get real bored. There are only a few pages, late in Jane Eyre that made me feel this way. Overall, Bronte managed to sell religious dilemmas to this atheist, which is a miracle.