Jane Eyre was originally published in 1847 although the story takes place during the reign of Georges III (1760 – 1820).
I first read Jane Eyre when I was 12 just after Wuthering Heights, which I didn’t enjoy (Too complex, too dark). Needless to say I read both in French. I read Jane Eyre several times, but only lately in English.
In one sentence, it’s the story of a young orphan who grows up to be a governess, falls in love with and marries her boss. As a kid, it’s the main reason I enjoyed it. Also because Jane finds a family she never knew she had. Happy endings: kids need that. But there’s so much more to the story.
Last week I noted the omniscient narrator isn’t common in the modern literature. In Jane Eyre, we have a first person narration: it was unheard of at the time. It brings everything closer to the reader; it’s easy to identify to the main character. We feel closer to her experiences and her struggles. Like her, we wonder what happens to other characters when she’s not in their presence.
Jane Eyre combines elements of romantic and gothic novels. Foreshadowing is absolutely fascinating in this book, whether it’s of ‘supernatural’ nature or just a lullaby that foretells Jane’s future.
Religion and morality are inherent elements of the story; Brontë emphasized the difference between morality and conventionality, religion and self-righteousness. She actually devoted part of her preface in the 1948 edition to the question. It’s obvious in Mr. Brockelhurst who imposes deprivation on children while living in luxury himself; preaches charity but is cruel on the pretext of making the girls good Christians. St. John Rivers’ undertaking isn’t faultless: he seeks martyrdom but as ambition more than a calling. Religion and morality are the values by which Jane acts, why she takes the high road when finding out the man she loves is actually married. She loves him but refuses to become his mistress.
Classes and how they’re separated is another major theme: where Austen ensured marriages happen within the same class, here we have a love story between two people whose match would be very unlikely. Jane’s status is somewhat blurred: her mother belonged to gentry but her father was a pastor. In the end she’s a governess so she’s working class. And she’s prejudiced against ‘lower classes’ too. She asks Leah – the maidservant – to bring her a candle at some point, instead of fetching it herself, and the feelings she has for the young farmers she teaches in Morton are less than positive: “unmannered, rough, intractable as well as ignorant.” (chapter XXXI) Not particularly charitable.
Gender relations are another underlying theme. Throughout the book we see the subjection of woman to man through Jane: obedience is ingrained in her. She’s submissive by nature – something she says even in her relationships to women – until she’s not. Yet, Jane claims equality with men in general and Rochester in particular.
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. (Chapter XII)
All male characters are trying to make Jane submit to their rules: John Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, Mr. Rochester and St. John Rivers. She does but only in so far as it falls within her temper to.
Then we have the question of insanity and how sick people are treated. In two words: not well. Bertha’s imprisoned in one room she can’t escape. Still, because she was ‘intemperate and unchaste’, she’s considered (and made) responsible for her insanity. This concept was perpetuated for a long time; mental illnesses are still associated with major stigma.
All in all Jane Eyre is a book I re-read with pleasure despite a few weaknesses. Firstly, the changes in the tense of the narration (from past to present) don’t always make sense. It jars a bit. Secondly, Jane Eyre moralizes but sometimes is conceited: the class difference is one thing but there’s the comment about Adele at the end
“As she grew up a sound English education corrected in a great measure her French defects: and when she left school, I found in her a pleasing and obliging companion: docile, good-tempered, and well-principled. By her grateful attention to me and mine, she has long since well repaid any little kindness I ever had it in my power to offer her.” (Chapter XXXVIII)
Ok, so maybe I’m insulted because I’m French… Just kidding 😉 . But really, she applies the same self-righteousness to the girl that’s being criticized throughout. Besides charity isn’t given in expectation of being repaid.
Also, Rochester’s relationship with Jane might still be unacceptable today: she’s barely of legal age, and he’s borderline abusive. His entire discourse to justify his lying about his wife feels like emotional blackmail; and for more than moral reasons it’s good that Jane walks away from him.
In the end, does he truly love her or does he need her? Are both possible? Charlotte Bronte tells us that yes. That love transcends age and class, so long as it’s within morality’s boundaries.
Jane Eyre is such a rich story that cleverly tackles and questions many social concepts; it also combines some literary elements that I haven’t looked at in details but that make the story even more interesting. In the end Jane is an independent woman who won’t let anyone decide for her who she is. A definite must-read. Have you read it? What did you think?