Close Up: Five things I learned about Jane Eyre
Some months ago I was interviewed by a UK based educational company in preparation for their release of content about the Brontës aimed for teachers and students. I guess my Jane Eyre obsession (and especially my website) led these wonderful people to me. If you would like to read my answers to their questions (bless you!) - check out the interview here. And although asking ME to talk about my love of Jane Eyre is my ultimate reward for doing anything in life, Train of Thought Productions was generous enough to send me a complimentary copy of the educational DVD "Brontës in Context." Which I don't think will be generally available in the U.S., so it was even more of a boon to get a copy!
While I watched the Jane Eyre section of the DVD (and even took notes, cause I wanted to take everything in!) I realized that I was learning new things about the novel! I have never studied Jane Eyre in school, and although I've read critical texts about the story, there are schools of thoughts that I've not yet really explored, and Jane Eyre is such an intertextually rich story, that I should have absolutely anticipated that this DVD would be eye-opening in unexpected ways. And while I'm a bit afraid that everyone who reads my blog is getting sick and tired of all the ways I work in talking about Jane Eyre here, I really would like to talk about the things I learned from the "Brontës in Context" DVD. And uh... this post does get a little long...
1st Person Narration
Okay, I do know that Jane Eyre is written in first person. And I was even aware of the idea that because the novel has a first person POV, the reader is drawn more into Jane's story and her spirit and her fiery nature. The one comment from one of the professors on the DVD that really struck me though, was that Jane addresses the reader personally (by saying "reader") more and more as the story progresses. "Reader, I married him." being the famous example. I was curious though, to see if that was really true, so I went to the Gutenberg online copy and did a search - in the scroll bar, there are little yellow ticks that show where the word comes up in the text, so I took a screenshot of that bar to illustrate (I made the scroll bar horizontal).
|From left to right: The beginning of Jane Eyre to the end
Again the yellow marks are every time Jane says "reader" (which is not absolutely accurate since there are like three times it's in the novel, and it's not addressing the reader of the book) But it's true that Jane does directly reach out to the reader more as the novel progresses. The professor on the DVD explains it as Jane wanting to take control of her story, and one way she does this is by correcting the reader's thoughts - by giving them the truth directly. I thought that was a fascinating and accurate explanation of the purpose of Jane addressing the reader.
To me, Jane Eyre is most succinctly compared to two fairy tales - Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. I was aware of a Bluebeard connection, but I really felt like the above two tales were the main parts. But after watching this DVD I am really leaning towards seeing Jane Eyre in a "Bluebeard" light. Especially as Jane Eyre is a Gothic novel, and Bluebeard fits that genre the best of the those three tales. There's a "secret at its heart" (quote from the DVD) which is a thoughtful encapsulation of both stories. And there was a comment made by one of the professors that placed the reader of the novel as the curious Bluebeard wife, reading the novel to discover the secret. Such an interesting idea! (And can that mean that Mr. Rochester is my husband??)
St. John and Helen
The role of religion is touched on in the DVD, and the thought that St. John Rivers (who is not a bad person, but is kind of unforgivably self-righteous - just me?) hearkens back to Jane's friend Helen Burns was an intriguing idea to me. Helen is such a positive character and St. John considerably less so, that I feel it's almost a slur on Helen to link the two. But in the context of what the professor on the DVD said - that they are similar in that they 'quash physical desires', then it is understandable. And in that way I can understand why Jane would be drawn to them - they both encourage Jane to embrace a devotion to God and rational thought at a time when her passionate nature is giving her the most pain. Unfortunately for St. John, his function later in the novel means he also has to show Jane that living such a cold, dispassionate life is not for her. And hey, both Helen and St. John meet untimely ends. Which seems to me is Charlotte making a harsh judgement on the idea of living just for God.
Jane and Injustice
Here's something that is hugely appealing to me about this novel. The novel can be pointed to as a feminist work, and Jane is speaking out for women everywhere, but what I love about Jane is that it's not her treatment as a woman that makes her upset. She's really angry at injustice. And the whole misogyny thing is just a part of that. It really took this DVD to drive that home to me. Jane is so passionate about what she feels is not right - the inability of Mrs. Reed to love her, the treatment of the girls at Lowood, the way Mr. Rochester speaks of Bertha, St. John Rivers not wanting to marry Rosamund Oliver. It's a glorious aspect to her character and reminds me of a line from an old sixties adaptation of the novel - Mr. Rochester calls Jane "the small crusader, pitiless with righteousness and rectitude." Rochester was a little harsh with that line, but I do like the 'small crusader' imagery! (In the adaptation he's more perturbed than happy that Jane's come back to him after he's been blinded and can not be the kind of man he wants to be for her.)
The DVD touches on three critical schools of thought in connection to Jane Eyre - Feminism, Marxism and Postcolonialism. And I learned two things in relation to the last one - what Postcolonialism is exactly, and that Ireally don't like seeing Jane Eyre in that context. In a nutshell, Postcolonialism is looking at the imperialist, British attitude as represented by Mr. Rochester as rich white guy, and Bertha as poor Creole woman. And Bertha's relation to Jane as a dark mirror. There's even a book written with those themes called Wide Sargasso Sea which is a prequel of Jane Eyre. It's from Bertha's viewpoint. I didn't care for the book actually. The thing with me is, I am sympathetic to Mr. Rochester. And I don't really see how you can accept the view that Mr. Rochester is a lying, manipulative a-hole with no redeeming qualities and still like the novel or Jane. Because Jane, our first person narrator btw - the character to whom the reader is intimately involved and invested in - chooses Mr. Rochester in the end, as the person who makes her the happiest. And if you love Jane because she is an intelligent, moral, capable heroine, as we have gotten to know her and rely on her throughout this story - it's silly to think she is so mistaken as to have made a horrible choice in the end. Also she is telling her story with 10 years distance, and not repenting her decision. She is happy, dang it, what more could anyone ask for?
But back to Postcolonialism and why it does not gel with me; because I also feel like making a story called JANE EYRE, with the first person narration by said JANE EYRE, and then evaluating the story through NOT the main character is kind of ridiculous. Jane Eyre is such a personal journey, that I feel it's a big leap to talk about the novel like Charlotte Brontë was writing in some way about slavery/race and British imperialism. If one chooses to see Bertha as completely innocent and horrendously mistreated, at least let it be because Mr. Rochester has misjudged her and acted unsympathetically, before saying it's obviously a master/slave dynamic. And I will just insert this excerpt of a letter that Charlottë Bronte wrote in response to some comments on Bertha:
Miss Kavanagh's view of the Maniac coincides with Leigh Hunt's. I agree with them that the character is shocking, but I know that it is but too natural. There is a phase of insanity which may be called moral madness, in which all that is good or even human seems to disappear from the mind and a fiend-nature replaces it. The sole aim and desire of the being thus possessed is to exasperate, to molest, to destroy, and preternatural ingenuity and energy are often exercised to that dreadful end. The aspect in such cases, assimilates with the disposition; all seems demonized. It is true that profound pity ought to be the only sentiment elicited by the view of such degradation, and equally true is it that I have not sufficiently dwelt on that feeling; I have erred in making horror too predominant. Mrs. Rochester indeed lived a sinful life before she was insane, but sin is itself a species of insanity: the truly good behold and compassionate it as such.
- Charlottë Bronte to W.S. Williams, written 4 January 1848
For me, the interesting points in the letter being - Charlotte was (later?) more sympathetic to Bertha's plight, but not condemnatory of Mr. Rochester - she mentions that Bertha has led a sinful life before she was insane and that because of the nature of Bertha's insanity (as Charlotte wrote and understood it), it was probably too easy to 'demonize' her from the character's POV, which shouldn't happen to someone who is truly compassionate. Obviously Mr. Rochester doesn't get points in the philanthropy department which is noted by Jane early on. I understand and completely believe that Bertha's situation is awful and sad in so many ways, but I don't feel that it is important enough to the novel to base interpretations of the story on. (I did talk more about Rochester/Berthahere.) Yet can I point out that Mr. Rochester didn't lock up Bertha for funnsies - it would have been so much easier for him if she were not mad because then he could divorce her. (The law at the time being that you could not divorce your wife if she was diagnosed insane.) If he could have let her go to have a normal life and not been responsible if she attacked people, he probably would have been all over that.
Anyways, I should probably get off my soap-box now....
A note on publication
This blog post was originally published on bookishwhimsy.com and republished with kind permission.