I finished Jane Eyre and could not have timed it better if I had tried since today is Charlotte Brontë’s birthday. I doubt that I can say anything about Jane Eyre that hasn’t already been said, so I’m just going to ramble on about a few things I noticed.
I first read Jane Eyre in my late teens, then read it again in my mid-twenties. I loved the book. Jane was so spunky and the story was so romantic. Fast forward twenty years and I wouldn’t call Jane spunky or the story romantic. To be sure, Jane is a strong character. She is passionate and has a tendency to speak her mind regardless of the consequences. But she doesn’t speak her mind because she is standing up against the system that oppresses women or orphans. She speaks from a place of justice and duty. She is perfectly willing to lose herself to Mr. Rochester, she even says at one point that her love for him had led her into the error of placing him above God. She runs away from Rochester because she knows if she doesn’t she will eventually give in and be his mistress and that would be wrong.
I no longer find the story to be romantic because the power differential between Jane and Rochester is too unbalanced. Mr. Rochester himself is a bit unbalanced, allowing his love for Jane to bubble into threats of violence towards her should she refuse him. He is cruel even before he asks her to marry him. Playing at being a gypsy and at being in love with Blanche just so he could torment Jane and try to make her love him more. It is not until Mr. Rochester has lost a hand, an eye, and become mostly blind in the other eye that Jane can be his wife. His passion has been tempered and he needs Jane’s caregiving. Jane for her part is happier about this needier Mr. Rochester because she can serve him, because he needs her to serve him, because she feels more his equal than she did before, and because she doesn’t have to worry about him locking her in an attic.
The two men who want to marry Jane could not be more different. They are extreme opposites. Mr. Rochester’s impulsive, self-justifying passion against St John Rivers’ thoughtful, manipulative, rationality. Both men try their hardest to force Jane into marriage and Jane almost succombs to both for different reasons. Ultimately she escapes because of her rock solid sense of justice and morality. I find it interesting that these two extremes are presented to us as being desirable choices each in their own way. Both men are a catch and both men have women besides Jane who want to marry them. And it is also interesting that Mr. Rochester after his accident is offered up as a kind of happy medium. I am not sure that the “tamed” Mr. Rochester offers an ideal marriage any more than the previous version. But along with justice, duty and morality, the one thing Jane seeks is love. She has been starved for it all her life.
I find it curious, however, that Jane cannot find compassion for Bertha, the first Mrs. Rochester. She is simply an unfortunate impediment and the source of lies that would have taken Jane into a moral quagmire. Bertha is a “lunatic,” a woman locked in an attic who cannot be controlled, someone to be afraid of. Not once does Jane question Mr. Rochester’s story about his wife or express sympathy for the woman, though she has much sympathy for Mr. Rochester and forgives him readily once Bertha is dead. Mr. Rochester even gains status because his injuries were sustained while trying to get Bertha off the roof of the burning Thornfiield Hall. Such a noble man.
I am glad I reread Jane Eyre again after so many years. It remains an excellent book, there is so much to say about it. I enjoyed seeing it with older eyes and noticing how my perception of the characters and the story have changed. One of the pleasures of rereading. I think I will leave it here for Jane. I could go on and on, but these things are what struck me most from this reading. If I read it again in twenty years I wonder what new things I will see then?