As part of the 26 book reading challenge I’ve been participating in for about a year now (I’m such a slow reader these days), I chose to read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte for the category “a book that’s over 10 years old.”
A quick summary of the novel: Jane Eyre is an orphan growing up in her aunt’s household, but she is not treated as part of the family. She’s sent to a boarding school for what’s considered charity cases, like Jane, where she learns to adhere to strict conduct, but does find some friends along the way. She grows up to be well educated and goes on to become a governess in a wealthy man’s estate, teaching and caring for his young ward, Adele.
Over the course of her time there, Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester–the master of the estate–falls in love with Jane, and she with him. They are set to be married except she finds out a terrible secret that sets her running away from the house and she leaves to be independent.
Let’s start from the top and talk about Jane’s cousin John Reed. Man, this kid is a real jerk of the worst kind. He’s entitled and violent and basically the epitome of what the patriarchy stands for. So much so, his own mother, Jane’s Aunt Reed, makes excuses for his violent outbursts and rude behavior. Yes, dear aunt Reed places blame on Jane, saying she brings John’s anger upon herself by being such a weirdo, hiding in the curtains and spending her days reading instead of being joyful and smiling and dignified like a young lady should be.
I’m sure this sounds like a similar story many of you out there have experienced or heard before. That’s because it is. It’s the story that continues to this day, right down to the highest powers that be in our own country. When women don’t behave the way the patriarchal society expects them to, it’s their fault men get mad and lose control. Wow, and this book was written 200 years ago. What a world.
When we find the Reeds and Jane engaging in a skirmish, as Jane hits John for trying to hit and hurt her, Aunt Reed punishes Jane by leaving her in the red room, as the tenants of the house call it. It’s her late Uncle Reed’s room where he was said to have passed and still haunt. And Jane is absolutely terrified to be left alone in the dark in that room. So much so, she throws a huge scene, screaming, sobbing and begging to be let out. She makes promises of becoming a better child if only they’ll let her out. Her Aunt Reed takes the hysterics to be nothing but a brat trying to get her way. Jane sees an apparition, or so it seems from her description, and she’s so scared she faints.
After this episode, this is basically when Aunt Reed says it’s the last straw and sends her away to Lowood Hall, a boarding school for wayward orphan charity cases. Here, Jane must adhere to strict codes and learn to blend in so as not to call attention to herself, except the headmaster has different plans. Having taken her Aunt Reed’s side in things, Mr. Brocklehurst decides to announce to the whole school how Jane is a liar and evil and must be shunned from their society. She is simply there to learn and be out of her aunt’s house.
There’s definitely a Matilda-esque thing going on here. A bully headmaster who has it out for the heroine. In comes Helen Burns, another girl who’s bookish like Jane and befriends her despite the headmaster’s warnings. And the teacher Ms. Temple who is this book’s Ms. Honey.
Ms. Temple let’s Jane explain herself to the students so that they may make up their own minds about her free of Mr. Brocklehurst’s influence. Helen and Jane develop a very close relationship, one like that of sisters, so of course–SPOILER ALERT–it’s heartbreaking when it’s revealed that Helen is dying of consumption.
Despite the tragedy that befalls Jane yet again, having lost her first and only friend she’s ever known, Ms. Temple and the other teachers begin to treat her like an equal among her fellow students. Having the chance to learn in a stress free environment and shown compassion and understanding, she flourishes and becomes an adept student who learns quickly and excels in her studies for the remaining years. She in fact becomes a teacher at Lowood once she turns 18 and has graduated from her courses.
There’s a poignant commentary being made throughout all these goings on that children who are not frightened or abused will eventually go on to become well-adjusted and smart adults. Again, this sounds familiar in our own present day, but the concept of giving kids a chance to be themselves and learn in a safe and comfortable environment is a battle that’s been going on for more than 200 years.
What struck me most about Jane’s growth and change from the time she was a child to the time she became an adult, is that while she kept a fiery and feisty attitude inwardly, outside she portrayed a composed and acceptable persona that would not be looked at twice. She learned to play the game society had set forth for women, and she learned it well. At one point though, it seems she learned it too well. There’s moments when we see Jane struggle with her desire to be true to herself and conform to what would be deemed appropriate for a woman of her station.
Let’s move on to Mr. Rochester. Here’s where things really start to get melodramatic. She goes to work for this man to be a governess to his ward, Adele, who is said to be his illegitimate daughter, but he does not acknowledge her as his kin. Not a complete monster though, he agreed to take her in and have her cared for. Congratulations, Rochester, you’re not as big of a jerk as you could’ve been.
There’s a whole series of shenanigans that ensue with an elite socialite Miss Blanche Ingram, whom Rochester is set to marry, except he doesn’t want to because he knows she only wants him for his money, but he doesn’t want to be a bachelor anymore because he’s already 40 and needs a wife. Enter Jane. His ward’s governess whom he finds charming, intelligent and a worthy partner to match his own mind and character.
Dear sweet, 18-year-old Jane, in turn falls for Mr. Rochester as well. Arrangements are broken off with Ms. Ingram and Jane is now set to marry Mr. Rochester. Except for one tiny little kind of important detail. Mr. Rochester is already married. And his wife lives in the very house they’ve all been residing in this whole time.
A woman named Grace Poole, whom Jane thought the entire time was the culprit in many a mischievous scheme throughout the novel, is in fact Mrs. Rochester’s keeper. Mrs. Rochester, see, is certifiably insane. It’s at the altar just as he and Jane are about to be married that this information comes to light.
Mr. Rochester weaves a tale of woe, betrayal and lies. How he was tricked into marrying this savage Creole monstress (no lies that’s basically how she’s described–not even gonna get into the blatant racism of the times) by his father, brother and her brother, because of keeping the family name honorable by aligning himself with the Mason family. And then how he had to keep his promise because he’s a man of honor, but he refused to acknowledge her as his wife, but he’d keep her and have her cared for. Boy, he’s in the habit of shouldering such heavy burdens. What a saint.
At this point, Jane decides she can’t marry him, because it wouldn’t be right. It doesn’t matter that his wife’s crazy and violent and not really his wife in the sense of the word. She recognizes that Mr. Rochester needed her to rid himself of that woman once and for all. When she refuses to hear his apologies and give him another chance, he threatens violence on her, violence on himself, and then once more pleads forgiveness for his rash behavior, as it’s only because his love for Jane drives him mad with obsession.
Jane struggles to leave Mr. Rochester, as she wants to believe him, and she still loves him, but she knows it’s best to be gone. Wow, it’s unreal how something written two centuries ago can still sound so relevant to our society and relationships today. The manipulation of abusive significant others. The struggle to leave that person behind. And it still continues today. It almost feels like it will always persist.
So, Jane decides to leave in the dead of night, with 20 pounds in her purse and the clothes on her back. Much occurs over the next 36 hours. She ends up in a town with no money and no way to eat, looking for someone who can help her find work and build a new life. Just when she’s on the verge of starvation and fragile as a porcelain doll, she happens on the steps of the Rivers residence. Here, St. John Rivers takes pity and lets her inside to be cared for until she regains strength to tell her story.
Here, Jane tells him and his two sisters the bare bones. She’s gone from the home she’s known for a few years, and has no where else to turn, so she must fend for herself. She only asks a chance to do honest work and help in finding that work. St. John finds her skills useful as his local school house is in need of a head mistress to teach the farmers’ children. Jane takes the job and stays in this town for quite some time.
During that time, St. John takes a liking to her, but eventually finds out the truth of her name, and this is when it’s revealed that another uncle of hers had recently passed away, but before he did he left her with a fortune. Turns out that uncle was also St. John’s and his sisters’ uncle, so that makes the Rivers family her cousins. Oh joy! She finally has a real family she cares for and that cares for her.
Here’s the thing though. St. John is set to take up the life of a missionary, and he wants Jane to marry and accompany him as his wife (yeah let’s not talk about that incest either otherwise this post will go on forever). She says she can accompany him on missionary work, but that she can’t in good conscience be his wife, because she does not love him in that way and he does not love her. He merely is looking for someone to share his life’s work with as a fellow servant to God. Jane’s all for that. Just not as a wife.
Try as he might to convince her that this is the best path she can take, and one in which God has set for her, she will not take the bait. She considers it for a moment, but in the end recognizes there is no romance between them. It would be a marriage of convenience. St. John doesn’t take the no very gracefully and basically gives her the cold shoulder all through his remaining time in their home. Once again, an older man (he’s 30-years-old) tries to tell Jane what’s best for her, and when Jane says she knows what’s best for her, he gets salty.
Fast forwarding to the end when Jane feels a longing to return to Mr. Rochester and find out what happened to him, she ventures back to Thornfield Hall to find it burned down. Turns out the crazy wife took the place out and herself with him. How convenient. Although, Rochester lost a hand and his eyesight in the disaster, so I guess, just desserts?
Jane finds her way back to Mr. Rochester, and he has been humbled by his predicament, living away in the woods as a hermit with only two servants to care for him and Adele sent to a boarding school. Jane is softened by this shell of a man and decides to stay with him and forgives him. He asks her to marry him again, and she agrees to it, because she never stopped loving him.
I had a huge problem with this ending. Jane is deceived by this man who puts too much stock in the good standing of a family name and cherishes the finer things in life. He undergoes a disaster after she’s gone and shut himself away from the world to find himself. Conveniently, he’s no longer legally married because his wife died in the fire she set. And he’s a better man now that he’s known suffering. It was all just too neat and I feel like it negated much of what Jane’s character is, which is a strong, independent woman who always rejected social standings and expectations. In the end though, as I said before, she learned the game too well, and fell for her own facade, I feel.
There’s actually so much more to discuss with this book, but if I keep going on about how Jane is a great teacher for recognizing that all children learn differently and should be given the chance to learn in their own way, or how the two men that claimed to love her really wanted to claim her as property, we’ll be here all night.
Don’t take my cynicism to mean that it’s not a worthwhile read. It’s actually a book I’d recommend to those looking to read more classics. Just know there will be a great deal of frustration with how things played out sometimes.