I may be a little late getting to the game in finally reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. It is one of the most famous romance novels of all time and a prime example of the female Gothic – set in a dark manor filled with secrets; infused with wonder, macabre imagery, and supernatural visions; and touching on themes of repressed sexuality and women’s entrapment in patriarchal society. It is also considered an early feminist novel due to Jane’s determination to make conscious choices for herself rather than be steered by others around her. October is the perfect time of year to pick up some Gothic fiction, so I settled into my reading chair to be swept up by a classic.
I knew only a couple things about the book before going in: 1) that Jane’s love interest is actually already married and keeps his insane first wife locked up in the attic, and 2) that Jane is considered by some to be a feminist icon for sticking firmly to her principles, refusing to become party to bigamy, and waiting to marry Mr. Rochester until after his first wife dies. It seemed like it would be a hard sell to convince me that Mr. Rochester is any good… and I was right. By the end of the book I still thought Mr. Rochester was a terrible person, but I was surprised to find that I was undecided on whether Jane was right to marry him.
Jane Eyre does not open with a meet-cute like many romances; it starts with her childhood in her aunt’s home where she is bullied by everyone in the house, and then progresses to her adolescence at an austere boarding school. This may seem strange for a romance novel, but it is important, because it establishes Jane’s character and her values. Jane is proud, determined, and self-assured. She sticks firmly by her ideals no matter how difficult that may be and refuses to be bowed by anyone else’s will. There is a lot to admire in Jane, yet it is not enough to characterize her solely by her firm resolve; she is not heartless nor an automaton. She stands up to her abusive aunt and tells her this shortly before leaving for Lowood Institution: “You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so.” Although she values her self-determination, what Jane craves most is affection and companionship. This is a persistent desire through her life; when she makes her first true friend at school she refuses to leave her side, even when her friend is dying of tuberculosis. The image of the superintendent finding Jane sleeping in bed with the body of her friend who had died in the night is chilling and sticks in the mind of the reader. It is important that the moment stands out so starkly, because even though it is not mentioned later in the book, it is an enduring reminder of how important affection and companionship are to Jane, and the dangers she will go through to keep them.
Jane must go without her two great needs for a long time, but she eventually finds them in Mr. Rochester. Jane takes a job as a governess at Thornfield Manor where her mysterious employer is frequently gone – although she likes the housekeeper and her young pupil she does not find true companionship. One night when walking alone on the road, Jane hears an animal coming and immediately thinks of a spirit haunting the solitary road to waylay lonely travelers at night. It is in fact Mr. Rochester, her employer. He later tells her he also thought of fairy tales and bewitchment when they met on the road, which hints at a commonality between them. They talk often about phrenology and other topics and enjoy a sort of verbal sparring back and forth. Although he insists that she not think she is his equal, they maintain a vigorous conversation which Jane does not allow him to dominate. While his arrogance is a flaw, Jane has now finally found an intellectual companion in Mr. Rochester.
She soon falls in love with him when he fulfills her other deep need for affection. One night, a mysterious fire is started in Mr. Rochester’s bed; Jane runs in to save him and afterwards he tenderly thanks her and is reluctant to let her go, holding her hand for a long time before she leaves to go back to her room… and here the fire is started in Jane, as well. She has met the first man who can meet her deep desire for affection and companionship, but she knows she is not of his class and forcefully works to stop dwelling on her feelings for him.
Mr. Rochester has plenty of flaws. He is sullen and rude, frequently short with Jane, abruptly dismissing her and even at times pointedly ignoring her. He does what he can to make Jane jealous by openly courting another beautiful rich woman. He speaks harshly and critically of this woman behind her back though and does not express any respect for her. In addition to his poor temperament and mistreatment of women, Mr. Rochester is controlling and possessive. When Jane asks for leave to visit her dying aunt, he at first refuses to allow her to go, but she insists. “Well you must have some money, you can’t travel without money,” he says and gives her a large sum. Jane will not be bought and says she will not take more than what she is owed. At that, Mr. Rochester takes most of the money back, saying “Right, right! Better not give you all now: you would, perhaps, stay away three months[…]” Jane then points out that this is less than what she is owed for her wages and he tells her she must come back in order to have the rest. The rapidness with which he changes his mind and the attempts to control her in any way he can feel deeply uncomfortable to a modern reader, perhaps warning signs of an abuser, but Jane’s infatuation continues, even as she asserts herself against him.
The final flaw in Mr. Rochester’s character is revealed after he baits Jane into revealing her feelings for him and then proposes to her. She is skeptical of his proposal at first, but once convinced of his sincerity, she happily agrees. That night, a great tree on the grounds is struck by lightning and split in half – an omen of ill things to come. The night before the wedding, a dark figure sneaks into Jane’s room at night and rips up her wedding veil. Although she asks Mr. Rochester about it, he insists that he not be obliged to tell her until they have been married for a full year. Again, this seems to be a terrible red flag against Mr. Rochester’s manipulative and deceitful nature, but Jane chooses to trust him and agrees to this. The truth is revealed when at the wedding a man called Mr. Mason stands up and says that Mr. Rochester is already married and therefore it would be unlawful for him to marry Jane. Mr. Mason is clearly doing what he can to look out for his sister, Bertha, although Mr. Rochester has been able keep him silent up until this point. Bertha is the woman Mr. Rochester married while in the Caribbean, who descended into madness after coming to Thornfield and has since been locked in the attic and kept secret. Perhaps Mr. Rochester did not know how else to care for a woman who is insane, but his imprisonment of her and his obvious contempt for her are the biggest damnations of his character.
Despite all this, Jane still desires him. The wedding is stopped, but Mr. Rochester asks Jane to accompany him to France where no one would have to know about Bertha and they could be together. Jane stands firm, however, and refuses to become his mistress. In the night, she realizes that her temptation to be with him is too strong. She privately forgives him for his transgressions, but nonetheless knows she cannot allow herself to be a mistress. In order to maintain her resolution, she leaves Thornfield at dawn before anyone can see her.
Jane’s strength of resolve, intelligence, and willingness to work are highlighted by her determination to stick to her values, even when she suffers starvation briefly before being taken in by a pair of sisters and their brother and eventually given a job teaching a small school. Jane is able to find companionship in the two women and intellectual challenge with them and their brother, St John, although she is still missing what she really desires in life: affection.
St John is perfectly set up to be Mr. Rochester’s foil. St John is handsome, well-mannered, virtuous, hard-working – all ways in which he clearly superior to Mr. Rochester. St John shows a different ideal of marriage than the one Jane wants, however. St John refuses to propose to the heiress he is in love with because, although she loves him in return, he knows she will not tolerate the lifestyle of a missionary’s wife and they would not be good partners for each other. Instead, he invites Jane to marry him and come with him on his missionary journey to India. Jane knows he does not truly have affection for her and feels she would come to resent him. She says she will travel with him, but only as “brother and sister” and will not marry him. This angers St John, and he continues to be cold toward her while also repeatedly insisting that she marry him. She nearly settles for this, but decides she must go back home to find out what has become of Mr. Rochester after she mystically hears him calling her name across the moors. Although Jane has both the ability to support herself and the companionship of her friends, she knows she cannot do without love. Jane has chosen affection over practicality.
It is a dark and terrible coincidence that ultimately allows Jane to have what she wants. She finds Thornfield blackened and collapsed by fire with no sign of people. Bertha has died and Mr. Rochester was blinded and his hand maimed. Jane goes to see where he lives in a small house with two of the servants. Mr. Rochester’s faults are now declawed – he is no longer capable socially or physically of controlling Jane. He is no longer forbidden to marry since Bertha has died. Jane can now be with Rochester without fear of subsuming herself, and happily decides to marry him.
Throughout most of the book, Mr. Rochester is arrogant, controlling, unstable, and dismissive: a very damnable character. No one is perfect, of course, and marriage is about working together to build a partnership. However, Mr. Rochester does not really do any work to improve himself – any improvement of his character is incidental following his injury. I think it is unlikely he would have learned how to be a good partner simply by being hit on the head with a beam, and so the ending feels like too much of a coincidence which allows Brontë to marry Jane to him without sacrificing her character. Jane’s faith is very important to her and while Christianity calls for her to not pass judgement on him for his errors, that does not mean that it is wise to overlook those flaws and tie herself to a bad man.
It is significant that Jane is only eighteen to nineteen during these events. I remember well the obsession I had over unhealthy partners at that age, the fact that I looked past many flaws because of infatuation, and the hurt that put me through. I know I am not alone in that experience. Charlotte Brontë herself had an infatuation with an older, married man for whom she had worked as a governess. Once her story is compared to Jane’s, it is hard not to read Jane Eyre as a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy. It is difficult to think of Jane Eyre as a feminist novel in this light: Jane succumbs to infatuation with a no-good man, against what would be considered wise or healthy. And yet, the novel makes a strong case for Jane knowing who she is and what she wants and making sure she gets what she wants on her own terms.
I hate to think of a young girl romanticizing an abusive boyfriend as her “Mr. Rochester”, perhaps refusing to leave out of infatuation and subsequently getting hurt. Perhaps if Mr. Rochester had allowed his remorse to spur him to work on some self-improvement he would then be deserving of Jane, but he does not, and he largely spends his time brooding rather than growing as a person. If I were Jane, I think it would have been better to follow St John’s example and sacrifice her love for Mr. Rochester in hopes that someone more suitable would come along. I am not Jane though, and if I could talk to her she would take what I had to say into consideration, but she would still not let that dissuade her from her course of action – because Jane Eyre makes her own decisions.