Thursday, September 29, 2011

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

Many of the characters in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847) seem to be types. The first one I noticed was Helen Burns, the virtuous and consumptive friend Jane meets in the school for orphans. Helen speaks with the sort of prescient wisdom that some like to think a dying person would have. Another is Mr. Brockhurst, the cruel and unfeeling owner of the school, and then there is Jane’s aunt, Mrs. Reed, who takes care of her dead brother’s daughter and despises the girl as a result. In fact, Mrs. Reed and her two daughters could be characters from a Cinderella tale. Many of the characters, most notably Mr. Rochester, are types. Even Jane herself is the kind of character who often appears in narratives about unfortunate orphans left in the care of cruel relatives. Yet humanizing, individuating elements within these characters bring them to life.

Jane certainly encounters a series of insensitive, doctrinaire, overbearing men, from Mr. Brockhurst to John St. Rivers (who wants her to travel with him to India to work as missionaries—she must agree to marry him for the sake of propriety rather than love), to Rochester himself.

One of Jane’s constant goals in this novel is democracy and equality. She is no activist crusader, but as an orphan abandoned by her aunt and whom many consider to be illegitimate (she isn’t), she occupies a low rung on the social ladder. She’s constantly reminded of her low social status, treated by some in the novel as hardly human. Her true state becomes clear when she leaves Mr. Rochester’s estate, after a shocking discovery, and travels out on her own. She loses her pocketbook and is penniless, wandering from one house to another, rejected. She almost dies of hunger and exposure. Her abject social state is never more clearly shown.

For Jane Eyre, equality and democracy have to do with social class and gender. She’s keenly aware that the problems she faces are largely a reflection of her low social standing and the fact that she is a woman. On a number of occasions she stands up for herself, even at the moment her rescue seems at hand. She wants to be treated as a human being. She refuses to allow Rochester to treat her as an “angel.” Once she comes to know him, his temper and ego don’t cow her. Bronte’s position on the British social class system seems clear: she doesn’t like it. Nor does she like the unequal station accorded women in 19th-century British life.

Yet what is undeniable about Jane is that rescue for her doesn’t mean life in a world without class differences—it means rescue from poverty and lower-class circumstances. It means rescue from “spinsterhood” (she is 19). Jane is highly educated, virtuous, well mannered—she has all the virtues of the upper class (and few of its defects). Hence, the upper class, so the novel seems to suggest, is where she belongs. Despite her “plain and marked appearance” she also deserves a suitable husband, as this will give her the freedom, the independence from care and work, she deserves. The husband she receives is the one she pined for, even after her unpleasant discovery, and despite his missing arm, missing eye, and generally disagreeable manner. But he loves her, and she loves him. So the rescue that comes to her is a life of unending service to a man who loves her, but whose needs given his condition are considerable. I suppose we are to see this as a willing life of servitude rather than the unwilling one which she’d previously suffered.

There are interesting elements of Gothicism throughout this novel—the strange noises in the attic, the unexplainable fire, the ghost or apparition Jane sees as a young girl, the cruelties she suffers in her aunt’s home, the hints of emotional unbalance in Rochester, in other characters, in Jane herself.

This novel really is a sort of hodgepodge of styles and modes and ambitions. But it’s an entertaining hodgepodge centered by the character of Jane.

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