Thursday, July 26, 2012

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Source of Book: I own this.
Date originally posted on Facebook: July 10, 2010

This is another in the continuing series of books I probably should have read back in High School. In this case, I resisted reading it back then because it, along with Wuthering Heights, was a favorite book of the wrong kind of girl. Too many young women, who rarely read anything of substance, seemed to be drawn to the Brontes, and for the wrong reasons. I heard far too much mooning over Heathcliff and Rochester for my taste. I will here specifically exclude my sister, who did like this book. However, she read voraciously, and with excellent taste, and was never frivolous when it came to books, so I would give weight to her judgment.

I read Wuthering Heights for the first time a couple of years ago. It still is hard to believe that such an atmospheric and emotionally raw book could have been written by a woman at that time in history.

Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Bronte, is more in the form of a traditional novel with its typical Victorian story arc. The protagonist overcomes early hardship through hard work and good character, finding happiness in the end. The early chapters to a degree dwell on Jane’s suffering in a manner a bit foreign to modern sensibilities, although perhaps typical for the era in which it was written. It is in the middle of the book that the author finds her unique voice, and the story starts to ring true emotionally. 

Charlotte Bronte, 1850 portrait by George Richmond

Indeed, I found the strength of the novel to be its emotional trueness, if that term may be used. One thing that did surprise me is that Jane’s emotions and thoughts resonate, even for a male reader. I found it easy to identify with her as a person, as easily as with a well written male protagonist. Jane is a truly compelling and interesting character for herself alone. Several female authors of the era began at this time to write of women who rose above the Victorian ideal of the quiet and unobtrusive helpmeet, who triumphs through goodness alone. Jane Austen began the trend with her witty characters, and George Elliot and others continued it. Of the books I have read, however, Jane Eyre stands alone as a woman who is determined to find her own way in life, and meet men on her own terms, as an equal.

I think, too, that her determination to marry only for love was a bit revolutionary in its way. I imagine that this was a significant reason for the book’s popularity with young women. Perhaps all teenaged girls dream of the great romance with a dark, brooding man, who can be rescued from himself only by their charms. Unfortunately, I think that this idea has been taken far too literally by girls these days, who lack the experience or depth of knowledge to distinguish between an unfortunate good man and a truly bad man. I note that every murderer seems to get a marriage proposal.

I think too that there are many that naively mistake good men for St. John. The point is not that St. John is good, or that he is the safe choice. Rather, it is clear that St. John is selfish, ambitious, and incapable of love. In that sense, he is the religious version of Meredith’s egoist. He wishes to be the flame that draws the moths, to have a girl that is content to delight in his glory. It is in this way that the modern girl goes wrong. The “bad boy” that is sought is the mirror image of St. John, not of Rochester. The girl that chases the wicked man becomes the moth, delighting in the glory of the man of her imagination, ignoring the harsh reality.

I take the real lesson of Jane’s romance with Rochester to be the importance of finding a person of similar intelligence and depth. Each of them looks beyond the unattractive exterior of the other, and sees the love for art and literature, the kindness to the child, Adele, and a focus on something other than wealth and status. These lessons are perhaps even more important today, in an era when image is everything, and a spouse is all too often a status symbol. Perhaps some things never change. In past centuries, a woman would marry to please her family, to gratify their egos and desire to advance the family name. Now, women seem to choose mates based on what will impress their friends, someone to make them feel daring and unique, and, of course, to provide her with the lifestyle she wishes. Fortunately, a few of us still manage to find a best friend, someone to talk to about all subjects, serious and lighthearted.

This book also caused me to lament the decline of the novel in recent years, particularly the decline of the female protagonist. The days of Austen, Elliot, the Brontes, and others produced most of the memorable female authors. There was a golden age of the novel, to be sure, and in general there seems to be a decline in the craft. There are now two forms of writing: the pulp novel, and the “serious” novel. Pulp tends to have the good characters and plots these days, but by definition lacks the quality and depth of writing. Those authors that do focus on the quality are ashamed to write anything that might appeal to the unwashed masses, and so forgo appealing characters or compelling plots.

As my wife pointed out, starting with Kate Chopin, the trend among female authors was toward an oddly twisted feminist view. Unfortunately, this view was not of the admirable feminism of Jane Eyre: self sufficiency, hard work, moral character even at personal cost. The new feminism focused instead on selfishness. Men became seen as the cause of women’s unhappiness. Thus, a feminist act was now adultery, divorce, revenge. The female protagonist was no longer someone to identify with and admire, unless those values were the reader’s as well. To be fair, it is near impossible to find an admirable male character these days. I should also point out such authors as Willa Cather, who continued to write well for characters of both genders.

I’m sure I am forgetting a number of points I wished to make about this book. I enjoyed reading it, and marveled at the skill of the author. It still is incredible that a girl with so little experience could write like that as a first effort. I am eager to find a copy of Agnes Gray, to complete the trilogy, if you will.

Note: Since I originally wrote this about two years ago, I have discovered more modern literature with admirable female protagonists. My literary friends have assisted me, of course, and I have sought out some on my own.

I believe that there are two positive developments in the last couple of decades. First, there seems to have been a reaction against the dichotomy of “serious” versus “popular” with a number of authors writing books with high literary standards but that still speak to those outside the confines of academia and the literati. A few I have reviewed that fit this category are The Kite Runner, The Book Thief, and The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

The second development that I welcome is that the “men are the only thing that is keeping women back and therefore divorce is the ultimate feminist act” meme seems to have at least jumped the shark. Books like Eat, Pray, Love (more accurately described as Eat, Whine, Divorce) are firmly in the category of pulp now, and it is therefore acceptable for serious writers to cast a critical eye on the whole philosophy. For more on this issue, see my review of Running Away to Home.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately, this view was not of the admirable feminism of Jane Eyre: self sufficiency, hard work, moral character even at personal cost. The new feminism focused instead on selfishness.

    There is a time to be selfish and there is a time not to be. And if the above is what the ideal that women are supposed to attain, then I find something unrealistic about it.