Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
rating: 5 of 5 stars
Jane Eyre, at fifteen she seemed entirely too cerebral, almost to the point of pretension. Too downtrodden and bound to earthly matters, certainly no match for the metaphysical and passionate likes of her literary sister, Catherine Earnshaw. I was not a fan of Charlotte Bronte in high school. I much preferred the transcendental and other-worldly spiritedness of Cathy and Heathcliff. Charlotte and Jane were just too drab and dreary.
Some fifteen years later, most of my adolescent ardor has tempered. I no longer think The Doors are the end all be all, and I cringe at my idolisation of Jim Morrison. I see the gaping faults in Cathy and can’t forgive Heathcliff. And Jane, dear, wise, level-headed, answer-to-her-own-will and stick-to-her-own-principles, Jane Eyre is an end all be all in Charlotte’s profound and unsettling universe. I recently re-read Jane Eyre this past month and was so swept away with awe and inspiration, I read it again. That’s right, twice, in a row. Jane Eyre is as complicated, keen, and perceptive as any philosophical protagonist. Move over Stephen Daedalus, watch out Raskolnikov, shut your pipes, Pip, and stuff it Hans Castrop.
I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.
Jane is as strong willed and autonomous as any man. A critique of the Biblical story of woman as temptress, in Bronte’s world, men are weak and tempt damnation. Rochester urges Jane to live in sin with him, but Jane is too upstanding and moral, not in a cloying and nauseating way as Esther Summerson or any other Victorian female do-gooder, think Eliot’s Romola and take your pick of Dickens’ heroines. Jane stands apart because we see from the beginning that she holds firmly to her own principles. And, at most, we share her credo. We want her to leave Rochester, we hail her for rebelling against Mrs. Reed, and we hold the same caution as she does against Helen Burns’ extreme piety. The brilliance of Bronte’s first person narrator, is that we see exactly why and how Jane acts on her decisions, and we follow her every step and struggle with heart and reason. Throughout all the trails and turbulent tribulations, and even in the advent of marriage, Jane doesn’t lose her autonomy but gains only more agency and wisdom for herself while Rochester pays for his transgressions through his body and soul. He literally becomes a broken man by his own doing.
Such is the imperfect nature of man! Such spots are there on the disc of the clearest planet; and eyes like Miss Scatherd’s can only see those minute defects, and are blind to fill brightness of the orb.
The Brontes revel in flaws. Their characters are glorified by humanly fatal flaws. Jane is too headstrong. Rochester, prideful. There’s dogmatic Helen, the statuesque and too evangelical St. John, and Adele, who’s just too French. Bronte had just a smidge of the xenophobe in her. That’s sarcasm for you. Because, of course, there’s Bertha, the inner animal, the monstrous Other, who, despite her foreign origins, lives in each and everyone of us. Bertha is kin to Heathcliff. Without either the world would be a very cold, barren desert. Each character’s fault shapes them and makes them who they are, an Achilles Heel that makes them larger than life. Bronte magnifies each defect, and, in doing so, rejects perfection and purity. The only absolute is there are no absolutes. Absolutes are sent to the sweltering heat of India to wither and die. St. John, the model of perfection and piety, is a Greek god of beauty and has the morals to uphold his handsomeness. Yet his perfection is grotesque. And Rochester’s grotesqueness is not perfection, but we definitely prefer him over the maniacal rigidness of St. John who both repels and attracts women.
From the start, Eyre wants nothing more than earthly love. Burns says to her “Hush, Jane, you think too much of the love of human beings; you are too impulsive, too vehement.” Yet, Jane is extremely hardy and adaptable. She can grow without love. In darkness and solitude, she’ll survive and be better for it. She is capable of finding her inner strengths without outside support, and this makes her divine, god-like. Resilient and resourceful, as formidable a hero as Dante or Odysseus. Jane Eyre defines the heroine’s journey. Heroine as opposed to hero in that Jane thrives best in her relationships to those she loves and those who reciprocate equal care and compassion. “Only connect,” Jane embodies the mantra and shows us the truer and greater path, more significant than any trail a hero might trek. Our heroine happily and proudly commits herself to serve others, not in the service of god, not in any submissive or subservient manner but out of a deep sense of duty to simply care for those she loves. This is true nobility, truly heroic. To be of use, to have purpose, to fulfill duty, and uphold virtue in the Classical sense. Jane knows where she stands among the Cosmos. She knows the station to which she was born and does not seek to transcend her place, in terms of shirking from duties and responsibilities, but should anyone transgress against her rights to equality, free speech, or free thought, should anyone violate her own humanity, they will have to answer to Charlotte Bronte.
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