Monday, July 6, 2015

Book Review: Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre
Charlotte Brontë
Hardcover, 656 pages
Everyman's Library (Reprint Edition)
February 8, 2011 (first published 1847)
Classics, Gothic Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Romance
Source: Purchased From Amazon

Book Synopsis: Jane Eyre, a penniless orphan, is engaged as governess at Thornfield Hall by the mysterious Mr. Rochester. Her integrity and independence are tested to the limit as their love for each other grows, and the secrets of Mr. Rochester's past are revealed.

Charlotte Bront
ë’s novel about the passionate love between Jane Eyre, a young girl alone in the world, and the rich, brilliant, domineering Rochester has, ever since its publication in 1847, enthralled every kind of reader, from the most critical and cultivated to the youngest and most unabashedly romantic. It lives as one of the great triumphs of storytelling and as a moving affirmation of the prerogatives of the heart in the face of disappointment and misfortune.

Jane Eyre has enjoyed huge popularity since first publication, and its success owes much to its exceptional emotional power.

My Review

When I first read this great novel, I was about 17, and it was part of a high school English Literature assignment. The story of Jane, a poor orphan at the mercy of her cruel aunt and cousins -- especially John Reed -- immediately captivated me. I got totally immersed in the novel, and I couldn't stop thinking about it even after I had finished it.

Little Jane Eyre eventually became an accomplished teacher, securing a position as governess to the protege of a very wealthy man -- Edward Fairfax Rochester. As the events unfolded, I felt myself being swept up in them, right along with Jane. When she first met Mr. Rochester, and subsequent pages revealed more about him, I fell in love with him just as hard as Jane eventually did.

Their love story is a beautiful one, especially because they are so  perfectly matched, in spite of their disparate social stations. Rochester is a man of potent masculine energy, although that energy can be overly dominating at times. Jane, however, is not intimidated by this, as she has quite a strong will of her own. The two of them are also intellectually sharp, and equally passionate. This is quite evident at two points in the novel: in Jane's vehemently emotional declaration to Rochester in the orchard of Thornfield Hall, and in Rochester's pained request that Jane not leave him, precisely as she is about to.

My adolescent mind and heart thrilled to all this emotion, all this romantic passion laced with mystery and desperate longing... Everything about the story totally mesmerized me. This was my first Gothic novel, and I was inevitably pulled in by the air of secrecy and gloom pervading Thornfield Hall.... As the mystery deepened, I felt my attraction to Mr. Rochester grow; I perceived he carried a terrible burden of some type, and, like Jane, I wished to alleviate his emotional pain.

Having read this novel for the second time, I have a more comprehensive view of it. I now see, more clearly than ever, just how much this novel centers around Jane herself. Most of it is about her growth as a person, her coming into her own, mature power. It's also about her great love for Mr. Rochester, however. In fact, there's a fascinating tension between the two themes of Jane finding her true self, and the pull of a love so wonderful, so all-encompassing, that it almost reaches religious fervor. 

Ironically, it is Rochester himself who is actually the catalyst for Jane's inner awakening. He is the one who unintentionally propels her into a quest for her true self. And what is this true self? It is her own Christian conscience, coupled with a sense of her own value as an independent person. 

In rejecting Rochester's unconventional proposal, Jane is not only being true to her ideals, but to herself as an autonomous being. The two things go together. As a Christian, she cannot possibly betray her firm moral standards; as a feminist, which she undoubtedly is, she cannot possibly betray her own independence and autonomy in becoming 'a kept woman'.

This is definitely a very complex novel, and thus, should be re-read many times, for each new reading leads to new revelations. This time around, I was surprised to find Rochester to be a much darker character than I had thought him to be during my first reading. I still loved him, but now I saw, more clearly, that his love for Jane was not a totally pure one. In fact, it struck me as bordering on obsession, and yet, it was not altogether selfish, either. After all, he never meant to hurt her; he merely wanted to give her everything her heart desired, to treat her as he felt she deserved to be treated -- as "a peeress of the realm". In the process, he also hoped she would redeem him from his previously depraved life.

Jane was quite right to resist him, not only because of his objectification of her, but also because each person has to find him/herself through an inner quest, and such a quest necessarily involves a higher power. One cannot expect to be 'saved' by another person. For Brontë, only the Christian God can do that. Jane herself repeatedly tells Mr. Rochester to turn to God for solace and comfort.

In spite of my new perspective on Rochester, I was just as caught up in all this as I was during my first reading. I wanted them to end up together just as badly, in spite of seeing the underlying deception, the horrible secret of Thornfield Hall. This is due to the author's great literary skill in crafting these immortal characters. They leap off the page, entering our imaginations with the forcefulness of real people.

The secondary characters are vividly drawn, as well, from the despotically cruel Mrs. Reed and her spoiled, equally cruel children, to the hypocritically self-righteous Mr. Brocklehurst, the gentle, saintly Helen Burns, the sprightly French girl, Adele, the cold, detached, stern St. John Rivers, and his sweet sisters, Diana and Mary. Then there are Bessie, the servant who most sympathized with little Jane, Mrs. Fairfax, the very sweet Miss Temple, and the enigmatic Grace Poole. All are equally memorable in the reader's mind, and all contribute richly to the plot.

There's symbolism everywhere, as well, from the curtains and drapes at Gateshead Hall, with their hints of sanctuary and even entombment, to the old chestnut tree, which presages the lovers' separation, to Jane's eerily predictive nightmares... The Romantic movement was obviously a huge influence on the author, as even the weather in the novel, as well as the vegetation -- or lack thereof -- are bearers of hidden meanings and portents.

The novel has been criticized for certain coincidental events in the plot, but I would say that, in its overall structure, Jane Eyre is very well conceived and carried out. It is masterfully written, in prose that soars and sweeps through field and moor, enchanting the reader with its sonorous cadences. Having said that, I know I need to listen to one of the several audio versions, for this is a novel meant to be read aloud. I would especially like to listen to Mr. Rochester's initial conversations with Jane; they show the reader his rapier wit and keen intelligence, as well as his magnetic personality. Jane's responses, too, tell us much about her personality, as she skillfully spars with him, giving no quarter.

Along with its predominant theme of the pull of love vs. the search for one's true self is the equally important theme of class prejudice. I was delighted to see that Rochester did not approve of this particular vice; he never for a moment considered Jane as being 'beneath' his station, something which a lesser man might have. In contrast to those of his immediate social circle, he had nothing but admiration for Jane. He plainly saw the very sharp contrast between Jane and Blanche Ingram, the solid integrity of the one, and the social superficiality of the other. That Blanche belonged to 'the upper class' meant nothing to him; he rightly saw Jane as much superior.

These gripping, fundamental themes give this novel its enduring power and stature in the minds of its readers, thus making the reading of it a totally unforgettable experience! Thus, we have many, many editions of it in the English language alone, as well as many more in other languages. 

In spite of the bittersweet ending -- in my opinion, Brontë was a bit overzealous in achieving Rochester's eventual redemption -- I am happy that, after the storm had passed, she resolved everything to my romantic heart's content! Jane Eyre has always been and will always be my favorite classic of all time, and I know there will be more re-readings for me in the future!



Brian Joseph said...

Jane Eyre is the perfect review to put up on your revitalized site Maria.

I loved this when we read it and as time goes by I am beginning to view it as one of the greatest novels ever written.

One thing that I have been thinking about is I sometimes see blogs and commentary out there that takes what I would call a minority view on this book. That view is that somehow in the end, Jane has surrendered to Rochester and somehow compromised her should to his darkness. I do not agree with this at reading at all, but it is interesting how such a complex book can be open to multiple interpretations.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

I remember you mentioning that you are beginning to consider "Jane Eyre" as one of the greatest novels ever written. That was in your comment to one of my Feature & Follow posts, on my other blog, A Night's Dream of Books. This is high praise indeed!! I have other classics, such as "Crime and Punishment", that could have that honor, too. However, I do think that "Jane Eyre" is right up there!

That 'minority view' you've mentioned here -- I don't agree with it, either. Yes, this great novel lends itself to multiple interpretations, but that's not one of them. By the end of the book, Rochester has changed drastically! He's just not the same person at all. He's been humbled by the tragic experience he underwent at Thornfield Hall. So Jane didn't 'surrender' to his viewpoint at all! In fact, he is the one who has 'surrendered' to hers. I'm glad you don't concur with this 'minority view', and it's obvious why the majority of readers, reviewers and literary critics don't hold to this ridiculous theory.

Thanks for the great, thought-provoking comment!! : )