I’m sharing an AS Level (sixth form) literature class this year, and the other teacher wanted to use Jane Eyre as the core prose text. (This whole teaching professionally thing is also why I haven’t reviewed much lately! Working on it!) So I’m re-reading this after several years—and it has been several years too many! My opinion of Jane Eyre has improved—and it was pretty high to begin with. While I’m not quite ready to award it full marks, Charlotte Brontë continues to amaze and entertain with this story of a young woman struggling to do what she thinks is right.
In my previous review, Cecily asked me if I thought this is a love story. I gave a conditional yes, reflecting upon how uncomfortable Rochester’s capricious and controlling personality made me. This was a significant source of discomfort during my re-read: I was not enjoying the forceful personalities of either Rochester or St John. I was not very enthusiastic about Jane ending up for life with Mr Rochester, considering not only how he treated his original wife (no matter how far gone she was) but how he treated Jane during their engagement. He seemed to be into her for him, rather than for her, and her needs and opinions were irrelevant compared to the opinions he had on her behalf.
Does it matter that Rochester mellows out after going blind? Does he get redeemed enough to deserve Jane? She seems to want to be with him regardless, and of course, this is her story, and it’s her choice. Thanks to the convenient inheritance that Brontë drops on her, she’s set for life and has no need to marry. Indeed, maybe that’s why Brontë chose to give Jane the inheritance—to remove any doubt in the reader’s mind that Jane’s reasons for marrying Rochester were anything other than love. (That being said, Jane’s strong sense of duty and loyalty might be motivating factors as well—she may feel compelled to care for Rochester because of their past association and the fact he has so few people left to care for him.)
It seems like Brontë has as much to say about duty as she does love. After all, that’s what motivates Rochester to care for his wife for all these years. That’s what causes Jane to leave Thornfield, and ultimately it’s probably why she returns. Brontë portrays Jane as someone who escapes the unfortunate circumstances of her birth through that heady combination of luck and determination. She makes the best of her time at Lowood. She finds a good position, and when she decides to leave, she strikes out with nowhere to go and no money to her name. Jane has balls.
Jane Eyre is very much a novel of serendipity and circumstance. It is almost classical in some ways, with Rochester’s eventual semi-tragic fate wrapped in a happy ending for the both of them. But as the title implies, it’s actually just the coming-of-age story of a young woman who finds what she sees as love even though she is not conventionally attractive. Jane has her flaws—she is awfully proud of her integrity, and is quick to judge the less constant nature of others—but I can’t help but like her, just as I like the book in which she stars.