Title: Jane Eyre
Author: Charlotte Brontë
Format: Hardback, Barnes & Noble Classic Edition
Secondary Format: Audiobook, read by Wanda McCaddon
Start Date: May 4, 2017
End Date: May 11, 2017
Rating: 4.5 stars
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.
To be completely honest, I decided to reread this classic (rather, listen to the audiobook, as read by Wanda McCaddon) to reintroduce myself to the wonderful cast of characters before diving into Sarah Shoemaker’s Mr. Rochester, which was released on May 9th, 2017. This contemporary companion to the original alternately told Mr. Rochester’s side of the story, in a similar style to Jane Eyre, though without the same emotional and cultural impact. (You can find my review for Shoemaker’s Mr. Rochester here.)
One of my favorite classic books of all time – if not my favorite – is Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. So, I think when I first read its cousin Jane Eyre, I thought it very light in comparison, for Wuthering Heights is a dark, Gothic romance set in the eerie moors. The lightness of Jane Eyre is not a bad thing, but my opinion of it has always been tainted by my extreme love for its slightly older book-cousin.
However, this book is so much better than I remember!
Originally published on October 16, 1847, Jane Eyre tells the well-known bildungsroman of our heroine, Jane Eyre: as she grows from a young girl under the care of her cruel aunt, to a student at a boarding school where she is later a teacher, to a governess for the young charge of Mr. Rochester. There are so many themes in this book, from class disparity to women’s rights to poverty vs. wealth to religion to the diagnosis and treatment of mental health. It is a bold novel with a main character who is similarly bold, strong-willed, intelligent, and female.
“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.”
I loved Jane’s character. She was naïve yet intelligent, poor yet moral, female yet independent. And oh. so. snarky. (especially to St. John, not that he didn’t deserve it!) Jane was modern for a woman of her time, with an inherent love for learning paired with a yearning to be independent and free.
She decides to leave the man she loves because her morals take precedent to her own personal feelings. Instead, she forges her own path to independence and happiness. But, as you know, in the end, she ends up back with Mr. Rochester, who is broken, blind, and crippled. Yet despite this, we are offered hope with Jane’s famous line:
Reader, I married him.
With this line, we are assured that Jane and Mr. Rochester have their happy endings that they so desperately desire. For Mr. Rochester, he gets a “proper” wife who he loves and who loves him in return. For Jane, she gets the loving family she has always desired, with the freedom to be independent and outspoken.
I know there are critics that often ask, Why does this feminist story have to end with a marriage, doesn’t it take away from the impact of her aspirations of independence?
The short answer? No, it does not. Jane chose to marry because she wanted to marry, end of story.
The long answer? No, it does not. When I took a British Literature course during my undergrad, I had a professor who often said that, during the Victorian Era especially, authors could get away with their female characters being independent, forward-thinking, ambitious, and basically contrary to all the feminine stereotypes of the day as long as the story ended in a marriage. In other words, authors could say whatever they wanted in the beginning and the middle as long as the ending consisted of a marriage for that willful woman as a metaphoric gesture of putting said woman in her “rightful” place. This has always stuck with me, and I think it’s applicable here.
Though, let’s be real, who doesn’t also love a happy ending? And that’s what Jane and Mr. Rochester got. A happy ending.