Thursday, July 21, 2011

Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre

In 2003, and again in 2005 with the trade paperback format, the Consulting Editorial Director George Stade of Barnes & Noble Classics of New York publishes Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. This edition includes an introduction and notes by Susan Ostrov Weisser. The book originally appeared in 1847 and Brontë used the pseudonym Currer Bell in the hopes that the book would be a success among the public. It did get commercial and critical acclamations. Even so, the pseudonym provoked one critic to question the artistic worthiness of the originator. James Lorimer thought that if the pseudonym belonged to a woman, then that woman had to be “pretty nearly unsexed” (546). The idea of a woman infiltrating a man’s sphere must have been a very peevish thing for the critic; either that or he was just simply a chauvinist. Brontë got the last word, however. She put him, and other critics, in his place by asserting that he should have judged her work alone and not have applied double standards based on gender. She wrote, “To such critics I would say—‘To you I am neither Man nor Woman—I come before you as an Author only—it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me—the sole ground on which I accept your judgement’” (547). In her declaration, Brontë implicitly accused such critics of committing what twentieth century literary critics would call the intentional fallacy, the mistaken idea that the author intends a work to represent something particular. In this case, the question did not lie in the work itself, but in the actual gender of the author, which could shade nuances of meaning in the work. Brontë left the work to stand for itself and she remonstrated against the critics for their unprofessional opinions. Apparently, the critics did not consider Jane Eyre’s observation that “it is narrow-minded […] to say that [women] ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags” (131).

Laying gender battles aside, we see that the work is partly a romance, but not sappy in its treatment. I also find this book easier to read than Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Jane Eyre acts as a bildungsroman that shows the spiritual and social growth of the protagonist of the same name. She suffers through various trials that fashion her character in such a way that she becomes independent, understanding, long-suffering, dependable, intelligent, virtuous, and piquant. When she becomes an adult, she experiences love in two different situations. In the first case, she falls in love with Mr. Rochester, and he with her, and they almost marry until a shocking revelation emerges. Mr. Rochester explains his circumstances, rationalizes his motivations, and tries to persuade Jane to stay with him and become, for all intents and purposes, his mistress. He wants to love her without the necessity of a ceremony to sanctify or legitimize the union. Jane does not accept this offer upon legal and moral convictions. To avoid succumbing to Mr. Rochester’s advances and spotting her integrity, she leaves the love of her life to face the world alone for the second time. In the second case, and after suffering through hunger and poverty, she encounters St. John and his two sisters, who take Jane under their wing and, unwittingly, end up being Jane’s cousins. St. John, a handsome parson, wishes to proselytize in India. Later, he wishes Jane to go with him, but as his wife and not as his coadjutor. (Marrying cousins were not seen as deviants during this period.) Jane seriously considers joining him on this ecclesiastical mission, but she only loves St. John as a brother, not as a husband. St. John wants to marry her for his spiritual convenience, not for conjugal passion. Again, Jane refuses, avoiding a lifetime of awkward servitude to a man that cannot love her romantically. Weisser summarizes both situations: “Ultimately she rejects both suitors in turn until her own conditions, which are the legitimation of romantic and sexual love within the Christian and social sanctity of marriage, are met. Both Rochester and St. John violate the romantic love/marriage paradigm: Rochester wants love without marriage, while St. John wants marriage without love” (xxxi). The story continues with this insoluble situation until a deus ex machina occurs, thereby allowing Jane to live the life of her own choosing.

One aspect of Jane Eyre that I like is the lack of ideal physical beauty in the main characters. Romances, fairy tales, and glitzy reality television seem to necessitate exceptionally beautiful personages to hold the story together, but not this one. Jane is, excuse the expression, a plain Jane, and Mr. Rochester does not have the idealistic characteristics either. Nevertheless, their lack of beauty gives a refreshingly and real-worldly quality to the reading. The story eschews the Hollywood standard of physical perfection. Jane does notice Mr. Rochester’s unattractive features in his physiognomy, but over time, she sees his true character and the features transform into attractive ones. “And was Mr. Rochester now ugly in my eyes? No, reader. Gratitude, and many associations, all pleasurable and genial, made his face the object I best liked to see” (175).

Again, Jane realizes the transformation as she falls more in love with Mr. Rochester. The descriptions of his features become numerous and more masculine. Jane, who also narrates the story, uses the second person point of view to confide secrets and recall backgrounds to the reader, as noted in the following example: “Most true is it that ‘beauty is in the eye of the gazer.’ My master’s colorless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth—all energy, decision, will—were not beautiful, according to the rule, but they were more than beautiful to me; they were full of an interest, an influence that quite mastered me—that took my feelings from my own power and fettered them in his. I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously revived, green and strong! He made me love him without looking at me” (207).

Another aspect I notice is the use of the deus ex machina near the end of the story. When Jane is confronted with a life-changing decision, she hears a voice and answers to its beckoning call. The effect is certainly supernatural in nature, but for the practicing member of the LDS faith, this event is not that farfetched. LDS members believe in the reality of the Holy Ghost, a personage of spirit that answers prayers, enlightens the mind, and guides the faithful down the road safely to immortality and eternal life. Many members even share experiences with others in declarations called testimonies about the veracity of such occurrences. Gaining such an answer provides a certainty that transcends the limited resources not readily accessible to the one seeking a specific answer. LDS readers, who have experienced these kinds of moments, understand what Jane Eyre senses when St. John forces her to make a decision for the last time. Upon experiencing the deus ex machina come into play, Jane tells the reader: “I broke from St. John, who had followed, and would have detained me. It was my turn to assume ascendency. My powers were in play, and in force. I told him to forbear question or remark; I desired him to leave me; I must, and would be alone. He obeyed at once. Where there is energy to command well enough, obedience never fails. I mounted to my chamber, locked myself in, fell on my knees, and prayed in my way—a different way to St. John’s—but effective in its own fashion. I seemed to penetrate very near a Mighty Spirit, and my soul rushed out in gratitude at His feet. I rose from the thanksgiving—took a resolve—and lay down, unscared, enlightened—eager but for the daylight” (486, emphases in original). This experience usually comes after great trial and effort, and by the time the reader gets to this point in the story, he or she already knows the effort that has been given by the protagonist wholeheartedly.

The last aspect is more a silly observation than a critical analysis. In the introduction, Weisser explains the religious background that Charlotte Brontë, and effectively Jane Eyre, has in nineteenth century England. Weisser writes, “The evangelical Reverend Carus-Wilson believed the pupils should be schooled in strict religious and moral principles in order to save their souls, as we can see in the magazine he wrote for them, called The Children’s Friend, in which he admonishes his charges, ‘The Lord will call you to account, my dear children, at the awful day of judgment.… What shame and confusion will seize upon you! You will in vain call upon the rocks and mountains to fall upon you, and hide you … and you will hear these words sounded in your ears, “Depart (oh, that word depart) ye cursed into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels”’” (xvi). The silly observation deals with the title of the magazine. For LDS members that have grown up in the early and mid-twentieth century, there was an official magazine publication for children called The Children’s Friend. Since the 1970s, the magazine’s name is now simply The Friend. Normally, the LDS version contains mild stories to teach moral principles appropriate for children’s ages. When I compare today’s treatment to the Reverend Carus-Wilson’s, there is a darkly humorous irony to it. How would LDS children respond today if the Reverend Carus-Wilson were the editor in chief of The Friend?

Jane Eyre is appropriate for teenagers and adults. Romantic displays of affection are natural and decent, the kind that would not embarrass a discriminating grandmother.

Andrew

2 comments:

  1. Andrew, you are getting more reading done than most PhD students I know. I wish I could stop reading with a hypercritical eye and just read for enjoyment while still exercising some critical prowess. I don't read very fast because I can't stop analyzing and over analyzing what I read. The end result is that I don't have much time for reading on the side because I take so long to finish my required reading. Keep the reviews coming.

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  2. Thank you Ben. Even I wish that I could read faster. I am working on the reading list given to us in the master's program, and it's slow! For what it's worth, I wish I were in your place right now.

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