It would be idiotic to say that Jane Eyre follows in the tradition of the soap opera, but that it makes such an impression cannot be denied. This is apparent from the first few chapters, which presents a familiar scene: an orphan (unloved and called “a little toad”) forced to live with an unsympathetic stepmother and spoiled, hostile stepsiblings. Except for the uncanny feistiness of the protagonist—who remains charming, if a little impudent—virtually nothing in this segment forebodes a noteworthy plot. But I harbored high hopes for Jane Eyre, and felt all too ready to forgive a bland beginning if it promised an excellent main narrative. However, long after little Jane grows up, the soap opera streak continues, with the story regularly dealing out such noontime drama staples as a hidden letter, a mysterious past, a secret fortune… By the time I finished two-thirds of the book, my hopes had already waned, and it was with laborious effort that I finally reached the end.
Despite the novel’s unimpressive plot, I initially appreciated the narrator’s sharp eye for observation and extraordinary faculty with words. But as I read on, this quality instead grew into an irksome verbosity, which worked against the story by rendering superficial what is emotional, and making it seem affected where it sought to appear earnest. I appreciated Stevens’ roundabout manner in The Remains of the Day, but here I only grew irritated with Jane Eyre: with her choices, her convictions, her manner of speaking. After the Thornfield fiasco, I stopped sympathizing with her altogether—although I did share in her happiness at the ending (mostly because I dreaded the horrid alternative).
I understand why Jane Eyre was deemed groundbreaking in 1847, but read at a later time, from a different perspective, the novel appears to possess few merits. The only scenes I truly cherished were those between Jane and Mr. Rochester, whose love for each other—although it blossomed quickly and rather arbitrarily—I do not doubt for a second. The rest seem artificial: characters like Helen Burns and St. John seem to exist only to provide differing opinions, and conversations involving them verge more on the expedient than the literary. All in all, Jane Eyre is not without charm, but nonetheless falls short of its reputation as a classic, and—save perhaps for the Rochester scenes—is terribly, terribly disappointing.
To this crib I always took my doll; human beings must love something, and in the dearth of worthier objects of affection, I contrived to find a pleasure in loving and cherishing a faded graven image, shabby as a miniature scarecrow.
Even for me life had its gleams of sunshine.
‘…you are good to those who are good to you. It is all I ever desire to be.’
‘I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you—especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous Channel, and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.’
‘I tell you I must go! Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? … Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.’
‘My principles were never trained, Jane: they may have grown a little awry for want of attention.’