Jane Eyre

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.’

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3 thoughts on “Jane Eyre

  1. onewordthreesyllables

    I think it is quite unfair to judge against Jane Eyre as a classic based on the reasons laid out here. First, as the author of this entry has noted, it was written in 1847. At the very least, its exploration of feminine feeling and psycheー a very important development for its timeー should be acknowledged.

    Secondly, if you have read any other classic from that century such as Dickens or Thackeray, you may say that this “verbosity” is typical of its time. That is just how they all spoke back then, unlike us hillbillies of today with our artless language and thin prose.

    Lastly, in demanding the novel of a “noteworthy” plot, I believe the author of this entry has missed how Brontë discusses themes such as religion and morality. It is a commentary on how puritan Christian thought immediately brands passion and earthly pleasure as sin. In Jane Eyre, Brontë criticizes how the conventional ways of institutions such as Lowood, with its plainness and austerity, are hypocritical and self-righteous. The novel pushes for a kind of morality that makes room for passion in Christian life and insists that earthly pleasure is a significant part of human existence. Take for instance how Jane refuses a loveless marriage with St.John for the sake of going to India as a missionary:

    “Consent, then, to his demand is possible: but for one item – one dreadful item. It is – that he asks me to be his wife, and has no more of a husband’s heart for me than that frowning giant of a rock, down which the stream is foaming in yonder gorge. He prizes me as a soldier would a good weapon; and that is all. Unmarried to him, this would never grieve me; but can I let him complete his calculations – coolly put into practice his plans – go through the wedding ceremony? Can I receive from him the bridal ring, endure all the forms of love (which I doubt not he would scrupulously observe) and know that the spirit was quite absent? Can I bear the consciousness that every endearment he bestows is a sacrifice made on principle? No: such a martyrdom would be monstrous. I will never undergo it. As his sister, I might accompany him – not as his wife: I will tell him so.”

    The novel also has a significant lot to say on gender relations and social class but this comment is getting a bit long. I am sorry to be so vehement about the novel like it’s a big deal but I was just really shocked to have read something that dares dismiss Jane Eyre as so.

    Reply
    1. Mich Post author

      Jane Eyre took a significant step toward the development of the female protagonist—this I recognize. Yes, Jane is an independent character, and she rightly rejects a hypocritical society that fails to live up to the very ideals it assumes to espouse. I mentioned that I could see why the book was deemed groundbreaking at the time. However, I still think that the novel’s faults outweigh its merits.

      I have read other classics, and I understand what you mean when you say that “this is just how they all spoke back then.” But while I enjoyed these kinds of descriptions elsewhere, there was just something with Jane Eyre that did not work for me. I suspect it has more to do with character than language: at some point I started to dislike Jane so much that even her manner of speaking became intolerable to me. Although her circumstances posed very real problems, I found it difficult to sympathize with her; it all just felt rather affected and exaggerated to me.

      (As an aside, I would also like to contend that contemporary writers have much more to offer than “artless language and thin prose.” While it is true that we speak less loquaciously now, this does not mean that today’s literature necessarily falls short of those of bygone eras. There’s beauty in clean, simple sentences. There’s beauty in understatement. Our aesthetics have changed over time, but that does not mean we have regressed.)

      With the way it was laid out, it seems impossible to miss the novel’s insights regarding religion and morality. But I do not think that the combination of didactic themes and incisive perceptions already make for literary success. A good novel requires much more than that. For one thing, characters have to be real, human. As I have already pointed out, certain characters (Eliza Reed, St. John, etc.) seem less like real people and more like representatives of particular standpoints—conveniently placed so that the author (in the guise of Jane Eyre) can rally readers against them. Of course I agree with the author’s convictions, but judging how such themes are worked out in literature is a separate matter.

      Thank you for your comment. I appreciated the opportunity to rethink my opinions and to try to reconsider Jane Eyre in a different light.

      Reply
      1. onewordthreesyllables

        Thanks. I’d like to clarify that by saying “artless language and thin prose,” I did not mean that contemporary literature has less to offer. I do recognize that much can be accomplished with plainness and even silence, as the likes of Kawabata have proven.

        Yes, it is just to ask of fiction to have “real, human” characters, if you are coming from a Realist or Humanist point of view. But then there is so much more to literature than that which is believable or “true,” a la Henry James (and who is to say what it is that should be believable? suspension of disbelief is a complex matter). If the characters you have mentioned are “less like real people and more like representatives of particular standpoints,” perhaps that is because they were meant to be so. I guess what I’m saying is that it is unfair to use realist ideas of what a “good” text is to judge something that is meant for, for instance, symbolist or romantic judgment. This is why I think literary history and theory are important, at least if we want a sophisticated appreciation of texts; there is no one yardstick to measure all these different traditions with.

        Again, sorry for another long note! This is probably just me being childish and begging for you to reconsider Jane Eyre because I liked it. Haha! But as you have said, your aversion towards it is guided by feelings of inexplicable dislike towards Jane, and I cannot argue with that (and now I am asking myself why I am prattling so vigorously here). Thank you, though, for paying attention to my comment.

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