Friday, November 23, 2012

Jane Eyre - the Good and the Bad

Currently Reading: 1984 by George Orwell

First impression of Jane Eyre: my God this book is a lot longer than I always thought it was!

Lasting impression of Jane Eyre: I’m incredibly jealous of Jane Eyre and greatly admire her. However, I am also glad that I don’t live in an era with the same levels of religiosity, propriety and deficient psychology knowledge.

WARNING: This blog post contains some major spoilers so if you haven’t read Jane Eyre, you should probably stop reading now.

I’m jealous of Jane Eyre in two senses. The first is that she is a brilliant role model and has numerous character traits that I wish I also had. She has such an intense fiery spirit that initially makes her slightly volatile and prone to outbursts of restlessness. Yet she eventually masters this fire so that it’s no longer aimlessly raging and instead becomes the fuel necessary to maintain the inner strength required to hold to her convictions and sense of self no matter what. I envy her steadfastness and her ability to remain true to herself and her beliefs in any circumstance, even when it upsets others. I find her constant hopefulness, her discipline, and her goodness admirable and it makes me long to be more like her. I’m jealous of her for not being wishy-washy or overly concerned with others’ opinions, traits she outgrows yet that I cannot shake.

The second reason I’m jealous of Jane Eyre is because of the love she shares with Mr. Rochester. Sorry to be a girl, but I really hope someone loves me the way Mr. Rochester loves Jane Eyre someday. I want to find a relationship like theirs that’s based on respect and shared intellect; a relationship in which we understand each other for who we really are, strengths and flaws included, and love each other for all of it. I hope I find a love like theirs in which it really feels like finding your soul mate. I’m envious of their passion for each other and their ability to not lose themselves entirely in each other while maintaining this passion – a balance I haven’t always been great at striking.

In these ways, I adored reading this novel about growing up and finding your great love.

However, in other ways, this book just reminded me how glad I am that I live in a different time period.

Throughout the story, I was surprised by the large role religion played. Perhaps it’s because my exposure to other novels of this genre – i.e. Wuthering Heights and all of Jane Austen’s novels – largely did not have particularly faithful characters, but I really did not anticipate Jane Eyre to be so religious. I was taken aback when she spent so much time in a repressive, religious school and came out of it with an intense love of God. I was further surprised that she very nearly became a missionary’s wife out of a sense of duty, even though she loved another man. I was stunned (and honestly, a little disappointed) that the last character mentioned in the novel is the overly religious missionary - a character whose faith is intense to a point that Charlotte Bronte does not condone. Despite the fact that he isn’t introduced until more than half way through the novel and that he isn’t ever seen as especially likeable, he’s the one with the last word in the story? It didn’t seem fitting to me. Maybe it was a bothersome element of the novel to me because I’m simply not religious at all, but I’m glad that religion isn’t such a dominant and prevalent force in my life that I feel compelled to throw all my happiness away for the chance to do my duty to God.

I’m also glad that I wasn’t born in an era when propriety was so important. There’s a specific instance in the novel when this became overwhelmingly clear to me. It came after Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester became engaged. Mr. Rochester describes the life he envisions for them, including extravagant adventures to show her all the places she’s wanted to see, showers Jane with gifts, and insists that she will spend more time with him once she’s his wife. To me, and I believe to most women of my era, this sounds incredible!

However, Jane insists that none of this would be proper. She insists that even after they are married, everything should continue as it has been, with her still acting like his inferior rather than his equal. She firmly believes it wouldn’t be proper to do otherwise. Honestly, this sounds insane to me. She wants to get married and not have anything change? She wants to continue acting like her husband’s inferior even though he’s repeatedly told her he finds her to be his only equal (I’m paraphrasing here)? I’m so relieved that I didn’t grow up believing that this was proper.

The last aspect of the novel that made me really, really grateful that I live in the time period I do is Mrs. Rochester.

Again, I repeat that this is a big time spoiler! Just want to make sure you’re warned.

On the day that Jane and her beloved Mr. Rochester are to finally be married – which only comes halfway through the novel so you know something is going to go wrong – Jane discovers the horrifying truth about her betrothed. Turns out, he’s already married and his wife is still alive, living like a caged animal in the attic of his house. When Mrs. Rochester is introduced, she’s an obstacle keeping the protagonists from happiness. She’s a terror, vicious and both homicidal and suicidal. Her character makes Mr. Rochester more sympathetic and makes the reader greatly pity the poor, unknowing and crushed Jane Eyre.

However, I have to admit that I bizarrely felt terrible for Mrs. Rochester. As a sufferer from a mild anxiety disorder (not even close to the ranks of Mrs. Rochester’s illness for the record), I have great sympathy for people who clearly have mental illness in a time when mental illnesses were not understood at all, beyond that it meant they were crazy and broken. Mrs. Rochester appears to suffer from schizophrenia or some other equally intense mental illness and to be treated the way she is seems so dehumanizing. She’s trapped and ignored and literally treated like a rabid animal when she’s suffering in the most awful way possible. I mean, her mind is essentially attacking itself, that’s pretty unbearable. Thus, even though I know that Mrs. Rochester is supposed to be seen as a psychopath – which she is – I still feel sorry for her because if she lived in a different time she’d be viewed very differently.

So… overall impression of Jane Eyre? The good parts outweigh the bad and it’s a wonderful novel worth reading.

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