Romance, Heroes, and a Re-Reading of Jane Eyre

janeeyrePlease note: there are spoilers in the following paragraphs! If you haven’t read Jane Eyre yet – hang on, why haven’t you read Jane Eyre yet?

Towards the end of last year a strange feeling came over me. With two weeks before my final university assignments were due, in the madness of that final rush to the finish line, in the midst of research, re-writes, and late-night drafting sessions – I felt the strangest desire to re-read Jane Eyre.

At the time, I thought it was odd. Given the amount of reading I had to do for class, it seemed bizarre to me that I would want to add yet another book to my immense reading pile; although, granted, Jane Eyre was somewhat lighter and more enjoyable than my class-related reading, namely Freud For Kiddies (published by the Department for the Elucidation of Freudian Theories of Psychosexual Development, at the University of YouveGottaBeKiddingMe Press, MA, 2011) and The Complete and Absolutely In No Way Abridged, Explicated, or Rationalised Works of Jacques Lacan (University of KillMeNow Press, forthcoming).*

In any case, I felt myself inexplicably in need of a little Charlotte Brontë (even though with Brontë, ‘a little’ is usually about four hundred pages long). So despite the press of assignments and last-minute editing sessions, I decided to take down Jane Eyre and dust it off. Now, I should add that the first time I read Brontë’s book was in my final weeks of high school, just a little bit before my final exams. Was this stupid? Yes. Was it poorly timed? Undoubtedly. Because I found that I absolutely could not tear myself away. I think I read the whole thing in about two days. I can’t remember whether I actually paused to breathe or not, but in either case, I was hooked. janeeyre It seems I always return to Brontë at the most inopportune times. Perhaps it was something about the stress and anxiety of those few weeks that sent me back to Jane Eyre. Who knows. In either case, I found it a vastly different experience to my first few readings of the novel. So just what was it that made it so different for me?

Well, my main problem with the book can probably be summed up in two words – Mr Rochester. Yep – Brontë’s much-discussed hero: a sardonic, rude, locking-his-wife-in-an-attic-type person. A seventeen-year-old me thought he was just about the most attractive male character ever. I thought he was dark, mysterious, and utterly romantic. Brash but loving. Hot-headed but sexy. You know the drill. rochester Perhaps I’ve become less romantic and more realistic over the past few years. Because this time around, I found myself wondering just what was wrong with my teenage self. Or perhaps Mr Rochester was always a creepy jerk, and I just never saw it before? His flirting with Blanche Ingram? Pathetic. And his behaviour towards Jane? Let’s take a little look at a sample sentence:

He continued to send for me punctually the moment the clock struck seven; though when I appeared before him now, he had no such honeyed terms as “love” and “darling” on his lips: the best words at my service were “provoking puppet,” “malicious elf,” “sprite,” “changeling,” &c. For caresses, too, I now got grimaces; for a pressure of the hand, a pinch on the arm; for a kiss on the cheek, a severe tweak of the ear.

(Volume II, Chapter IX)

But for the word ‘severe’, one might assume that Mr Rochester is being playful; but there is something about these “fierce favours”, and his general behaviour, that makes him seem just a little too forceful. In many ways, he’s like a little kid when his favourite toy has been taken away.

Then, of course, there is the tiny fact of his wife locked up in the attic. It’s the sort of cruelty that to me seems unforgivable; and, indeed, Rochester is ‘punished’ at the end of the book, losing his sight and an arm in the fire that destroys Thornfield. But the question remains – for what? Is he ‘punished’ for locking his wife away, or is he punished for trying to lure Jane into a bigamous marriage? In either case, Brontë lessens his punishment at the end; he eventually regains a little of his sight, which is perhaps a little too kind for such a troublesome character.janeeyre Personally, if I were Jane Rochester née Eyre, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from wondering just when my darling hubby might feel inclined to lock me up in the attic. Because if you ask me, that kind of problematic behaviour doesn’t just go away.

In any case, I’ve come to realise that this whole ‘bad boy’ thing really isn’t my style. Somehow, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two, I’ve developed a dislike for sardonic, forceful characters. What made me swoon at seventeen makes me suspicious and uncomfortable at twenty-two. Is this a sign of ageing? Of changing tastes? Of greater experience of the world? Although the point of Rochester is supposed to be that his bizarre nature complements Jane’s passionate one – the implication being that she is the only woman who would be able to keep him in line – I can’t help feeling that if I were in her position, I would have made a very different choice.

Mind you, if it were a contest between Rochester and the insufferable St John Rivers, I think I’d take my chances with the cruel, despotic bigamist every time….

stjohnrivers

Oh, St John. How I hate thee.

So what was the result of my dislike? Well, for one thing, as a reader less invested in the love story between Jane and Rochester and more concerned with evaluating every character that crossed my path, I picked up on a few interesting tidbits.

Most importantly, my dislike of Rochester made me doubt everything he says. When reading his description of his marriage to Bertha, I found myself wondering whether his testimony was actually as reliable as one is led to assume. After all, we are never given any opinion but Rochester’s; Bertha is silent – or silenced, depending on your reading – and we never hear her side of the story. Bertha is such a strange presence at Thornfield, and Brontë gives us so little, on the surface, to work with, that at the end of the story one isn’t quite sure what to make of her. It’s probably why she’s been the focus of so much fascinating criticism, including, of course, the work done in The Madwoman in the Attic.berthamason Now, I know my feelings about Rochester are in some ways missing the point of Jane Eyre; the novel is, of course, about a woman’s life. The hero is really just a secondary character, the romance a secondary concern next to the larger issue of a woman’s growth and development in a severe and restrictive society. Which is why the final page of the novel, which returns to the intolerable St John Rivers (I cannot stress enough how much I dislike this character) and charts his progress as a missionary – supposedly doing ‘God’s work’ but in reality just another cog in the machine of British imperialism – continues to puzzle and frustrate me. Brontë must have had a reason, whether artistic or just an appeal to the kind of thing contemporary readers would have liked or expected. But just because I trust her as an author doesn’t necessarily mean I always agree with her choices.

Don’t get me wrong – I still adore Jane Eyre. But I feel like I love it for different reasons than I did when I first read it. Which is fine, really. I see it as a sign of growth. It’s a fascinating novel which has readers guessing, engaging, investing. I may not be investing in the same things every time I read it, but maybe that’s one of the good things about re-reading.

Although Jane Eyre argues for greater occupation, respect, and equality for women, it’s impossible to ignore the romance at the centre of the narrative, because it does drive much of the action. And as a romance, there is something unnerving and unlikeable about Rochester that just won’t go away. It brought to mind other heroes with similar behaviour; Edward Cullen, say, to use an increasingly outdated comparison. Re-reading Jane Eyre this time around ultimately left me with an important realisation – liking the bad boy is almost always a bad idea.

How do you feel about ‘bad boys’ in books? And have you ever re-read a beloved book and come away with a very different impression?

*Please note that all book titles are purely fictional. It would probably take seven years and a severe impediment of my rationalising faculties to force me to read the complete works of Jacques Lacan. I have no desire to be found, in three months’ time, gibbering on the floor of my bedroom and trying to stop myself from seeing phalluses everywhere.

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13 thoughts on “Romance, Heroes, and a Re-Reading of Jane Eyre

  1. I love bad boys (in fantasy not reality), but my bad boys have a strict “no hurting” policy. Any severe ear tweaking or arm pinching would be met by a slap in the face and the presentation of my backside as I walk away.

    I agree with you on the “romance” in this book. I also agree that it’s still a good book if for no other reason than it truly is thought-provoking on multiple levels.

    • That’s a really good policy, I think. :)

      It’s definitely a thought-provoking book. And despite the romance I think Bronte takes a really long, hard look at gender in the Victorian period, which is part of the reason I love the book.

  2. Rochester usually arouses either a love-him or hate-him response, doesn’t he? He’s certainly not a character that one can remain lukewarm about. :-)

    Yet while he is not always a likeable character but I love him because Brontë made him so real. He’s not some stereotypical romantic hero but a real flesh-and-blood annoying man ;-), yet one with admirable traits if one digs to find them.

    Here’s a description I wrote about him after I’d read Jane Eyre for the second time, somewhat in his defence:

    “Certain character traits about him bothered me, but one has to take into account his position and the society within which he lived. He makes the comment that he is used to saying do it and it is done. Much of his behaviour is simply due to his rank in society; this type of behaviour plays out in Pride and Prejudice Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen as well. Rochester’s beginning attraction to Jane lies in the fact that she will not give into his whims. He also has had very little steadying or positive influence in his life. I think Charlotte Bronte made him a very believable, human character and that is part of what I like about him. While I do find him somewhat infantile at times, I think Jane is the perfect match for him and that, by being under her influence, good aspects of his character, that may have laid buried, will be strengthened and grow.”

    and:

    “With Rochester I felt that he sensed something truly pure and untarnished in Jane and connected with her on a level that was deeper than he perhaps knew was even possible. She was special and he recognized that. ”

    I didn’t see the fact he shut his wife up as a negative against his character at all. The fact that he did it, shows how deeply he took his responsibility. If he’d put her in an institution, the treatment she would have received would have been horrific. Here’s what a patient could face in the early 1800s: “Medical treatment was both a remedy and a punishment. Treatments included bloodletting, purging and induced vomiting, cold water dunking (water torture), and the “swinging chair,” a contraption designed to spin the patient at high speeds. The chair was thought useful in helping patients to vomit, evacuate the contents of their bladder, and lull them into a tranquilized state of mind.” The patients could also be chained in their cells. So Rochester’s treatment of his wife shows an extraordinary amount of caring, especially considering that he was tricked into the marriage. He could have easily confined her in an institution and continued on with his life, as if she didn’t exist and have been truly safe from discovery.

    So the more I read Jane Eyre, the more I appreciate Rochester for his conflicting behaviour at times, yet for the honest humanity with which Brontë endowed him.

    Loved this post!. You always post such introspective reviews which initiate wonderful thoughts and discussions!

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Cleo! I definitely agree – Rochester is a polarising character. And I do agree that he definitely seems much more human than many heroes in Victorian novels. He’s not necessarily easy to love, but I think that Bronte did endeavour to make him likeable, forgivable.

      Your comments about the mental asylums were very interesting; I hadn’t thought about it from that angle, but it certainly seems like Bertha would not have fared well in an asylum. From that angle, Rochester does come across as much better, although his long trips away from home certainly suggest that he wants to distance himself as far away from the spectacle of ‘madness’ as he can, to escape the reality of his life at home. Which, again, is understandable; having a mad wife in those days was considered hugely embarrassing (I think Bronte actually based some of it on a real-life story of a man who had locked away his mad wife?). It’s certainly not the first time I’ve come across that kind of attitude. I seem to remember that the same thing happened in Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, so one’s reputation was certainly at stake if someone discovered you had a mad relative.

      I think one of the things that hit me reading Jane Eyre this time around was that we really only have Rochester’s word for what happened to him in the past. I guess I found myself wondering whether he really was as innocent as he claimed to be. And even though Jane sees ‘mad’ Bertha for herself (perhaps a textual method for corroborating Rochester’s story?), I found myself wondering whether she had always been mad – was being locked in the attic the cause or the effect, in other words?

      There’s no real evidence for it in the book, but then there’s little evidence to refute it either. The question is an interesting one, and I definitely want to read some more criticism and see how scholars have approached it.

      The funny thing is that I can now appreciate both why Rochester can be a sympathetic character to readers, at the same time as I feel suspicious of him myself. I’ll probably re-read the book many more times before I’m entirely, one hundred per cent decided, to be honest. :)

      • Sorry, I was going to get back to you on this but I’ve had some personal stuff going on lately that has drawn me away from personal media ……….. It’s interesting how we can all read a book and come away with something different. Rochester’s responses and actions made his story more believable to me. We can see from his character, he is not one to dissemble, nor is he easily able to mask the purpose or intent of his actions. He’s all storm, bluster and force, with very little subtleties, so that in itself makes me believe him. Also I think the actions of her brother support his story, yet sometimes the movies and books blend together for me, so I’m not sure which I picked that observation up from. We see Rochester’s rather brusk and bumbling, yet truly sincere, responsibility that he shows toward others, from his mad wife to little Adele. His passion sweeps him away in the case of his initial attempted marriage to Jane, but I believe Brontë shows us the framework for a deep character and with a little moulding (from Jane), he could be turned into a truly admirable man (yet with human failings, nevertheless).

        BTW, we were both following each other on Goodreads so I have now friended you. :-)

        • I hope things are ok, Cleo!

          It is really interesting how different interpretations can be. I definitely find the film versions getting mixed in my head, especially as there are so many of them! I agree that the ending suggests that Jane’s influence on Rochester has very positive results. Rochester regaining a little of his sight after a few years – and just in time to see his child’s face – says a lot about the change in his character, in my opinion.

          Thanks for the friend on Goodreads. :)

  3. I have not read this book since I was about 13, so roughly 46 years ago! I really must reread it. You and others have motivated me to do so. I remember feeling much as you do now. All I could think was that Rochester was so creepy and mean! Who could love him…and why? Yet by the book’s end I did have some sympathy for him (my own aunt suffered from paranoid schizophrenia) and marveled at the fact that Jane evidently recognized characteristics in him that made him salvageable to her. And I do now realize, as Cleo states, that there were no humane choices for institutionalized care at this point in human history. I believe that this book certainly presents Rochester as a flawed character. I’ve not researched much in this literary era, but is that one reason Jane Eyre is so important in literary history. Was she, perhaps one of the first to present a flawed hero? Don’t know…

    • It definitely is a great read! Charlotte Bronte definitely taps into some important issues of the Victorian era (and probably a lot of the stuff about the way we treat the mentally ill is still relevant today).

  4. Maybe this is one of the reasons I don’t re-read many books, I’m toot worried I’ll feel different about something I loved. Got to agree with you on Rochester, I never much fell for him when I read the book, although I’ve only read it recently. Had I read it in my teens I’m sure I would have loved him. Whenever I think of the book now I just think of Bertha.

  5. Pingback: Back From the Dead: Rebecca (1938), by Daphne du Maurier | (majoring in literature)

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