A conversation with a friend the other day set me thinking about Jane Eyre. I loved the book when I first read it as a teenager, and still love many things about it. Apart from the evocative prose, there is:
- A female protagonist who does not merely go through life hoping to be rescued by a man.
- A heroine who is not good-looking! She does not care for pretty clothes and is uneasy when her fiancé makes romantic speeches to her. This is rare enough now – at the time when the novel was written it must have been unprecedented.
- A heroine who, despite having been in unfortunate circumstances since childhood, is by no means a doormat. She is bold and has a sense of self-worth, in spite of being a poor, young, not beautiful woman. She knows her own mind and refuses to give in to the persuasions of any of the men in the novel.
Two things, however, leave me cold.
The first is the coincidences in the story, and the ‘metaphysical’ angle. She arrives by chance at the door of her relatives when she is lost and penniless. She hears her lover talking to her when he is far away. I club these two things together because they seem related: if you believe in a fate or a guiding hand that leads you to your destiny, both of these might seem possible. For the more skeptical of us though, these unnecessary contrivances detract from the power of the story.
But the most important thing that has me feeling ambivalent about the book is the end. The book ends on a conventional ‘happy’ note: the heroine marries the hero and has a family.
But this ‘hero’ is the same person who was about to marry her without telling her that he had a wife already. Granted, the wife was insane, and he had supposedly been tricked into marriage. (Boohoo. He was an adult and he made his own decision – the book doesn’t even give him the excuse of his parents having pushed him into the marriage.) He not only keeps his wife hidden away in a room so that eligible single women might not come to know that he’s married, but he hides his fact from Jane, who is apparently the love of his life. He then pressurises her into being his mistress, and she runs away to escape him.
Yet this is the man she returns to, when his wife is dead and he is blind. How can I believe that this fate is unambiguously happy for bold, brave Jane?
It makes me wonder whether Bronte had Rochester blinded in order to have him dependent on Jane. A Rochester fully in possession of his faculties might have been too headstrong or wild for Jane to manage. A Rochester blind and dependent on her leaves Jane the mistress of their house and of their lives. In those times, maybe this was the best ending Bronte could come up with for her heroine.