Readers still love Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre—and why not? The novel has every quality needed for total story immersion: a sympathetic heroine in plain, mistreated, brilliant, independent Jane; a dashing mysterious sexy romantic lead in Mr. Rochester; a spooky Gothic atmosphere and a chilling mystery; a host of villains in Aunt and John Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, Blanche Ingram, and more; aides to the heroine, such as Helen, Mrs. Fairfax, and Jane’s cousins Mary and Diana; moral temptations, thrills, fires, courageous escapes, sorrow, and suspense. But beyond joyful immersion in a wonderful, well-told story, why would readers return to it again and again? Is it just a pretty romance? Today, Jane’s moral dilemmas and particular set of problems seem outmoded; so why does Jane Eyre still matter, in a more serious intellectual sense?
More than just a fun read, Jane Eyre is a subtle, intelligent discussion of the difficulty of choosing among competing value systems. What values and principles should underpin our choices in life? What forces motivate us to choose and adhere to one set of values over another? These are the important questions Jane Eyre asks us to consider. We watch Jane struggle with these questions, and gain insight into how we struggle with values of our own. That is why Jane Eyre still matters.
Justice for Women and the Poor–Bronte’s Argument
I’ll come to the values war in a moment, but here pause to say that we still honor Jane Eyre for another serious reason: heartfelt, detailed, and just social critique. Charlotte Bronte strikes a blow on behalf of the poor and their unjust treatment. Readers, then and now, are greatly moved by her detailed depiction of Jane’s childhood–the unloving, neglectful, punishing Aunt Reed, the starvation, disease, and persecution at Lowood Charity School–all endorsed by one of the great literary villains, the Rev. Brocklehurst, who touts a narrow bigoted interpretation of Christianity.
Feminists also have reason to honor Jane Eyre, which is one long cri de coeur for freedom and equality for women. Feminist critics Gilbert and Gubar rocketed to fame for their 1979 re-interpretation of Rochester’s attic-bound mad wife Bertha as a symbol for all the qualities of women that were feared and suppressed in patriarchal Victorian society. (See The Madwoman in the Attic, Yale ). In my view, this interpretation of Bertha is unfounded, mainly because we don’t need Bertha to make the argument for freedom for women. That role is performed to perfection by Jane herself. Jane is a strong feminist symbol, arguing through the whole novel that women should be free to fulfill their desires, express their true natures, and chart their own destinies. We do need Bertha as a symbol, though, related to Jane’s quest to prioritize her values. I’ll explain my idea in just a moment.
Social Demands v. Moral Imperatives v. Desire
Alongside all of the social critique in the novel, we also see that Jane struggles continually throughout the story to decide which of many conflicting edicts or value systems to obey: social imperatives of class and culture fight with the proclamations of religion and its various sects. Both sets of imperatives often conflict with the natural desires of Jane’s individual heart, her desire for physical love and unfettered personal expression—in other words, not so different from conflicts people experience today, even if the exact definitions of “good” in each of these cases has changed.
Jane meets different characters in the novel who represent different positions on this essential three-way tension, between demands of society, moral imperatives, and individual desire. Her school friend Helen urges total devotion to a hopeful but stoic brand of religion, expecting no gratification in this world while relying on entire gratification in the next one. Jane’s minister cousin St. John, though colder and sterner than Helen, advocates a similar complete devotion to demands of religion even if love or class privilege must be totally obliterated.
Gentle teacher Miss Temple, simple-minded housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax, and dashing but cold-hearted upper-class rival Blanche Ingram, different as they are, all advocate the importance of social codes, of faithful adherence to whatever role society defines for a person of your sex and social class. Mr. Rochester stands clearly in Desire’s camp, claiming he will define for himself what is “good” and what is “bad,” and, by the way, how can true love ever be bad?
Conflicting Values, Competing Claims
At every turn, Jane struggles with competing claims. As a charity child, knuckle under to a rich relative or tell off Aunt Reed (social codes v. individual rights and desires)? As a young governess in Rochester’s household, give in to her love for upper class Rochester or suppress it (individual desire v. social codes)? As a woman in love, become Rochester’s mistress or resist (individual desire v. both social codes and religious devotion)? As newfound cousin to an admirable if stern minister, marry a man who doesn’t love her to become a missionary for a faith she believes in, or refuse a marriage not built on love (religious devotion v. individual needs and desires)?
In every conflict, Jane is tempted to allow the demands of one set of values to smother the others. She must decide which principles matter most. Do any represent a “prime directive,” always taking precedence? (Thanks for the phrase, Star Trek.) Is compromise possible? Ultimately readers must interpret, but I think Bronte argues for compromise: Jane runs from an immoral and socially unacceptable liaison, yet refuses a loveless marriage, finally marrying Rochester only after he has fallen somewhat in social class and she has risen, making them closer to social equals.
I do think Bronte speaks up for the primacy of central religious principles. She argues against narrow views of Christianity, like Brocklehurst’s dress codes for school girls, meant solely to humble and demean the poor; but the case in the novel is strong for following central Christian principles such as the Golden Rule, forgiving enemies, and abjuring adultery. When Jane dreams of a Celestial Mother who urges her to flee from temptation, she obeys without question, even to death’s door; this decision is depicted as wholly courageous and right.
Fire and Ice: People Need Love
Whatever demands one’s values make, Bronte argues for the centrality of Love, both sexual and affectionate, and her right to have it, even though she is poor, friendless, and plain. Bronte depicts the essential human need for love through continual references to fire, heat, and ice. The next time you read the book, look for these. Here are some examples:
- The Red Room, where Jane is locked by her unfeeling aunt, is cold–no fire= no human affection.
- When Jane returns to Thornfield Hall to discover that her new master, whom she has not met, has returned, she is greeted in the entry by a blazing fire. This seems like a clear sign that love and sex are in the air.
- When Jane wants to know some news that the cold and upright St. John is withholding, she says she will get it out of him because Fire (embodied in passionate, loving Jane) always melts Ice (the godly but coldly pious St. John). And Jane proves to be right.
When Desire Lacks Control
In Jane Eyre, love, sex, and passionate self-expression are presented as good and necessary. But if fire, and also desire, gets out of control, it is devastatingly destructive. Now we can return to consider a more likely symbolic meaning for Bertha Mason, the madwoman associated with fire who sets Rochester’s bed ablaze. How can we in this post-Freudian age fail to see a connection between fire and unbridled desire in this event? For Bronte, “intemperate” and “unchaste” Bertha does not so much represent unjustly repressed feminine power struggling against the trammels of patriarchy. Clearly, Jane herself does that. Bertha, whom a younger Rochester agreed to marry only because she was physically attractive, represents sex and desire out of bounds, which ultimately destroys the whole household. Through this plot line, Bronte suggests that desire and passion, central to living a fulfilled life, nonetheless require compromise, judgment, and control.
Jane’s Struggles are Ours
To a person of the 21st century, Jane’s particular conflicts may seem quaint, but humans still have the same struggles with conflicting value systems and desires. Do we do what society or family expect of people of our class, race, and ethnicity, or work primarily to fulfill our own personal desires, or adhere above all to some kind of higher moral code? Or do we attempt to adjudicate among these? This book is complex, and contains many other themes than those I have touched on. But certainly we can learn something very valuable by watching intelligent, sensitive, questing Jane try to reason out what it means to be good, either in her society or in ours.
Movie Still, Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, Jane Eyre. By 20th Century Fox (Photoplay, December 1943 (page 22)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Charlotte Bronte, pencil drawing: By probably George Richmond, [Public Domain], via Wikipedia Commons.
Still from the American film Jane Eyre (1921) with Mabel Ballin, on page 69 of William Lord Wright, Photoplay Writing (1922). By Hugo Ballin Productions [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.