Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte


Jane Eyre follows the life of a maltreated orphan who eventually grows up in a charitable school under miserable conditions. I found the first quarter of the book hard to plod through and excessive in its cruelty to the point of unreality. The middle half picks up when Jane becomes a governess for the young ward of Mr. Rochester and falls in love with him despite their difference in age and social standing. During her time at Mr. Rochester’s estate, several mysterious goings-on occur for which any normal person would demand an answer. Jane, however--ever docile and submissive--doesn’t press for an explanation. The secret I won’t give away, but suffice it to say it is important enough to break apart their relationship and is revealed, in classic fashion, at the altar. This isn’t the only cliché to be found in the novel. In the final quarter, after Jane and Mr. Rochester have parted, Jane is sheltered by strangers she finds out are long-lost cousins, and of course, another long-lost uncle dies and leaves her a fortune. This whole sequence seems quite played out, but perhaps it is because I have read too many romance novels that follow in the same vein, although with an admittedly less-impressive vocabulary. At the end, Jane searches for Mr. Rochester, finds that the impediment to their relationship no longer exists, and they reunite somewhat blissfully, although in the intervening time he has lost his sight and one hand. No matter, this type of bludgeoning by fate is par for the course in Jane Eyre. In fact, it almost seems like the author had to somehow maim her protagonist to put them on an equal playing field.


But perhaps I’m being too critical. It always seems a little arrogant to criticize a work that has stood the test of time and which I don’t feel I could equal as a writer. A duller main character one cannot imagine, but it is a tribute to the author that the humble day-to-day activities of the character become absorbing. The language is rather florid, but I enjoyed the story immensely. It is the sort of thing you feel smarter after reading. I do have one complaint about Charlotte Brontë, and it is her tendency to intersperse French throughout the novel without any sort of translation or context clues to let you know what is being said (I found Villette to be even worse). More than likely people were more educated in England back in those days and knew French as a matter of course, but I still feel like she’s just showing off.


I know that Charlotte and Emily Brontë were entirely different in their style, but one can’t help but compare them in some respects. To me, the dark, starkly religious characters seem oddly similar, and upon reading a little of their history, it seems their minister father inspired these characters as he was also a strict, religious disciplinarian. Charlotte was also a governess, as was her main character, Jane Eyre. I found it interesting that all of her siblings died when she was 32 and she, herself, died at the age of 39, in 1855. Reading a little about her life made me realize that perhaps life during those times was accurately reflected in the harsh environment depicted in her novel and wasn’t quite as exaggerated as I initially thought.

In short, I thought Jane Eyre was a good read, and it definitely brushed up my vocabulary. And when it seems that many points of the storyline mirror hundreds of romance novels on the shelves today, I guess it is just a tribute to the author, who pioneered the material when it was still original.

13 comments:

Amanda said...

I haven't read a lot of romances, so I guess I didn't notice all the things you pointed out in the first paragraph, though I suppose they should have been obvious. You'll be at the book group? I hope?

Personally, I loved this book mostly because Mr. Rochester, to me, felt like a real person. In most romances, and in fiction in general, characters, while sometimes well rounded, are too neatly created. Mr. Rochester is very random at times in his behavior and moods, and some of his mannerisms and sense of humor never get explained even after the big reveal. People are like that. They are peculiar, and their habits and traits aren't always explainable, and that's why I liked him so much. I found the book a little difficult to muddle through at the beginning, but to be fair, she was writing in the style of the times, and a lot of writing then was very academic (vocab and french wise), coincidental (long lost relatives - think Dickens) and floral. Normally I have issues with that sort of thing, but with this one, I didn't.

Jen said...

I liked Mr. Rochester, too, and Jane for being ordinary-looking and uncharismatic in some respects. It made it feel more authentic.

You know French, so I'm sure that it was easier for you than for me, stumbling by on one semester. I actually made out fairly well with the exception of a few sentences that I just assumed must not be that important. :)

I did like the book, though. I liked it more when I read it the first time, over a decade ago, probably because I didn't know what was going to happen.

Oh and I plan to be at the book club!

Amanda said...

I think the simple soul in me just liked the "mystical" way they came back together in the end (for lack of a better word). It was a nice indulgence of happy lit away from our normal fairly morose lit. :)

Jen said...

It makes me chuckle a little that Jane Eyre is "happy lit" in our book group.

Byron said...

If I recall, Wuthering Heights was the book I couldn't stand (do I hear people booing?), so this one must have been the one I liked. I don't recall this one much from high school in any case.

Oh, and since I am thinking about it now, I owe you and Michael a big apology for being such a nuisance and a distraction all those times we were supposed to be working in class... Seriously, I wonder how much more I could have gotten out of high school if I hadn't been such a lazy clown. Now I have so many things I wish I could remember (even horrible things like economics, history, government). I sort of missed my opportunity, always focusing on the wrong things.

Amanda said...

Byron - I'm giving you the total opposite of a Boo!!! I hated Wuthering Heights when we read it for my book group last year (that was my first experience with it) and when I picked Jane Eyre up in January, I sort of expected it to be the same, but loved it instead.

I think I missed a lot in high school, too. It was too easy to get good grades without paying any attention.

Jen said...

Byron, there's no way I would have wanted to miss out on having you around for high school. Most of the distractions you created were kind of a witty take on whatever subject we were supposed to be paying attention to at the time, anyway. I've forgotten so much from high school, too--it's hard to retain the things you don't use on a daily basis.

By the way, I do remember us arguing about Wuthering Heights. I remember you hated it (you thought Heathcliff was worthless) and I loved it (arguably it's one of the best love stories of all time). :)

Jason Gignac said...

Jen and Heathcliff, sittin' in a tree!
K-I-S-S-I-N-G!
First comes love,
Then comes marriage,
Then comes the spawn of Satan, marrying his cousin!

Amanda said...

Oh man...first I'll have to agree with anyone who thinks Heathcliff's worthless, then I'll have to gag at the assertion that Wuthering Heights is a good love story (sorry Jen, I just can't bring myself 'round to it, no matter how hard I try), and then I'll have to crack of laughing at the bizarre and random sentiment that followed...

Jen said...

I don't care what you all say *sticking out my tongue*--I think Wuthering Heights is a beautiful story.

And Jason, don't tell Don about my penchant for violent, drunken gypsies...

Jason Gignac said...

In the words of the Cowboy, 'No Tiffany, I don't like Wuthering Heights... I LOVE it..."

Seriously, it's a quickening, alive sort of book, that makes me shiver, but not in the way that you TRY to shiver, like in a scary movie, but the way you really shiver, in really-real life. I love Wuthering Heights because Emily Bronte obviously doesn't know the 'craft' of writing, and is unable to distance herself from he words on the page, so the author becomes this mysterious, invisible character with a deep, earthy sort of sensuality that's a thousand miles from vulgar and right next door to ... oooh, I'll just shut up and shiver now. I don't like Heathcliff, no, he's probably not the nicest guy in the world, but I could totally fall for a Heathcliff. If I was... into that sort of thing... only, I don't think I'd have the conejos to really be in love with somenoe like that. Thank goodness.

Amanda said...

Jason, you gotta stop right there, you're scaring me.

Jen said...

Yes! One more Wuthering Heights fan on my side! I know exactly what you mean. This is one of the only books that brings me to tears--at the death scene, of course. Something to the effect of "I could forgive my murderer, but not yours.." I love it.