(A review by Sidharth Vardhan
of ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte
Novel first published in 1847
Review first written on May 12, 2014)
Initially published under the pseudonym Currer Bell in 1847, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre tells story of its titular character.
“Do you never laugh, Miss Eyre?”Charlotte Bronte
Something that is commonly ignored in most feminist and romantic readings is that this novel has earned Bronte a status as a predecessor of James Joyce and Proust in consciousness studies. Some childhood experiences, as any cyber-psychologist will tell you, will shape our consciousness and temperaments for life. With Jane, the memory is that of Red-room. After the incident, Jane is constantly fleeing the three things that made it so scary – loneliness, submissiveness and closed places. Notice how frequently she is outdoor throughout the novel. She left her house, then Lowood and Thornfield fleeing one or other of the three but other characters in the novel seems to have suffered them too.
There is also that sadness about her – although she is not meloncholy but she is not really cheerful either. She believed she was locked in Red-room because of her plain looks and with those looks, no one will ever love her.
Red-room and Bertha
“If there is such a thing as good marriage than it is because it resembles friendship rather than love.”Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I had this friend in school. Whenever someone told him that he or she had just got a girlfriend or boyfriend, he would ask the person if he or she was already sad. Upon being answered in negative, he would say in his wisest voice “give it time.”
The thing is at the beginning (which is what we call the honeymoon period) the couple act all goody good to each other and use romantic dialogues.“She flattered me, and lavishly displayed for my pleasure her charms and accomplishments.”
Except this stuff is like a mask subconsciously used in excitement to look better than we are and that worn away fast. What are left behind are two people who no longer know what to do. “I thought I loved her.”
There is a good chance that their temperaments won’t match –
“I found her nature wholly alien to mine, her tastes obnoxious to me, her cast of mind common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher, expanded to anything larger.”
And where temperaments won’t match, the friendship that is at the root of successful marriages won’t develop. Then, there are always lies that get told in that first round in looking good and now there is a loss of trust.
Same thing happened with Edward and Bertha Mason, and so they too develop a dislike for each other. Except they happened to be married and so were stuck with each other. Slowly dislike becomes hatred. I think so far Edward and Bertha felt the same and had similar experiences – what made Bertha’s position worse was that she was confined to her house. Her husband saw her as ‘intemperate and unchaste’ – reason enough for her to stay confined to his house.
This was bertha’s red-room – having nothing to do, no way to pursue her habits and no friends to talk to in those semi-dark rooms, she went mad.
“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer”Charlotte Bronte
…And Edward seems to have this habit of assuming that dominating role without realising he might be making people uncomfortable. There are enough examples to this effect – he didn’t pay Jane fully (when she went to meet her dying aunt) so as to make sure she would return, he won’t tell Jane that he is married with Bertha before they get married and later, on the day of a failed marriage, she found him listening at the door. That night Jane dreams of being locked in the red room – which acts as a motivation to run away in the middle of the night. That might be the first decision in all literature that was influenced by subconscious motivations.
Edward never was physically confined but his marital confinement meant a terrible loneliness with no visible escape. At one point, he is driven to suicidal thoughts – preferring hell to his present state. “ Of the fanatic’s burning eternity I have no fear: there is not a future state worse than this present one—let me break away, and go home to God!” and decides to live his life on his own terms.
However at the last moment, he changes his plans and turns to evil ways – “unheard-of combinations of circumstances demand unheard-of rules.” Perhaps this same sentence excuses the lies told by Bertha and her family as well. Just as they had lied, now Edward would lie too. But then to quote Jane
‘s very opposite thoughts, “Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this” Maybe people aren’t so much as good or evil as morally weak or strong.
Some of his extravagances can be explained, but then how did he never found any woman worthy? I think the answer lies in that same Honeymoon syndrome we discussed. It kept on happening again and again to him. Each time he thought he loved a woman, each time he discovered it wasn’t so – or maybe he himself sucked in those unmasking moments “To women who please me only by their faces, I am the very devil when I find out they have neither souls nor hearts – when they open to me a perspective of flatness, triviality, and imbecility, coarseness, and ill-temper” (yes, I’m unleashing a relationship theory.) This trial-and-error method won’t appear so wrong these days, so I guess the society, which is prejudiced against extramarital relationships and which taxes one party more than the other, gets part of the blame too. As FD puts it, “crime is a protest against the abnormality of the social organization.”
Then there is the unnaturalness of the thing “ Hiring a mistress is the next worse thing to buying a slave: both are often by nature, and always by position, inferior and to live familiarly with inferiors is degrading.”
It is easy to judge him for his wrongs but he did maintain Bertha and his daughter. I think his nature is like that of a stubborn kid who just happens to have too much power, that child-like assertiveness can innocently scare people in an inferior position. What is worse he doesn’t seem to know what he wants – and Bertha and other women were just unable to see through him. Only someone really assertive like Jane could have him bend his ways and make him see past that romantic jargon stage.
When Jane learnt about her past, she didn’t judge him for that beyond a ’I don’t like you so well as I have done sometimes’ and forgave him for hiding it. And it wasn’t for Christian or moral reasons, that she chose to ran away but simply because she couldn’t live as his mistress which she saw an inferior position. She was very explicit about it (“there is neither room nor claim for me.”) I don’t know why people keep on confusing it.
“I would always rather be happy than dignified.”Charlotte Bronte
Why did people Jane chose Edward over Rivers? I mean what kind of attraction he could offer? The guy was ugly to begin with, more than twice her age and had lost his hand and eye-sight. (Sorry Vessey!) Moreover, Rivers seems to hold all the cards – he had saved Jane’s life (whereas it was Jane who saved Edward’s life), was good-looking, younger, chaste and having a worthy career.
Pleasure over duty? Life with a blind man could hardly be a bed of roses. Jane probably didn’t work any less now than she would have in India but now she was in good company that made life easy.
“There is no happiness like that of being loved by your fellow creatures, and feeling that your presence is an addition to their comfort.”Charlotte Bronte
You can explain her choice with the word ‘love’ but, since I’m pretending to be the great relationship expert today, I will say, after some dramatic clearing my throat, love is like this umbrella word that is used for all kind of things and so doesn’t explain anything.
Honestly for three days, I was like she should have rejected both the proposals. But I was, as usual, missing the point. While by being independent, she could avoid closed places and submissiveness, there was no curing her loneliness. Jane first met him when she was out in the woods all alone – feeling lonelier in a house where she had no one to hold lively conversations. She saw that Edward could fill that void.
Later, on her first day as village school-teacher she felt alone again. Despite her efforts this time, she couldn’t bring Rivers to talk in a non-priest way. He was the only one who created for himself a prison – through his stupid sense of Christian duty; which probably became the reason for his early doom.
The little happily-ever-after scene in the end (out in open, with an equal spouse and so very opposite of Red-house) is once again her describing their talks.
“To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. “Charlotte Bronte
Look Bronte wasn’t ticking off all the things a feminist novel should do as prescribed in some weird manual, neither was she writing a romantic novel nor was she writing a Christian novel; she wrote Jane Eyre in an effort to understand herself, her world and to strike peace with it. Jane lost a friend as a child; Bronte lost his sister – the lowest point in both their lives and hence earning ‘Lowood’ its name. Like Jane, Bronte too will become a governess and so on. Jane Eyre is a human, all too human, pursuing her happiness – at any price except one of those red-room fears. By the time, she met Edward, he was already a changed man – and his little disguises and jokes rather than being wicked tricks just show he had learned the lesson River missed, that life will have only as much happiness as you willing to force into it. He was just a natural choice for Jane, and if you still doubt it, remember how in the whole novel (I double-checked it) – with all her aunts, teachers, students, friends, servants, and cousins; it was in and only in his presence; and it was only and only because of him she ever laughed.
Copyright – Sidharth Vardhan