Ann Dolinko has been a member of the Shimer faculty since 1996. Her degrees are in philosophy and her teaching includes many of our core courses in the social sciences and humanities. She also offers a host of electives at Shimer, including those that contribute to addressing the question of what the human is through the lens of feminism Below, she offers some reflections on Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Bronte and published in 1847.
Jane Eyre is a profoundly literary novel. Charlotte Brontë (brief biography available here) created a compelling story that never fails to reach out to the reader with sublime romance and achingly poetic prose. Although often classified as a bildungsroman, the narrative transcends that genre. In more simplistic terms it is, yes, a coming of age story, being that of our protagonist Jane traversing the psychological and moral growth from youth to adulthood, and the trials she endures that result in the formation of her adult self, but the narrative elements, the journeys, the characters, and above all the prose, create a synergy, making this a compelling novel.
Synopsis: Brontë begins with the orphaned ten year old Jane living, unwanted, bullied, and ridiculed, at her deceased uncle’s wife’s house, who shortly decides to be rid of Jane by sending her away to Lowood Academy, a school for girls. There she endures harsh conditions for 8 years, eventually becoming a teacher. Jane leaves Lowood to work as a governess to the ward of Mr. Rochester, the imposing owner of the estate of Thornfield Hall. Rochester and Jane fall in love but at the wedding it is revealed that Rochester is married to an insane wife he cares for in a remote attic of the estate, and Jane runs away in horror and humiliation with nothing but the clothes on her back. Days later, starving and exposed to the elements of the unforgiving Yorkshire moors, she happens upon an isolated home occupied by three siblings, a brother and two sisters not far from Jane’s age, who take her in. The brother, St. John Rivers, eventually asks her to accompany him on his missionary plans as his wife. Jane rejects his offer and hears the disembodied voice of Rochester calling out to her. She cannot resist and returns to Thornfield to find it in ruins, having been set on fire by his mad wife. The housekeeper is also there and sees Jane, and directs her to Rochester’s new lodging, a cottage on the vast estate. Rochester has been partially blinded by the fire while trying unsuccessfully to save his wife and does not recognize Jane, mistaking her for his housekeeper. Jane does not speak to him but touches his face. He takes hold of her hands and feels her face and realizes who it is and they marry and have children.
This brief outline, of course, misses much detail and subtlety that create a compelling narrative. One of Jane Eyre’s outstanding features is the rich prose and powerful lexicon used throughout, most memorably in the conversations between Jane and Rochester. From their first meeting Brontë infuses their dialogue with a spark that grows and heats with each encounter. Brontë skillfully portrays the ineffability of two people falling in love. The chemistry is palpable. It is in these scenes that reader, as well as Rochester, see the indomitable spirit and intelligence of Jane Eyre, both of which draw Rochester toward Jane. With Jane’s strength of character and intelligence, Brontë brings into the narrative issues of societal roles, hierarchies, and male-female inequality. In one scene, for instance, Jane’s thoughts run on to the restrictions placed on women in society and the pain this causes because women share with men an equality of desire, emotion, and intellect, but convention prevents them from realizing these attributes in society (chapter twelve). Brontë is also adept at the use of coincidence in furthering the narrative without pushing it beyond reasonableness. Jane believes herself to be alone in the world, without any true relations, but she discovers that St. John Rivers and his two sisters turn out to be her cousins, and she also discovers the existence of an uncle who has been unsuccessfully attempting to contact her through her deceased father’s brother’s wife, the wicked aunt of the book’s beginnings, and St. John Rivers’ family are also related to this uncle. Brontë wrote Jane Eyre in close proximity to Charles Dickens’ earlier writings. Jane Eyre was published nine years after Oliver Twist (1838), and so I think it would be interesting to know how well Brontë was acquainted with Dickens and to explore whether his abundant use of coincidence as a plot device had any influence on her writing.
In reading Jane Eyre, I find it hard not to compare it to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). Although the two books are so vastly different in style, their themes of romance, societal hierarchies, and strong female protagonists give the two books some overlapping conceits. In particular Jane Eyre brings to mind two romantic climaxes in Austen’s book: The scene in which Darcy first declares his love for Elizabeth toward the middle of the book, and then toward the book’s end when Darcy again attempts to apprize Elizabeth of his deep feelings. I find both scenes dissatisfying in that Darcy’s most climactic part of the interlocution is narrated by Austen, leaving it to the reader to fill in what he might be saying. This diminishes the reader’s heightened emotional engagement at these critical junctures. Brontë, however, not only supplies us abundant dialogue with both sides of the conversations, she does so masterfully and in a deeply satisfying fashion.
It is hard to speak of Jane Eyre without thinking of the many cinematic efforts to bring the story to the screen. I have seen most of these, and almost all fail for the same reason, which is the film maker’s disinterest in using Brontë’s rich prose in the many dialogues that occur. Anyone writing a screenplay of Jane Eyre has ready-made, masterful dialogues already written, but almost all choose to substitute inferior conversations that sometimes make me cringe, knowing what the characters could have been saying. One important exception is the 1983 4-hour British adaptation, bringing both Rochester and Jane and most of the other characters and subplots to life including the most of Brontë’s dialogues. The 1996 112 minute Hollywood adaptation is also fairly well done in terms of faithfulness to dialogue and story elements. I find all the rest lacking in a variety of ways, most notably the loss of dialogue. The 2011 120 minute Hollywood adaptation may be the worst—it somewhat faithfully adheres to the plotlines but does something unimaginable with Jane and Rochester’s interlocutions: it keeps Brontë’s lines written for Rochester intact, but removes most of Jane’s responses, making her almost mute. Brontë wrote a female protagonist with a strength and independence and boldness of mind, remarkable for its day, which is stripped away from her in this degrading movie. The idea of Rochester falling in love with a woman of lower status relies heavily on what Rochester sees as the intelligence and independence of spirit Jane displays in her repartee with him. It was so sad to watch a film in which Jane’s voice is taken away because, but for that one misstep that is so unfortunately in step with our current misogynist culture, the film would have been an excellent rendition of the book.