By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published on Salon.com, September 29, 1997
Jane Eyre abounds in mysteries and surprises.
The most immediate, for Charlotte Brontë’s contemporaries, was the identity of the author of this controversial bestselling first novel of 1847. So far as readers knew, the novel was by a wholly unknown individual named “Currer Bell”—whether male or female, no one seemed to know. Much discussion ensued in the press over the identity of “Currer Bell”; some reviewers believed the novel to be “coarse” (in its frank depiction of emotion and passion), but so intelligently conceived and written that “Currer Bell” had to be a man. (Jane Eyre went through several large editions before Charlotte Brontë publicly revealed herself as the author. Today, the author’s sensibility seems far more feminine than masculine in its attentiveness to details of girls’ and women’s private domestic lives and in its wholly sympathetic portrait of a young governess virtuously resisting her employer’s plea that she love him despite the fact he isn’t free to marry her.)
Thirty-one, the daughter of a rural Anglican clergyman, unmarried, inexperienced, diminutive, shy and “plain” as her heroine Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë, like her romantic hero Lord Byron, “awoke one morning to find herself famous.” Since its initial publication, this fame has never abated. Jane Eyre has been continuously in print and has long been established as a classic of English literature (alongside another brilliant first novel, Wuthering Heights, by “Ellis Bell,” Charlotte’s younger sister Emily, also published in 1847). Significantly, it is the sole novel of its era to be reprinted in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s groundbreaking 1985 Norton anthology, Literature by Women.
The most immediate surprise of Jane Eyre for today’s readers is the directness, even bluntness, of the young heroine’s voice. Here is no prissy little-girl sensibility, but a startlingly independent, even skeptical perspective. At the age of 10, the orphan Jane already sees through the hypocrisy of her self-righteous Christian elders. She tells her bullying Aunt Reed, “People think you a good woman, but you are bad; hard-hearted. You are deceitful!” and “I am glad you are no relative of mine; I will never call you aunt again so long as I live. I will never come to see you when I am grown up; and if any one asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say that the very thought of you makes me sick.” (In fact, when her aunt is elderly and dying, Jane does return to visit her, and forgives her. But that’s far in the future.) With the logic of a mature philosopher, in fact rather like Friedrich Nietzsche to come, Jane protests the basic admonitions of Christianity as a schoolgirl: “I must resist those who … persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel that it is deserved.” And this bold declaration, which would have struck readers of 1847 (in fact, of 1947) as radical and “infeminine”:
Restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes … 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 constraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer.
Instead, the novel begins with the seemingly disappointed statement: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that [rainy] day,” and counters almost immediately with, “I was glad of it; I never liked long walks.” When excluded from Christmas revelries in the Reed household, the child Jane says, “To speak the truth, I had not the least wish to go into company.” Jane’s defiance, which doesn’t exclude childlike fears, strikes us as forthright in the way of the adolescent temperaments of other famous literary voices—Jo March of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield and their now-countless younger siblings. Here is a voice, we believe, we can trust; and our trust is not misplaced.
Another surprise of Jane Eyre is the seemingly “real”—that is, non-romantic — nature of the lovers-to-be. Jane Eyre is many times described as small, plain, undistinguished; her mysterious, Byronic-tempered employer Rochester is pointedly not “handsome or heroic looking”; their conversations are, from the start, marked by an unusual directness, surely rare in 19th-century women’s fiction, with the underlying premise, which is never questioned, that the penniless Jane and the wealthy Rochester are equals in intelligence, character and worth. Their attraction to, and developing love for, each other is immediate, yet grows as naturally as it might in real life, characterized by such remarks as Rochester’s to Jane, “You are not pretty any more than I am handsome,” and at the novel’s end, after the lovers have been parted for a year, and suffered losses, an exchange that must have made readers gasp, and perhaps shed a tear:
Am I hideous, Jane?
Yes, sir: you always were, you know.
Today’s readers will find in Jane Eyre mysteries and surprises that Brontë’s contemporaries would have taken for granted: the strange, harsh treatment of mental illness (as a consequence apparently of syphilis); the “double standard” of sexual behavior (in which men like Rochester were allowed a kind of gentlemanly promiscuity while unmarried women like Jane had to conform to a narrow code of chastity); the unyielding conviction with which Jane Eyre, though she loves Rochester, flees him, even to the point of wandering homeless, and nearly starving, in the novel’s most disturbing, existential scenes of Chapter 28 when Jane is reduced to begging crusts of bread and ravenously devouring swill scorned by hungry hogs. (What a boldly non-Romantic portrayal of female, human want, to present to genteel English readers!)
Of course, Jane Eyre has a “happy” ending. Yet it is made to feel like a natural, even inevitable ending, though there are numerous melodramatic twists of the plot and coincidences beforehand. It is typical of Jane that she declares, “Reader, I married him.” (Not “He married me.”) It is typical of Jane that, though married at last to the man she loves, and now a mother, she looks back upon her still-young life from the perspective of mature wisdom. Why does Jane Eyre retain its appeal after so many decades, and so many intervening novels of virginal young heroines, Byronic moody mysterious elder men, and melodramatic disclosures? One answer is, simply, the quality of Jane’s and Rochester’s characters. They are believable. They are intelligent, yet emotional, superior beings who are human, even flawed; as the 19th-century reader would have discerned, they are models for us all.