The Startling Power of Jane Eyre in the 21st Century

One of my largest pet-peeves (at least in the field of classic literature) is the accompaniment by almost every revised-edition novel with an introduction written by a modern editor, author or publisher. These introductions, almost to a fault, will spoil the book before you’ve even read it. After finding out that _______ is Pip’s benefactor in an introduction of Great Expectations, I had finally quit most preludes to these classic novels.

And the presence of these “spoilers” is quite a shame, for, the introductions of these novels often serve a very viable purpose: to coerce your thinking as a reader into the main themes and statements made by the novel so that you can be better prepared to take a more knowledgeable direction with the book. The perspective-shifts were helpful for me in more aged literature (Hamlet, Antigone) or also with more… confounding books (Infinite Jest).

I decided to take a chance with Barnes & Noble Classic’s edition of Jane Eyre. I had never read the Charlotte Brontë novel, but I had previously read the introductions of other classics from Barnes & Noble, and had fairly satisfied with them. Thereby, I jumped into Susan Ostrov Weisser’s take on the book I had always wanted to read.

Unfortunately, immediately I was greeted with a spoiler within the first fifty words: (spoiler warning, obviously)

…the most famous line of [Charlotte Brontë’s] best known novel, Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married [Mr. Rochester]”

Susan Weisser

But, as I continued on, Weisser, who “specializes in nineteenth-century and women’s studies”, became more compelling and interesting in her introduction. To put it simply, she chose to place the pressure and shift the perspective of the novel towards the controversy surrounding, and the idea itself, of feminism, especially that of which occurred in the nineteenth-century.

For instance, she observed the contrast of the backlash or praise in relation to the novel. Critics when the book was published in 1947 stated that Miss Eyre was too independent, too “against the norms”. However, today, many feminists will argue that Jane is not strong enough, not enraged enough at the circumstances of a woman in the 1800’s.

Today, for better or for worse, I’d like to examine how Jane Eyre functions in this anger as a character, and even more importantly, whether or not her attitude and disposition in times of conflict can relate to our own debates and political conversations today.

Before we begin, however, let me make two things clear: To start, I want to stress this isn’t a review of Jane Eyre and perhaps not even a character study of the female protagonist. Rather, it’s a take on the implications of said protagonist. If you’d like my review of Jane Eyre, I’ll put it right here for you: It’s great, and you should read it. Sort of imagine Great Expectations but with a lot more romance and a lot less of a time span.

The other point I must make clear: I want to stress to you that I’m at fault of many of these issues too. I’m not trying to make myself appear better by attacking these fundamental traits of humanity, nor is that my purpose. Rather, I’m interested in how Brontë writes Jane Eyre, and the surprising strength of that character in modern society, and thereby reveal the classic nature of literature.

A Loose Train: Jane Eyre’s Rage

From the very forefront of the novel (indeed, by chapter three) we see ten-year-old Jane’s most stark personality trait: her anger and frustration against the events surrounding her. Which, by the way, they (meaning the events) certainly merit such rage. Eyre is the adopted child of a wealthy mother, Mrs. Reed, is forced to keep. The other blood-relative siblings, especially the oldest, John, patronize and bully the young girl. Finally, and most importantly, Jane Eyre to the housemaids and Mrs. Reed is always in the wrong.

We observe in these opening chapters a growing change in Jane, so strong a character shift that even in the introduction, where we are little accustomed to our small protagonist, we notice. Jane becomes increasingly resistant and stubborn against her abusive mother and siblings. She does what we all would expect, and hope, she would do: she rebels.

Already a phenomenon is shown. Jane, while doing what we as 21st-century readers may want her to do, is performing the opposite of what the readers of 1847 would expect, and hope, she would do. And while these rebellious actions may appear satisfying and justified (which they most certainly are) to modern observers, immediately, Jane’s position begins to deteriorate. Her previously bad relationship with her adopted family begins to grow worse, and because of her behavior, she is later in the story sent to a strict fundamentalist religious boarding school rampant with typhus.

“I am glad you are no relation of mine; I will never call you aunt again as long as I live; I will never come to see you when I am grown up; and if any one ever asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me miserable cruelty… How dare I, Mrs. Reed? How dare I? Because it is the truth. You think I have no feelings, and that I can live without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so, and you have no pity. I shall remember how you thrust me back–roughly and violently thrust me back into the red-room, and locked me up there–to my dying day; though I was in agony; though I cried out, while suffocating with distress… people think you are a good woman; but you are bad–hard-hearted. You are deceitful!”

Jane Eyre

The above monologue, at least in my read-through of the book, was the moment where it ‘clicked’ for me. Jane Eyre’s rage is certainly merited, that’s clear to see. But it’s ineffective, or used poorly. However, before we can get into this subject, we need to discuss Brontë’s focus on anger and vengeance that she puts thematically into the entirety of her novel, not just with Jane.

For instance, later in the story (Jane is now nineteen), Mrs. Reed suffers a stroke and is put on her deathbed. Jane has long moved away, but summoned back by her adopted mother nine years after she last saw her, Miss Eyre (a now changed and more forgiving self) returns back to her dying “aunt”.

The exchanges between these two characters in this section is extraordinary, and highlights the character change Jane has shifted into from the beginning of the story. Jane, in contrast of what she said when she was young, indeed calls Mrs. Reed her “aunt”, and is genuinely caring and nice to the perishing woman, even when it is revealed that Mrs. Reed has kept a life-changing secret from Jane for years.

We readers would then expect Mrs. Reed to be forgiving back to her child–but that is the not case. Mrs. Reed still berates her “niece” until the moment she dies, unwilling to let go of the personal rage and vengeance she feels toward the girl that she never wanted to adopt. When the dying woman finally does perish, Jane Eyre states that not a tear was shed throughout the house.

Brontë in this brief part of the novel, which only takes place across a few chapters, is revealing a theme to her readers: Uncontrolled out lashes of anger , and the consequences of it. It’s easy, in response to this, to immediately push this theme onto Mrs. Reed, and perhaps Mr. Rochester, and move on with the story, but to do this would be untruthful. For, if we were to take an honest and close look at the protagonist, we can observe that Jane Eyre is at fault too.

To return back to the quote and example from above: Eyre was wrongfully considered a bad and unruly child by Mrs. Reed. Eyre, thereby, began to fight back with a vengeance, as we would expect her to. And while Reed may certainly be worthy of such attacks by her niece, what did these attacks accomplish? They only served to prove Mrs. Reed correct in her assumptions of character and these attacks also quickly deteriorated Jane Eyre’s relationship with her aunt, ending up with Eyre sent to a horrible boarding school.

And, later in the novel, after Jane figures out Mr. Rochester’s horrible secret, she lashes out in uncontrolled anger again. What does this temporary outburst accomplish? Jane Eyre leaves Thronfield Estate and ends up begging for crumbs in an unknown small town and camping out in English wilderness.

In all three instances (Mrs. Reed’s death plus both of Eyre’s outbursts) Brontë is defining the important theme that if anger is not controlled, not sustained, but rather pushed out in temporary moments of vexation, there are severe consequences whether or not such exasperation is justified.

In the 21st century, this theme is by far the important and vital to everyday communications. With the presence of social media interactions, as well as a heated political climate with parties that seem to grow further apart everyday, it’s easy to sensualize your position and attack the other party with a heated vigor.

Unfortunately, many people (including myself), have found ourselves grow into the habit of debating/arguing with others not in an attempt to change their minds but rather in an attempt to “intellectually” beat someone else publicly, using political and moral motives as a cover-up of a much simpler purpose: to increase our self-confidence. We wrongly take any challenges to our beliefs or standards as attacks to our character, and thereby precipitate a more vengeful debate/conversation.

These are not themes made in Jane Eyre, I admit, but Brontë even in her time has something to say about a frustrated temper that has no control. Jane in the end of the story does not achieve “victory” because of a wild outburst or sudden change in temper, but rather a controlled fear of forgiveness and stolid knowledge of what’s right; knowing that the best way to fight for what you believe in is to calm down, and in doing so, let your opponent off guard. If we did this more, we would experience a beautiful truth: there is nothing more amazing than two different people coming together.

Jane Eyre‘s main themes are not focused on this rage-filled spirit, but I think that perhaps in modern times it’s the theme that counts the most. If a wild temper results in severe consequences as Brontë supposes in her best-known novel, we must ask ourselves: are we a Mrs. Reed or a Jane Eyre?

Did you like this post? Are you a fan of books, movies, video games and weird interpretations of each? Then consider checking me out!

Also, I’d like to apologize for the slow publish. After finishing Infinite Jest, I reread Hamlet in an attempt to find some interesting topic of discussion from that novel, but to no avail, and I wished not to force myself to upload when I had nothing to say.

Finally, I know this is sort of a weird interpretation of Jane Eyre but across the novel the hints of this theme spoke the loudest. Once again, if you think it’s a stretch, or if I didn’t explain something as well as you’d like, feel free to comment and I’ll start a discussion.

Thank you!

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