Sunday, April 15, 2012

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontё

(*** This is a book that I’ve read several times in the past, and so I’ve referenced plot points to make some observations – I’ve done my best NOT to give away the big plot points though.  However, take this as a spoiler alert if you haven’t yet read this book and want to in the future. ***)
I first read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontё when I was in my early teens.  When asked what my favorite book is, more often than not, I’ll name this one (it really depends on which I re-read last – Jane Eyre, or Alice in Wonderland).  I’ve re-read it several times since that first time, and with each pass I come at it with a little more world experience, a slightly different perspective, and an altered appreciation for the story and the characters.  In my last re-read, I found some observations that I wanted to share.
First, a word about the plot.  This is a story of (who else) Jane Eyre – the quintessential nobody/everybody.  Jane was orphaned at a young age, and brought up in her aunt’s home.  It was a rocky childhood.  At 10 years old, Jane’s aunt sent her away to boarding school (a fairly common occurrence in early Victorian England), where she stayed on six years as a student, and two as a teacher.  Realizing her life was stagnating, Jane sought a governess position, quickly found one, and left for Thornfield Hall.  At Thronfield, Jane experiences for the first time a sense of home and comfort.  She falls in love with Mr. Rochester, owner of Thornfiled, and agrees to marry him – but those plans are ruined.  Jane leaves Thornfield, spends time discovering more about herself and what she wants, until she feels compelled to find Mr. Rochester and settle their unfinished business.
Up until the events at Thornfield, I feel completely comfortable describing the plot – but things really get charming and engaging at that point, and I hate ruining it for anyone, even with ‘spoiler alerts.’  I had one of the biggest surprises ruined for me while I was reading JE for the first time, so I hate to do the same to anyone else.  But, I will tell you, that even though I’ve read this book multiple times now, there are three points that still have the power to make me cry, and two points that make me physically start in surprise.  Brontё is just that good.
I have one major complaint about the plot, and that’s a complaint that I have about a lot of books written in this era, and that’s the use of convenient coincidences in plot development.  In leaving Mr. Rochester, Jane sets out on her own, only to come across people to whom she unknowingly has a connection.  It’s great for the plot, but it’s horrible for the reader – in all the places in England she could have ended up, she lands on the right door-step?  Come on.  There is a moment when this occurrence takes the reader out of the story and has them focuses on the improbability of it all, but I’ve always shrugged my shoulders at this, and powered through to the end of the book.  
Keep in mind when you’re reading this book that it was written by a spinster in early Victorian England (specifically the 1840s).  I point out that fact because there are passages that are super heavy on religion and morality.  These factors play an enormous role in Jane’s life choices, but even before the point where Jane falls back on the rules of her faith (because, as she notes, those rules are for times of crisis, no matter how much you may want to go against them), there are long-winded ruminations on the role of religion and faith in life.  Bear with those passages and get past them – the other stuff is stunning.
Some of the most romantic passages are those between Jane and Rochester.  But if you step beyond the romance, they are inherently flawed.  It was a common complaint of literary critics of the age that interactions between female and male characters written by women authors were inherently flawed; there is not enough masculinity in these scenes to be believable.  In re-reading Jane Eyre this time, I had to agree with that sentiment; while the scenes are touching and heart-rending, it was clearly written by a woman, as it’s hard to believe that Mr. Rochester (as described elsewhere in the book) would be in-tune enough with his emotions to say some of the things he said.  In some ways, it takes you out of the passages, but in others it’s touching and forgivable.  And it makes me cry. 
The charm of Jane Eyre (the character, not the book), is that she is at once the original plain-Jane, and the most forceful person/character you’ve ever met.  Coming from truly humble beginnings, Jane not only finds a place for herself in the world, but she carves it out and makes it uniquely hers.  It’s an interesting and powerful dynamic that is incredibly endearing.
The charm of Jane Eyre (the book, not the character), is that is evolves with the reader.  I’ve now read it a half-dozen times at various stages of my life, and I keep pulling new insight from it.  As it is the story of a woman from aged 10 to 30, there are lots of parallels that the reader can draw.  While there are some serious pacing issues with the book (in relation to the religion of the age), I strongly recommend that you power through and read it in its unabridged format.
Final verdict?  Read Jane Eyre – it might not become a staple in your life like it is in mine, but it is an incredibly charming read that I hope you enjoy as much as I do. 

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