JANE EYRE’S TIMELESS APPEAL

Jane Eyre is the original feminist.  

I recently revisited my favorite book, Jane Eyre, after watching the superb film, Emily, about Emily Brontë. Although I’ve often re-read my favorite sections of the book, I was rereading it from cover to cover after more than a decade. Some of its chinks, like its black-and-white portrayal of some characters, or the condescension of the illiterate, were now glaring, almost disappointing. But eventually, the book overpowers all your reservations through the sheer power of Charlotte Bronte’s writing, that indomitable spirit we see in Jane Eyre. 

Why is Jane Eyre such a powerful book, and why is it still relevant today? Since we love numbers, and seven is popular, here are my seven reasons. 

First, we love stories; at its core, Jane Eyre is a good story. Aristotle says good art must stir our emotions, and Jane Eyre stirs a gamut of emotions in us: grief, pity, anger, sadness, fear, joy, delight, love, peace, you name it. Also, happy endings are most believable and satisfying when they are hard-earned, and Jane almost dies for hers. 

Second, Jane Eyre is still an exemplar of feminism with her unflinching integrity and self-reliance. Even as a child, an orphan in her wicked aunt’s care, Jane Eyre is steadfast in telling the truth, despite the dire consequences.

Third, the book’s energy never dips, even during the quiet phases, like Jane’s time in boarding school or Thornfield before Mr. Rochester’s arrival; it’s like an urgent river heading to the distant sea. Brontë cleverly reaffirms Jane’s passionate temperament through the observations of others.

Four, we have a witty heroine, a rarity even today. Despite her limited social exposure, Jane is quick-witted and confidently spars with the older and worldly-wise Mr. Rochester. 

Five, our heroine is a rare breed, a woman prepared to die for her moral code. When Rochester asks Jane who would care if she lived with him in sin since she had no relatives or friends, she responds, “I would,” risking it all. And we root for her, as does the universe. Jane doesn’t take a penny from Rochester while fleeing and divides her inheritance among her cousins. The little details, like paying servants generous tips after her marriage or how everyone in her life was cared for, are satisfying and reaffirm our faith in “our” Jane. 

Six; finally, a plain Jane and an ugly Rochester fall in love. Bronte’s insistence on inner beauty is again reaffirmed by the comments by other characters on their looks, many of which Jane hears (Bronte offers one concession when her cousin remarks she’s beautiful). Sadly, films have ruined this focus on inner beauty; it’s impossible to picture Mia Wasikowska as plain and Michael Fassbender as ugly  (even the earlier films have attractive pairings).

Seven, as human beings, we crave justice, and Jane Eyre dispenses justice like the blindfolded Lady Justice. Everyone gets punished or rewarded with what they deserve. Jane and Rochester are reunited, but only after Rochester pays his price. He’s also forgiven when he begins regaining his sight. Jane’s cruel aunt and cousins also get the punishments they deserve. Jane gets her inheritance and a family, and her good cousins get their fair share.  

Happily, ever-after love stories, while satisfying, are unrealistic and abruptly end on a high point. But Jane Eyre’s happily ever after comes after many ups and downs, and we see the crackling chemistry between Jane and Mr. Rochester deepen into genuine love. So, when Jane says they are together 24/7, we know enough of their dynamic to believe it.  

One of the glaring defects of the book is that the negative characters have no redeeming qualities. I remember a similar criticism of Shawshank Redemption’s depiction of the correctional officers as pure evil. But the director, Frank Darabont, defended this portrayal saying the film is told in Red’s voice, and he hated the prison and the guards and cannot remember them with anything other than contempt. The same is the case with Jane Eyre. A passionate woman with strong likes and dislikes narrates the book. The description of Bertha’s madness as an ugly disease, the matter-of-fact description of servants as ignorant, or the description of poverty-ridden Calcutta are cringe-worthy today. Still, there is an abundance of compassion in Jane Eyre to outweigh these faults. 

Jane Eyre is the quintessential woman of our times: self-reliant, passionate, kind, intelligent, witty, with an unshakeable moral compass, who also bids the universe to her command through sheer will. 

That’s why she lives on.        

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