When I was “a young and callow fellow” at IWU, I was assigned Charlotte Brontë’s novel along with a few other 19th century British novels, and I read it, but it did not impress me much. The function of literature, in the time I first met Jane Eyre, was to get knowledge of important social and historical context, to identify generic features such as complex plot and powerful female protagonist. And I got it on that level.
But part of quality fiction’s function is to disclose to readers a bit more of themselves. It can teach readers who they are at the time of the reading. Thus, as a young explorer and conqueror of knowledge, the book held out packaged treasures to me. But today, in my middle years, the book mirrors a more reflective, and, one hopes, wiser reader. I recognize the deep knowledge in the book, and wonder at Miss Brontë’s depth of understanding. And I appreciate the book’s aid in my attempts to live a reflective life.
I love the way the age-old tension between the individual’s will and the group’s mandates is expressed. If it were up to Rochester (or me), the thing to do after the wedding is scotched by Mason would be to flee from English society, and to take up a life of ease and refuge on the Mediterranean coast with Jane. There, their true passions could have full expression. But no–that would be too easy. The preternaturally-wise Jane explains the function of group codes in our society to the older, yet more foolish Rochester: “Laws and principles are not for the time when there is no temptation…they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise against their rigour.”
In Rochester’s situation at Thornfield, I see myself many years ago, feeling myself trapped in a loveless, un-rewarding marriage. In his curt pride and peremptoriness, I see my own lack of patience with human imperfection and inefficiencies–a fault of which I continue to seek redress. And in her simplicity, honesty, and courage, I see in Jane an ideal of womanhood–independent, faithful, intellectual, and loving–that I did not hold as a younger man. But a divorced middle-aged man, I now see that anything else a man could desire in woman would likely lead him to disappointment.
Brontë’s plain statement of the rights of women is beautiful in its brevity, simplicity, and prescience:
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 restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex. (Chapter XII)
I could go on, expounding my delight with Brontë’s complex, non-idealized (and thus “realistic”) main characters, her skill at suspense-building, or the way she satisfies my childish yearning for the happy (if well-tempered) ending. But suffice it to say that in Jane Eyre Brontë made a book that not only imparts wisdom and technical quality the first time read, but affords the re-reader with fresh insights into life and him/herself.
Thus is this book an example of how literature fulfills social and psychological functions for the reader–a neat technological trick, but only feasible with time!
image of Jane Eyre from wikimedia
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