Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is one of the most famous novels in print today. It is studied across schools and universities around the world, and has had countless film adaptations made of it. Most people seem to think of Jane Eyre as being somewhere in the realm of romance; they see it as a beautiful story of love. The film adaptations made to date have exemplified this view.
This is based on a misconception. In reality, the story of Jane Eyre is one filled with suffering, hatred, misogyny and sexism. Ultimately, it is about the dark impulses of a manipulative and damaged man, and the place of a nineteenth century woman in this world.
From the opening chapter, we are presented with a daring, brave and bold character; Jane Eyre has a fiery temper and an abhorrence of all that is unjust. The opening descriptions of the Red Room are vivid, and Bronte expertly captures the terrible childhood fear of isolation and the supernatural. The tone is set for a novel that is rife with heart-break and marred by the challenges of coming-of-age.
Jane’s experiences in Lowood are some of the most heart wrenching of the novel. She is thrown from utter neglect with the Reeds to outright abuse; It is in this school that Jane’s first experiences of true sadness and peril emerge, with the death of her friend Helen from consumption. This marks a change in Jane’s outlook. Helen affected her greatly by her attitude towards those who treated her badly. Despite her early devastating experience, she becomes a young woman of strength and character, and leaves Lowood behind to create a life for herself.
It is not until Jane takes on the role of governess for the daughter of the elusive Mr. Rochester that the darkness of the novel truly emerges. Her relationship with Rochester is the most interesting aspect of the novel. From her earliest encounters with him, he comes across as withdrawn, and not completely trustworthy. Yet Jane – our wonderful heroine who we had all grown to love – manages to fall in love with him. In a moment, she seems to dismiss her intelligence and strong-willed nature. She loses a part of herself, and she will never be the same again.
It is clear that Rochester does love Jane, but what underpins his love is an obsession with control. He controls his ‘mad’ wife by keeping her locked in the attic, away from sight, determined not to let Jane know of her existence. We must ask the question, what is her story? How did she come to be married to Mr. Rochester, and locked away in the attic of their home? These questions, for the most part, go unanswered. Nobody seems to seek knowledge on why she has gone mad. Was she driven to this extreme state of despair by her evidently deranged husband, or was the imbalance always there?
Perhaps Rochester’s wife, like Jane, was pulled into his world through some deep fascination with the idea of a damaged and twisted man. Indeed, this fascination characterises many novels in the eternal obsession of women with the bad guy.
It is no secret that throughout the many years of English Literature, the dark and frightening men are the most popular with women. This can be seen in Charlotte’s sister Emily Bronte’s passionate and ultimately disturbing novel Wuthering Heights, in which the evil and disturbed Heathcliff became a sex symbol for countless women across the world. This happened despite his completely neurotic obsession with vengeance.
In more recent times, this obsession has been called the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. Women seem to be drawn into the mind of a damaged man. Perhaps the reasoning for this lies in their nurturing streak, although this seems unlikely. Perhaps the real reason is much darker, and encompasses the twisted allure that can be attributed to characters like Rochester, Heathcliff and Christian Gray.
I believe that this is where Jane’s love for Rochester lies. She has some kind of a dark impulse to discover what it is about this man that seems so damaged. In many ways, Jane has no choice but to fall in love with him. Yet this does not take away from the disappointment we can feel as readers when she does so.
Jane’s coming-of-age arc is advanced when she leaves Rochester upon the discovery that he is married. In this moment, she learns the devastating lesson that sometimes, love is not enough.
Yet Bronte reduces Jane back to her childhood, as she encounters poverty and the supernatural in her time without Rochester. This alerts the reader to the fact that Jane has yet to complete her coming-of-age arc. Something must happen to conclude the snippet of her life journey that we have been presented with. Unfortunately, this takes the shape of her return to Rochester, and what will most likely be a life of dissatisfaction.
Jane has often been dubbed an early feminist – a torch to be held aloft in an era of misogyny and male-dominance. And while her strength and desire for respect certainly show traits of an early feminist, her acceptance of Rochester sends out a very clear, and very sad message to all readers of this novel; Jane could not overcome her circumstances. She could not thrive independently, because a nineteenth century woman of her social stature could not be in a position to do so.
Rather than being the sweeping romance embedded in the heads of most readers, Jane Eyre tells the story of a woman who is defeated and abused, and ultimately accepts her position as a sub-standard human being.