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In Praise of Classics: Jane Eyre

Written by: Carol Zolnowsky, Special to CC2K

Click HERE to read the intro to In Praise of the Classics

Click HERE to read about the brilliance of Anna Karenina

Click HERE to read about the dysfunctional love of Wuthering Heights

Click HERE to read an essay about, and like, Ulysses

Click HERE to read about the timeless beauty of Gone With the Wind

Click HERE to read about the cosmic brilliance that is The Iliad 

Are you Man Enough to read Jane Eyre

Image In order to explain why I love Jane Eyre so much, it might be useful to explain these two things about me:

1)      I am a radical feminist.

2)      I am an English teacher.

So the combination of a (gasp!) strong female title character, in a (my word!) serious and well-recognized piece of literature, written by a (shocking!) well-regarded female author, well, how could I pass that up?  After years of refusing to name my favorite book, on the grounds that there were too many (maybe I could narrow it down to my favorite seventeenth century metaphysical poet?), I finally found one.  My admiration for this book is based partly on the strength of the lead character, partly on the addictive quality of the plot, and partly on the fascination moral and ethical discussions that the characters have as they debate on the proper course of action in any given situation.

I admire Jane because of her perseverance in what is admittedly a pretty shitty life.  She is introduced as an orphan being raised in the house of Mrs. Reed, Jane’s father’s brother’s wife.  Jane’s relationship with Mrs. Reed is unaffectionate, to say the least, and her relationship with her cousins/foster siblings is one of tyranny, violence, and fear.  Any sign of creativity, independent thought, or assertion on Jane’s part is seen as rebellion and ingratitude.  Then she’s punished and isolated for being such a quiet, unhappy child.  I wonder what could have caused that?

Despite her decidedly unhappy beginning, Jane manages to get sent away to school which is, well, equally shitty.  She loves learning, and is inspired by some fantastic teachers, but she is plagued by a headmaster who was convinced by Mrs. Reed that Jane was merely a liar and a child of the devil.  This same headmaster manages to make a lot of money off the school by receiving generous donations from philanthropists all over England and passing on not quite enough money to keep all the girls fed and clothed.  In spite of the doubt and the cold and the hunger, Jane graduates from the school as a very accomplished young woman, and becomes a teacher there.  Her future is looking bright.

I admire her unwavering devotion to doing the right thing.  After a few years of teaching, Jane decides to strike out on her own, advertising herself as a governess.  She gets hired at Thornfield Hall, a rather interesting place with what seems to be a ghost in the attic.  There is also a kindly old housekeeper, a sweet but petulant young French girl, and Mr. Rochester:  the rather eccentric owner of the house.  After several months, Jane is shocked at the revelation that Mr. Rochester has fallen in love with her.  They arrange to be wed, but at the wedding, it is revealed that Mr. Rochester is already married.  The ghost at Thornfield Hall is actually crazy Mrs. Rochester who has been locked up in the attic for the safety of Thornfield’s other inhabitants.  The wedding is called off, but Mr. Rochester invites Jane to live as his mistress, to be married in every sense but the legal one.  Jane is tempted by this proposal, as she is very much in love and has no family to shame, but her strong sense of integrity compels her to refuse on the grounds that shaming herself is shame enough.  She refuses and leaves Thornfield in the middle of the night to avoid any further attempts at persuasion.  She leaves the greatest happiness she has ever known, spends days sleeping in the elements, begging for food and for work, homeless and starving, rather than go against what she knows to be right.  All I can say is, “Damn, girl!  That’s strength!  That’s courage!  When I grow up, I want to be like you.”

Her life gets better.  She finds some long lost family, spends her days teaching and learning and wondering about Mr. Rochester.  In the end, she finds happiness.  All her dreams and wishes are satisfied, and on her terms.  Her patience, her integrity, and her determination to find her own way in life are rewarded.  This, I feel, is a message that I needed to hear.  I feel like all teenage girls should hear this message.  I feel that all adult women should hear this message.  It’s one that was long ago written by Shakespeare, and was echoed by Charlotte Bronte in a form that is less succinct but no less powerful: “To thine own self be true.”

I will always remain convinced that Jane Eyre is a fabulous story and a lasting inspiration.  The one thing about it that makes me quite sad is that it falls into the general category of “Women’s Lit”.  I have nothing against this category, in fact, but it seems to me that Women’s Literature—that is, literature written by and about women—is widely seen as Women’s Literature—that is, literature that women can and should read, but that men can feel free to skip if they don’t have time or just don’t feel like reading it.

I know, I know, this seems like an unfair generalization, but I know whereof I speak.  Most of the literature about teaching high school English is addressing the “boy problem”: despite an overwhelmingly male-dominated canon, English teachers are still trying to find ever more boy-friendly books.  “Women’s Lit” is distinctly not boy-friendly.  It’s not about them, it has nothing to do with them, and so it’s not at all interesting.  How can you expect boys to get interested in the social subtleties of nineteenth century England?

This problem is perpetuated into the college years with the insidious development of the Women’s Lit class.  These classes are generally labeled Feminazi Lit because of their focus on the history of sexism in the western world as seen through literature.  While Women’s Lit classes do a service of providing a much-needed focus on an oft-ignored segment of the canon, they do a disservice by isolating Women’s Literature from the rest of it.  These classes are also overwhelmingly attended by female students, and the few, if any, male students who show up are often as not there because the class fulfills a requirement of some kind.

I mention this only because I know that it can be hard to interest guys in a book where the main drama surrounds a marriage proposal rather than a political scandal or a military conflict.  Yes, this is a broad generalization, but I feel that it is not entirely unfair, and more accurate than not.  I want to encourage guys who might be put off by the sitting-room-drama veneer of Charlotte Bronte to give this one a try.  Most of the joy of literature is the ability that it gives us to see the world through the eyes of someone unlike us.  The more unlike us the narrator is, the more challenging the book is, and, hopefully, the more we learn.  Take that challenge.  Women’s Lit is not Chick Lit; Jane Eyre is not The Devil Wears Prada: it’s legitimate and artful writing.  Get over the stigma of “Women’s Lit” and see Jane Eyre not as a book written by a woman about a woman, but as a book that contains a riveting story and an inspiring message.


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