I recently reread Jane Eyre after hearing an interview on NPR with the latest film adaptation’s director, Cary Fukunaga. I have not yet seen the film (I can’t wait though) so this is not a film review. Rather, as I leafed through my crusty-paged, broken-spined but beautifully worn 1950 hardcover that I had picked up at Value Village for 25 cents as a pretty objet for a window sill or book shelf, I realized Jane Eyre has a lot to offer those of us aspiring to a self-styled life.
Jane Eyre and Us: the Young and the Restless
Jane Eyre was a woman who simply would not settle. Her aspiration for fullness in life overflowed out of her body, and beyond her frequently low circumstances. “Who blames me?” she asks. “Many, no doubt: and I shall be called discontented. I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature, it agitated me to pain sometimes” (pg. 108). Those of us looking for a self-styled life can probably sympathize.
Many of the character traits I brought up in reflecting on my sister Kirby’s self-styled life are echoed in the example of Jane Eyre. She is definitely a model of courage and perseverance, as well as adaptability.
A Little Respect
But the greatest lesson I take away from Jane is about self-respect. From an early age, Jane knows that she deserves more than the life she seems predetermined to lead. This protects her from the constant abuse thrown at her as a result of her low birth, lack of connection, her gender and poverty. Jane sees that these outward circumstances are no reflection of what is inside of her, and as a result she does not let any person or circumstance determine her fate. Instead, her self-worth drives her to heed the restlessness of her soul to make something better for herself.
It also plays a great role in her love affair with Mr. Rochester. Again and again, Bronte (and every other character in the book) reminds us that Jane is no beauty but instead very small and plain–a wallflower in the company of elegance. It is her inner strength, sharp mind and enduring sense of self that attract Mr. Rochester. She demands respect from others by respecting herself; and as a result, Rochester sees her as his equal.
So yes, it’s wonderful that Rochester loves her because she is strong-willed, self-respecting, etc., but I think this aspect of her character is even more important in the story than that.
Degraded Mistress or Browbeaten Missionary
Bronte (as one of those twisted sisters) sets up the sheer power of Jane Eyre’s self-respect in two major decisions she faces in the novel. She offers Jane, on a platter, two equally appealing men: the scruffy-sexy Mr. Rochester, and the perfectly-chiseled Mr. Rivers. Not sounding so bad, but…
First, after their would-be illegitimate marriage is thwarted, Mr. Rochester offers her a life of luxury as his mistress. While Jane’s passionate love for him pulls her toward this option, her self-worth keeps her back. She could not respect herself in that position and without that self-respect, Mr. Rochester’s love would falter, too.
On the other hand, when she is offered a marriage to Mr. Rivers–a proposition not of luxury, but of hard and noble work as the wife of a missionary, a proposition based not on love but on utility–she knows in this instance that despite her admiration for him, she would not be able to respect herself in a union that wasn’t based on love.
In both of these cases, she is tempted, nearly swayed and convinced. Mr. Rochester’s offer appeals to her passion; Mr. Rivers’ to her practicality. But both are at odds with her core beliefs and sense of self.
Bronte gives Jane this dual challenge so that she strikes a power balance between these two strong aspects of her character. Her self-worth is the anchor.
Ok, so she ends up marrying a wealthy man in her version of a self-styled life. (Of course, she married for love and mutual respect, not money!) Nevertheless, she shows us that a self-styled life requires that deep connection to your sense of self–to your values and passions. You have to know yourself– you can’t compromise those things that are most important to you. Jane’s example is powerful because in holding to her self-worth, she overcomes the circumstances that would bury her, and she holds out for a life that is truly fulfilling–one she knows she deserves.
So if you’ve never read or haven’t read in a while, read Jane Eyre!
And if you’re interested in the movie (it’s gotten pretty good reviews so far):