Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Jane Eyre

by Charlotte Bronte, 1847.

Of the books I've reviewed so far in 2010 this is the most famous, long-lasting and well-praised. It is unfortunate then, dear reader, that it was also the first I found fundamentally disappointing.

It seems that the basic purpose of the character Jane Eyre is to suffer nobly and then eventually succeed. Both elements are highly problematic as presented. Her noble suffering acts to undermine her actual character, making someone that reacts the same to most of the challenges--stoic, determined, largely silent, resigned. This required attitude makes her too much of a blank slate, too reactive, with insufficient personal details to be memorable or seem like a complex psychological portrait. One gathers that Bronte was trying to subvert common norms in representation of woman, by making Jane a lot plainer and less accomplished than was the usual style. She may have made a major improvement in this, and as discussed below there are some interesting elements to all this, but the basic result undercuts the character's agency too much. Jane can work as a symbol, she does not work as a person, and the novel is too deeply linked to her consciousness for that to be a passable loss.

As well there are major pacing issues and apparent questions on the larger arc, with much of the first hundred pages and the last hundred and fifty being off-tangent to the necessary interactions for the particular story. Still, it was hardly the worst or most difficult work to get through. For much of the first two hundred pages I found it moderately enjoyable, without thinking it was very good. I was reading it as a dark comedy, framed by a blank protagonist in a fundamentally ridiculous situation. The humor--genuine though presumably unintended--came from the contrast of the stylized language forms and general etiquette focus and how cruelly people acts. See in particular the treatment of Jane in the devil child scene, in the way that's she stiffly defends herself as opposed to how the school argues she's a literal follower of the devil, and how that's a bad thing. Amusing, in a twisted sense, at least as I took it.

Where I stopped being able to do this was precisely the point that the horrid and creepy Mr. Rochester became crucial to the story. He was a fundamentally twisted, harsh and disturbing person in his own right, and the eventual arc of the book where Jane does marry him and this is apparently a good thing fatally undermines the book. The way Jane plods on is problematic in itself, but it's what he ultimately plods to that is truly wrong. Rochester's focus on pride and control, his lies, his age, his borderline-deranged manner of fixating on women, the fact we have only his own word on the true story with his first wife, all these make Jane's eventual marriage with him very far from a happy thing. Yet the book seems insistent to regard it in this light, as if Rochester's injury has in itself transformed his character enough that Jane waiting on him for the rest of his life a satisfying resolution. It's the ending scenario that makes the conclusion of the author and the whole structure of the narrative less than even good.

Nevertheless, the novel is an accomplishment in a number of ways. That it exists at all, that early in the nineteenth century a woman could be published. Furthermore, it's extraordinary that she was able to include so centrally in her work a protest and anger against the systemic condition of women of her time, and that both elements have been perpetuated down into the present. Creepy as some of the above subtext is, that's a worthwhile development amidst what was a pretty terrifyingly close-minded century.

There's also some interesting stuff at work with religion, class and attitudes in the nineteenth century context, Jane occupying a bit of a hybrid position in all of these, not affluent nor truly destitute, not tightly religious or a firm skeptic. The hybridity of her position is very revealing to a lot of norms that we might not see in novels of the period, as her very existence in the text portrays social structures even while it undermines them. Jane Eyre the character and book are transgressive in certain ways, then, and the way this plays out is interesting. Yet, I find this appealing and informative more in my hat as historian than as a reader. The book is quite revealing of the cultural context of the author, but that's going to be the case for almost every book ever published, and it's notably less effective in framing the context for its invented narrative, cast of characters, and atmosphere. I could forgive a lot more in this book, and even come to value much of it, if it weren't for that ending that pushes the whole thing into a disturbed romance. However the book does, and so let it rest.

Jane Eyre reminds me of and is better than: Bronte's Wuthering Heights
Jane Eyre reminds me of and is worse than: Shelly's Frankenstein

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