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Marya: A Life - Back in Print
A Bloodsmoor Romance: back in print
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism
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Joyce Carol Oates on Charlotte & Emily Brontë

Jane Eyre: An Introduction

One of the reasons for Jane Eyre's authority over her own experience, and the confidence with which she assesses that experience, is that, as the romantically convoluted plot evolves, the reader learns that it is history rather than story. Jane Eyre, who is wife and mother in 1819, is recounting the events of 1799-1809 in a language that is unfailingly masterful precisely because it is after the fact: if the Romantic/Gothic novel be, in one sense, sheer wish, Jane's triumph (wife to Lord Rochester after all and mother to his son—as it scarcely needs be said) represents a wish fulfillment of extraordinary dimensions. The material of legends and fairy tales, perhaps; yet also, sometimes, this time at least, of life. For we are led to believe Jane Eyre's good fortune because we are led to believe her voice. It is, in its directness, its ruefulness and scarcely concealed rage, startlingly contemporary; and confirms the critical insight that all works of genius are contemporaneous both with their own times and with ours.

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Declaration of Independence

The most immediate surprise of Jane Eyre for today's readers is the directness, even bluntness, of the young heroine's voice. Here is no prissy little-girl sensibility, but a startlingly independent, even skeptical perspective. At the age of 10, the orphan Jane already sees through the hypocrisy of her self-righteous Christian elders. She tells her bullying Aunt Reed, "People think you a good woman, but you are bad; hard-hearted. You are deceitful!" and "I am glad you are no relative of mine; I will never call you aunt again so long as I live. I will never come to see you when I am grown up; and if any one asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say that the very thought of you makes me sick."

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The Magnanimity of Wuthering Heights

How ironic, then, that Brontë's brilliantly imagined dialectic, arguing for the inevitable exorcism of the old demons of childhood, and professing an attitude toward time and change that might even be called optimistic, should have been, and continues to be, misread. That professional critics identify subject matter in process with an ambitious novel's design is one of the curiosities of literary history, and bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the myopic activities of the self-appointed censor, who judges a book by a certain word, on page 58 or 339, and has no need to trouble himself with the rest. Wuthering Heights is no less orderly and ritualistic a work than a representative Greek tragedy, or a novel of Jane Austen's, though its author's concerns are with disorderly and even chaotic elements.

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