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Jane Eyre: An Introduction

by Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published as a preface to Jane Eyre (Bantam Classic, 1988); it appeared in an earlier version under the title "Romance and Anti-Romance: From Brontë's Jane Eyre to Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea" in Virginia Quarterly Review (Winter 1985). Reprinted in (Woman Writer): Occasions and Opportunities
Copyright © 1988 by Joyce Carol Oates

Reader, if you have yet to discover the unique voice of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, you have a special delight awaiting you.

For this most acclaimed of novels—"English," "Gothic,'' "romantic," "female"—is always a surprise, in the very authority, resonance, and inimitable voice of its heroine. "I resisted all the way," Jane Eyre states at the beginning of Chapter 2, and this attitude, this declaration of a unique and iconoclastic female rebelliousness, strikes the perfect note for the entire novel. That a woman will "resist" the terms of her destiny (social or spiritual) is not perhaps entirely new in English literature up to the publication of Jane Eyre in 1847: we have after all the willful heroines of certain of Shakespeare's plays, and those of Jane Austen's elegant comedies of manners. But Jane Eyre is a young woman wholly unprotected by social position, family, or independent wealth; she is without power; she is, as Charlotte Brontë judged herself, "small and plain and Quaker-like"— lacking the most superficial yet seemingly necessary qualities of femininity. ("You are not pretty any more than I am handsome," Rochester says bluntly.) Considered as a fictitious character and, in this instance, the vocal consciousness of a long and intricately plotted novel of considerable ambition, Jane Eyre was a risk for her young creator—had not Henry Fielding gambled, and lost, on the virtuous but impoverished and less than ravishingly beautiful heroine of his Amelia, of 1751, arousing the scorn of readers who had so applauded Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones? Jane Eyre, who seems to us, in retrospect, the very voice of highly educated but socially and economically disenfranchised gentility, as natural in her place in the literature of nineteenth-century England as Twain's Huckleberry Finn is in our literature, was unique for her time. She speaks with an apparent artlessness that strikes the ear as disturbingly forthright. (Compare the slow, clotted, indefatigably rhetorical prose of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, of 1818; or the pious and exsanguine narrative of Esther Summerson of Charles Dickens's Bleak House, of 1853; and the melancholy, rather overdetermined self-consciousness of Brontë's Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette, of 1853: "If life be a war, it seemed my destiny to conduct it singlehanded. I pondered how to break up my winter-quarters—to leave an encampment where food and forage failed. Perhaps, to effect this change, another pitched battle must be fought with fortune; if so, I had a mind to the encounter: too poor to lose, God might destine me to gain. But what road was open?—what plan available?")

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.

Jane Eyre was written under a pseudonym when Charlotte Brontë was thirty-one years old, a casualty, so to speak, of ten years of servitude as a governess. Though "Currer Bell" was an unknown author and of indeterminate sex, the novel was accepted almost immediately upon being offered to the publishing house of Smith, Elder; it was published within seven weeks and became an instant success. Like Brontë's romantic hero Lord Byron, the new author "awoke one morning to find [herself] famous."

That Jane Eyre sold so well should force us to reassess our custom of too casually dismissing the tastes and expectations of the large audience of "female" readers of the nineteenth century. For Jane Eyre, whatever its kinship to eighteenth-century Gothic and however melodramatic certain of its episodes (the one in which Rochester disguises himself as a gypsy is particularly strained), is nonetheless a work of stubbornly idiosyncratic intelligence; its strength lies as much in passages of introspective analysis as in conventionally dramatized scenes. Jane projects such rebellious undercurrents that some critics, including sympathetic readers, found the novel "coarse." Jane does not sentimentalize herself as an orphaned child any more than she sentimentalizes other children—in the scene in which she confronts Mrs. Reed her voice is "savage": "I am glad you are no relation of mine: I will never call you aunt again as 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 the very thought of you makes me sick." During Jane's stay at Lowood, when so many of her classmates sicken and die, Jane voices no false piety in noting that spring is "unclouded" nonetheless. Not coarseness but an unfashionable realism provokes the child's insight: "My mind made its first earnest effort to comprehend what had been infused into it concerning heaven and hell: and for the first time it recoiled, baffled; and for the first time glancing behind, on each side, and before it, it saw all round an unfathomed gulf: it felt the one point where it stood—the present; all the rest was formless cloud and vacant depth: and it shuddered at the thought of tottering, and plunging amid that chaos." At a time when women were imagined as merely inhabiting bodies meant to bear children, but being, in other respects, chastely bodiless, Jane rejects the proffered love of the martyrish St. John Rivers because it is merely spiritual. Surely this suggests a "coarseness" very much at odds with Victorian ideals?

Like Villette, Jane Eyre is a story of hunger; unlike that more complex and perhaps more aesthetically "pure" novel, it is a story of hunger satisfied. That young Jane Eyre supplants the formerly exotic Bertha (the Creole heiress whom Rochester recklessly married in his youth) is not, given the terms of the novel's logic, a matter of moral ambiguity: for in her deranged and diseased state Bertha is no longer a human woman but sheer appetite, and therefore beyond the range of Jane's (and presumably the reader's) sympathy. Her laughter is "demonic"; her figure "hideous." Jane is necessarily repelled, for this is an other quite truly other, lacking even the intelligence and sense of moral proportion so artfully voiced by Dr. Frankenstein's doomed monster. When Jane first sees Rochester's lawfully wedded wife the reader is as shocked as she. In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing; and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face. This secret wife lacks even a gender. She is it, and animal: "the clothed hyena rose up, and stood tall on its hind feet." Rochester mockingly addresses Jane as a "young girl, who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell, looking collectedly at the gambols of a demon." (Rochester confesses to having married Bertha, the daughter of a West India planter, in a trance of youthful "prurience" and to having discovered, after it was too late, that their natures were antithetical—her "pygmy intellect" was "common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher"; she was sexually promiscuous—"her vices sprang up fast and rank"; and diseased—"her excesses had prematurely developed the germs of insanity." That Bertha Mason suffers from atypical general paresis, the consequence of syphilitic infection, must be passed by in silence since, in realistic terms, Rochester too would be syphilitic; and would infect Jane Eyre if she married him.)

Jane Eyre's hunger and that of Bertha Mason are not seen to overlap, for one is always qualified by intellectual scrupulosity and a fierce sense of integrity; the other is, and was, sheerly animal. Jane goes against the grain of her deepest wishes; she renounces emotional fulfillment in the service of an ideal that includes, as "Currer Bell" carefully notes in the preface to the novel's second edition, "the world-redeeming creed of Christ." Jane's self-banishment and the remarkably literal terms of her hunger—she comes close to starving after she flees Thornfield—identify her in fact as a kind of Christ: misunderstood, defiant, isolated, willing (almost) to die for her beliefs. The reiteration of "master" and "my master" in the narrative suggests Jane's ultimate if not immediate acknowledgement of her place in the hierarchy of a civilized cosmos; in this, she strikes a chord of willful submission not unlike that of Emily Dickinson, whose insistence upon "Master" as a force in her emotional life carried with it an air of obsessive conviction. How seemingly passive, how subtly aggressive! Jane Eyre is the ideal heroine as she is the ideal narrator of her romance.

It is interesting to note that the Brontë sisters— Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—began writing as children, creating a private mythology out of the exigencies of a motherless, isolated, and intensely private domestic life in Haworth Parsonage on the Yorkshire moor. In 1826, when Charlotte was ten, her father Patrick Brontë gave her brother, Branwell, a box of twelve wooden soldiers, which seemed to awaken a fervor of creativity in the children: they began making up stories in which the soldiers figured as characters. In time, they created plays, mimes, games, and serial stories transcribed in minute italic handwriting that mimics print; they were influenced by their father's storytelling and by their wide and promiscuous reading—among contemporaries, Scott, Byron, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and supernatural stories by James Hogg that appeared in serial form in Blackwood's Magazine. Out of the children's elaborate fantasizing grew two long-enduring partnerships between Emily and Anne (the "Gondal" sagas) and Charlotte and Branwell (the "Angrian" stories): Emily continued to live imaginatively in Gondal until she was at least twenty-seven years old, while Charlotte wrote her last Angrian story at the age of twenty-three. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights is more clearly an adult's rendering of incestuous childhood obsession than are any of Charlotte Brontë's novels, but the romantically dangerous Rochester is most likely a remnant of the children's sensational world, the poetic antithesis of all that was dull, dreary, routine, and circumscribed in the world of Haworth Parsonage. Here is Jane's first vision of the man she will adore: Something of daylight still lingered, and the moon was waxing bright; I could see him plainly. His figure was enveloped in a riding cloak, fur collared and steel clasped; its details were not apparent, but I traced the general points of middle height, and considerable breadth of chest. He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted . . .; he was past youth, but had nor reached middle age. Like Emily's Heathcliff, that Byronic, doomed hero; yet unlike Heathcliff—who after all starves himself to death in his deranged attachment to the past—since, by the novel's end, after he goes blind, Rochester does become domesticated. The Gothic has become tamed, and redeemed, by ordinary marital love. However unlikely for Brontë's time, or for ours, Jane Eyre ends upon a note of conjugal bliss: I am my husband's life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward's society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together.... We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. The orphan Jane is no longer "resisting all the way"; no longer, at this point, required to be Jane. The novel's passionate energies consume themselves as the apocalyptic fire at Thornfield consumes unregenerate Bertha.

Much of the power of Jane Eyre derives from a dialectic the author unobtrusively pursues on several structural levels. For instance, in the largest, most spacious sense the novel is about character stimulated into growth—truly remarkable growth— by place: Jane Eyre, orphaned and presumably defenseless, and a mere girl, discovers the strength of her personality by way of the challenges of several contrasting environments— the Reed household, in which she is despised; Lowood School, where she discovers a model in Miss Temple and a spiritual sister in Helen Burns; Thornfield, where she cultivates, with agreeable naturalness, a measure of sexual power; Whitcross, where, at last, she acquires the semblance of a family; and Ferndean, Rochester's retreat, a manor house of "considerable antiquity . . . deep buried in a wood," where she is at last wed.

Just as these carefully rendered places differ greatly from one another, so Jane differs greatly in them; one has the sense of a soul in ceaseless evolution. As a child in the Reed household, rebuking Mrs. Reed, Jane feels a sense of precocious triumph: "Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhopedfor liberty." Brontë's sense of human personality is that it is pliant, fluid, and living, in immediate (and often defiant) response to its surroundings; not that it is stable and determined, as if sculpted in marble. Jane Eyre is no portrait of a lady but the story of a young woman in a "heroic" mold, as susceptible as any man to restlessness and ennui when opposition fails to provide a cause against which to struggle. Grown bored at Thornfield, for instance, before the arrival of the master, Jane longs for a power of vision that might overpass the limits of her sequestered life, pastoral as it is. Very like the nameless governess of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw,1 Jane walks agitatedly about, alone, "safe in the silence and solitude," and eager for adventure: which is to say, romance.

Women are supposed to be calm, Jane says, but women feel precisely as men do, requiring exercise for their faculties and suffering from stagnation. On the third floor of Thornfield she paces about, not unlike the captive Bertha in her backward-and-forward movements, allowing "my mind's eye to dwell upon whatever bright visions rose before it— and, certainly, they were many and glowing; to let my heart be heaved by the exultant movement, which, while it swelled it in trouble, expanded it with life; and, best of all, to open my inward ear to a tale that was never ended—a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously; quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling, that I desired and had not in my actual existence." Jane is Charlotte Brontë telling us of the mesmerizing psychological experience of the writing of Jane Eyre. (It was written in five months.)

In recounting her story, Jane typically introduces a situation meant to provoke conventional associations on the part of the reader (to whom, as to a friend, Jane speaks candidly) and then, within a paragraph or two, deftly qualifies or refutes it. The narrative's dialectic, it might be said, constitutes a plot motion of its own, quite distinct from Jane's activities. A thesis of sorts is presented; but, should we respond to it, the narrator will set us right: for she is always in control of her narrative. We learn, with Jane, that what seems to be rarely is; even when Rochester disguises himself as a fortune-telling gypsy, improbably fooling his guests, Jane is keen enough to suspect "something of a masquerade."

The novel begins with a blunt statement: "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." The shrubbery is leafless; the winter sky overcast; the rain penetrating; Eliza, John, and Georgiana, and the despised orphan, Jane, are cooped up together in the house. But, should the reader be tempted to respond automatically to this privation, Jane immediately declares, "I was glad of it; I never liked long walks." Excluded from Christmas celebrations in the Reed household, Jane describes the festivities and exchanges of gifts she missed; then says, "To speak the truth, I had not the least wish to go into company." Given what is known of Charlotte's grief at the deaths of her two elder sisters at school, when she was a very small child, the dialectic of Chapter 9 is all the more surprising: for here the typhus epidemic at Lowood Orphan Asylum is set against an unusually idyllic spring, and while disease, death, gloom, hospital smells, and the "effluvia of mortality" predominate, Jane, untouched by the disease, is frank about her enjoyment of the situation. Forty-five out of eighty girls are affected; some go home to die (as Charlotte's sisters did, from the Cowan Bridge School), and some die at school, like Helen Burns, and are buried "quietly and quickly"; but the ten-year-old Jane, clearly no kin to child heroines in works of George Eliot or Charles Dickens, responds instinctively to the bright May sunshine and the "majestic life" that is being restored to Nature. She delights in her freedom to ramble in the woods and to eat as much as she likes, for the first time in her life: with very little Victorian delicacy, but with a refreshing air of truthfulness, Jane notes that her breakfast basin is "better filled" because the sick lack appetite. Even the death of Helen Burns is sparely treated; and Jane's close questioning of Helen's religious convictions does not appear resolved: "Again I questioned; but this time only in thought. Where is [Heaven]? Does it exist?"

Jane Eyre is remarkable for its forthright declaration of its heroine's passions and appetites. Unlike Lucy Snowe, with whom she bears a family kinship, Jane hardly needs to work at cultivating a "healthy hunger": she is ravenous with appetite at Lowood, and, in fleeing Thornfield, in the brilliantly sustained nightmare of Chapter 28, she is in danger of literally starving to death. In the latter scene, Jane responds at first like any romantic heroine, imagining a Wordsworthian solace in the moorland: "Not a tie holds me to human society at this moment—not a charm or hope calls me where my fellow-creatures are—none that saw me would have a kind thought or good wish for me. I have no relative but the universal mother, Nature: I will seek her breast and ask repose." Outcast that she is from human society, Jane knows herself loved by Nature, to which she clings with an ingenuous "filial fondness": "Tonight, at least, I would be her guest, as I was her child: my mother would lodge me without money and without price. I had one more morsel of bread.... My hunger, sharp before, was, if not satisfied, appeased by this hermit's meal." As her reverie continues Jane speculates about God, a He set beside Nature's She: "We know that God is everywhere; but certainly we feel His presence most when His works are on the grandest scale spread out before us: and it is in the unclouded night sky, where His worlds wheel their silent course, that we read clearest His infinitude."

Jane's awakening next morning is to a bitter revelation: she begins to experience genuine hunger and to suffer the humiliation, mounting very nearly to physical terror, of near-starvation. Piety rapidly vanishes; romantic rhetoric is dropped. Brontë renders this painful interlude with such exactitude that one cannot doubt she wrote from first-hand experience, as her earliest biographer Mrs. Gaskell suggests.2 Few scenes in English literature are so harrowing as those in which Jane overcomes her pride to beg for food and is given a crust of bread, or food meant for hogs, or rebuffed altogether. ("I blamed none of those who repulsed me. I felt it was what was to be expected.") Hunger has become real to Jane in a way that the platitudes of "Nature" and "God" are not. (One is reminded of the "thin, haggard, and hollow-eyed" Lucy Snowe, who, confronted with a Renoir-like portrait of a voluptuous female, ostensibly Cleopatra, responds with startling violence. Indeed, Brontë herself is so incensed by this "enormous piece of claptrap" that, for some paragraphs, the fastidiously subdued prose of Villette is enlivened by a genuine passion: "I calculated that this lady . . . would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone. She was, indeed, extremely well fed: very much butcher's meat—to say nothing of bread, vegetables, and liquids—must she have consumed to attain that breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh.... She had no business to lounge away the noon on a sofa. She ought likewise to have worn decent garments; a gown covering her properly." Lucy Snowe is an older and embittered Jane Eyre, recoiling from the very emblem of flesh.)

The plot of Jane Eyre is increasingly contrived and melodramatic—the novel is after all a late-Romantic, early Victorian form of the "manufactured fiction" of which Henry James spoke, in terms of Dickens, with some disdain—and, so far as "story" is concerned, the tensions of an interior dialectic sometimes lack subtlety. No aura of mystery or exoticism accrues to Rochester's visitor from the West Indies, Richard Mason: in Jane's sharp eyes he is sallow and unmanly, with something in his face that fails to please. "His features were regular, but too relaxed; his eye was large and well cut, but the life looking out of it was a tame, vacant life." When, later, Jane is brought into Bertha Mason's presence and mockingly introduced to Rochester's wife, she is naturally revulsed—she feels no kinship with this creature. And though Jane charges Rochester with cruelty in so despising and exhibiting his mad wife, claiming that Bertha cannot help her condition, Jane cannot really identify with the woman; and rather too readily forgives Rochester his curious (and ungentlemanly) behavior.3 That Rochester had intended to dishonestly marry her, and, in the most fundamental sense, "deflower" her, matters less to Jane than the reader anticipates. But the legitimate Mrs. Rochester, along with Thornfield Hall itself and all it represents of a diseased past, will soon be destroyed in a refining fire.

Numerous readers have felt that the long Whitcross section, consisting as it does of nearly one hundred pages, is an awkward digression in Jane Eyre; and one is nudged to recall that the publishing firm of Smith, Elder had rejected Charlotte Brontë's earlier novel, The Professor, as "undersized." (But if Currer Bell would write a full-scale, three-volume novel for them, they would be "most interested.") Still, the carefully transcribed section is required for symmetry's sake. Brontë's authorial strategy is to balance one kind of temptation with its obverse (if Rochester is all romantic passion, urging her to succumb to emotional excess, St. John Rivers is all Christian ambition, urging her to attempt a spiritual asceticism of which she knows herself incapable): is not Jane Eyre an orchestrated novel of ideas, closer in temperament to the fiction of George Eliot than to that of Emily Brontë? The miraculously realized "family" of Diana, Mary, and Rivers himself strikes us as a benign adumbration of the novel's original household, in which Jane was despised by Eliza, Georgiana, and the spectacularly loathsome John Reed. Rochester, following the novel's design, must be altered too in some respect, but it is probably incorrect to read his blinding as a species of castration—as that perennial cliche of Brontë criticism would have it. Not only is the blind and crippled Rochester no less masculine than before, but, more significantly, it was never the case that Jane Eyre, for all her inexperience, shrank from either her master's passion or her own: the issue was not Jane's sexual timidity but her shrewd understanding that, should she become his mistress, she would lose Rochester's respect. One might say, inevitably lose his respect. These were the hardly secret terms of Victorian mores, and Jane Eyre would have to have been a very naive young woman, as self-deluded as George Eliot's Hetty, to have believed otherwise. And Jane is anything but naive.

"Reader, I married him," Jane announces boldly in the novel's final chapter. The tacit message is that I married him—not that he married me. What greater triumph for the orphan, the governess, the small, plain, and "Quaker-like" virgin? The novel ends with a curious aside to St. John Rivers, away in India "laboring for his race" and anticipating, with a martyr's greed, his "incorruptible crown." It is St. John's grim and exultant language that rounds the story off, however ironically: "'Amen; even so, come, Lord Jesus!'" But those who have love have no need of this particular Lord Jesus.

Notes

  1. Henry James's fated governess has visions of "a castle of romance . . . such a place as would somehow, for diversion of the young idea, take all color out of story-books and fairy tales. Wasn't it just a story-book over which I had fallen adoze and adream?" Just before her initial encounter with the sinister Peter Quint, she thinks "that it would be as charming as a charming story suddenly to meet someone. Someone would appear there at the turn of a path and would stand before me and smile and approve." Jane Eyre's romantic imagination summons forth as it were, her "master" Fairfax Rochester; James's governess, wishing for her "master," initiates disaster.


  2. Gaskell discusses in detail the meager diet—consisting mainly of potatoes—which the Brontë children were given at home and at the infamous Cowan Bridge School the model for Lowood. Even in adulthood Charlotte Brontë seems to have fasted intermittently, and was so malnourished at the time of her final illness that she begged constantly for food. "A wren would have starved on what she ate during those last six weeks," one observer is quoted. (See E. C. Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë [Edinburgh: John Grant, 1905].)


  3. For a very different account, from a Modernist perspective, of the doomed love of the West Indies heiress and her English husband, Rochester, see Jean Rhys's haunting and hallucinatory prose poem of a novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966). Rhys's novel is the first-person account of the very Mrs. Rochester whom Jane Eyre supplants: a re-vision of the great Victorian classic. It is an evocation, by means of a highly compressed and elliptical language, of the authentic experience of madness—more precisely, of being driven into madness; it constitutes a brilliantly sustained anti-romance, a reverse mirror image of Charlotte Brontë's England. Where Jane Eyre is triumphant nineteenth-century romance, Wide Sargasso Sea is twentieth-century tragedy: the appropriation, colonization, exploitation, and destruction of a pastoral tropical world by a wholly alien English sensibility. When Rhys's heroine at last catches a glimpse of the young Englishwoman who will succeed her as Rochester's wife, she sees her as a "ghost" with streaming hair: "She was surrounded by a gilt frame, but I knew her." Inhabiting contrary and mutually exclusive worlds, Womankind split in two, the one is a savage to the other; the other, a ghost.