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Apr 21, 2013

Jane Eyre: Bronte

Jane Eyre is a famous and influential novel by English writer Charlotte Bronte. It was published in London, England in 1847 with the title Jane Eyre, an Autobiography under the pen name "Currer Bell". One of the secrets to the success of Jane Eyre, and the source of its strength in spite of numerous flaws, lies in the way that it touches on a number of important themes while telling a compelling story. Indeed, so lively and dramatic is the story that the reader might not be fully conscious of all the thematic strands that weave through this work.

Jane Eyre is a young orphan being raised by Mrs. Reed, her cruel, wealthy aunt. A servant named Bessie provides Jane with some of the few kindnesses she receives, telling her stories and singing songs to her. One day, as punishment for fighting with her bullying cousin John Reed, Jane’s aunt imprisons Jane in the red-room, the room in which Jane’s Uncle Reed died. While locked in, Jane, believing that she sees her uncle’s ghost, screams and faints. She wakes to find herself in the care of Bessie and the kindly apothecary Mr. Lloyd, who suggests to Mrs. Reed that Jane be sent away to Lowood School.

Once at the Lowood School, Jane finds that her life is far from idyllic. The school’s headmaster is Mr. Brocklehurst, a cruel, hypocritical, and abusive man. At Lowood, Jane befriends a young girl named Helen Burns, whose strong, martyrlike attitude toward the school’s miseries is both helpful and displeasing to Jane. Helen dies of consumption. After a group of more sympathetic gentlemen takes Brocklehurst’s place, Jane’s life improves dramatically. She spends eight more years at Lowood, six as a student and two as a teacher.

After teaching for two years, Jane yearns for new experiences. She accepts a governess position at a manor called Thornfield, where she teaches a lively French girl named Adèle. Jane’s employer at Thornfield is a dark, impassioned man named Rochester, with whom Jane finds herself falling secretly in love. Rochester instead proposes to Jane, who accepts almost disbelievingly. The wedding day arrives, and as Jane and Mr. Rochester prepare to exchange their vows, the voice of Mr. Mason cries out that Rochester already has a wife. Mason introduces himself as the brother of that wife—a woman named Bertha.

On its most simple and obvious level, Jane Eyre is a love story. The love between the orphaned and initially impoverished Jane and the wealthy but tormented Rochester is at its heart. The obstacles to the fulfillment of this love provide the main dramatic conflict in the work. Throughout the work, Brontë suggests that a life that is not lived passionately is not lived fully. Jane undoubtedly is the central passionate character; her nature is shot through with passion. Early on, she refuses to live by Mrs. Reed's rules, which would restrict all passion. She leaves Rochester because her moral reason tells her that it would be wrong to live with him as his mistress:
"Laws and principles are not for the time when there is no temptation,"      
            she tells Rochester; "they are for such moments as this, when body and      
            soul rise against their rigor."

Blanche Ingram feels no passion for Rochester; she is only attracted to the landowner because of his wealth and social position. St. John Rivers is a more intelligent character than Blanche, but like her he also lacks the necessary passion that would allow him to live fully. His marriage proposal to Jane has no passion behind it; rather, he regards marriage as a business arrangement, with Jane as his potential junior partner in his missionary work. His lack of passion contrasts sharply with Rochester, who positively seethes with passion. His injury in the fire at Thornfield may be seen as a chastisement for his past passionate indiscretions and as a symbolic taming of his passionate excesses.

Jane Eyre is not only a love story; it is also a plea for the recognition of the individual's worth. Throughout the book, Jane demands to be treated as an independent human being, a person with her own needs and talents. Early on, she is unjustly punished, precisely for being herself — first by Mrs. Reed and John Reed, and subsequently by Mr. Brocklehurst. Rochester confesses that his ideal woman is intellectual, faithful, and loving — qualities that Jane embodies. Rochester's acceptance of Jane as an independent person is contrasted by Blanche and Lady Ingram's attitude toward her: they see her merely as a servant. Lady Ingram speaks disparagingly of Jane in front of her face as though Jane isn't there.

To her, Jane is an inferior barely worthy of notice, and certainly not worthy of respect. And even though she is his cousin, St. John Rivers does not regard Jane as a full, independent person. Rather, he sees her as an instrument, an accessory that would help him to further his own plans. Jane acknowledges that his cause (missionary work) may be worthy, but she knows that to marry simply for the sake of expedience would be a fatal mistake. Her marriage to Mr. Rochester, by contrast, is the marriage of two independent beings. It is because of their independence, Brontë suggests, that they acknowledge their dependence on each other and are able to live happily ever after.

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