Wednesday, February 28, 2007
"Jane Eyre" Charlotte Bronte
This is the story of a girl with a grudge, a woman with a chip on her shoulder. This is what happens.
A maladjusted orphan girl is taken in by some kind relatives. She terrorizes the other children in the family and never responds to disciplinary treatment. She is so badly behaved that eventually she is sent away to school, where her behaviour only gradually improves after she is 'broken in' by the headmaster.
While at the school she is directly responsible for the death of her best friend by callously omiting to alert the authorities that her friend is suffering from TB. This notwithstanding, she manages to fool the authorities into offering her a place later as a teacher at the school, where she continues to molest the girls and tyranize the staff.
After two years of this, our manipulative and scheming heroine realise that if she is to enjoy financial security, she needs to find a rich husband, so she embarks on a career change as governess, which is one of the few avenues of work open to short ugly women with no relatives. She strikes it lucky with her first job, as governess to the ward of a very handsome -and very rich- man. She uses all her wiles to make the man fall in love with her, seeing off other competitors successfully, until the man wearily gives in and agrees to marry her. Unfortunately, on their wedding day, he jilts her at the alter because, it appears, he is already married to a mad woman locked up in the attic of his huge stately mansion.
Jane, seething with rage and malice, never forgives her suitor, and vows revenge on him and on all men whatever the cost. She dedicates her life to this evil purpose.
She soon moves on and takes up with another family of good people, where she sticks her claws into the brother, St John. He is a good man, a devout man, a man of God, and she easily uses his naivety to make him fall in love with her. She ruthlessly leads him on and then spurns him when he proposes to her. During this time, Jane comes into an inheritance and achieves financial independence. She doesn't tell her new friends about this, even though she finds out that they are her cousins (wow, cousins! amazing coincidence, huh?)
When St John proposes to marry her and take her off to the colonies to help him convert brown and black people to the way of the Lord, she considers her options. The offer is tempting, but she still has her sights set on one thing only: revenge. Also, she realises that it will be more satisfying to be mistress of Rochester's fortune, where there will lots of servants she can tyrannise, rather than being a missionary's wife, where she will be just a big fish in a small pond. She decides to aim for a higher social position, turns him down, and breaks his heart. One more man ruined.
She returns to Rochester's place in the dead of night to accomplish her wicked plan. She sets fire to the house (having already ascertained that it's insured to the hilt) and blames the fire on the poor innocent mad woman in the attic, who, conveniently, has perished in the flames. Also, Rochester loses a hand and his sight in the fire, which is perfect, because there’s nothing like a disability to make a man dependent on a woman, especially blindness. Jane establishes emotional control over this tragic, broken man, forces him to marry her in his weakest moment, and makes sure that he never re-establishes his independence by immediately giving birth to a child and by making sure that no one ever comes near him again.
Her plot complete, her revenge satisfied, she lives happily ever after, a splendid example of what short ugly women called Jane can achieve if they really put their minds to it.
Outrageous? Absurd? Far-fetched?
Perhaps. But consider this for a moment. Jane’s story is told to us by Jane herself. We have only her word for it. One of the problems with first person narratives of this kind is that there is no other view point, nothing to give us a check on whether the narrator is telling the truth. Of course the Modernists realized this and exploited it, most notoriously, Ford Maddox Ford in The Good Soldier, but might not Jane Eyre be the first example of an unreliable, in fact a fundamentally dishonest narrator? After all, she knows her whole story and how it will end from the beginning, and this information she withholds from us. She must lie, or at least be economical with the truth, or at least be selective about what parts of her story she reveals to the reader and when, otherwise how can she build suspense? And if she withholds these things from us, who’s to say that she might not be withholding other things from us as well, or even distorting them in order to make her motives and actions appear better than they are, in order perhaps to justify herself to the reader, and to win the reader's admiration, or sympathy? Why should we trust her? Because she appears honest? Because she wears the style of honesty on her sleeve?
I have never liked the narrator of this novel. I find she protests too much, she is in thrall to a kind of Puritanism, an ascetic version of Christianity which is deeply repellant, and I find her constant attitude of forgiveness both trying and unbelievable. She has not fooled Murr!