I first read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in graduate school.
It was during an ill-advised semester I’d registered for two courses on novels and a third on literary theory. Some weeks, my required reading hovered around 2,500 pages. I constructed elaborate reading schedules derived by dividing the week’s required pages by my average page-per-hour count. I read eight hours a day, seven days a week, curled up in a shabby but comfy forest green corduroy recliner.
It was like that Simpsons episode where Homer is sent to Hell and condemned to consume endless stacks of donuts … except it turns out he’s fine with that.
I remember feeling quite content with my life at that time. About Jane Eyre in particular, though, I was … lukewarm. I appreciated it, as a literary artifact. I found it interesting to read, as a sample of Victorian literature. But it was a bit overwrought for my taste. One passage that set my eyes rolling involved Jane crawling through the snow in despair. Or so I thought. Rereading the novel recently, I discovered that, actually, Jane crawls through the rain.
I reread Jane Eyre in December in part because it’s on the Gilmore Girls reading challenge we’re doing at Books, Ink. Also, it frustrated me that I had no vivid memories of it. Except that one scene, which I didn’t even remember correctly. It’s not so odd, I suppose, given how much text I consumed that semester. But when the only tangible vestiges of my having read a book are the marginalia in my handwriting, it may be time for a reread.
When I reread books I’ve read multiple times, like Pride and Prejudice or A Little Princess, a deja vu feeling steals over me. It’s like returning to a neighborhood I lived in long ago but haven’t visited in ages. I recognize the landscape. I anticipate what lies around the next corner. Rereading Jane Eyre, however, felt entirely like a new experience. It was as if I’d never read it before.
I didn’t remember much of the plot beyond the basics: Jane tells her life story, beginning when she is 10 years old, an orphan living with her abusive aunt-in-law and cousins. She is sent away to boarding school, which becomes a formative experience of first deprivation then connection and empowerment. From there, she moves on to a post as private governess for the adopted daughter of Mr. Rochester, who is hiding a doozy of a secret.
I didn’t remember how passionate and deeply felt this novel is. I experienced the narrator—Jane in the first person—as a physical presence. I could feel her suffering viscerally. My heart would constrict, or my muscles would tense, or a generalized anxiety would grip me. I felt as intensely as if I were living through the experiences she describes or watching someone I care about go through them. She describes without imposing overt judgment. She’s paints scenes for us in exquisite detail. Through that description, all is exposed. Description is, of course, it’s own kind of judgment. What we notice can reveal volumes about who we are. But when written with a confident air of objectivity, it’s hard to resist falling into the emotional rabbit hole the author has prepared for us.
I didn’t remember how unlikeable most of the characters are. Or, maybe that’s why the book faded away in my memory. The two likeable characters appear only in the first nine chapters. The living males in the novel are domineering, manipulative, and generally oppressive. They’re utterly revolting. Jane is … okay. She’s humorless. Her tendency for slavish adoration irks me. I respect her strong sense of justice, though it seems to veer into self-righteousness at times. I don’t know. She’s okay.
Overall, there’s a sort of peevish quality about the novel that doesn’t suit me. Its moral center strikes me as joyless and borderline unforgiving.
Still, Jane Eyre is engrossing and thought-provoking. The absence of humor and the punishing moral tone reminded me of two essential things I value: humor and gentleness. We have a way of taking what we love for granted, of only appreciating something when it’s missing. It was living in a world without humor and light that brought them into focus for me. Absence becomes presence, as the saying goes.
I didn’t *like* Jane Eyre, but I’m very glad I reread it.
6 Replies to “Rereading Jane Eyre: Why it’s good to read books we don’t *like*”
I first read Jane Eyre when I was sixteen and did a partial reread a few years ago. I loved it, but not because of the characters–like you, I found Rochester revolting and Jane a little too humorlous and self-righteous at times. For me, it was all about the writing. I love the way Brontë strings a sentence together. I enjoy that gothic, slightly overwrought language. It reminds me a little bit of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. (Since it’s been a while since I read Jane Eyre that may be a more imperfect comparison than I remember). It’s rare that a book’s writing can so thoroughly overcome character definiciencies, but in this case it totally did. Jane Eyre is still one of my favorite classics of all time.
I hear you about the writing. That’s what I found so engrossing about it, and it’s impressive and important that she can make me feel so deeply for characters I don’t especially like. Her descriptions of romantic love are among the most moving I’ve read, possibly ever. As I’m thinking about it, perhaps the most valuable aspect of reading this novel is how it enables me to see the humanity in everyone, whether or not I like them personally. Even St. John, who I found desperately unbearable, has his own struggles and temptations. I might see them as twisted, tragic, and potentially destructive, but they are real and potent. It feels important to be able to see those layers and to hold onto the capacity for empathy even when I’m saying “no, no, that’s all wrong.”
I read “Jane Eyre” as a teenager and felt meh about it. I reread it years later after I read “The Eyre Affair” by Jasper Fforde. Then I felt that Rochester and Jane were powerful characters with great chemistry whenever they were together in the book. I see them as two flawed people who found each other. (The business about Rochester dressing up as the fortune teller–yeah, I don’t know what that’s about.) I see Jane as a supremely moral character. Rochester, struggling to behave morally. As appalling as we may feel that mad wife in the attic was, by the standards of his day, that was probably good treatment. Tricking the woman he loved into becoming an adulterous? Well, losing his sight (or most of it) was his payment for that sin.
You might want to read or reread “Rebecca” by Daphne Du Maurier. I’ve read in several places that it’s a 20th century version of “Jane Eyre.” The connections are amazing. Except that the second Mrs. DeWinter and Max are pathetic moral weaklings.
The British periodically remake film/TV versions of both these books. That’s thought provoking.
I haven’t read “Rebecca” but would like to, and I have a copy on my Nook. I’ve heard mixed reviews of it, so I’m interested to experience it for myself. I agree about the chemistry between Jane and Rochester. The way Bronte portrays love is powerful and beautiful.
By the way, I enjoyed “The Eyre Affair” – so creative and fun. I reread it last summer and was so happy to find that I still enjoyed it.
Many people think “Rebecca” is a romance, but I don’t think so. Hitchcock gave it a romantic ending in the thirties, and even though there’s been a number of versions since then, the Hitchcock movie (which I didn’t like) casts a long shadow.
Interesting! That makes me think of Wuthering Heights, too. Movies have focused on Heathcliff and Catherine, but I don’t think the story is really about romance.
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