Sunday, October 9, 2011

Let's Talk Books! Jane Eyre, or Why Edward Rochester is an Asshole.

WARNING:  This review contains full spoilers--you have been warned!

Jane Eyre is one of my all-time favorite novels.  I first attempted to read it sometime in high school, but got bored midway through Jane's childhood experiences and Lowood School and put it down for several years without finishing it.  Bad, C.  At some point between then and college I saw the A&E/BBC movie version, and became motivated to finish the novel if only for the love story.  I picked it up again likely during my freshman year of college and read through the aborted wedding scene, at which point I got bored again (and really, who doesn't find that final section frustrating?) and put it back down unfinished. Thus, it wasn't until I was in my late 20's that I actually read the book cover-to-cover for the first time and fell in love with it.

That said, in spite of the place of honor Jane Eyre holds on my bookshelf, I find the depictions of love in the novel to be increasingly problematic every time I re-read it.  On first glance Edward Rochester seems like an ideally romantic love interest for Jane.  He is a classic Byronic hero, full of angst and secrets, and he so adores Jane that he would do anything to have her.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me interject here to say that I have read (and enjoyed in the sense that one enjoys cotton candy in spite of the fact that it's bad for your teeth and made of spun sugar that only looks substantial on the surface) the Twilight series.  One could write lengthy papers on the similarities between Edward Rochester and Edward Cullen, in part because they both fit a very particular kind of romance hero mold.

Going back to Rochester, the reasons I find his relationship with Jane problematic have nothing to do with his attempt to commit bigamy with her (after all, divorce was not a viable option in Victorian England) and everything to do with the way he tries to manipulate her to disclose her feelings for him without making his own feelings plain.  Given the difference in their social status, this is unforgivable in my eyes.  Jane's life and livelihood depend upon her position as a governess.  If she were to misinterpret Rochester's advances and declare her love for him without so much as a word from him confirming that he returned those feelings she could be put out on the street without a reference (which would be necessary if she wanted to secure another position).  Rochester faces no such threat, and yet he persists in playing games with Jane to discover how she feels about him.  In doing so he toys with Jane, first making her believe that he plans to marry the vapid and gold-digging Blanche Ingram, and then that she will be sent away to Ireland once he is married and her pupil (Rochester's ward, Adele) is sent off to boarding school.  By the time he confesses to the truth, Rochester has shown himself to be an inveterate asshole.  One cannot help but applaud Jane as she runs away from Thornfield, if only because Rochester needs to the importance of being truthful with those he loves the hard way.

Still, Jane Eyre is an incredibly enjoyable read, and one that shouldn't be relegated to the "books I read in high school and didn't enjoy then" shelf in your library.  If you haven't picked it up recently, please do so!  I guarantee that like most great books, Jane Eyre yields new insights each and every time you read it.

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