Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: Introduction

Dear Reader, welcome to our discussion of this classic and loved novel. Like Jane Austen’s novels Jane Eyre still has loyal fans and has survived the changes in thought and society in the 151 years since its publication. Readers still identify with Jane, Mr. Rochester, Mrs. Reed, Bertha, St. John Rivers and other characters and events in the tale.

Published in 1847 it is the oldest book in the online book discussion series.

Although gothic novels had been written before Jane Eyre it is considered one of the best examples and the basic outline of the story has become the plot for so many novels that they have been given a name, or genre: historical romances or gothic romances.

A Brief Biography

Charlotte Bronte was born in 1816 and grew up in the dramatic landscape of England’s Yorkshire area. Her father was a rector and her mother died when she was only 5 years old. The children of the family: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Emily (author of Wuthering Heights), Anne (author of two novels), and the only boy, Branwell became very close.

Their education was seriously influenced by their father’s wide-ranging collection of books which he encouraged his children to read. From an early age the children made up fantasy lives and worlds and were writing stories and poems. However, paralleling her real life, Charlotte and her sisters did attend a boarding school much like Lowood in the book. The harsh conditions there contributed to the childhood deaths of Maria and Elizabeth.

Charlotte and Anne worked as teachers and governesses but hated the separation from the family. Hoping to open their own school they studied in Brussels. Charlotte fell in love with the married head of the school who refused to respond to the open expressions of her feelings. The school idea failed and they had to return to working as teachers and governesses.

Supporting themselves by writing seemed one avenue by which they could stay together and be employed, so under their masculine pseudonyms they sent a first work, a book of poetry, to a publisher. It was a dismal failure but the immediate success of Jane Eyre was encouraging. Their years of childhood writing and reading and personal experiences became in their creative minds wonderful stories.

Charlotte also wrote Shirley, Villette and The Professor.

She died during her first pregnancy within two years of marriage.

Don’t know how to begin discussing the book? Here are some ideas:

● The book had a heroine who was not pretty and a hero who was not handsome and yet the book is considered romantic. This was unusual for its time and for the gothic romances of today. Why did it work?

● Why is the book still read? Are you one of the book’s fans? How many times have you read it?

● How is the first person narrative style an important way to tell the story of Jane’s life?

● Jane’s conscience will not allow her to remain with Rochester no matter how deeply she loves him after becoming aware of Bertha’s existence so why, when she hears him calling to her, does she return without hesitation?

● Readers developed, as they still do, affection for Jane. The 19th century reader would have wanted the best for her: to be a wife and mother. This was believed to be the only place where a British woman could attain true happiness and have clear and acceptable position in society. However Jane never expresses this as her goal but speaks instead of respect and love in a more general sense. Do you think the ending is so romantic that Bronte could
speak out about the role of women in that society?

● How is Jane Eyre different from the books that copied it? Why have so many books been written that a genre has been created?

● What are the examples of the supernatural and superstition in the novel; what do they contribute to the story?


Anonymous said...

I don't know why people go on about this book. Some lonely, half witted woman is a maid and nanny for this kid and for some reason falls in love with this inaccessible, horrid man. Great role model for women, huh?

Debbie said...

I hope your introduction to Jane Eyre was not being assigned to read it in high school; many students feel this way about books they are too young to really understand.

In fact Jane was a feminist within the society she was living. She demanded equal respect and love from Rochester. She also followed her own conscience rather than what was proper for a woman in her social position.

The difference between a maid and a governess was a huge one for Victorians. A maid had a very defined status and role in a household. A governess was a woman with some social background and education but needed to work. She was neither a maid or equal to the family.

I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the book as much as so many of us have. Keep watching for upcoming titles on Brooklyn Book Talk and I'm sure you'll find one that you can enjoy.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you for selecting Jane Eyre - I confess that I haven't reread it in several years, but it is an old favorite of mine.

With regards to Jane being a feminist, I agree that when this book was published it was incredible for a poor woman like Jane to declare her equality before God with a landed man like Rochester. She makes a powerful statement that gender and social status do not impact a person's value as an individual. Some of the other women in the novel are portrayed in a critical light as having focused on the 'ornamental' qualities that were deemed important in women (painting, piano-playing, song) but not having cultivated any intellect or philosophy. Charlotte Bronte asks the question: "what is valuable in a woman? Beauty and talent? Or philosophy and kindness?" She also challenges using religion as an 'escape' in the latter part of the novel.

On the other hand, I've always had a certain ambivalence about two elements of the novel. One is "the madwoman in the attic." As I said, I haven't read this book for a while, but I always viewed this woman as being an example of 'a woman with appetites'. It troubles me that she has to end up insane. Is that what happens to lusty women who men marry for their beauty? Is this a comment on such women, or the men who keep them?

I was also troubled by the fact that Jane can't settle down with Rochester until he's crippled and blind. Was he too much of a handful for her before that point? Or did he need to be 'punished' for his past?

Those are my thoughts. I also can't resist adding that I believe that many debate whether J.E. is in fact a purely "gothic" novel. It's often considered to be a Romantic novel that includes Gothic elements. Ann Radcliffe, who wrote many novels at the end of the 18th century, is often considered to be the author who solidified the "gothic" genre. "Gothic" was in fact originally a reference to the architecture (castles and so forth) that formed the setting of these novels. And one of the characteristics of the traditional gothic formula is that there is actually a rational explanation for all of the scary phenonema (ghosts and corpses, etc.)!

Thanks again for including this book.

However, I was always

Debbie said...

I've always seen Rochester's disfigurement after the fire in a very different light from what I usually read. It seems that many readers see this as Bronte's way of making Jane and Rochester equals in some way.

They had already established that they were in every way Jane had expressed her passion that she deserved love and respect from Rochester in a pivotal scene.

When Bertha set the house on fire and endangered her life Rochester, the hero, had to intervene. She was his wife and he had to go to heroic lengths to try to save her in order to be true to his character. He made a moral choice.

Jane's acceptance of him as she found him on her return is also completely in character because Bronte had, very romantically, made them more than lovers; they were soul mates. Bronte created characters whose love was so great that when Rochester cried out her name in his darkest moment she felt and heard his call.

They wanted each other; Bronte leaves no doubt about that so Bronte creates a plot device that has Bertha, who separated them, in character distroy her prison and attempted to kill her husband also. Rochester needed to be heroic enough to try to save her to justify the happy ending.

This seems to make sense to me because Rochester and Jane were very moral and romantic Victorian characters but Bronte had to create a way to bring them back together.

The device of the fire was dramatic and Jane's acceptance of a crippled man, who would have been shunned by many in that society, proves her independant spirit and true love of him.

One more thing. Thornfield Hall had an unhappy history and was an overwhelming building compared to Jane's experiences. The smaller house that they made their very own must have been more acceptable and comfortable to Jane.

lisa said...

I'd like to see a discussion on Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which was based on Jane Eyre but told from the perspective of his first wife.

Debbie said...

That is a great suggestion and we can keep it on our list of possible reads for the future. Thank you

Anonymous said...

I'm only a freshman in high school and I am reading this book. It's really confusing!

Anonymous said...

I think it would be a really good idea to read the Wide Sargasso Sea after you have finished reading Jane Eyre, it puts Jane Eyre into perspective.
As for Jane Eyre I think there is more to the ending of this book than just them living happily ever after. It doesn't say in the book why she decides to go back to Rochester when she believes that she is going back to exactly what she left. Why does she change her mind? I think, that without writing it out in the book, Bronte places an importance on the money that Jane received. It is for this sudden equality in status and wealth that I think Jane decides to go back. Also it is not very feminist because Jane is still following the rules and regulations of society that states that wealth decides a relationship and equality. When Jane sees Rochester she now feels his equal physically because she has to be his eyes and do basic tasks for him. This reduces Rochester to the Physical level that Jane needs morally to marry him and she is now his equal in wealth. So this book is not so romantic as one might be led to believe because at the end of the book there are still underlying issues and messed up social rules involved in their relationship.

Debbie said...

Personally I have no interest in reading The Wide Sargasso Sea. I am a Jane Eyre purist and although the book is popular and seems to be well written it was written by an author in a different century, different country and very different culture.

On your comments about the book not ending satisfactorily Bronte tells us they live happily ever after; Rochester regains some sight and all the impediments between them have been resolved for me. Maybe you'd like a sequel. I wonder if anyone has ever written one?

Debbie said...

I wouldn't choose Jane Eyre for a freshman in high school to read because it is a very 19th century novel and although a classic the reader needs to bring some understanding of the very topics you're going to study in high school history.

What's the most confusing aspect to you? I'll try to help.

Anonymous said...

Excusez-vous, but Jane Eyre is a great role model, I daresay the best in all literature. Most heroines have to rely on their looks, but Jane does not. She is not pretty, and does not want to fix herself. Even though she is truly in love with Mr. Rochester, she refuses to lower her dignity by being his mistress. She dares to speak sarcastically and openly to men, something unheard of for the time period. Jane Eyre defines all that feminism should be, and everyone should look up to her. What a great way to know that you don't need to be beautiful to be happy.