Thursday, March 10, 2011

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte — 352 pgs

Book Cover When Jane Eyre’s parents die unexpectedly when she is only an infant, she’s benevolently taken in by her maternal uncle to live amongst his small but wealthy family. But when said uncle dies as well, it’s left up to her aunt to raise the girl, whom she despises and treats rather cruelly. After one particularly difficult incident between Jane and her aunt, the woman decides to place Jane in a stringent and horrific school for orphan girls, where Jane initially wilts and suffers but somehow rallies and becomes an instructor there after many years of residence. When Jane finally decides to move on, she finds employment as a governess at Thornfield Hall, the manor house of Mr. Rochester, and begins life anew. Mr. Rochester, aside from being rather homely looking, is an eccentric with calumnious mood swings that initially shock Jane, but soon she learns to find harmony and pleasure in his company. As her time with Mr. Rochester grows, Jane begins to feel the first stirrings of romantic love, which is new and strange to her, as she has been somewhat sheltered from this particular emotion all her life. But it seems Mr. Rochester has another woman at the center of his designs, and though there’s no doubt he feels strongly for Jane, the future between them is uncertain. Through joys, sorrows, surprises and mystery, Jane and Rochester find themselves at last together. Just when it seems that all is well and their story will draw to a close, a strange and disastrous complication arises and leaves Jane fleeing her once secure home and the light of her life. As Jane now finds herself at the mercy of strangers, she becomes involved in a rather strange predicament with a man named St. John Rivers. Will Jane and Rochester ever find their way together after the horrible discovery that has separated them so painfully, or will Jane move forward into a very different and alien life, forgoing the only love she has ever known to become only a survivor in a landscape of loss? In this classic and remarkable piece of literature, Charlotte Bronte creates two of the most beloved and wondrous characters in all of literature and forms around them a Gothic Victorian narrative of remarkable imagination and triumph.

Initially I had been hoping to read A Tale of Two Cities for my February classic choice, but when I saw that the wonderful Marie over at Boston Bibliophile was hosting a Jane Eyre read-along for February and that the new movie version was slated for release in March, I changed my plans and made it my choice for this month. Sorry Charles! I have to say that although my expectations of this book were really rather high, I found that they were totally surpassed in every way by the actual realities of this book. I’ve read classics in the past that just left me sort of tepid, but this book excelled in every area in which I could have thought to place it.

Jane in herself was a rather extraordinary heroine. Though ill-used and harshly judged for most of her life, she doesn’t revert into periods of self pity and self loathing. Rather the opposite, in fact. She becomes self-sufficient, observant and independent. I got a little angry with the fact that everyone called her ugly and plain all the time, and took offense to it mightily. Jane was so much more than her outside wrapper suggested and it was only the strange and passionate Mr. Rochester that ever took the time to notice that. The realities of her life were harsh and unpleasant, but instead of bowing down and succumbing, Jane learned to blossom under her own care and confidence. She was constantly questioning, seeking and learning, and the more her personality began to flourish, the more admiring I became of her. Jane had a persistence and strength in her character that I very much admired. No matter what the fates threw at her, she was remarkably placid and yielding towards it. From her time as an orphan up until the final sections of the book, she was constantly searching for a home in which to shelter her heart, and it seemed none was to be found. As she makes her way through her solitary world, she never loses her high morality, and more than once this causes her to sacrifice the ease and happiness that she would obtain by leaving it behind. Though she’s not a traditionally stringent religious woman, she has her eye set on the Christian ideals of life and often spends time praying and considering God. At times she could be a little inflexible and prudish, especially when it came to how she dealt with Rochester and his proposed plans, but overall, I found her to be a rather complex and spirited person with a unshakable moral compass.

Rochester was another animal indeed. At first cold and aloof, he seems to manifest his passion on Jane quite suddenly, and is rather inflamed by it. An inflamed Rochester is sometimes a scary thing, and more than once I wondered if Jane was getting in over her head. In parts of the book I didn’t like his all-consuming passion, but underneath it all I felt he was indeed right in being so passionate in his feelings for her. I think the disconnect came in the way he expressed himself. He could at times seem overwhelmingly controlling and demanding. I wavered between feeling that he was too pushy and self centered, and feeling that he was protective and loving in just the right degree. But Jane’s reluctance to submit to his will when events took an unexpected turn made me a little scared because his passion bordered on the violent at times. Do I think he would have been violent towards Jane? No. But his speech at these times made me think him a little overwrought by passions he couldn’t quell. I also didn’t like that he was deceptive towards Jane more than once in the story, and these deceptions revolved around his suiting his own ends. When Jane flees him, I felt a curious feeling of relief and sadness, because while I think she definitely did the right thing, I knew no man would ever love her the way he did and was unsure if they would ever be together again. I’m happy to say that towards the end, Mr. Rochester does indeed become less agitated in his passion, which made me a lot more comfortable with him as a whole. He was a great character and I felt torn about my perceptions of him for most of the book. I wanted to fully embrace him the whole way through, but like Jane, I had reservations that kept me from doing that.

Though this book is ostensibly a love story, it also spends much time on the life Jane lives before meeting Rochester. It goes into great detail about her life at the hands of her abusive aunt and her period at the orphans’ school. Though these parts were what led to the major crux of the story between Rochester and Jane, they were also fully engaging and did a lot to flesh out Jane’s character and the adversity she faced. While I enjoyed the time that delved into the relationship between Jane and Rochester, I felt these other sections really honed in on who Jane was as a person and how her character was formed.

There was also a section given over to Jane’s life after leaving Rochester, and here was another example of a life that was stringent and without real love and affection, only tolerance. These sections were no less passionate, only in a different scope and degree. In the majority of these sections we see Jane as being downtrodden and excluded, as well as living under harsh privations. What’s interesting about these two sections is that her light still shines just as brightly, but what that light reflects is a sinister quality of life that has trapped her in its barbs. I admired her greatly as she fought through it all and felt that if there was some degree of justice, she would one day break free, which I was pleased to discover that she did.

I have to admit this book was a pleasure to read for a lot of reasons. Not only was the story filled with unexpected twists and turns, it was accessible to modern readers and had a great level of tension and suspense running through the narrative. I may have cried a little while I was reading the story of Jane and her life, and it’s unusual for me to cry over the books I read. If you haven’t given this book a chance, I must say that you’re missing out on a brilliant story and a character that seems so far beyond her times that it’s genuinely surprising. It was a wonderful read all around and I admired it greatly.

22 comments:

Carrie @ nomadreader said...

I haven't read this one such college, but you sure make me want to read it again (especially with the film about to come out!) I think this rainy day might be about perfect to start reading Jane again!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Great review but gosh, I can't believe you never read it before or saw a movie! I am envious because what a wonderful thing it is to discover. And each movie is different, even in the subtle way of how attractive or unattractive the two main stars are. Now you get to have the fun of watching all the movies!

Jenny said...

I'm sooo glad to see this review and to see how much you liked this!!! I "read" this in high school but I know I didn't finish it and I don't remember what I did read or what we discussed, Lol. I asked for a nice copy of this for Christmas (2 xmas's ago) and then never got around to reading it. I definitely want to read it now with the movie coming out and am really looking forward to it now!

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

I quickly glanced through this. I have this on my shelf and would love to go in quasi-blind.

Steph said...

Yay! I am so glad you enjoyed this one! It seems to be one of those universal classics that everyone enjoys... it's just too good not to! :D

Amy said...

Just jumping in to add my yay glad you liked it! :) This is one of my faves.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Well if it makes you feel any better, I have NEVER read it! And I have to chuckle at the diverging views on the book (alot like Wuthering Heights). Some love it, some hate it! There are alot of Rochester-haters out there! If I could clone myself I'd read it right now, especially since a new movie is coming out. Maybe on my Polish trip this summer, when I will be "all Kindle", I will read it!

Darlene said...

I read this one a few years ago but I want to find the time to reread it this year. It's one of my favorites and I can't wait to read it again. Glad you liked it!

Marie said...

Oh Heather I want to give you a big hug. I love this book so much and I'm so glad you loved it, too!! And thank you for the sweet shout-out!

Jenners said...

Well, I feel ashamed to admit that I had a rather different reaction to the book ... but I must admit that I did admire and love Jane. It was the language that did me in. I had such a hard time with it. I'm so glad you enjoyed it so much. I'm curious to see how they'll do the movie because, as you point out, these aren't your "typical" Hollywood-looking folks!

Rudy said...

Zibilee, I'm glad you enjoyed this classic. You've written an excellent review which shows your understanding and appreciation of this novel.

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

Great review, as always, Zibilee. :)

This is one of my favorite classics. Ever. I think Jane is an amazing character. Despite what other people said or did, she stayed true to herself, and stayed wise--despite being madly in love with Mr. Rochester. Gah. I could go on and on about her. LOL.

Vasilly said...

I started reading this book a few semesters ago for a class but I didn't finish it. Your review makes me want to give it another try! Great review as always. :-)

Meghan said...

This is one of my two all-time favorite books and I'm so pleased that you liked it too! I love your comments about Jane - it's one of the things I really enjoyed on my reread, how she is genuinely strong and fights for what she believes in. It's such a surprisingly inspiring book.

TheBookGirl said...

Glad to see that you enjoyed this so much. I read both this and Wuthering Heights in high school, and I don't remember much more than I liked them both. Your review has made me determined to read more the classics that I have never gotten around to.

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

Ok Heather, I am truly surprised that you of all people have not read either Jane Eyre OR A Tale of Two Cities!!! But I'm so glad you loved Jane Eyre! It's one of my most beloved classics - even holds center stage on my bookshelf - always has. Jane is such a remarkable heroine and Mr. Rochester - whew! You're right - such passion! AND I have one more observation for your reviews - really it's more a complement - most every time I read one of your reviews I have to look up a word! what the heck does calumnious mean? you are way impressive ms. heather!

Biblibio said...

I never expected to like Jane Eyre much (it seemed like it was too much for girls for my taste when I read it in high school...) but I was surprised at how much of the novel went beyond a simple romance. So readable, so enjoyable and so universal... really a wonderful book.

Aarti said...

I think I read this book in high school and haven't read it since. I like this book the best of all the books I've read by all the Brontes for many of the reasons you site- mainly, because Jane is a pretty great heroine!

Nymeth said...

This is one of my favourite classics, and I'm so glad you loved it! As always, reading your review was a pleasure :D About what you say regarding it focusing as much on Jane's history as it does on the love story, you might be interested in this article about Laura Miller, which is exactly how reading it "only" as a romance leaves a lot out: http://www.salon.com/books/jane_eyre/index.html?story=/books/laura_miller/2011/01/25/jane_vs_becky (Not that there's anything wrong with romance, of course.)

bermudaonion said...

I'm kind of embarrassed to say I've never read this book. I hope to rectify that before the year's out.

Jenny said...

It seems like everyone's been reading Jane Eyre lately, and I LOVE IT. She's one of my favorite heroines in all of literature, and many of my reservations about Rochester were erased for me by how obviously Jane enjoys his company. They have fun together! How can I not support them? :p

Erin said...

I LOVED reading your thoughts on this one! I felt the same way about the book. I started out expecting a love story, and as you point out, it is a love story, but I think only in part. It made me realize that Jane Eyre is the perfect title, because the book is, first and foremost, about Jane, who is a wonderful character. Calling it by a title that included other characters would, I think, not have fit as well. I'm really glad you loved this one!

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