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Jane Eyre: First Reading Review

Jun 1, 2020

‘Passionate, poetic and revolutionary, Jane Eyre is a novel of naked emotional power. Its story of a defiant, fiercely intelligent woman who refuses to accept her appointed place in society – and instead finds love on her own terms – has become famous as one of the greatest romances ever written, but it is also a brooding Gothic mystery, a profound depiction of character and a transformative work of the imagination.’

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

That’s the synopsis on my edition of Jane Eyre. It did not, in any way, prepare me for that was to come within, including the book being hurled at a ten-year-old in the first chapters.

To give a more descriptive tease, Jane Eyre is the story of an orphan’s way through life from youth to adulthood written as a biography by the protagonist herself. It’s a look at life and society through a particularly bright and strongminded girl who, in modern terms, doesn’t take crap.

Jane, although beaten and abused growing up, still knows her self-worth, and as the synopsis states “refuses to accept her appointed place in society”. While being well aware of her prospects and opportunities she won’t settle for anything less than happiness, which even through her lowest moments she doesn’t forget she deserves.

Initial thoughts about Jane Eyre

I approached Jane Eyre with high expectations stemming from my established love for Pride and Prejudice and Emma by Jane Austen, which are from around the same time. And, being given next to no information about the actual content of the story, I was especially curious about what I was about to read.

I will say I was skeptic to the first-person narrative, with my penchant for the third person in fiction, but three pages in, and I forgot the I’s, and my prejudice was cured.

The book, while overall being raw, started aggressive with the description of the recurring abuse of a young Jane and then being punished for self-defense. It solidified my attachment to the protagonist which only grew as the story went on. By the end, I wished so bad for her to end up happy, content, and safe that I feared there weren’t enough pages left to hope for a satisfying ending.

I was struck by the fact that, compared to the previous few books I read from the same period, this wasn’t about a well-off rich person. Jane’s prospects weren’t of balls and a prosperous marriage; she had to deal with actual life (and at some points basic survival).

While fun to dream away to parties with one’s own Mr. Darcy, the fact is that’s not the common reality today, and neither was then either, and one can appreciate and relate to Jane’s struggles on a more personal level.

The character of Jane Eyre

As I said I grew to like Jane much throughout the book. I think simply because I like her as a (fictional) person.

I found her refreshing and contradictory to the image of, especially young, females from before. She is head-strong and uncompromising in that regard, she believes in her self-worth despite being told countless times she is nothing, and she is in spirit through and through independent.

She speaks up and wishes more for herself, which she then works for, which doesn’t fit with the picture of a docile, obedient, only-worth-if-pretty idea of women. Not to say she wasn’t reprimanded for her “grandiose self-perception”, but she stuck up for herself and what she wanted.

In my own naïve and unresearched idea, I thought Jane to display some strong feminist ideals that many women don’t today, and if they do, they are equally, if not more, penalized for it. Throughout she aimed for independence and thus made difficult choices to attain that. Surely, she was offered easier and safer paths, but when it came to it, she looked to herself and chose the best for her.

Quite contradictory to the obedient little puppy.

Jane Eyre first-person narrative

The advantage of the first-person perspective is the insight to the character’s ongoing thoughts and feelings; how we get to experience alongside Jane her faltering mind and how she time and time again went back to her core values. It demonstrates her immense self-awareness and respect for her own wants and wishes.

Like any time in history, people are bound and ruled by the current societal norms and it will always be, more or less, easier to follow them. To question one’s position and oppose the lot given takes strength and courage, and to follow through shows unwavering resilience. That is, quite literally, what Jane’s story consisted of and cement her as a fierce role-model to this day.

Themes and messages

The story of Jane Eyre explores the societal structure and expectations, and the idea that we are fixed at the position we are born into. Just as Jane didn’t settle, no one is bound to settle if not content with how life currently is.

It shows the hardships but ultimate rewards for always choosing for yourself as opposed to doing what is expected. How society might scorn you for your defiance, and how you will end up victorious with a life you chose instead of settled for.

A big part was also the importance of company, and the need for connection. Humans are pack animals, and throughout all Jane wanted were a home and a family (as evident by the events at the end). Her greatest hardships were when she was the most alone, and her greatest joy came with the feeling of companionship.

Being an orphan and denied by her only known relatives, it’s not difficult to understand why this was such a primal need for Jane. That her “success” depended on her social situation shows how it isn’t just a conscious want, but an instinctual need for a flock of one’s own.

Additionally, it being an autobiography spanning from child- to adulthood, the classic element of coming-of-age is evident throughout. Her mind and thought patterns become gradually more complex and sophisticated while still clinging to those child-like dreams we all tend to carry with us through life; they become but more refined as we age.

Society and norms compared to today

I’m reading this 19th-century tale with a 21st-century perspective; my norms, values, and traditions are vastly different those from 2 centuries ago. Thus, some of the aspects apparently “normal” in the book would raise a few eyebrows to even be classified as a felony in my time. This offers an area for analyzing I can’t refrain from.

The massive age difference between pairs in this sort of book isn’t too shocking as it’s common knowledge (at least for my part) that it wasn’t as an important factor when considering compatibility then versus now. Since children were being raised and treated as adults, the issue of difference in “maturity”, one heavily regarded today, was perhaps not so evident since, well, kids acted like mini-adults anyway. Today we have laws to protect children against predators because, regardless of how they may seem, they will still be children.

Here I think it’s important to note that I have a Scandinavian background and my comparison is one to the western European civilization today, and not the world in general, as many of these older customs persist elsewhere.

Questionable age-gaps aside, something noteworthy that isn’t as apparent and, perhaps, acceptable as how young Jane was compared to one of her love interests, is what hides underneath: normalized sexualization of children.

In the said match, Jane is just 18, and, as her partner states, “he could be her father”. More exact: 20 years her senior. Her father indeed and the narrative goes on with him calling her his “child-bride” and debating, when their relationship is unsure, whether he should love her only as a father henceforth.

In a way, these are understandable when observing the difference in view on family and relations; it was perfectly acceptable to marry once first cousin after all, so why not a girl you viewed as your daughter? That’s not to say they viewed little kids as sex toys, but with marriage came children, and children are made by having sex with said kids.

This, in turn, raises the question of whether adult attraction to children was more common then than now, or whether people today have become better at hiding along with changes in societal values.

My personal and unprofessional hypothesis is no, it wasn’t more common but a consequence of the prevailing standards of “beauty”; what was acceptable to be attracted to. Also, love was apparent not to be as an important factor as it is today when marriage isn’t a rule as it is a norm (though, damn, one gets chastised for not wanting to marry).

Times when Jane Eyre is placed and Charlotte Brontë wrote it is vastly different from today, and naturally the values will follow suit. It’s important nonetheless to acknowledge this and remember that values and traditions don’t change like software updates, but gradually over time and at different paces in different regions.

Look critically on the aspects not acceptable nowadays but stay vigilant to the signs of societal relapse.

Notes about the first reading

This, as the title discloses, was my first reading of Jane Eyre, and, understandably, much went over my head. Other than the extensive lack in my vocabulary to even begin to comprehend next to all the nuances, I went through the book wondering why they sat practically inside the fireplaces; I know now that the “hearth” wasn’t indeed the literal edge of the fireplace.

I felt, and it became evident after reading the essay included at the end of my edition by Elaine Showalter, that I only got an overview of the literal content while all the deeper meaning, metaphors, and symbolism passed by unnoticed.

Partly, this is to be expected when reading a book for the first time; it is so much to take in and one is only able to reach the first layer. Partly, it’s difficult to impossible to comprehend the deeper layers when one doesn’t understand what the hell the words mean. Seeing as the vocabulary isn’t the same then as now – there were plenty of gay people but a surprising lack of same-sex attraction – simply knowing the words doesn’t equate comprehending their meanings.

Something to note when reading this review is I understand it to be a pretty shallow view of the book, and perhaps be seen as evidence as to why good (and bad) literature deserves to be re-read.

In summary, Jane Eyre is a good book. Charlotte succeeded to make the reader personally invested in the subject’s well-being and delivered a fitting end.

In my humble opinion, the revelation that I missed about 90-95% of the content is a most welcome excuse to revisit this book and others in the future. A sequel of this review is most likely to come with a, hopefully, more in-depth analysis and less flat observations.

Please share your thoughts and observations in the comments or email, and if you’re interested in reading, or re-reading, the full novel is available via Google Books.

The next read is Wuthering Heights by Charlotte’s sister, Emily Brontë, which can be read for free via Google Books.

Naëmi Ansovald


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