Prickly, judgmental Jane Eyre, the protagonist of the Charlotte Brontë novel of the same name, is not, perhaps, the most intrinsically lovable heroine of all time, or even of the 19th century.
She doesn’t have the sparkle and charm of Pride and Prejudice's Lizzie Bennet or Emma's Emma Woodhouse, or the tragicomic idealism of Middlemarch's Dorothea Brooke. When presented with a piteous, neglected child, Jane might allow that she’s rather fond of the poor thing, but she’ll also make a point of noting that the child is not particularly bright.
So when I asked the rest of the Vox culture staff if we should do something on Jane Eyre for Charlotte Brontë's 200th birthday on April 21, it wasn't really a surprise that two of my co-workers said in unison, "I hate Jane Eyre."
But I have loved Jane and her cool self-righteousness profoundly since the first time I read Jane Eyre at 16.
Jane Eyre already expects everyone to hate her
My admiration would probably confuse Jane. She never knows what to do when someone likes her, but she’s used to being despised.
Here’s how she describes herself, in relation to her wealthy cousins, as a 10-year-old:
They were not bound to regard with affection a thing that could not sympathize with one amongst them; a heterogeneous thing, opposed to them in temperament, in capacity, in propensities; a useless thing, incapable of serving their interest, or adding to their pleasure; a noxious thing, cherishing the germs of indignation at their treatment, of contempt at their judgment.
That’s how Jane consistently thinks of herself in relation to other people: as a useless thing, a noxious thing. It doesn’t surprise her that her aunt and her cousins hate her. She gets why they do. It doesn’t surprise her, when she enters the hellish Lowood School — the charity school where her aunt sends her to get her out of the house, where the pupils are starved, humiliated, and beaten — that the manager dislikes her and makes an example of her. She was expecting it.
Jane knows you hate her. She expects you to hate her. She judges you for it, too — but not as much as she judges herself if she allows herself to think that someone might not hate her.
For instance, when she begins to entertain the idea that Mr. Rochester, her employer and love interest, might not utterly despise her, that he might even actively like her, she is more than shocked. She is furious with herself.
Her ensuing outpouring of shame and embarrassment and self-recrimination is one of the most passionate passages in the book.
You … a favorite with Mr. Rochester? You gifted with the power of pleasing him? You of importance to him in any way? Go! your folly sickens me. … How dared you? Poor stupid dupe! — Could not even self-interest make you any wiser? You repeated to yourself this morning the brief scene of last night? Cover your face and be ashamed!
There is nothing more horrifying to Jane than the idea of thinking that someone might care about her and then being proved wrong and realizing they, too, hate her. She would much rather work on the assumption that everyone is at best neutral toward her unless they sit her down and tell her, frankly, in a way that is beyond misunderstanding, that they like her.
But what’s astonishing about Jane is that despite her profound, ingrained belief that she is fundamentally unlikable, she holds just as fast to the idea that she deserves to be respected.
And if no one else will respect her, then she will respect herself.
Jane Eyre’s self-respect is revolutionary and electrifying
When Rochester asks Jane to be his mistress and live with him outside the bounds of marriage, in direct opposition to Jane's 19th-century moral code, her self-loathing urges her to agree with him. "Who in the world cares for you?" it demands, "or who will be injured by what you do?"
Then, for the first time in the book, she responds to that self-loathing internal narrative. She defends herself. "I care for myself," she replies. "The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself."
It’s impossible to overstate the power of that moment. Jane, who fulfills so very few of our cultural criteria for women — who is not beautiful, or kind, or given to sentiment; who is in fact angry, and judgmental, and prone to sarcasm — demands respect from the world, just by virtue of being a human being. And if no one will give her the respect she deserves, she is perfectly willing to give it to herself.
The emotional high points of the book, for me, are these moments when Jane insists on her own self-respect — when she refuses Rochester’s offer, or when she dares for the first time to be sarcastic to cold, overpowering St. John as she turns down his proposal of marriage. ("I will not swear, reader, that there was not something of repressed sarcasm both in the tone with which I uttered this sentence, and in the feeling which accompanied it." I can’t be the only person who always has to put down the book and fist-pump triumphantly at that line, can I?)
In fact, forget Rochester, the real love story of Jane Eyre is between Jane and herself. Of course, for that love story to work, the book has to sacrifice its other major female character.
The book’s treatment of the madwoman in the attic is less than ideal
As everyone in our post-Wide Sargasso Sea world knows, Jane’s happy ending relies on denying the humanity of another woman, a woman who defies the cultural criteria for femininity even more than Jane does and whom the book treats as racially other. (Bertha is Creole, which at the time did not mean "black," but it did mean "foreign," and potentially "racially inferior.")
Bertha is the madwoman in the attic, Rochester's foreign-born first wife who went mad not long after they married. He took her to his least-favorite country house and locked her up in the attic, and it's the revelation of Bertha's existence that first keeps Jane and Rochester from marrying. It's only after Bertha dies in a fire she starts herself that they're able to happily reunite.
It’s hard not to read Rochester’s long comparison of Jane and Bertha after Bertha's existence is revealed — unlike Bertha, who is prone to screaming, Jane is quiet; where Bertha’s body is a "bulk," Jane’s is a "form" — as a kind of reassuring nudge to the reader. Jane might not be a perfect lady, but at least she’s closer to the ideal than the murderous madwoman in the attic. And she’s unambiguously, you know, English. White.
What is mildly dangerous in Jane is amplified in Bertha, and in comparison, Jane becomes a lot more palatable. Where 10-year-old Jane lashes out at her cousin and makes him bleed, Bertha cuts her brother with a knife and bites the wound. Jane is punished by being tied to a chair and locked in the terrifying red room, and Bertha is punished by being chained to a wall and locked in the attic. Jane spends 10 years in the prison of her aunt’s house, and Bertha spends 10 years in the prison of Rochester’s Thornfield.
Whenever Jane is threatening to the status quo, Bertha is more threatening. But Bertha is not someone we are asked to sympathize with, and Jane is. Thus, we can project all of our anxieties about Jane onto Bertha, and when Bertha dies, she takes them with her. (By the time Bertha dies, Jane has reached respectable English gentility.)
Because the book does not ask us to think of Bertha as a person as such, it has no problems with asking us immediately to forgive Rochester for chaining her in an attic like a wild animal, or to consider him more than redeemed for maiming himself trying to save Bertha from the fire.
It is surely a disservice to Charlotte Brontë to pretend that she ought to have been magically immune to the prejudices of her time and thus able to write a book that transcends its cultural context and is completely politically palatable to contemporary readers. No writer should be expected to do that.
But Bertha is an odd case. There's a force and a power to her presence that makes it hard to dismiss her as a problematic gothic plot device. She seems to demand more attention than Jane is willing to grant her in her capacity as narrator.
But even acknowledging the problem of Bertha, what Brontë accomplished in Jane Eyre should not be discounted. Her work remains monumental. She gave us a woman who was prickly and sarcastic and unlikable, and she told us that Jane deserved our respect anyway. She gave us a woman who dared to respect herself when no one else did. And 200 years after Brontë was born, that's still an accomplishment that is shockingly rare and valuable.