Masterpieces of

World Literature


 

(CONTENTS)


 

 

 



 

 

 



Charlotte Bronte




 

Charlotte Brontë
British author
married name Mrs. Arthur Bell Nicholls, pseudonym Currer Bell

born April 21, 1816, Thornton, Yorkshire, England
died March 31, 1855, Haworth, Yorkshire

Main
English novelist, noted for Jane Eyre (1847), a strong narrative of a woman in conflict with her natural desires and social condition. The novel gave new truthfulness to Victorian fiction. She later wrote Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853).

Life.
Her father was Patrick Brontë (1777–1861), an Anglican clergyman. Irish-born, he had changed his name from the more commonplace Brunty. After serving in several parishes, he moved with his wife, Maria Branwell Brontë, and their six small children to Haworth amid the Yorkshire moors in 1820, having been awarded a rectorship there. Soon after, Mrs. Brontë and the two eldest children (Maria and Elizabeth) died, leaving the father to care for the remaining three girls—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—and a boy, Patrick Branwell. Their upbringing was aided by an aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, who left her native Cornwall and took up residence with the family at Haworth.

In 1824 Charlotte and Emily, together with their elder sisters before their deaths, attended Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, near Kirkby Lonsdale, Lancashire. The fees were low, the food unattractive, and the discipline harsh. Charlotte condemned the school (perhaps exaggeratedly) long years afterward in Jane Eyre, under the thin disguise of Lowood; and the principal, the Rev. William Carus Wilson, has been accepted as the counterpart of Mr. Naomi Brocklehurst in the novel.

Charlotte and Emily returned home in June 1825, and for more than five years the Brontë children learned and played there, writing and telling romantic tales for one another and inventing imaginative games played out at home or on the desolate moors.

In 1831 Charlotte was sent to Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head, near Huddersfield, where she stayed a year and made some lasting friendships; her correspondence with one of her friends, Ellen Nussey, continued until her death, and has provided much of the current knowledge of her life. In 1832 she came home to teach her sisters but in 1835 returned to Roe Head as a teacher. She wished to improve her family’s position, and this was the only outlet that was offered to her unsatisfied energies. Branwell, moreover, was to start on his career as an artist, and it became necessary to supplement the family resources. The work, with its inevitable restrictions, was uncongenial to Charlotte. She fell into ill health and melancholia and in the summer of 1838 terminated her engagement.

In 1839 Charlotte declined a proposal from the Rev. Henry Nussey, her friend’s brother, and some months later one from another young clergyman. At the same time Charlotte’s ambition to make the practical best of her talents and the need to pay Branwell’s debts urged her to spend some months as governess with the Whites at Upperwood House, Rawdon. Branwell’s talents for writing and painting, his good classical scholarship, and his social charm had engendered high hopes for him; but he was fundamentally unstable, weak willed, and intemperate. He went from job to job and took refuge in alcohol and opium.

Meanwhile his sisters had planned to open a school together, which their aunt had agreed to finance, and in February 1842 Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels as pupils to improve their qualifications in French and acquire some German. The talent displayed by both brought them to the notice of Constantin Héger, a fine teacher and a man of unusual perception. After a brief trip home upon the death of her aunt, Charlotte returned to Brussels as a pupil-teacher. She stayed there during 1843 but was lonely and depressed. Her friends had left Brussels, and Madame Héger appears to have become jealous of her. The nature of Charlotte’s attachment to Héger and the degree to which she understood herself have been much discussed. His was the most interesting mind she had yet met, and he had perceived and evoked her latent talents. His strong and eccentric personality appealed both to her sense of humour and to her affections. She offered him an innocent but ardent devotion, but he tried to repress her emotions. The letters she wrote to him after her return may well be called love letters. When, however, he suggested that they were open to misapprehension, she stopped writing and applied herself, in silence, to disciplining her feelings. However they are interpreted, Charlotte’s experiences at Brussels were crucial for her development. She received a strict literary training, became aware of the resources of her own nature, and gathered material that served her, in various shapes, for all her novels.

In 1844 Charlotte attempted to start a school that she had long envisaged in the parsonage itself, as her father’s failing sight precluded his being left alone. Prospectuses were issued, but no pupils were attracted to distant Haworth.

In the autumn of 1845 Charlotte came across some poems by Emily, and this led to the publication of a joint volume of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846), or Charlotte, Emily, and Anne; the pseudonyms were assumed to preserve secrecy and avoid the special treatment that they believed reviewers accorded to women. The book was issued at their own expense. It received few reviews and only two copies were sold. Nevertheless, a way had opened to them, and they were already trying to place the three novels they had written. Charlotte failed to place The Professor: A Tale but had, however, nearly finished Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, begun in August 1846 in Manchester, where she was staying with her father, who had gone there for an eye operation. When Smith, Elder and Company, declining The Professor, declared themselves willing to consider a three-volume novel with more action and excitement in it, she completed and submitted it at once. Jane Eyre was accepted, published less than eight weeks later (on Oct. 16, 1847), and had an immediate success, far greater than that of the books that her sisters published the same year.

The months that followed were tragic ones. Branwell died in September 1848, Emily in December, and Anne in May 1849. Charlotte completed Shirley: A Tale in the empty parsonage, and it appeared in October. In the following years Charlotte went three times to London as the guest of her publisher; there she met the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray and sat for her portrait by George Richmond. She stayed in 1851 with the writer Harriet Martineau and also visited her future biographer, Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, in Manchester and entertained her at Haworth. Villette came out in January 1853. Meanwhile, in 1851, she had declined a third offer of marriage, this time from James Taylor, a member of Smith, Elder and Company. Her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls (1817–1906), an Irishman, was her fourth suitor. It took some months to win her father’s consent, but they were married on June 29, 1854, in Haworth church. They spent their honeymoon in Ireland and then returned to Haworth, where her husband had pledged himself to continue as curate to her father. He did not share his wife’s intellectual life, but she was happy to be loved for herself and to take up her duties as his wife. She began another book, Emma, of which some pages remain. Her pregnancy, however, was accompanied by exhausting sickness, and she died in 1855.


Jane Eyre and other novels.
Charlotte’s first novel, The Professor (published posthumously, 1857), shows her sober reaction from the indulgences of her girlhood. Told in the first person by an English tutor in Brussels, it is based on Charlotte’s experiences there, with a reversal of sexes and roles. The necessity of her genius, reinforced by reading her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, modified this restrictive self-discipline; and, though there is plenty of satire and dry, direct phrasing in Jane Eyre, its success was the fiery conviction with which it presented a thinking, feeling woman, craving for love but able to renounce it at the call of impassioned self-respect and moral conviction. The book’s narrator and main character, Jane Eyre, is an orphan and is governess to the ward of Mr. Rochester, the Byronic and enigmatic employer with whom she falls in love. Her love is reciprocated, but on the wedding morning it comes out that Rochester is already married and keeps his mad and depraved wife in the attics of his mansion. Jane leaves him, suffers hardship, and finds work as a village schoolmistress. When Jane learns, however, that Rochester has been maimed and blinded while trying vainly to rescue his wife from the burning house that she herself had set afire, Jane seeks him out and marries him. There are melodramatic naïvetés in the story, and Charlotte’s elevated rhetorical passages do not much appeal to modern taste, but she maintains her hold on the reader. The novel is subtitled An Autobiography and is written in the first person; but, except in Jane Eyre’s impressions of Lowood, the autobiography is not Charlotte’s. Personal experience is fused with suggestions from widely different sources, and the Cinderella theme may well come from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. The action is carefully motivated, and apparently episodic sections, like the return to Gateshead Hall, are seen to be necessary to the full expression of Jane’s character and the working out of the threefold moral theme of love, independence, and forgiveness.

In her novel Shirley, Charlotte avoided melodrama and coincidences and widened her scope. Setting aside Maria Edgworth and Sir Walter Scott as national novelists, Shirley is the first regional novel in English, full of shrewdly depicted local material—Yorkshire characters, church and chapel, the cloth workers and machine breakers of her father’s early manhood, and a sturdy but rather embittered feminism.

In Villette she recurred to the Brussels setting and the first-person narrative, disused in Shirley; the characters and incidents are largely variants of the people and life at the Pension Héger. Against this background she set the ardent heart, deprived of its object, contrasted with the woman happily fulfilled in love.

The influence of Charlotte’s novels was much more immediate than that of Wuthering Heights. Charlotte’s combination of romance and satiric realism had been the mode of nearly all the women novelists for a century. Her fruitful innovations were the presentation of a tale through the sensibility of a child or young woman, her lyricism, and the picture of love from a woman’s standpoint.

Joyce M.S. Tompkins

 

 

Shirley

Charlotte Bronte
1816-1855

Shirley, published two years after the successful Jane Eyre, is set during the Napoleonic wars, a time punctuated by domestic social conflict, surveying and discussing the failing harvests, the economic hardship, Luddite riots, and growing tension in early nineteenth-century Yorkshire. At the broken center of this analysis is not one woman but two; Shirley Keeldar is a property owner; financially and socially secure, she is passionate, fiercely unconventional, impetuous and unafraid of love. Known as Captain Shirley, she cannot freely be an independent woman but gladly accepts the role of usurper of masculine privilege. Shirley cannot be the heroine however. Bronte creates in Caroline Helstone a figure who occupies the same narrative space as Shirley, Caroline is demure, not willingly passive, yet beside Shirley she is a model of subservient femininity.These two women mediate the narrative; they are its focus yet they also act as the mediators of the explosive social context they inhabit.
Shirley has suffered from comparison with Bronte's Jane tyre; where the latter is a focused, powerful study of the erotic relations generated by attraction and need, Shirley is clumsily general, a study of social relations penned by someone of firm convictions but inadequate knowledge. The narrative structure is often hesitant; the anger that is undeniably there is dispersed and uncontained. Yet the attraction of Shirley lies precisely in its flaws, and in its failure to resolve the dilemmas it generates.

 

 

 

Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte
1816-1855

Charlotte Bronte's first published novel tells a story common to her later novel, Villette, of a young woman who must struggle for survival, and subsequently fulfilment, without the support of money, family, or obvious class privilege. The orphaned Jane is caught between two often conflicting sets of impulses. On the one hand, she is stoical, self-effacing, and self-sacrificial. On the other, she is a passionate, independent minded, and dissenting character, rebellious in the face of injustice, which seems to confront her everywhere. As a child, Jane Eyre suffers first as the ward of her aunt, the wealthy Mrs. Reed, and her abusive family, then under the cruelly oppressive regime at Lowood School, where Mrs. Reed finally sends her. As a young governess at Thornfield Hall, questions of class thwart her course toward true love with the Byronic Mr. Rochester, with whom she has forged a profound connection while caring for his illegitimate daughter.
Class, however, is less of a barrier to their union—and both characters are in any case contemptuous of its dictates—than the fact that he already has a wife. She is the infamous madwoman imprisoned in the attic (the Creole Bertha Mason from Spanish Town, Jamaica, whose story is imaginatively reconstructed by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea). Bertha's plight has been seen to offer a counterpoint to Jane's, as well as raising questions about the representation of women in nineteenth-century fiction. Strong elements of coincidence and wish fulfilment lead ultimately to the resolution of the central romantic plot, but Jane Eyre still speaks powerfully for the plight of intelligent and aspiring women in the stiflingly patriarchal context of Victorian Britain.

 


JANE EYRE
 

Type of work: Novel
Author: Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855)
Type of plot: Psychological romance
Time of plot: 1800
Locale: Northern England
First published: 1847

 

The poetry and tension of Jane Eyre marked a new development in adult romanticism in fiction, just as Jane herself was a new kind of heroine, a woman of intelligence and passion, but one lacking in the charm, beauty, and grace usually associated with romantic heroines. Likewise, the strange and unconventional hero, Rochester, is a new type, who sets the often eerie, moody, or even violently passionate atmosphere of the novel.

 




 

Principal Characters

Jane Eyre, a plain child with a vivid imagination, intelligence, and great talent in art and music. Left an orphan in childhood, she is forced to live with her aunt Reed, who was the sister-in-law of her father. At the Reed home she is mistreated and spurned, and is finally sent to a charity home for girls. Her education completed, she teaches at the school for several years and then takes a position as a private governess to the ward of Mr, Rochester. After a strange, tempestuous courtship she and Mr. Rochester are to be married, but the revelation that his insane first wife still lives prevents the wedding. After each has suffered many hardships, Jane and Mr. Rochester are eventually married.
Edward Fairfax Rochester, a gentleman of thirty-five, the proud, sardonic, moody master of Thornfield. Before Jane Eyre's arrival to become a governess in his household he visits Thornfield only occasionally. After he falls in love with Jane, much of his moroseness disappears. When they are separated because the presence of his insane wife becomes known, Mr. Rochester remains at Thornfield. His wife sets fire to the house and Mr. Rochester loses his eyesight and the use of an arm during the conflagration, in which his wife dies. Summoned, she believes, by his call, Jane Eyre returns a short time later and the two are married.
Adele Varens, the illegitimate daughter of Mr. Rochester and a French opera singer, his ward upon her mother's death. She is pale, small-featured, extremely feminine, and not especially talented.
Mrs. Fairfax, the elderly housekeeper at Thornfield. She has been extremely kind to Jane and is delighted that she and Mr. Rochester are to be married.
Grace Poole, a stern woman with a hard, plain face, supposedly a seamstress at Thornfield but actually the keeper of mad Mrs. Rochester. Occasionally she tipples too much and neglects her post.
Bertha Mason Rochester, Mr. Rochester's insane wife, kept in secret on an upper floor at Thornfield. She had lied and her family had lied when Mr. Rochester met her in Jamaica while traveling, for she was even then demented. During Jane's stay at Thornfield Mrs. Rochester tries to burn her husband in bed. Finally she burns the whole house and herself, and seriously injures her husband.
Mrs. Reed, an exacting, clever, managing woman, the guardian of Jane Eyre. She hates her charge, however, misuses her, and locks her in dark rooms for punishment. At her death she repents of her actions. Her children turn out badly.
Eliza Reed, her older daughter, a penurious, serious girl who eventually becomes a nun.
John Reed, the son, a wicked child who torments Jane Eyre and men blames her for his own bad deeds. He ends up as a drunk in London and dies in disgrace.
Georgiana Reed, the younger daughter, a pretty, spoiled child who later becomes very fat. She makes a poor marriage.
Bessie Leaven, Mrs. Reed's governess, pretty, capricious, hasty-tempered. Before Jane Eyre leaves the Reed house, Bessie has become fond of her.
Robert Leaven, Bessie's husband and Mrs. Reed's coachman.
Abbot, the Reed's bad-tempered maid.
Mr. Lloyd, an apothecary called in when Jane Eyre becomes sick and feverish after having been locked in a dark room. He suggests that she be sent off to school.
Mr. Brocklehurst, a strict clergyman and the master of Lowood School. He forces the girls to wear short, uncurled hair and plain wrappers, and he feeds them on a starvation diet.
Maria Temple, the supervisor of Lowood School, a pretty, kind woman who tries against tremendous odds to make her pupils' lot as easy and pleasant as possible. She is interested in Jane Eyre's talents and is responsible for her getting a teaching position later at Lowood.
Miss Smith, Miss Scratcherd, and Miss Miller,
teachers at Lowood School.
Helen Burns, a clever thirteen-year-old pupil at Lowood School, constantly ridiculed and punished by her teachers because she is not neat and prompt. She dies during a fever epidemic.
Miss Gryce, a fat teacher at Lowood School and Jane Eyre's roommate when they both teach there.
Mary Ann Wilson, one of Jane Eyre's fellow students, a witty and original girl.
John and Leah, the house servants at Thornfield Hall.
Sophie, the French maid.
Mrs. Eshton, a guest at a house party given by Mr. Rochester. Once a handsome woman, she still has a well-preserved style.
Mr. Eshton, her husband, a magistrate of the district.
Amy Eshton, their older daughter, rather small, naive, and childlike in manner.
Louisa Eshton, the younger daughter, a taller and more elegant young woman.
Lady Lynn, another woman whose family is invited to the Thornfield house party; she is large, stout, haughty-looking, and richly dressed.
Mrs. Dent, another guest, less showy than the others, with a slight figure and a pale, gentle face.
Colonel Dent, her husband, a soldierly gentleman.
The Dowager Lady Ingram, another guest, a proud, handsome woman with hard, fierce eyes.
Blanche Ingram, her daughter, a young woman with an elegant manner and a loud, satirical laugh, to whom Mr. Rochester is reported engaged.
Mary Ingram, her sister.
Henry Lynn and Frederick Lynn, gentlemen at the party, two dashing sparks.
Lord Ingram, Blanche's brother, a tall, handsome young man of listless appearance and manner.
Mr. Mason, Mr. Rochester's brother-in-law. During a visit to see his sister, she wounds him severely. He halts the marriage of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester.
Diana Rivers and Mary Rivers, daughters of the family with which Jane Eyre takes refuge after running away from Thornfield. They turn out to be her cousins, their mother having been Jane's aunt. At first they do not know that Jane is a relative because she calls herself Eliot.
St. John Rivers, their brother, a complex religious-minded man who wishes to marry Jane but plans to live with her in platonic fashion while they devote their lives to missionary work in India.
Hannah, the Rivers' housekeeper, a suspicious but kind woman.
Rosamund Oliver, a beautiful, kind heiress, the sponsor of the school in which St. John Rivers find Jane a post. Miss Oliver is coquettish and vain, but she holds real affection for Rivers.
Mr. Oliver, her father, a tall, massive-featured man.
Alice Wood, an orphan, one of Jane's pupils in the school where she teaches after leaving Thornfield.

 




 

The Story

Jane Eyre was an orphan. Both her father and mother had died when Jane was a baby, and the little girl passed into the care of Mrs. Reed of Gateshead Hall. Mrs. Reed's husband, now dead, had been the brother of Jane Eyre's mother; on his deathbed, he had directed Mrs. Reed to look after the orphan as she would her own three children. At Gateshead Hall, Jane knew ten years of neglect and abuse. One day, a cousin knocked her to the floor. When she fought back, Mrs. Reed punished her by sending her to the gloomy room where Mr. Reed had died. There Jane lost consciousness. Furthermore, the experience caused a dangerous illness from which she was nursed slowly back to health by sympathetic Bessie Leaven, the Gateshead Hall nurse.
Feeling that she could no longer keep her unwanted charge in the house, Mrs. Reed made arrangements for Jane's admission to Lowood School. Early one morning without farewells, Jane left Gateshead Hall and rode fifty miles by stage to Lowood, her humble possessions in a trunk beside her.
At Lowood, Jane was a diligent student, well liked by her superiors, especially by Miss Temple, the mistress, who refused to accept without proof Mrs. Reed's low estimate of Jane's character. During the period of Jane's schooldays at Lowood, an epidemic of fever caused many deaths among the girls. It also resulted in an investigation that caused improvements at the institution. At the end of her studies, Jane was retained as a teacher. When Jane grew weary of her life at Lowood, she advertised for a position as a governess. She was engaged by Mrs. Fairfax, housekeeper at Thornfield, near Millcote.
At Thornfield, the new governess had only one pupil, Adele Varens, a ward of Jane's employer, Mr. Edward Rochester. From Mrs. Fairfax, Jane learned that Mr. Rochester traveled much and seldom came to Thornfield. Jane was pleased with the quiet country life, with the beautiful old house and gardens, the well-stocked library, and her own comfortable room.
While she was out walking, Jane met Mr. Rochester for the first time, going to his aid after his horse had thrown him. She found her employer a somber, moody man, quick to change in his manner toward her, brusque in his speech. He commended her work with Adele, however, and confided that the girl was the daughter of a French dancer who had deceived him and deserted her daughter. Jane felt that this experience alone could not account for Mr. Rochester's moody nature.
Mysterious happenings occurred at Thornfield. Alarmed by a strange noise one night, Jane found Mr. Rochester's door open and his bed on fire. When she attempted to arouse the household, he commanded her to keep quiet about the whole affair. She also learned that Thornfield had a strange tenant, a woman who laughed like a maniac and who stayed in rooms on the third floor of the house. Jane believed that this woman was Grace Poole, a seamstress employed by Mr. Rochester.
Mr. Rochester attended numerous parties at which he was obviously paying court to Blanche Ingram, daughter of Lady Ingram. One day, the inhabitants of Thornfield were informed that Mr. Rochester was bringing a party of houseguests home with him. The fashionable Miss Ingram was among the party guests. During the house party, Mr. Rochester called Jane to the drawing room, where the guests treated her with the disdain that they thought her humble position deserved. To herself, Jane had already confessed her interest in her employer, but it seemed to her that he was interested only in Blanche Ingram. One evening while Mr. Rochester was away from home, the guests played charades. At the conclusion of the game, a gypsy fortuneteller appeared to read the palms of the lady guests. During her interview with the gypsy, Jane discovered that the so-called fortuneteller was Mr. Rochester in disguise.
While the guests were still at Thornfield, a stranger named Mason arrived to see Mr. Rochester on business. That night, Mason was mysteriously wounded by the strange inhabitant of the third floor. The injured man was taken away secretly before daylight.
One day, Robert Leaven came from Gateshead to tell Jane that Mrs. Reed, now on her deathbed, had asked to see her former ward. Jane returned to her aunt's home. The dying woman gave Jane a letter, dated three years before, from John Eyre in Madeira, who asked that his niece be sent to him for adoption. Mrs. Reed confessed that she had told him that there had been an epidemic at Lowood. The sin of keeping the news from Jane—news that would have meant relatives, adoption, and an inheritance—had become a heavy burden on the conscience of the dying woman.
Jane went back to Thornfield, which she now looked upon as her home. One night in the garden, Edward Rochester embraced her and proposed marriage. Jane accepted and made plans for a quiet ceremony in the village church. She also wrote to her uncle in Madeira, explaining Mrs. Reed's deception and telling him she was to marry Mr. Rochester.
Shortly before the date set for the wedding, Jane had a harrowing experience. She awakened to find a strange, repulsive-looking woman in her room. The intruder tried on Jane's wedding veil and then ripped it to shreds. Mr. Rochester tried to persuade Jane that the whole incident was only her imagination, but in the morning she found the torn veil in her room. As the vows were being said at the church, a stranger spoke up declaring the existence of an impediment to the marriage. He presented an affirmation, signed by the Mr. Mason who had been wounded during this visit to Thornfield. The document stated that Edward Fairfax Rochester had married Bertha Mason, Mr. Mason's sister, in Spanish Town, Jamaica, fifteen years before. Mr. Rochester admitted this fact; then he conducted the party to the third-story chamber at Thornfield. There they found the attendant Grace Poole and her charge, Bertha Rochester, a raving maniac. Mrs. Rochester was the woman Jane had seen in her room.
Jane felt that she must leave Thornfield at once. She notified Mr. Rochester and left quietly early the next morning, using all of her small store of money for the coach fare. Two days later, she was set down on the moors of a north midland shire. Starving, she actually begged for food. Finally, she was befriended by the Reverend St. John Rivers and his sisters, Mary and Diana, who took Jane in and nursed her back to health. Assuming the name of Jane Elliot, she refused to divulge any of her history except her connection with the Lowood institution. Reverend Rivers eventually found a place for her as mistress in a girls' school.
Shortly afterward, St. John Rivers received word from his family solicitor that John Eyre had died in Madeira, leaving Jane Eyre a fortune of twenty thousand pounds. Because Jane had disappeared under mysterious circumstances, the lawyer was trying to locate her through the next of kin, St. John Rivers. Jane's identity was now revealed through her connection with Lowood School, and she learned, to her surprise, that St. John and his sisters were really her own cousins. She then insisted on sharing her inheritance with them.
When St. John decided to go to India as a missionary, he asked Jane to go with him as his wife—not because he loved her, as he frankly admitted, but because he admired her and wanted her services as his assistant. Jane felt indebted to him for his kindness and aid, but she hesitated to accept his proposal.
One night, while St. John was awaiting her decision, she dreamed that Mr. Rochester was calling her name. The next day, she returned to Thornfield by coach. Arriving there, she found the mansion gutted—a burned and blackened ruin. Neighbors told her that the fire had broken out one stormy night, set by the madwoman, who died while Mr. Rochester was trying to rescue her from the roof of the blazing house.
Mr. Rochester was blinded during the fire and now lived at Ferndean, a lonely farm some miles away. Jane Eyre went to him at once, and there they were married. For both, their story had an even happier ending. After two years, Mr. Rochester regained the sight of one eye, so that he was able to see his first child when it was put in his arms.

 




 

Critical Evaluation

Charlotte Bronte was always concerned that her work be judged on the basis of its art and not because of her sex. This fact explains the choice of the pseudonym that she continued to use even after her authorship was revealed, often referring in her letters to Currer Bell when speaking of herself as writer. Jane Eyre, her first published novel, has been called "feminine" because of the Romanticism and deeply felt emotions of the heroine-narrator. It would be more correct, however, to point to the feminist qualities of the novel: a heroine who refuses to be placed in the traditional female position of subservience, who disagrees with her superiors, who stands up for her rights, who ventures creative thoughts; more important, a narrator who comments on the role of women in the society and the greater constraint experienced by them. Those feminine emotions often pointed to in Jane Eyre herself are surely found as well in Rochester, and the continued popularity of this work must suggest the enduring human quality of these emotions.
Bronte often discussed the lack of passion in her contemporaries' work and especially in that of Jane Austen, about whom she said, "Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands and feet." Coldness, detachment, excessive analysis, and critical distance were not valued by Bronte. The artist must be involved in her subject, she believed, and must have a degree of inspiration not to be rationally explained. Such a theory of art is similar to that of the Romantic poets, an attitude not altogether popular in the mid-nineteenth century.
In Jane Eyre, therefore, Bronte chose the exact point of view to suit both her subject matter and her artistic theory, the first-person narrator. The story is told entirely through the eyes of the heroine Jane Eyre. This technique enables Bronte to deliver the events with an intensity that involved the reader in the passions, feelings, and thoughts of the heroine. A passionate directness characterizes Jane's narration: conversations are rendered in direct, not indirect, dialogue; actions are given just as they occurred with little analysis of either event or character. In a half-dozen key scenes, Bronte shifts to present tense instead of the immediate past, so that Jane Eyre narrates the event as if it were happening just at the present moment. After Jane flees Thornfield and Rochester, when the coachman puts her out at Whitcross having used up her fare, she narrates to the moment: "I am alone. ... I am absolutely destitute." After a long description of the scene around her and her analysis of her situation, also narrated in the present tense, she reverts to the more usual past tense in the next paragraph: "I struck straight into the heath." Such a technique adds greatly to the immediacy of the novel's action and further draws the reader into the situation.
Like all Bronte's heroines, Jane Eyre has no parents and no family that accepts or is aware of her. She, like Lucy Snowe (Villette) and Caroline Helstone {Shirley), leads her life cut off from society, since family was the means for a woman to participate in society and community. Lacking such support, Jane must face her problems alone. Whenever she forms a close friendship (Bessie at Gateshead, Helen Burns and Miss Temple at Lowood, Mrs. Fairfax at Thornfield), she discovers that these ties can be broken easily—by higher authority, by death, by marriage—since she is not "kin." Cutting her heroines off so radically from family and community gave Bronte the opportunity to make her women independent and to explore the Romantic ideal of individualism.
Jane Eyre is a moral tale, akin to a folk or fairy tale, with nearly all ambiguities—in society, character, and situation—omitted. Almost all choices that Jane must make are easy ones, and although she grows and matures her character does not change significantly. Her one difficult choice is refusing to become Rochester's mistress and deciding to leave Thornfield alone and penniless instead. That choice was difficult precisely because she had no family or friends to influence her with their disapproval. No one would be hurt if she consented; that is, no one but Jane herself, and it is her own self-love that helps her to refuse.
Again like a fairy tale, Jane Eyre is full of myth and superstition. Rochester often calls Jane his "elf," "changeling," or "witch"; there are mysterious happenings at Thornfield; Jane is inclined to believe the gypsy fortuneteller (until Rochester reveals himself) and often thinks of the superstitions she has heard; the weather often presages mysterious or disastrous events. Most important, at the climax of the story when Jane is about to consent to be the unloved wife of St. John Rivers, she hears Rochester calling her—at precisely the time, readers learn later, that he had in fact called to her. This event is never rationally explained, and readers must accept Jane's judgment that it was a supernatural intervention.
Numerous symbolic elements pervade the novel; most often something in nature symbolizes an event or person in Jane's life. The most obvious example is the chestnut tree, which is split in two by lightning on the night that Jane accepts Rochester's marriage proposal, signifying the rupture of their relationship. The two parts of the tree, however, remain bound, as do Jane and Rochester despite their physical separation.
Likewise, the novel is full of character foils and parallel situations. Aunt Reed at Gateshead is contrasted with Miss Temple at Lowood; the Reed sisters at the beginning are contrasted with the Rivers sisters—cousins all—at the end; Rochester's impassioned proposal and love is followed by St. John's pragmatic proposition. Foreshadowing is everywhere in the book, so that seemingly chance happenings gain added significance as the novel unfolds, and each previous event is echoed in the next.
Therefore, the novel's well-crafted structure and carefully chosen point of view add to the strong and fascinating character of Jane herself, making Jane Eyre not a typical Victorian novel but a classic among English novels.

 


The Brontë sisters, painted by their brother, Branwell c. 1834.
From left to right, Anne, Emily and Charlotte

 

 

Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

 
| privacy