I spent a good portion of Saturday finishing up the book, and I’m glad I did. It seemed like there was more to read because the book is appended with many endnotes and scholarly articles (which were quite interesting).
In brief, Jane’s blissful wedding plans are shattered when an attorney representing Rochester’s friend, Mr. Mason of Jamaica. We are then introduced to Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester’s deranged first wife, in the attic rooms, where she has been dutifully cared for by Grace Poole in seclusion. Twice during the story, she escaped from the attic – once, to burn Mr. Rochester in his bed, and a second time on the night before Jane’s wedding, when Bertha vandalized the bridal veil.
Having reread the book, I can offer a more accurate narrative of the deal with poor Mr. R. He explains how his father favored his elder son over Edward, our Rochester, and planned to bequeath everything to the elder son. As an afterthought, he decided to marry Edward into another wealthy family, so as to not tarnish the good, wealthy Rochester name.
Mr. Rochester, at the time a young and inexperienced man, was shipped off to Jamaica at his father’s pressuring, and introduced to the beautiful Mason daughter. The unappealing facts of Bertha’s family history are quietly omitted, such as her mental state (her mother and brother are also severely mentally ill) and her age (she’s actually quite a bit older than Edward). (I know this book doesn’t do a good job at representing mentally ill persons, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog post.) Rochester soon finds himself in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship at the hands of a mentally unstable spouse.
If we switched the genders around, and made it about poor Miss Rochester who’s forced into an arranged marriage with a domineering, older man, I think the “Rochester’s creepy” people would be singing a completely different tune, on par with how they pity Jane.
I think one thing that Charlotte, with her proto-feminist narrative, is trying to show is that these kinds of unhealthy relationships can happen to anyone, regardless of their gender. We already know that the stereotype that women are inherently helpless, gentle, fairer folk is false. Not all women want to be damsels in distress, waiting to be rescued by their better half. Well, Charlotte, who may be more forward-thinking than I give her credit for, also wants us to realize that not all men are inherently brutish, controlling monsters who see themselves as superior to womankind. Men can be victims of abuse too, and I think Rochester is one of them.
I’m not saying Rochester is by any means a saint, but I still stand by my assertion that there are valid reasons for why he acts as he does.
Anyway, Jane decides to leave Thornfield Hall, out of confusion and shame. Mr. Rochester tries everything to get her to stay, from telling a sob story to threatening violence. (Yeah, at this point, I could almost join the “Rochester’s creepy” camp. This is definitely a red flag, but Charlotte Bronte has a thing for broody Byronic leading man characters, so Jane can overlook that, right?)
What I love most about this part is how Jane stands up to him. She finally figures out how to mentally compartmentalize rationality/morality and healthy feelings of human attraction. She cites her religious values as the only thing keeping her from giving into Mr. Rochester’s begging, threatening, what have you – go figure, this is Charlotte writing. Either way, she remains intransigent to his demands, for whatever reason she has, and it’s refreshing to see her do that.
Later on, Jane sneaks out of Thornfield, not because she’s forced to be here, but because she wants to avoid fuss and awkwardness.
Melodramatic as ever, she spends all her money to get her as far away from Thornfield as she can, and then leaves her suitcase in the coach. I’ll excuse her, because she’s distraught and confused. But that was still really dumb, Jane.
Jane, tired and hungry, finds her way into a small town on foot, and is taken in by the local clergyman, St. John Rivers, and his sisters. John Rivers is a nice guy, very quiet and gentle. Time passes, and Jane starts a new life with the Riverses. She eventually becomes the schoolteacher to all the local peasant girls, John teaches the peasant boys, and the schools are supported by the father of a beautiful woman named Rosamond.
John has a crush on Rosamond, but as a clergyman, he doesn’t think such a glamorous woman is fitting for him to marry. Jane calls him on it, which is very forward, even for Jane.
John asks Jane to start learning “Hindostanee” with him, apparently to help him brush up on it before he goes off to missionize in India. But what he isn’t telling Jane is that he wants Jane to go with him … as his wife.
He eventually reveals his plan, explaining to Jane that because she is so plain-looking, she’s destined to a life of hard work and would thus make a perfect missionary’s wife. (I’ll let that statement, with all its narrow-minded prejudice, speak for itself.) Jane flat-out refuses, but like Rochester before him, John won’t take no for an answer. He doesn’t threaten her with violence, or express himself with great emotion – that isn’t in his character. No, quiet, gentle John takes a more subtle approach.
He tries to convince her on a pleasant stroll through the field. Jane refuses him again.
He reads selected passages from the Christian bible in the evening as part of his prayers, glaring daggers at Jane the whole time. She figures him out and refuses him again.
He tries to tell her that she agreed, even promised, to join him in India as his wife – she calls him on this falsehood and refuses him yet again.
I don’t know what it is with men in this story. They’re always like:
Man: Jane, please do this thing?
Man: Oh, but why?
Jane: Because I don’t want to. It doesn’t feel right, okay?
Man: Okay, but — Jane, do this thing, please?
Man: *sobs* Jane, thing please, do?
Jane: *rolls eyes* No.
Man: And the Man Character said to Jane, wouldst thou doeth this thing, pleaseth? *glares from behind scholarly book*
Man: *is sad* okay. *pouts* But you promised.
Jane: No, I didn’t. Bye!
It’s like they’re going to keep coming up with different ways to ask, pressure, cajole for the same thing, like they think Jane’s so stupid that she’s going to eventally fall or it – or cave in. I’ve had my doubts from time to time, but Jane is not that stupid.
Charlotte, to my surprise, opts for a seemingly supernatural motive for Jane to drop everything and go back to Thornfield Hall again. She receives a vision of Rochester calling out to her, and promises to return to his side. This is something I’d expect from Emily, not demure, religious Charlotte. Well, it seems I’ve underestimated her yet again.
When she arrives, a gossipy neighbor to Rochester explains everything that has transpired, since she left: Bertha Mason burned Thornfield to the ground and died a horrible death in the process. Rochester survived, but is blind and maimed.
One of the most famous quotes from the book sums up how this story ends: “Reader, I married him.” So it’s all quite happy in the end, but before I end the post, I’d like to address one point that was brought up in the addendum of my annotated edition of Jane Eyre.
There were a bunch of reading group discussion-type questions, and one of which goes like this:
There have been critics who said that most Victorian novels are built on either the Marriage Plot or on the Inheritance Plot. At the end of Jane Eyre, the heroine is an heiress and, as she writes, “Reader, I married him.” But Bronte has decided to blind and maim Rochester, and to burn down the house that is the visible sign of his prestige and power. Do you think Bronte cut Rochester down to size for Jane’s sake – to make the happy ending happier still?
It’s an interesting proposal, that Rochester was “too much” – too old, too wealthy, too high in social stature, too full of himself, etc. – for Jane, and that Bronte wanted to make him more accessible when, inevitably, the couple unites for real (because the one obstacle to a legitimate marriage just so happened to kill herself in a fire, so Jane’s got nothing to lose now).
What do you think, Reader? Let’s discuss!
Overall, I enjoyed Jane Eyre about 75% as much as I did the first time around. This time, I was reading with a more critical eye, which I think influenced how much I enjoyed the book. It has its ups and downs, as Jane matures, regresses, and matures some more. It’s not a perfect book, and neither are the characters, but I think that’s part of the beauty of reading Jane Eyre, or any Bronte sibling work. Like Jane, the literary world matures, regresses, and matures again (at least I hope it will). Their contributions to the world of books have wowed audiences for centuries and inspired countless writers to do even better. It’s stories like these that, however primitive, planted seeds of progress, from social to literary.