I like to think I’ve outgrown my youthful overreliance in wild hyperbole and dismissal of other people’s opinions when it comes to books and life in general. However, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte elicits such a knee-jerk revulsion from me that I fear I can never be generous or objective in my estimation of it. This despite the fact that several readers I know whose tastes have often aligned with mine thinks highly of this novel. I simply can’t move forward in a conversation about this novel without the other person agreeing to the premise that Edward Rochester is objectively The Worst.
Written in 1847, Jane Eyre is a bildungsroman that traces the life of the eponymous Jane as she builds her own self-identity despite her often dire circumstances. Orphaned early with no memories of her parents, she is forced to live with callous relations before being shipped off to a rigid boarding school where she experiences injustice and loss. As an adult with no inheritance or relations to support her, she takes on the job of a governess at a gloomy manor called Thornfield, where her life becomes enmeshed in the tempestuous affairs of its owner Edward Rochester. This relationship has become so totemic in literature that it’s the template of an entire literary tradition. The novel is told solely through Jane’s point of view, an unfiltered transcript of her thoughts and feelings as she struggles to actualize who she is and reconcile her passions with her own sense of morality.
I should start off by saying that I have often had very negative, visceral feelings about disenfranchised orphans in novels. Even with a series that I love like Harry Potter, I get physically sick whenever the story moves back to the Dursleys. I also tend to feel that this trope is not a little bit manipulative in trying to elicit the readers’ sympathy for the main characters. Because what kind of monster would be rooting against a poor orphan, right? I guess I’m the monster, then.
I found the first chunk of Jane Eyre so difficult to get through because of all the injustice that Jane faces with scant few adults to give her support. It speaks to the kind of oppressiveness I felt in this section that I was ghoulishly relieved when her school is overrun with typhus, if only because it stopped the abusive proprietors named the Brocklehursts from visiting the school. I also felt the same relief once Jane managed to move away from the boarding school and attempt to make her own way in early Victorian society. Little did I know, reader, how much fondly I would look back on typhus in the face of Edward Rochester.
While the horrible childhood was an ordeal to read, it was really the depiction of Rochester as the most creeptastic of employers that really turned me against this novel. Subsequent cultural criticism of the work often depicts their love story as the triumph of passion over propriety. But the power differential between the two, not to mention the fact that Rochester is the only thing between Jane and abject poverty, makes the pairing problematic at best and downright objectionable at worst.
Removed from his feelings for Jane, let us further evaluate Rochester’s actions. First of all, he won’t acknowledge Jane’s student Adele as his daughter even though she may be his, because her mother slept around. But out of the goodness of his heart he has house and educated her, so he’s a stand-up guy. He also crossdressed as a gypsy in order to trick Jane into revealing her attraction to him, which I guess is the Victorian equivalent of putting a nannycam in the house.
And oh, he kept his wife locked in the attic because she’s a “savage” madwoman, who tricked him into marrying her and did I mention she’s half Haitian? You never really know with those colonials.
See what I mean about my entire lack of generosity? Because yes, I recognize that Bronte is a pioneer in depicting female agency and personhood. Yes, I recognize the book’s contribution the cultural conversation. Yes, I can acknowledge that the book deploys Gothic motifs effectively, with such a gripping control of the first person point of view as to elicit suspense and claustrophobia. But for me, all of this is negated by how much of a toxic, odious jackwad Edward Rochester is, how the narrative glosses over and forgives Rochester’s jackwaddery, and how Jane ultimately prostrates her life in the service of his imperious, negging ass. Barf.
If Jane and Rochester never got back together by the end of the book, I could probably live with the idea that Jane considers him the apotheosis of her romantic life. But the fact the she went back to him (when he is laid low by a house fire the conveniently killed his wife and made him marriageable, isn’t that interesting?) made me feel that the narrative didactically approves of him and considers him as character of goodness who made small mistakes that cost him dearly. Such a reading of him makes me feel so gross. I like Jane Eyre the person a lot, but this facet of her actually compelling life colors my perceptions of this book’s value.