Tuesday, November 2, 2010

How The Classics Become Classics, Jane Eyre And The Formulaic 19th Century Novel!

The Good: Wonderful character, Interesting character struggles, Great descriptions of time and place
The Bad: None that I've found.
The Basics: A perfect novel, Jane Eyre is Charlotte Bronte's masterful character study that mixes social criticism with deep, universal emotions.

Quite frequently when I am reviewing movies or books, I find myself plagued by plots that are predictable to me. I suppose the problem with being well-read is there isn't much new after a certain point. New works in some fashion become how well people pull off presenting an old idea. I found myself thinking of this when I wrote a review for the film Definitely, Maybe and I alluded to Jane Eyre only to discover that I had not ever reviewed the novel Jane Eyre. This shocked me, as it is one of my favorite books, so I set out to read it again and review it.

At the same time, it occurred to me that one of the great things about going back to some of the classics, like Jane Eyre is that pioneered the plots that are passe now. Charlotte Bronte, who wrote Jane Eyre, was a creative force who established the trend that generations have since followed. Moreover, it spoke to something so deep and universal that readers still embrace the concept just as much as Bronte's 19th Century audience did. That speaks powerfully to the concept of the collective unconscious and how for generations the human animal has, essentially, remained unchanged, despite the technological leaps we have gone through.

Jane Eyre is an orphan in Gateshead, England, in the early 1800s who is earnest, kind and good and the ward of Mr. Reed and his wife. Unfortunately, it seems Mr. Reed doted upon Jane, often to the jealousy of his three biological children and following his death, the family turns on poor Jane. After one too many fights with the Sarah Reed's son, Jane is sent to the Lowood Institution, a school run by a hypocrite named Brocklehurst who preaches living a modest life, but embezzles funds from the school to keep his family living in luxury. At the school, Jane excels, despite the public accusations and ridicule of Brocklehurst himself, and she makes a friend in Helen Burns. Unfortunately, in the squalor in which the students are kept, there is an epidemic that cuts through the school and Helen dies of consumption, leaving Jane once more very much alone.

After years of study at Lowood and becoming a teacher there, Jane becomes bored with her life and attempts to sell her services as a governess. She is hired by the housekeeper at Thornfield and Jane moves there to take care of little Adele. Adele is the charge of Edward Rochester, who is initially brusque with Jane. Soon, however, they have conversations and are falling in love, despite creepy things that happen around the house. Jane, concerned that the mysterious Grace Poole hates her and is tormenting her, attempts to make a relationship with Rochester work, but there are secrets in Thornfield that prevent their marriage from going off without a hitch and they propel Jane away from Thornfield into a very different world . . .

Much has been made out of the fact that Jane Eyre is arguably one of the earliest, most successful works of feminist literature, but I tend to ignore that for two reasons: 1. in its day, Jane Eyre was published under a pseudonym to hide Charlotte Bronte's gender and 2. The enduring quality of Jane Eyre has nothing to do with the fact that it was written by a woman and everything to do with it being extraordinarily well written. More than anything else, Jane Eyre is an exceptional novel in terms of the poetics, character and plot development and simultaneous expression using symbolism and reality.

Charlotte Bronte is a master of poetic lines from the simplistic statement of facts "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day" (1) to the more descriptive passages, like when young Jane thinks she sees the ghost of Mr. Reed. Bronte has an intense ability to make the mundane sound extraordinary and she paints a world that is both bleak and dark and magical at the same time. Jane Eyre is an original Gothic novel, complete with abusive adults, hypocritical Christians, spooky manors and, of course, the crazed Island woman locked in the attic. Bronte uses elements that play off one another remarkably well, like Jane spending the morning with the innocent Adele and the evening listening to creepy phantom laughter coming from somewhere in the house. The interplay between such elements is wonderful.

In addition to the poetics and the great exploration of mood, Jane Eyre is rich with social commentary. This novel is flush with characters who are hypocrites (family values people who beat the wards they have taken in, embezzlers preaching charity, a man who promises fidelity while married to another woman, and pious missionaries who are emotionally manipulative) and perhaps one of the most compelling aspects to pick up Jane Eyre is that - rather frighteningly - much of the social commentary is still apt today. Jane, early in the novel, pairs with Helen Burns, who is a pious little girl who turns the other cheek with to everything. Jane, on the other hand, is outspoken and doesn't put up with crap from anyone. This, of course, gets her in much trouble. And while Helen takes her beatings, Jane stands up and speaks truth to power. One need not be possess a Literature degree to see that Bronte is making a point with this.

Much of what Bronte has to say speaks to the difference between truth and the elements who manipulate faith for power and control. Brocklehurst is a metaphor, using the philosophies of Christianity to keep the students down while making himself rich. Similarly, late in the novel, St. John Rivers attempts to use faith to pressure Jane to act, when Jane's heart and mind tell her it is better to live free than follow him. Bronte clearly establishes a doctrine that free will is preferable to philosophical enslavement and the concept is executed beautifully in the novel.

Jane Eyre is also largely as successful as it is because of the title character. Jane is instantly likable in a setting many readers have trouble with. Indeed, one of the things about reading 19th Century British Literature is oftentimes there are social mores and procedures that confound or bore the reader. Many a time, a reader will say, "Why doesn't X just stand up and say ..." and the answer is invariably, "It was a different time." Well, in Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre has a voice and she stands up and she speaks truth to power.

In fact, Jane Eyre is arguably the original "outsider's" novel. Jane manages to not fit in at Gateshead, Lowood, or with the Rivers's. In fact, when she does fit in at Thornfield, she pretty much runs away from the good thing. But what makes the novel so great is that Jane runs away when she is happy and that reads as remarkably real. Also, she runs away from Thornfield because she has been lied to and she is trying desperately to be a good person while romantically involved with a guy who is asking her to do something antithetical to her belief system.

So Jane stands up. Perhaps Jane Eyre endures so well because it was so far ahead of its time; Jane stands up, speaks out against corruption and largely gets away from it. And people today like to make a big deal about how Jane was a woman doing this, but that's the brilliance of Charlotte Bronte: for the statements she is making, it could only be a female protagonist making the arguments. There's a (mostly) inspired episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine entitled "Far Beyond The Stars" which has Captain Benjamin Sisko living an alternate life on Earth in the early 1950s as a writer and he writes a story about a black space station commander. The story isn't going to be published until he agrees to make it into a dream because people of the time couldn't handle the concept in the socially restrictive '50s. Here in reality, sometimes the only way to truly fight the powers that be is to couch the truth in an obvious fiction. Bronte wrote Jane Eyre and in order to easily get away with the social commentary, Jane had to be a woman because it takes the teeth out of the bite for those who want to live in denial. In other words, those who can't handle the social commentary or want to deny it can simply say, "Look, no woman stands up like this, obviously it's just fiction, so this idea here is fiction, too." Sometimes the best way to hide the truth is in plain sight with arrows saying "Look, this never happens!"

But that's Bronte's brilliance. She creates a likable, determined, highly ethical character who sees the world for what it is. And Jane Eyre made its barbs under the radar of the time and now we are able to look back now and see that women were just as clever in the 19th Century as they were in the 21rst. It's hard not to love that.

For other classics, please check out my reviews of:
William Shakespeare: The Complete Works
Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison
Leaves Of Grass By Walt Whitman


For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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