In Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, what causes Edward Rochester to change, in what ways is he able to change his approach to life and do the changes seem consistent with his personal beliefs?
In Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Edward Rochester is forced to make drastic changes in his life after he realizes he has married a madwoman.
Rochester is a member of the upper-class; he once lived the happy and carefree existence of an unmarried man of wealth. While traveling in the West Indies, he fell in love with a woman who became his wife, Bertha. However, he was unaware that Bertha was insane. Dangerous and uncontrollable, Rochester has been forced to house her on the upper floors at Thornfield, her care provided by Grace Poole. Knowledge that Rochester is married is kept secret. It is only his vast fortune that allows him to manipulate his life into something he can find bearable, but he seems haunted knowing his is not a free man.
In the midst of his personal devastation, Rochester becomes a wild and tormented soul. Spending as much time away from home gives him release from the terrible truth that consumes him: that he will spend the rest of his life unable to marry or have children because Bertha is in no condition to be his wife. Edward is often away from Thornfield, visiting infrequently. Jane is hired to care for his ward, Adele, who comments on Rochester's absence from the estate, and speaks also to his character:
Mr. Rochester asked me if I would like to go and live with him in England, and I said yes…he was always kind to me and gave me pretty dresses and toys: but you see he has not kept his word, for he has brought me to England, and now he is gone back again himself, and I never see him.
Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper, also makes note of Rochester's absences:
Mr. Rochester's visits here are rare, they are always sudden and unexpected.
Jane questions Mrs. Fairfax about her employer:
"In what way is he peculiar?"
“I don't know—it is not easy to describe—nothing striking, but you feel it when he speaks to you: you can not be always sure whether he is in jest or earnest, whether he is pleased, or the contrary; you don't thoroughly understand him, in short—at least, I don't…”
This exchange allows the reader to understand that Rochester is perceived as unpredictable. However, one can also infer that he struggles to live with a foot in two different worlds: the world of responsibility and disappointment, and the world that existed for him before his ill-fated marriage. As Mrs. Fairfax further explains...
...…he is considered a just and liberal landlord by his tenants […] he is a very good master.”
The man Rochester becomes does not seem consistent to the person he once was. We can infer by his behavior with his wealthy visitors that he is brash and uncaring; everything he does is accepted because of his great wealth—his wealth is what allows him to change as need be. However, it is his very different reaction to Jane that exemplifies the very things that are important to him: things we can infer were dreams before his disastrous marriage.
As the story progresses, Rochester has house guests, and pays a great deal of attention to Blanche Ingram. As Jane grows to know this sometimes playful, sometimes surly man, she begins to fall in love with him. When it seems that he is about to marry Blanche, he suddenly changes his mind and proposes to Jane (asking God to forgive him). Jane still does not know who the woman upstairs is. In this we see Rochester deciding that he will not let misfortune rob him of the woman he loves—who is not the rich, elegant and dismissive Blanche, but the kind and gentle Jane who has grown devoted to Rochester.
On their wedding day, however, Bertha's brother arrives and exposes the identity of his sister and her relationship to Edward. Jane flees, heartbroken. For a moment Edward had thought to overcome his circumstances—in defiance of society and even God—but failed.
A year later, when Jane senses that he needs her, she returns to Thornfield. Seeing the wreckage of the hall, Jane receives news from the host at the inn. He describes Rochester as a man thoroughly in love with his ward's governess. We see the makings of a man who knew devotion. And by the host's description, the changes listed exemplify who Edward was before disaster set upon him a second time in his life:
The governess had run away two months before; and for all Mr. Rochester sought her as if she had been the most precious thing he had in the world, he never could hear a word of her; and he grew savage… he never was a wild man, but he got dangerous after he lost her. […] He broke off acquaintance with all the gentry, and shut himself up, like a hermit, at the Hall.”
Heartbroken, Edward sends away all those around him to live alone, grieving. The host describes the man Rochester had been:
...for a more spirited, bolder, keener gentleman than he was before that midge of a governess crossed him you never saw, ma'am.
However, we also learn more about the character of Rochester. When the house is ablaze, Edward runs in to save the servants; then, for all of the pain Bertha had caused him, we see the character of the man shine through. It was she that set the house on fire. She is running on the roof, and Edward tries to save her, calling out to her and extending her hand. Instead, she jumps to her death. In attempting to leave the building, the staircase collapses beneath him, crippling and blinding him.
Drawing inferences from those around him, we are presented with a character study of a man of wealth that had dreams of future happiness. When he discovers the nature of his wife and her illness, he is able (because of his wealth) to find someone to care for her and keep her out of the public's eye. He also leaves Thornfield as often as possible to escape the torment of what his life has become. Adele, Mrs. Fairfax and the host at the inn describe his character glowingly. It is not the secret of his wife what makes Edward wrong, but his desire to marry when he already has a wife. While he seems a fair master to his tenants and kind to his ward, he turns his back on what he knows is right and secretly tries to marry Jane to find the happiness he so desperately wants. After Jane leaves, Bertha sets fire to the house. Edward is punished because he turned his back on what he knew was right.
As is the case with most people, which lends credibility to the story and its characters, Edward is not perfect. In turning his back on what is decent and honorable, he pays a terrible price. Trying to save Bertha in the fire is a redeeming choice and is consistent with the man Rochester truly is. In the end, he is rewarded by Jane's return and her enduring devotion.