Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1629
Jane’s Identity Quest: Jane Eyre is touted among scholars and critics as a quintessential bildungsroman, a literary genre loosely translated as a “coming-of-age story.” The bildungsroman is more formally defined as a novel focusing on the formative years of its protagonist, specifically personal and moral development from childhood to maturity. Highlight key turning points in the text regarding Jane’s character development, and discuss why they are significant. Suggested chapters: 2, 4, 27, 35, and 37.
- For discussion: How does Jane’s character change from the novel’s beginning at her early childhood at Gateshead to her ultimate marriage to Rochester as she enters adulthood at the end? In what ways does her character stay the same—or rather, the same, yet more refined or matured? What are some of the most important lessons Jane learns along the way?
Jane as an Empowered Woman: Jane Eyre is an influential text in the history of feminist literary criticism and is regarded as a key proto-feminist text, meaning it forwards feminist themes written before the coining of this specific term and movement in the 20th century. Gender equality is a central theme of Jane Eyre, the power dynamics between Jane and Rochester crucial factors in the development of their romance. While the Victorian period was male-dominated, and rigorous in its practice of strictly demarcated gender roles, it was also a period in which British women gained serious headway in questioning their subordinated status. As a cultural artifact, Jane Eyre is a testament to this movement. Discuss the significance of Jane as a proto-feminist heroine looking for independence in a patriarchal society. Suggested chapters: 12, 13, 14, 23.
- For discussion: Do you think Jane achieves genuine equality in her relationship with Rochester in the end? Is Jane confirming Victorian expectations of women by marrying him, or is she rebelling against these expectations by following her own heart and marrying a man seen as “unfit” for her?
- For discussion: Birds are a key motif throughout the text and a symbol to which Jane is frequently compared. What is the significance of this motif with particular regard to the theme of women’s independence?
Rochester as Byronic Hero: Rochester is widely regarded as a textbook Byronic hero, a romantic character trope which is the figure and persona of poet Lord Byron transformed into a staple character type: dark, sultry, passionate, and mysterious. Teach students the traits of the Byronic-hero character archetype, have them close read specific passages looking for how Rochester exemplifies this archetype, and discuss trope awareness as a useful rhetorical reading skill. Suggested chapters: 27, 37.
- For discussion: What do you think being a “Byronic hero” does for Rochester’s character? Does it make him more or less complex, more or less relatable? Do you think Rochester remains a Byronic hero throughout the entire text, or has he changed? Why or why not, and what might this suggest about his character?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Victorian Prose Style: While the writing in Jane Eyre is reasonably accessible for present-day readers, students typically think of Victorian literature as extremely verbose. Generally, most Victorian novels use eloquent diction, long-winded sentences, long paragraphs, and plot-dense chapters.
- What to do: As your class progresses through the novel, ask students to keep a vocabulary journal of words they aren’t familiar with. Have them look up and write definitions for these words, and make class-generated vocabulary lists for routine quizzes for SAT prep.
Parlez-vous français?: One of the characters in the text, Adèle Varens (Rochester’s ward and Jane’s pupil), speaks only French. As Brontë’s 19th-century English audience would have generally had some familiarity with the French language, Adèle’s less-complicated dialogue often goes untranslated.
- What to do: Let your class know beforehand that small phrases of French will appear periodically as they read. Tell students that Adèle is a child, and that her dialogue is easy to follow using context clues or an online translator.
Phrenology and Victorian Pseudoscience: At certain points throughout the text, characters mention the “physiognomy” of a given individual or the personal qualities that facial features express. One example is in chapter 29, in which St. John makes assumptions about Jane’s history and character based solely on the features of her face. Such scenes are due to the popularity of phrenology in the 19th century, a now-debunked pseudoscience which theorized that the characteristics and tendencies of individuals are externally represented in their facial features. An incredibly socially dangerous theory, phrenology has since been disproven by the tenets of modern science.
- What to do: A brief lesson on various strange Victorian pseudoscience phenomena is educational, fun, and works to distance more impressionable students from the danger of outmoded theories. From poisonous make-up to seances with the dead, the prim and proper Victorians were wild in their own way.
Rochester in Disguise: A strange and inconsistent part of the novel is chapter 19, in which Rochester dresses up as an old fortune-telling gypsy woman from a traveling gypsy camp come into the area. These “gypsies” were most likely Romani, a nomadic culture often subject to discrimination and stereotyping throughout history.
- What to do: Ask students their impressions of this chapter—was it humorous, surprising, weird? Explain the social-historical background of Rochester’s costume, and discuss the subtle yet serious dangers inherent in this style of racialized humor.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching Jane Eyre
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
The Novel as Commentary on Social Class: On her journey, Jane encounters individuals from all class backgrounds, from the richest to the poorest. The Reeds are a wealthy family, yet each member is either morally corrupt at worst or seriously flawed at best; Miss Ingram is high-caste, beautiful, and accomplished, yet her character has only greed and contempt for the lower class. The Rivers are in difficult financial straits yet generously open their doors to Jane in her time of need; members of the serving class such as Bessie and Hannah seem rude and crass at first but are revealed to have good, caring hearts. For Jane and Rochester, a major troubling factor in their love story is the enormous divide between them when it comes to money and status. Discuss with students Jane Eyre’s capacity as a social critique on class division, a reading often overlooked in favor of its more popular readings as a bildungsroman and romance.
- For discussion: What message do you think Jane Eyre conveys regarding themes of social class and money? What relationships can you see between people’s status and money versus their moral and personal characters? Are Jane and Rochester rebelling against class-based inequality by marrying as equals, or are they ultimately adapting or conforming to these social mores with the advent of Jane’s inheritance?
The Madwoman in the Attic: As no work of Gothic fiction is complete without its “monster,” Jane Eyre’s “monster,” Bertha Mason, is a severely mentally-ill Caribbean woman despised and imprisoned by her British husband. This problematic fact of the text is too often overlooked and unaddressed, yet Jane Eyre’s Bertha has preoccupied feminist and colonial literary critics for decades. During the Victorian period, about a quarter of the globe’s land surface was under British rule. Note that Bertha is a Jamaican creole woman, and that her marriage to Rochester was arranged as a reciprocal exchange of status for fortune between two families. Focus on the novel with respect to Bertha’s character and story rather than Jane’s and the injustices which appear in portraying Bertha as a “monster.”
- For discussion: How is Bertha a foil to Jane? What do we know about Bertha’s backstory and origins, and how does the text describe her appearance and character? What do we know about Jane’s origins, and how does her POV describe her appearance and character? How might readers’ view of Bertha be shaped by the novel’s subjective first-person narration? How might this character speak to the history of the novel’s era?
Comparative Analysis with Film Adaptation: This approach is a great way to foreground to students that a film adaptation of a novel is an interpretation of a text, not a stand-in for the text itself. As a class, watch the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre. You might show the film part-by-part alongside the novel as you progress through reading it or have a celebratory “movie day” once you’ve finished the text.
- For discussion (text vs. film): How does the film “translate” the novel’s representations of scene and character from page to screen? Based on descriptions in the original text, what are the ways that the film constructs components such as imagery, tone, and mood? Do you find these methods effective? Why or why not?
- For discussion (POV): Jane Eyre is a novel narrated entirely in the first-person. Do you see this carrying on into the film at all? What do you think are some of the advantages and disadvantages of adapting a book that so heavily relies on first-person narration?
- For discussion (plot sequence): For plot progression, the novel begins with Jane’s childhood and ends with her marriage. The film, however, begins in medias res: the plot sequence starts with Jane’s running away from Thornfield and builds up the background as to how she ended up in this predicament throughout. Why do you think the filmmakers might have made this choice? Do you find it an effective diversion from the original text?
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