I read Jane Eyre when I was fifteen years old. I loved it! At the time, I would not have been able to tell why exactly, but I did think that it was a great romance novel. Later on television, I saw the 1943 Jane Eyre movie starring Orson Wells and Joan Fontaine and was forever enchanted with these memorable characters. Wells luminescent voice simply brought not only Jane Eyre (Joan Fontaine) to her knees but impressed me as well. Now, at 65, I understand why it is a great novel and considered to be a classic. Jane Eyre, to me, is my most memorable classic heroine.
The less than ideal Victorian men in Jane Eyre's life only serve to support her shift toward womanhood. Most of those characters represent some antithesis of gentlemanly conduct. She stands up to them, never fears them, and usually surpasses them. In addition, Jane always learns something from her male counterparts. What a girl!
John Reed, Jane's cousin, thinks it is his job to make Jane feel and look beneath him. What a snivelling little twerp (as my granddaughter would say)! Jane more delicately describes him as
...large and stout for his age, with a dingy and unwholesome skin.
She appears to do John's bidding, but in the end does not care that she will be punished simpy by making sure he suffers as well. In the end, poor John becomes an alcoholic and dies penniless.
Mr. Brocklehurst represents the part of society that pretends to walk the life of religion, but, in reality, everything he does is only to enhance his standing and increase his wealth. He does nothing to help the little girl, who only needed his guidance and a kind word. Instead, Jane receives only what is necessary to survive and the education that she determines to acquire. From her time at the school, she earns the respect of the other students and the ability to stand on her own.
The next male relationship in Jane's life is our supposed "hero." Mr. Rochester seems to work against being called a gentleman of the time. He is not handsome; he has secrets that he can not share; and he is not forthright in his association with Eyre. Rochester sees something in Jane that she does not see in herself: her insight into the character of others. Immediately, he was drawn to her, and she to him.
As the Bronte reader knows, the truth will come out in the end. For Jane, discovering that Rochester had not been truthful with her breaks her heart:
Mr. Rochester was not what he had been; for he was not what I thought him. I would not ascribe vice to him; I would not say that he had betrayed me...
When her marriage ceremony is stopped, Jane is forced to run away and actually become an independent woman. Through her travels, she finds friends and family that help her to know what she really wants. Together she and Rochester will stand together independently and dependently as married people do.
Jane Eyre discovered that men are not perfect, but human; and women can stand strong and resolute alone. In the world of 1847 and for the later generations, Charlotte Bronte provided a heroine who might not live happily ever after but who would live on her own terms.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Alfred A. Knopf inc., 1991.