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Mini-review: Jane Eyre

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Finally finished reading Jane Eyre.

I originally picked it up because I wanted to read The Eyre Affair and figured I should read the original first, even though I'd been told it wasn't necessary to enjoyment of the Fforde book.

I think I read a bit of Jane Eyre in some online version on my computer; then in December, I received a Nexus One phone, with a lovely high-resolution screen, and downloaded the book and started reading it on the phone, in the Aldiko ebook reader app. But I didn't always have that phone with me.

A week ago, I got an iPhone 4, and installed iBooks. And it's lovely, and the screen is great, and I always have it with me, and I read the second half of the book in less than a week. (Even though I have to confess that Aldiko is actually a slightly nicer reading experience than iBooks, in that it fits more words on a page at a given font size.)

Some general impressions:

(Spoiler warning: this entry contains many major spoilers. I know many of you think it's ridiculous to give spoiler warnings for centuries-old books; y'all can just ignore this paragraph. The warning is for the people like me who like to avoid knowing plots ahead of time, regardless of the age of the work.)

I didn't like the first four or five chapters. Jane seemed disagreeable; she was surrounded by truly awful other kids and adults; it looked like the whole book was going to be one long exercise in showing the horrible mistreatment of a truculent and stubborn kid. (And I had a vague idea that Jane was going to end up insane in an attic, which seemed entirely plausible from those opening chapters.)

But I kept reading a little longer. And the Lowood school chapters were less unpleasant, and it gradually began to look like the heroine (a) might be somewhat sympathetic after all, and (b) might not be doomed to a novel's worth of unrelenting misery.

But I still wasn't loving the book. Until Rochester showed up.

And I really liked almost every part of the book that had Rochester in it.

I don't especially like him. He's arrogant and manipulative and overly fond of secrets, deception, and messing with people's heads.

But I loved the dynamic between him and Jane. It made her a much more likable character; I was really pleased with her strong-willed refusal to give in to him.

And then the plot developed (I saw where it was going well ahead of time, perhaps because of the vague things I'd heard about a madwoman in an attic), and Jane fled; and then along came St. John.

Who I disliked pretty strongly, once his true character came out. I know Jane makes a point, over and over, of saying how good and true and noble St. John is despite his character flaw of coldness and lack of awareness of other people's needs and desires; but I don't really buy it. His behavior toward Jane is stupendously awful. Jane tells us that St. John is snubbing her only because he is concerned about her soul and wants her to live up to his idea of a higher calling for her; but he behaves exactly like someone who's hurt and offended and feeling defensive over a personal rejection.

I have behaved that way myself (though I hope to a lesser degree than St. John). I hereby apologize to those to whom I've behaved that way. In the future, if I notice myself behaving that way, I shall attempt to remind myself of what a repulsive slug St. John is when he's behaving that way.

The whole Oh, I'm not offended, and I'm certainly not treating you any differently than usual, I have no idea what you're talking about business is particularly awful. It's an insidious kind of manipulativeness that made my skin crawl; his whole approach read to me a lot like abusive behavior.

Anyway, I persevered, and I was glad Jane held out, and the ending is lovely and sweet and terribly romantic.

So I'm glad to have finally read the book. There was a lot of funny stuff in it; Jane is a great character; I love the proto-feminism of her strength of will. But I could have done without most of the parts that didn't feature Rochester—not because of him, but because I think being around him brings out Jane's truest self.

On a side note, there's some fascinating class stuff in this book, especially in the St. John section. Jane goes out of her way to avoid being class-conscious, and to talk about how great her poor rural pupils are (much better than poor rural pupils in other countries, at any rate); she's willing to sit in the kitchen and do servants' work; and yet she gets very upset at the notion that someone might interpret her begging as her being a beggar. There's a lot of that kind of thing in the book—an odd mix of outspoken opposition to the idea of the superiority of the upper classes, with apparently unconscious reinforcement of that idea.

Anyway. There's lots more to be said about the book, and much of it has been said in the past 150 years. I haven't read any criticism about it beyond the Wikipedia article, but it's clear that I'm barely scratching the surface here. Which is why I'm labeling this as a mini-review; I don't intend it to be a thorough examination of the book, just a few thoughts in passing.

2 Comments

Took me for freakin ever to read that book. I gave up early on the first time I read it, for just the reasons you mentioned--the opening chapters were so horrible!! At some point I saw the movie, though, and enjoyed that so much I went back and read the book; then I could see why everyone had raved about it.

Still, give me Wuthering Heights every time. ;)


I read Jane Eyre more than ten years ago, in high school, and enjoyed it. I think I've reread it a few times since then. What a ride it is! She does have such a strong, fascinating personality and voice, and goes through so much, and her happy ending is so sweet and she's REALLY earned it.

Some notes and thoughts:

Are you also interested in reading The Wide Sargasso Sea, as long as you're reading Eyre fanfic? I haven't yet.

There is this whole tradition, in Dahl and Orwell &c. &c., of writing heartwrenchingly about the childhoods of misunderstood and ill-treated British children, in the home and at boarding school. I can be all voyeuristic when enjoying that subgenre but it makes me feel guilty. Eyre specifically awoke me to the scenario where the people around someone hate her and thus label all her behavior negatively, including her self-defense and her attempts to avoid provoking their wrath. Gosh, abusers hate it when you have boundaries! In a sense, all of Eyre is about the question of how to win an unfair (social) fight, and I should go back and reread again with that in mind.

I kind of wish Currer Bell hadn't just passed so lightly over the many years Eyre spent happily schoolteaching. I know it would break the heartstring-pulling momentum of the early-to-middle book, but I'd love to read about that period of her life, how she enjoyed it, and what she learned. (Maybe there's fanfic!)

Rochester and St. John are both massive mindgame players, aren't they. I sometimes get a case of Why Don't You Just with them.

Oh, that bit at the end where Rochester says, don't wait till our honeymoon is over to visit us, because our honeymoon will be the rest of our lives: so meltingly romantic!

Jane Eyre is at the top of my "stories that would be very different if the Internet & easily accessible public records existed" list.


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