Booklovers all have stories we return to over and over again. One of mine is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë—but I don’t just reread it, I revisit it like a friend. I read my favorite chapters when I’m lonely, consult it when I need advice, turn to it when I feel lost or need comfort. Though it’s over 150 years old, I still find something new and relevant in it each time.
I first read Jane Eyre when I was fifteen, and it’s remained my favorite novel since then. I love it for the characters and atmosphere—Jane’s fierce independence, her romance with Rochester, the gothic allure of Brontë’s writing—but also for the way those things have challenged me.
One of the first things that struck me about the novel is the fantastical and gothic elements and how they’re included in the story. From the ghostly red room to Jane and Rochester’s eerie, moonlit meeting to Rochester’s frequent teasings that Jane is one of the fairy folk, fantasy is part of the everyday in Jane Eyre.
This isn’t entirely unusual for a novel from the Victorian era: Victorians loved fairy tales. Andrew Lang’s fairy tale collections, Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market,” and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are all products of the Victorian fascination with fantasy.
But the way Brontë portrays the fantastic elements goes deeper than surface level. Jane and Rochester’s relationship contains elements of mysticism—from Rochester’s humorous impersonation of a fortune teller to the way Jane and Rochester, agonizing over losing each other, each hear the other’s voice calling to them during their separation. These things are eerie and beautiful; they render the love story impossible to contain in earthly bonds.
In this way and others, the novel depicts romance quite differently from the Victorian norm. This is one reason the novel was so popular (and criticized by some) after it was published. Jane and Rochester’s relationship is powerful and intense from the start, and Brontë wrote it with a fiery passion woven into the words on the page. It’s partly the restraint and tension that make it so intense, but I still marvel at how moving it is even to modern-day readers who aren’t used to the same censors on romantic and sexual content that Victorian readers were.
Romance and Subverted Power Dynamics
I especially love how Jane and Rochester develop feelings for each other not because of shallow physical attraction but because of a much deeper kind. I’ll call it an understanding: At their cores, they understand each other in an almost mystical way. Their relationship is based in intellect, in challenging each other to think differently and in talking about issues and philosophical ideas that matter to them. At fifteen, this kind of basis for love was foreign to me; at almost twenty-eight, I’ve still never read another love story quite like it. It represents a bond that transcends the normal human experience, and I think it’s utterly beautiful.
I also appreciate the frank, unflinching way Brontë explored power dynamics in Jane and Rochester’s relationship, including the initial imbalance of power between them. One scene that stands out is when Rochester threatens sexual violence when Jane announces she’s leaving him. (The movie adaptations usually gloss over this scene.) Rochester is both a hero and a villain in the novel, and I love that Brontë depicted the more troublesome aspects of his character and built a relationship between him and Jane that is complex, layered, and utterly imperfect.
Some readers see Rochester’s maiming and blinding as a way to “lower” him to Jane’s level—the level of a woman in Victorian society—and look upon this choice by Brontë unfavorably, but I have a different take. I see it as Rochester being cleansed (literally in fire, even) for his sins, having to shed his controlling nature and toxic masculinity in order to deserve Jane as his equal and partner. His wounds are his battle scars, his reminder of what he has learned and overcome. While there are problematic elements to the way Brontë refers to Rochester’s disabilities, there is also something powerful in this message. In Brontë’s time, a man of Rochester’s wealth and social standing would have been considered far too good to marry a servant like Jane, and this cultural aspect is explored in the novel. However, Brontë subverts this norm when she shows readers that it was actually Rochester who had to prove his worth to Jane.
The main aspect of the novel I turn to during times of sadness or stress is Jane’s determination to live by her own moral code. Though she is influenced by her religious beliefs and the norms of the time, she also makes her own decisions. She chooses not to marry St. John because she doesn’t love him romantically. She chooses to return to Rochester not knowing he no longer has a wife. Her strength and strong will have always been reminders to me to live my life according to my own moral code: to trust in myself and to find strength in my own independence.
Feeling like rereading Jane Eyre? Check out the complete annotated text of Jane Eyre on eNotes!
I never liked 19th century fiction but I understand. When I am lost and forget who I am as a writer I reread Cormac to remember, even though I am a very different kind of writer.
Love Jane Eyre! Read the book and have seen a number of movies based on the book. My favorite is the one with Timothy Dalton!
I’ve not read Jane Eyre, but I consider what you have written and compare it to my reading of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I find it amazing how these authors not only had such depth of insight into a variety of topics, such as morals and relationship dynamics, but put it all into words using the voices and thoughts of the characters they created. One critic quoted on Wikipedia warns though that “the close first person perspective leaves the reader [of Jane Eyre] ‘too uncritically accepting of her worldview’, and often leads reading and conversation about the novel towards supporting Jane, regardless of how irregular her ideas or perspectives are.” However I find this true of lots of things I might read, or even watch on screen.
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