The first time I read Jane Eyre was seven or eight years ago. I had just finished up a semester at BYU and was looking forward to some long overdue fun reading. Mike suggested Jane Eyre (believe it or not, it's one of his favorite novels), and I was soon engrossed in the story.
But Mike wouldn't let me read in peace. He kept badgering me with questions: "What's happening now? What did you think about that?," etc. etc, until I finally got so fed up, I asked, "Do you just want me to read it to you?"
He did, and reading it with him made the plot twists and character development even more enjoyable. I can vividly remember the Saturday morning when we woke up and decided to read a little before we got up for the day. We must not have had anything pressing to get to because we ended up just staying in bed until we had finished the book.
When my book club decided to read Jane Eyre, I knew enough time had passed that I wanted to reread it. I'm so glad I did! I was surprised with how much I'd forgotten. Basically, only two things had stuck with me: sweet Helen from Jane's days at boarding school and Mr. Rochester's deranged wife (it's pretty hard to forget something like that even with four pregnancies trying their hardest to wreak havoc on my brain cells).
I find it funny that I could so clearly remember where I was when I finished the book, but I could remember absolutely nothing about the ending itself. It was so delightful to get to enjoy all the surprises of the book the first time and then get to enjoy almost all of them again a second time (bless you, pregnancies).
The story is told from Jane's point of view, as a sort of memoir or autobiography. She begins with her childhood, dismal and tragic due to being left in the care of her uncle's wife, who cares nothing for her and finds every opportunity to chastise and punish her. Then she is sent away to Lowood (a religious boarding school), and despite its being founded on principles of extreme self-denial, Jane finds it a bright and welcome reprieve. There she meets Helen and Miss Temple, both of whom shape and nurture her in profound ways. When she reaches the age of eighteen, and Helen and Miss Temple are both gone, she realizes Lowood has nothing else to offer her, and she applies for a governess position at far away Thornfield Hall.
It is several months before Jane meets the master of the house, Mr. Rochester, and when she does, she is surprised with how easily she forms a friendship with him and how much she enjoys spending time in his company. But Thornfield is full of secrets, and when the floodgates suddenly burst open and Jane discovers all, everything she believes in is threatened, and she discovers just how strong she really is.
And now, I'm finding myself at a loss for what to say next. In the midst of my profound love for this book, my thoughts are reduced to, "Jane is awesome. Jane is awesome. Jane is awesome . . . ," but that does little to convey why I admire her character so much.
Actually, as much as I admire Jane, it's really Charlotte Brontë who holds my esteem. Wow. I cannot believe she wrote such a strong female character in the mid-19th-century. She lets us see Jane's most personal and poignant thoughts. She doesn't let Jane be bullied (and she gives us three very different examples of aggressive, controlling men--Mr. Brocklehurst, Mr. Rochester, and St. John). She makes Jane independent and kind, strong-willed and compliant. She creates, in my opinion, the ultimate feminist. (This article in the Huffington Post, shared at book club by my friend, Holli, lists the reasons for Jane's awesomeness much better than I ever could.)
For all that praise though, Jane is far from perfect. She has a temper, and she is wont to complain about the injustices she sees in her life. Because of this, she is not only a character we can respect and admire but also one we can relate to. Over time, she overcomes many of her childish tendencies and becomes the kind of person who can leave behind the love of her life (plus food, shelter, and other necessities) in order to hold fast to her strong moral convictions. Here are a few of my favorite quotes describing Jane's strength of character:
"I was experiencing an ordeal: a hand of fiery iron grasped my vitals. Terrible moment: full of struggle, blackness, burning! Not a human being that ever lived could wish to be loved better than I was loved; and him who thus loved me I absolutely worshipped: and I must renounce love and idol. One drear word comprised my intolerable duty - 'Depart!'"
When Mr. Rochester asks, "Is it better to drive a fellow-creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law, no man being injured by the breach?," this reply follows, "This was true: and while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. 'Oh, comply!' it said . . . 'Who in the world cares for you?' . . . Still indomitable was the reply: 'I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad--as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is not temptation: they are for such moments as this . . . "
"I felt veneration for St. John--veneration so strong that its impetus thrust me at once to the point I had so long shunned. I was tempted to cease struggling with him--to rush down the torrent of his will into the gulf of his existence, and there lose my own. I was almost as hard beset by him now as I had been once before, in a different way, by another. I was a fool both times. To have yielded then would have been an error of principle; to have yielded now would have been an error of judgment."I'll try to resist quoting the rest of the book . . . but only with great difficulty.
I also think this book was far ahead of its time in expressing feelings of passion and love. As much as I love Jane Austen's novels, you have to admit that there's a lot of beating around the bush in them with pages and pages leading up to a two-sentence declaration of love.
Mr. Rochester shows no such restraint, and instead there are pages and pages where he expresses his extreme adoration of Jane, such as, "Jane, you look blooming, and smiling, and pretty . . . Is this my pale little elf? Is this my mustard-seed? This little sunny-faced girl with the dimpled cheek and rosy lips; the satin-smooth hazel hair, and the radiant hazel eyes?" (I love the line that Jane follows with: "I had green eyes, reader; but you must excuse the mistake; for him they were new-dyed, I suppose.")
Or this one: "No--no--Jane; you must not go. No--I have touched you, heard you, felt the comfort of your presence--the sweetness of your consolation: I cannot give up these joys. I have little left in myself--I must have you . . . My very soul demands you: it will be satisfied, or it will take deadly vengeance on its frame."
The fact that I'm sharing so many quotes is a testament to how much I loved this book. I feel compelled to save them somehow so that I can find them easily and quickly in the future.
When I read this book for the first time, it quickly climbed to the top of my list of favorites. It stayed there through the years, even as my memory of the plot faded, because of what I remember feeling when I read it. Reading it a second time did not lessen my love for it one whit. I've changed in the years that have passed. My life and circumstances have also changed. But Jane still inspires me. The mystery and passion of the plot still thrill me. And the ending still makes my heart swell with happiness. I think it's safe to say this book will remain a favorite for the rest of my life and that this will not be the last time I read it.