Jane Eyre is the rare book that manages to be good by virtue of ineffable charm alone, despite not having very much going for it in terms of overall plot.There is something more going on in Jane Eyre than mere charm, true, something authentically powerful--if, as will be see, brief. But the power of Jane Eyre has less to do with the conflict of great forces that typifies great works of literature, and more to do with the subtle irritation of a delayed resolution to its most important episode. Instead of a race between values through the people who represent those values, Jane Eyre tasks us with a race to turn its pages and find out its secrets--still a race, but a race whose victory, barring the boredom of the reader, is assured.
There is something more going on in Jane Eyre than mere charm, true, something authentically powerful--if, as will be see, brief. But the power of Jane Eyre has less to do with the conflict of great forces that typifies great works of literature, and more to do with the subtle irritation of a delayed resolution to its most important episode. Instead of a race between values through the people who represent those values, Jane Eyre tasks us with a race to turn its pages and find out its secrets--still a race, but a race whose victory, barring the boredom of the reader, is assured.
The Basics: Jane Eyre
The word "episode" above is a clue to the larger problem. Jane Eyre is a novel built on episodes, loosely tied together by their common, likable and eponymous protagonist. Jane Eyre is an orphan in the care of her brutal relatives, who despise her due to her outspoken character combined with her low social station. They eventually foist her off on the grim boarding school of Lowood.
As a narrator, Jane is ideal: objective enough to provide us with a good account of events, outspoken enough to bump the plot along whenever it needs bumping, and virtuous enough never to frustrate our expectations. Often enough, our viewpoint is hers; only we're not quite so witty and we're without quite so apt an eye for injustice--again making Jane, in page-after-page of her revelations, a delight to read. The novel's rhetoric is also inventive, accomplishing its routine narrative tasks via devices more elaborate than are probably necessary, yet with something fresh about each.
Jane's attempt to chide herself into abandoning her interest in her brooding employer, Edward Rochester, takes the form of a contest between two mental pictures, and the inevitable attempt by Rochester to coax out Jane's feelings involves an elaborate and well-detailed ruse involving disguises and a gypsy fortuneteller. The book, and its narrator, both definitely have charm: we like Jane, we like what she says, and we want to see what she will say next.
What We Like About Jane Eyre
Where we like Jane the most is in the book's principal episode, which involves Jane working as a governess for a young charge of dark, Byronic Rochester amidst the mysteries of his dark, Byronic estate Thornfield--all revealed, of course, after many dark, Byronic outbursts of extreme sentiments that Charlotte Bronte probably enjoyed writing very much. And, Rochester is actually enjoyable: a match for Jane in terms of wit, impressive in his authority, and sympathetic in his vulnerability. He's likable enough, in fact, that once Jane begins to speculate on the possibility of becoming closer still to her employer, we realize that we like the idea of these two becoming a pair. Suddenly, the story floods with tension. We're no longer reading just because we happen to like Jane, but because we're invested in a likable outcome.
More: we're invested in a likable outcome that seems increasingly threatened by Rochester's secrets. Bronte hints at these with the facility of a mystery novelist: she knows the ideal times to drop a scream from the walls or a mysterious guest from the past into our laps. In her continued ability to strain, felicitously, at the bounds of rhetoric, she raises the novel to a level no mystery writer usually wants to attempt.
And the conclusion, when it finally hits, is worth the wait--not only raising the level of tension and rhetoric, but also the thematic level of the book as well. The Rochester episode is the story that everyone remembers from Jane Eyre, and the one part of the book that deserves to be called truly great.
- Review: 'Jane Eyre'
- 'Jane Eyre' Novel
- Terms / Vocabulary
- Questions for Study & Discussion
- 'The Life of Charlotte Bronte' Biography