I must first present my particular conscientious approach to this book. I have heard many other avid readers describe Jane Eyre as one of the most notable among literary heroines. Naturally, I felt compelled to verify such an assertion for myself. I first abandoned the pop-culture subjectivity surrounding heroism; how people loosely define a hero according to their personal ambition or moral standard. I wanted to apply Jane Eyre to the literary tradition of heroism, from a universal, if not mythological, perspective. If Charlotte Bronte indeed experimented with the idea of heroism by filling the hero’s shoes with feminine feet, by distinguishing the essence of heroism from the traditionally defined masculinity permeating all its stories, she succeeded and portrayed a heroine fully engaged on the path of the universal and mythological heroic archetype.
Bronte purposefully chooses, I think, to tell Jane’s story in the form of a first-person narrative. Not only does the reader intimately understand the motives and emotions of our heroine, but upon careful consideration, the reader may also realize how Bronte’s narrative choice aids in understanding the essence of heroism itself. If Bronte would have dictated Jane’s story through the lens of an omniscient and reasonably omnipotent narrator, Jane might have come across as a tool; a simple symbol for an idea rather than a living and breathing element within a world which many of her readers, both in her generation and those in the future, desperately want to believe permits the the plausibility of change and growth. The reader may agree or disagree with Jane’s choices, but the narrative device compels the reader to honor those choices as Jane’s, as the reader would likely expect others to honor their choices and opinions. Also, consider the scene in which Jane draws likenesses of herself and Miss Ingram; how Jane appears as a simple, plain girl and Miss Ingram glows with the vivacious beauty of position and privilege. Of course, because Jane herself drew these portraits, they stand as projections of her own psyche, of how she imagines her own quality when compared to the estimation she holds of Miss Ingram. The entire narrative serves as such a portrait of Jane Eyre, though fluid and living, a projection of her psyche. With this projection we can gauge how she drastically changes the way she understands herself. For the mythological heroic archetype, the hero will, at some point, emerge as an enlightened figure, one who understands truth and, more importantly, how such a transformation contrasts their character against the status quo in which they live. Such a realization will adapt them for infusing life into the limp carcass of convention, the confining prison of the norm, because it no longer holds sway over their own understanding of themselves. Jane discards Miss Ingram as the measure against which she must qualify herself. The narrative style itself asserts the potency of this transformation.
The plot also follows the mythological tradition of heroism. Jane begins begins under abusive and meager circumstances, orphaned and vulnerable to the whims of those who would rather abandon her. As for the Reeds, who would love nothing more than to successfully impart upon Jane a sense of self-degradation and ceaseless submissiveness, I found their treatment strangely ironic. In order to maintain their self-righteous sense of philanthropy, they need Jane. With no other ambition or circumstance to prove their value as human beings, they depend on Jane, albeit subconsciously. Who else could John torment, without the slightest fear of reciprocity against him, if Jane departed? In fact, he falls to ruin after Jane leaves for Lowood. Jane paid her rent in standing their abuses, including an episode which could constitute one of many transformative events in Jane’s journey; abuses which the Reeds could not very well do without and maintain self-righteous.
Her journey to Lowood, where she meets Helen, a young girl who I believe mirrors Jane beautifully in mental capacity and wisdom but foreshadows Jane’s own fate if she ever conformed to the expectations of convention, signifies a maturing period for Jane when she grapples with her own natural obstinacy. Though I would not adamantly argue the point, Helen may qualify as a sort of heroic guide for Jane at this age. She admires Helen, but sees the limits in her perspective and the harm in her excessive humility; inspired by the force of an incredible convention posing as morality. Jane must transcend beyond the bounds of Helen’s fate, even her advice, but not abandon her example all together.
After leaving Lowood, Jane ventures out into the world. And the world has a name – Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester. The world is not kind. The world is not graceful. The world is full of anger, remorse, regret, vice, arrogance and not least of all power. Bronte may not intend for the reader to like Mr. Rochester and I dare say not many readers do, at first or at all. Yet I would ask: how many readers, and writers for that matter, cherish the world for the what it is rather than for what it can be. Many artists understand the world for its promise, at its core, and presently witness the mutilated shroud covering the real essence of the world. Jane falls in love with Rochester as every hero falls in love with the world; devotes themselves entirely to the betterment of it, to free the world from the mire of oppressive convention and lead it into the bliss of its natural potential, formerly stifled by self-righteous lords who would rather satisfy their propensity for bondage than face the blinding light of Life, frightened only because they cannot control it or produce it and therefore must acknowledge their necessary submission to it. They cannot imagine a freedom outside of their own making or understanding even though such a freedom would render their lives insufferably happy. Rochester represents such a world. He marries Bertha (whom I will ignore forthwith until I give her say and Bertha her due) simply for socio-economic gain, travels the world in search of hopeless vices incapable of providing happiness but more than willing to provide transient pleasures. He embodies the sorrow of the world and all its attempts to hide from itself by pulling the hideous shroud over its face.
The hero, however, must abandon the world in order to return to it as a transformed and enlightened revolutionary. After leaving Thornfield, she experiences a purifying fire of sorts. Penniless, with nothing of her own, she finds herself broken, free from the comforts of the world, and left alone before Mother Nature and Father God. During her excursion from Thornfield, she endures rain, sleeps outside and ponders and prays to God for guidance, with ethereal language I might add. In order to rebuild herself, she must first break, not only with all things tying her to the world, but in her Self as well in order to experience rebirth. Jane not only rebuilds herself, but discovers her true self; as a cousin with relations she never knew she possessed. She discovers that she values these relations over any fortune, a conviction firmly against the convention of the day. Yet the fortune allows her to live independently, circumstances for which Jane yearned. Now, some may express dismay when Jane abandons this independence to marry. But has she abandoned it? She chooses not to live alone, self-sufficient on her own devices, but are we to imprison her by the expectations and images of a modern-day conventional feminist? I believe Jane transcends even that idea, to Bronte’s credit. We cannot describe independence in terms of money but of spirit, of freedom, and the will to accomplish what one will.
I will say this: I despised St. John. Perhaps he represented her final temptation. He epitomized the very quality Jane had coveted – ambition, courage to embark independently for the glory of what he held as the most noble and admirable boon in life, in his case church missions. Yet in submitting to his request, Jane would have enslaved herself to his wishes and caged her heart against her calling to aid, save and lead the world she loves. She declined him on the grounds of her independent convictions and chose to return to Thornfield from the same place in her heart. She may have given up an independent living, something traditionally labeled as masculine, but, again, are we to limit the scope of feminism to the emulation of what is masculine? Do we not continue to glorify masculinity if we qualify proper feminism as the image of masculinity? Or do we understand feminism at a deeper level: to glorify and honor choice, the exercising of which men have always enjoyed their freedom. Extending that same exercise to women, free of conventional condemnation and judgement, and to whatever end, marks true equality between the sexes. And yet, St. John could also represent the hero who abandons his calling to enlighten the world around him. Granted, he missions to India to bring the good news of Christianity, but he does so from a sense of self-duty rather than devotion. He does it for himself rather than for the world.
Jane chooses to follow love; a love for a flawed man, as the hero chooses to follow his love for a flawed world, a world into which he injects new life as a figure freed from conventional expectation and outside evaluation. When Jane meets Rochester again, he stands as a broken man, as she did upon leaving him, prepared for re-invigoration at the hands of our heroine. Jane’s devotion to Mr. Rochester emulates the hero’s devotion to the world he once escaped in order to find himself, only to return and introduce his boon for the betterment of that world. We witness Rochester’s physical resuscitation and Jane’s honest devotion, free of conventional expectation and wholly derived from her true self, no longer compared internally to the psychologically projected image of Miss Ingram but understood and valued for its own beauty.
Such is the nature of Jane’s relationship with Edward Rochester. A heroine’s devotion to the world, once a sadistic status quo, and now, by her virtue, a reformed essence; like her, enjoying the freedom of devotion and, like her, enjoying the invigoration of an enlightened sense of truth regarding its potential, and now realized, happiness. Bronte fully embraces the mythological heroic archetype but sets a worthy woman to its quest. However, Bronte refuses to simply tell the story as that of a man in a woman’s body, but boldly describes traditional heroic experiences in the life of a woman and how that woman, whether the reader appreciates them, made her choices because they adhered to her nature, a nature she discovered while venturing down the heroic path. And who says she can’t?