Among the gifts I received from my students last semester was a new understanding of how Jane Eyre provides a healthy relationship model for young women. I particularly have in mind essays written by Michelle Williams and Tessa Haynes.
Michelle was distressed by the number of “warning signals” that Jane overlooks in her relationship with Rochester. As Michelle laid them out, they comprise an impressive list:
–Rochester keeps his identity secret upon their first encounter;
–He disguises himself as a gypsy to draw her out;
–He invites Blanche Ingram over to make her jealous (Jane learns this on the day before the wedding);
–He fails to provide a comprehensive explanation for the madwoman in the house;
–He makes strange pronouncements, like the following:
“God pardon me!” he subjoined ere long; “and man meddle not with me: I have her, and will hold her.”
“There is no one to meddle, sir. I have no kindred to interfere.”
No—that is the best of it,” he said. And if I had loved him less I should have thought his accent and look of exultation savage; but, sitting by him, roused from the nightmare of parting—called to the paradise of union—I thought only of the bliss given me to drink in so abundant a flow. Again and again he said, “Are you happy, Jane?” And again and again I answered, “Yes.” After which he murmured, “It will atone—it will atone. Have I not found her friendless, and cold, and comfortless? Will I not guard, and cherish, and solace her? Is there not love in my heart, and constancy in my resolves? It will expiate at God’s tribunal. I know my Maker sanctions what I do. For the world’s judgment—I wash my hands thereof. For man’s opinion—I defy it.”
And lest she miss the hint, heaven sends its own warning:
But what had befallen the night? The moon was not yet set, and we were all in shadow: I could scarcely see my master’s face, near as I was. And what ailed the chestnut tree? it writhed and groaned; while wind roared in the laurel walk, and came sweeping over us.
And then the next morning:
Before I left my bed in the morning, little Adèle came running in to tell me that the great horse-chestnut at the bottom of the orchard had been struck by lightning in the night, and half of it split away.
So, ladies, if you’ve already got doubts about him and then the tree under which you passionately kiss is struck by lightning later that night, take a hard second look.
Only, according to Tessa, it is the very desire for thoughtless immersion that draws Jane to Rochester. In her essay Tessa smartly compared Jane’s attraction to Rochester with Belle’s attraction to the vampire Edward in the teenage gothic sensation Twilight. I think Tessa got the emotional dynamics right in both works.
Tessa began her essay with a discussion of the unhealthy attraction that teenage girls have for certain romances:
Despite an increase in female authors over the past century, there is still a surprising lack of realistic heroines with self-conviction and independence, particularly in popular young adult literature. The entire plot for many heroines is driven not by psychological development (as in most cases with male characters) but by romance. These characters achieve happiness by cultivating or creating a relationship with a man. Modern stories like Twilight and The Last Song fall under this category. Even Hunger Games and City of Bones, despite being fantasy adventure novels, still have main female protagonists who find their happily-ever-after through male dependency. I am not saying these are horrible books. Some of them, I adore. But as a collective, they are sending the message that a woman’s happiness is dependent on a man. Twilight, in particular, has a negative impact on young readers. The book teaches women that emotionally abusive relationships are fine as long as you love each other.
Tessa pointed out that Twilight and Jane Eyre (up to the wedding) are not all that different. Here’s her description of the Twilight plot:
Bella Swan is virtually adaptable to fit the needs of any adolescent girl in America. She is an angst ridden teenager with low self-esteem coping with the woes of every other person her age; making friends in a new place, getting through high school, and finding a boyfriend. She might be a little bit whiny but at base level, Bella is an incredibly vague set of boots to fill for any pubescent girl who picks up the book. That is why so many girls like her and like Edward even more, the sparkling knight in shining armor that makes her feel loved.
But that is where the storyline gets scary. Bella quickly falls in love with this golden eyed, pale teenage boy and completely ignores the warning signs that something very sinister is going on. All her new friends in Forks don’t seem to like him or his family and they verbally warn her about him. One moment, he is incredibly interested in her and the next, he won’t even talk to her. His eyes change color, something that she has a sneaking suspicion has to do with his eating habits. Sometimes he stares at her hungrily, as if she could become a part of those eating habits. The list of warning signs is endless but Bella gets pulled in anyway.
And when it is revealed that Edward is a vampire that is intoxicated with the smell of her blood, Bella stays instead of running thousands of miles away. This is supposed to be seen as a sign of faith and love in the books—she tells Edward that it doesn’t matter what he is—but nestled within her persistence is a very real metaphor for someone stuck in a horrible relationship. She sees Edward as someone who can love her and give her attention because she can’t love herself. She is entirely reliant on him, to the point where it is dangerous. When Edward leaves her, she commits suicidal acts in order to “feel” him with her, and throughout the series she asks Edward to essentially kill her so that she can be a vampire and live with him forever. At one point in the first book, he nearly does but this does nothing to deter her affection.
Tessa then went on to note Jane’s resemblances to Bella:
Jane in the beginning of the novel is very similar to Bella, although her back story is much worse. She is abused and neglected at a young age, which teaches her how to bear pain and move on with little to no retaliation. This can be seen as a good thing. It allows for her own form of strength, a strength in endurance that helps her survive many hardships that others would be unable to. But these abuses also teach her to think very lowly of herself–just like Bella–and this is what her initial toxic relationship with Rochester stems from.
From the moment she begins loving him, she is convinced it is unrequited. She feels that she is completely under his control and that there is no reciprocal emotion. “He made me love him without even looking at me,” she states, when she first discovers her feelings for him.
Like Michelle, Tessa pointed out the danger signs:
Even before Rochester even reveals his feelings for her, there are various warning signs of the toxicity of their relationship. Similar to Edward, Rochester’s actions towards Jane are very polar. When the two of them are alone, he loves talking to her but then completely ignores her in instances with less privacy. When Miss Ingram and her mother are talking badly of Jane and other governesses while she is within hearing distance, Rochester does nothing to steer the conversation in another direction; in fact, he provokes it by egging her ladyship into telling the audience Jane’s noticeable faults. Later in the book, we find out that Rochester does have feelings for Jane, but he toys with her as if she were an emotionless object rather than a human. He constantly pays attention to Miss Ingram and practically marries her just to play a game with Jane’s feelings. Jane, who is used to being treated poorly, does not care, for she could not un-love him
merely because [she] found he ceased to notice [her]—because [she] might pass hours in his presence, and he would never once turn his eyes in [her] direction—because all his attentions appropriated by a great lady, who scorned to touch [Jane] with the hem of her robes as she passed.
The house itself seems to be giving Jane warning signs; eerie laughter echoing through the halls, beds catching fire, guests getting attacked. But Jane chooses to turn a blind eye and remain embroiled in this messed up relationship because she believes that no one else cares for her except for Rochester.
Even after he reveals his feelings, their relationship remains one of dependence on Jane’s part. She continuously refers to him as sir and still looks down upon herself despite the fact she knows that he loves her. “Don’t address me as if I were a beauty,” she tells him. “I am your plain, Quakerish governess.” These small negative interactions between Rochester and Jane build up to the climactic reveal on their wedding day. He has been hiding a mad wife in his attic, an interesting parallel to Edward’s vampirism.
At this point, however, the parallels end. Tessa examined Jane’s internal conversation about whether she should become Rochester’s mistress or leave him. Here’s the key passage from the novel:
“Oh, comply!” [her compassion] said. “Think of his misery; think of his danger—look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature; consider the recklessness following on despair—soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?”
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 no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.”
Tessa wrote that this is one of “the shining moments in literature” and noted that Jane does something that Bella fails to do:
Jane Eyre acknowledges that their relationship is toxic and she acknowledges that she needs to leave it. “You shall tear yourself away,” a voice within her tells her. “None shall help you.” What is even more important about this scene is that she realizes that Rochester is not the only person who cares for her. She cares for herself. It takes every single bit of strength within her but, in the end, she leaves him sobbing on the sofa while she herself forces down all her desire to stay. Knowing that she will not be able to turn him down again, Jane leaves the house in the middle of the night. She has nowhere to go and very little money but the alternative of remaining at Thornfield is unthinkable. We can clearly see what would have happened to Jane if she had stayed just by looking at the events in the Twilight series where Bella eventually transforms into Meyers’ version of the mad woman in the attic: a vampire.
Tessa went on to describe how Jane builds up her self-esteem at Moor House and in her school, returning to Rochester only when she is strong enough to be her own woman. Tessa concluded by imagining a different ending for Twilight and, by extension, all such adolescent novels:
Now, imagine Bella Swan going through a similar transformation. Imagine that she sees the toxicity of her relationship with Edward and takes a step back, that she doesn’t keep coming back again and again whenever he tries to leave her. Instead, imagine Bella leaving and learning how to love herself without him, how to love being human. And then, in the end, she can choose whether their love is strong and pure enough to create a healthy relationship out of a toxic one. Think how much better it would be for all of those adoring adolescent fans to have a role model who learns to become an independent and happy human being instead of spending the entire series pining over a flawed, egotistical man.
If we teach our girls to love a man more than they love themselves, we are setting them up for an emotional disaster. Charlotte Bronte gives us not only a relatable heroine in Jane Eyre but a heroine who adheres to modern feminist ideals of independence, equality and self-acceptance. Jane is a role model that I want my daughters to have, someone who learns and grows through her experiences throughout the book. She is not the weak-willed dependent heroine who spends the entire book searching for love instead of emotional stability. Neither is she the perfect warrior princess who is not allowed to have flaws and spends the entire novel being the eye candy of a more imperfect man. She is not a trope or stereotype but a relatable character.
Reading this book has made me wish that, instead of having heroines like Bella Swan during my adolescent years, I had a heroine who was flawed but learned how to accept these faults, who taught herself how to survive not only on human compassion but on hard work and emotional strength, who realized in a circumstance as universal as a bad relationship that you need to find the will power to save yourself.
Let me hear an amen.
Additional note: I love how, by teaching in a small college, I often have students multiple times and can watch them grow. Michelle and Tessa are rising juniors who were in my Jane Austen first year seminar where we wrestled with relationship dynamics. Michelle in her final essay was inspired by the quiet strength of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park while Tessa was interested in how Anne Elliot finds her bearings again after losing Captain Wentworth. Tessa was also intrigued by young Catherine Moreland’s attraction to the gothic in Northanger Abbey and how she must learn to grow beyond it.