“Jane Eyre” Still Challenges Us

Wasikowska as Jane Eyre

Wasikowska as Jane Eyre

My student Brittany Buck, who is studying responses to Jane Eyre for her senior project, has opened my eyes to just how radical the novel was and continues to be. Brit is focusing on the inability of readers, from the mid-19th century to today, to fully digest the novel.

Although Jane Eyre was popular when it came out, it also scandalized a number of readers, most notably Elizabeth Rigby, who accused of being unchristian, unfeminine, and communist (or “chartist” as they called it then). Rather than dismissing such attacks, one can use them to appreciate Bronte’s revolutionary vision. German reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss provides a model for understanding the significance of hostile reviews.

As Jauss sees it, great works of literature challenge an age’s “horizon of expectations.” By contrast, those works that just confirm prevailing expectations can be seen as empty calories that don’t lead to change. There is nothing empty about Jane Eyre, which challenged the “angel on the hearth” ideal through its portrayal of Jane as a rebellious child and then as a restless governess and an independent teacher. Rigby may even have sensed what feminists Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar would admire about the novel in the 1970s, that in Bertha Mason one detects a deep pent-up anger that women couldn’t admit even to themselves. In other words, Rigby was so worried about Bronte’s revelations of female dissatisfaction that she had to attack the novel with both barrels. If she didn’t, maybe people would see her own independent work as dangerous.

For the record, even the most powerful woman of the age, Queen Victoria, urged women to be submissive angels.

Just because Bronte wrote a revolutionary work doesn’t mean that she was herself revolutionary, however. Brit writes that Rigby’s review so unsettled Bronte, as well as her friend and admirer Elizabeth Gaskell, that they both did all they could to soften how people saw the novelist. Bronte backed away from some of the radical implications of her novel in her letters and public comments while Gaskell, in her biography about Bronte, tried to reestablish her femininity. The art can go further than the artist.

What about those male admirers of the novel? As Brit points out, George Henry Lewes, one of the leading critics of the day (as well as George Eliot’s companion), focused on a less troubling vision of women: his favorite character was the saintly Helen Burns. The part of the novel he found most troubling, the scenes with Bertha, he dismissed as unrealistic gothic.

One could even argue that Bronte gave people looking for a more domestic version of women an escape hatch. After all, Jane returns to marry Rochester and nurse him back to health rather than pursue her own career. What could be more reassuring than “Reader, I married him”? 

Jauss’s theory, useful for understanding a novel’s initial reception, also has insights into its continuing ability to disrupt. Jauss ask whether a work will become more palatable, and therefore less powerful, once it has changed the horizon and created readers that are more open to its ideas. But horizons are not so easily changed, especially when it comes to our feelings about assertive women. Jauss believes that our most profound works of literature will continue to challenge our expectations for centuries after they first appeared, and Brit sees us still having a hard time accepting Bronte’s vision of confrontation. Brit believes that modern adaptations and interpretations of Jane Eyre, such as April Lindner’s young adult version Jane and the 2011 film Jane Eyre, try to soften the novel rather than face up to its radical implications.

Here’s where Brit argument seems to be going: In the 1970s, Jane Eyre provided the feminist movement with one of its most potent images, the “madwoman in the attic.” Gilbert and Gubar saw Bertha as standing in for all women trapped within the domestic sphere. Since then, however, many women have resisted this uncompromising vision of female anger. Today’s Elizabeth Rigbys essentially say, “I may believe in women’s rights but I’m not angry like those 1970s feminists.”

Jane is much more palatable if she is seen as the heroine of a love novel. But what if we were to regard Jane Eyre as a rebellion against the marriage plot itself? When Jane ventures out onto the heath, what if we were to regard it as an adventure story, with Jane, like a Bildungsroman hero, attempting to find a different plot for women. She proves herself able to learn Hindustani better than any man, rejects a career as a missionary if she has to marry to accomplish it, and then goes on to have a successful career as an educator. Even today we have trouble accepting this as a satisfactory story arc. We want Jane to return to Rochester’s arms.

We will know that our horizon of expectations has truly changed when we cease to demand the marriage or romance plot for female heroes. To be sure, even Bronte was ultimately pulled back to that plot in Jane Eyre. Her next novel, however, broke free. Even today, readers freak out over the ending of Villette, though it ends with the heroine happy and running her own school. Even today we are dissatisfied if the woman remains single at the end of her story.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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