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In creating the character of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte did something that was very daring at the time: She presented her readers with a heroine who was not beautiful! In the first half of the 19th century, readers took it for granted that the heroines of novels were supposed to be beautiful, just as we assume that a high fashion model will be slender and glamorous. But Jane Eyre is described as small and plain, a rather mousy-looking young woman who will never be transformed into a femme fatale or a romantic beauty and has no interest in trying to become one.
According to Charlotte Bronte's friend and biographer Mrs. Gaskell, even Charlotte's own sister Emily had her doubts about this decision. Who'd want to read about the adventures of an ordinary-looking heroine? What could possibly happen to such a character that would be interesting to anyone?
A few early readers of the novel did react in exactly the way Emily predicted. One famous critic obviously had Jane Eyre in mind when he complained that the reader who purchased a novel only to find that its heroine was "an ugly lady" was the "victim" of a fraud. For the most part, however, Charlotte Bronte's gamble was successful. She had guessed correctly that her readers, whatever their own situation, would find it easy to identify with a character who had doubts about her looks and her attractiveness to others. Today we aren't surprised by a novel whose heroine is not only an outsider, but also a young woman who can't count on beauty to make life easier for her. In fact, the "small, plain" heroine of Jane Eyre has been copied so often that she has almost become a cliche. We have to keep reminding ourselves that Jane is the original of the character that we meet so often in romance novels.
Jane Eyre's physical appearance wasn't the only feature that made her an unusual heroine in her day. Charlotte Bronte also broke with custom in insisting that a female character could be the emotional equal of a man. Writing in an era when many people seriously doubted that women were capable of strong emotions, Charlotte Bronte created a heroine who was deeply passionate and felt a need for adventure, excitement, and even a desire for work that matters in the larger scale of human accomplishment. For this reason, even though Jane Eyre is a love story told from a woman's point of view, it also appeals to many male readers.
Jane's vivid imagination and strong emotions are the basis of her strength as a character, but we're also told that Jane's being "too passionate" is also a fault. How can this be? You'll find different answers to this question: Jane finds it hard to forgive people who treat her unjustly; she's carried away by her love for Mr. Rochester-even to the point of making him her "idol"- before she knows very much about his past or his true character; and even with St. John, whom she doesn't love, Jane is so susceptible to his influence that she almost makes a decision she knows to be wrong for her.
There are always a few readers who feel disappointed when Jane, the rebel, ends up as a conventional wife and mother, totally devoted to her much older husband. You will have to read the story carefully in order to decide for yourself how much Jane's character changes over time. Is the mature woman, Jane Eyre, still basically the same personality as the child we meet in Chapter 1? Does becoming a wife mean that Jane has given up her emotional independence? Or has she found a new and more meaningful way of expressing herself in her relationship with Mr. Rochester?
Most readers agree that Jane Eyre is a strong, compelling character. There is much more disagreement about the other characters in the novel. How believable are they? Can you accept them as real people in their own right? Or are they two-dimensional figures, who have no life of their own outside of Jane's perceptions of them?
MR. EDWARD ROCHESTER
There are two main areas of controversy over the character of Mr. Rochester.
The first argument has to do with his morals. Under English law at the time, a man whose wife became insane could not get a divorce. Mr. Rochester deals with this problem by hiding his mad wife away in the attic and trying to trick Jane into a bigamous marriage. When he is found out, and the wedding canceled at the last minute, he then asks Jane to run away to France with him and live as his mistress.
Some readers are shocked by Rochester's actions. How could Jane ever love such a person? they ask. How could she ever forgive him for deceiving her?
On the other hand, Rochester has his champions. These readers agree with Rochester when he argues that his first marriage was not a "real" marriage at all; it's just a legal technicality that he can't get a divorce. From this point of view, Jane should have agreed to go off to France with him. If she had done so, Rochester would never have been horribly wounded in the fire at Thornfield-and, incidentally, there would have been no story!
How you feel about Rochester's action will depend on your views on personal responsibility. Even though Rochester didn't know his wife was insane, was he partly to blame for marrying a woman he hardly knew, just because she had money and the match was favored by his own father? Was Rochester justified in believing he had a right to happiness, even if it meant deceiving the woman he loved?
Another controversy has nothing to do with Mr. Rochester's morals. Good or bad, is he believable? Some readers find Rochester quite realistic. They point out that many writers of Charlotte Bronte's day, men as well as women, would have been tempted to turn Mr. Rochester into a cardboard villain. Instead, Rochester is a man who has human weaknesses, but who is still worthy of love and forgiveness. However, there is another group of readers which does not find this view convincing in the least. One critic, David Cecil, complained that Rochester is "no flesh and blood man," but merely a fantasy lover as seen through the eyes of a naive and inexperienced young girl.
Here's something that might help you in making up your own mind about him: Mr. Rochester belongs to a definite fictional type-the Byronic hero. This type, based on the work and life of the poet Lord Byron, is a proud, cynical rebel who refuses to submit to the rules of society. A true Byronic hero always labors under some sort of a curse. Often there is a taint of sin or scandal in his past which becomes forgivable only when we understand the true circumstances, which have been hidden from the rest of the world. Byronic heroes are usually handsome, but like Lord Byron himself, who was lame, they may have a physical handicap that only increases their sex appeal. Also, though outwardly he's a cynic, the Byronic hero is secretly an idealist. His sensitivity can only be revealed, however, when he manages to find a superior woman who can understand his true nature.
As you read the book, or when you're thinking back over it, try to find some of the ways in which Mr. Rochester fits this description. For instance, he tells Jane that his various mistresses were only distractions from his ten-year search for his "ideal of a woman" (Chapter 27). On the other hand, also look for ways in which Charlotte Bronte tried to go against the type. Mr. Rochester is not at all handsome (or, at least, her heroine doesn't think so). And we often see him in very un-Byronic, and even ludicrous situations-falling off his horse, for example (and that's the first time we see him!), or dressing up in a silly gypsy's costume in order to try to find out whether Jane loves him. In the beginning, Rochester is the worldly older man who teases Jane Eyre about her elflike nature. But soon enough, he admits that her influence over him is very real. "You master me," he tells Jane in Chapter 24. And by the end of the story, he has come around to accepting her view of morality and her belief in God.
Charlotte Bronte certainly seems to have intended Mr. Rochester to be a realistic character. In a letter to her
publisher, Bronte wrote: "Mr. Rochester has a thoughtful nature and a very feeling heart; he is neither selfish nor
self-indulgent... [he] errs, when he does err, through rashness and inexperience.... He is taught the severe lessons
You'll have to decide for yourself whether this description fits the character you meet in the pages of Jane Eyre.