Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte – Book Review

Jane Eyre

I’m usually not one for spoilers but be warned, I don’t really hold anything back here.  If you haven’t read Jane Eyre, you might want to stop here.

Orphaned and packed off to a charitable educational institution by an indifferent relative and benefactress, Jane Eyre has rarely experienced feelings of belonging or having the comfort of a home. When she comes of age and advertises for a place as governess, circumstances bring her to Thornfield Hall where she finds friendship among the staff and with her young charge, Adele Varens. The arrival of the master of the house, Edward Rochester, introduces Jane (with some difficulty) to the pleasures of requited love, but there are sinister and unexplained happenings at Thornfield Hall. Rochester’s enigmatic behavior and past threatens not only their burgeoning relationship, but Jane’s emotional health and safety.

In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s writing is immediately compelling and accessible. Right away she establishes an unshakable relationship with and sympathy for Jane through the justness of all the she endures with the Reeds and at Lowood, and through Jane’s decidedly temperamental personality which reaches for justice. I had a hard time putting it down because I wanted to see what Jane would do next and what outcome fate had in store for her. While I didn’t find that there was much depth to her character, her random outbursts and passionate nature gave her just enough edge for me to be intensely curious about her progression through life.

In spite of my intense interest and curiosity, there is no doubt that this is not a book to which I see myself returning anytime soon. I would have to let it rest for a few years before seeing whether I would find it to be less frustrating and with more to offer, but I did read it at pretty much break neck speed. In a book where I could vaguely sense what was coming next from a prior reading and popular culture, the story held surprises in the details, and for the most part held my attention.

My issues with Jane Eyre are not the storytelling (well, most of it), but that Bronte fails to set up more than a minimum motivation for  her main character. I get that Jane craves love and a home life because of the circumstances in which she was raised, but I never really got any more than that from her. She spends most of her time in a corner watching Rochester, and the rest running from him. I almost want to just say that even though she wants to confirm and be sure of Rochester’s love for her (and they are both a little nauseating in that respect), hers for him seems to be a result of the fact that he is the first interested man who had been put before her. Sure, she is able to reject St. John later on, because in his own way he is also a crazy person, but it is only by comparison with the way Rochester needs her and communicates love to her that that she finds him lacking. Had she not had that comparison, I think that she would have thought St. John perfectly acceptable.

Earlier in the year, some poll or another indicated that Rochester was the romantic hero over Darcy (from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice). I didn’t really understand it then with only a vague recollection of Jane Eyre, and I certainly do not understand it now.  I was very skeptical of their relationship, just like poor Mrs Fairfax. Beauty is, after all in the eye of the beholder, so pushing aside that Rochester is not attractive, I was at a loss to see what else he had to offer. He was overbearing, had a violent temper, was deceptive and a bully, and when he can’t come to terms with his wife’s mental instability he locks her in an attic with only a drunk to watch over her. And, on top of that, he feels totally justified in carving out a life that is more acceptable than the one he is obligated to and blithely plans to make his “beloved” a bigamist, after she escapes his first wife’s attack in the night unharmed. Can you see signing a girlfriend up for that? Encouraging her to be with him? I failed to get the romance. It’s crazy. Darcy was handsome, rich and a little conceited but he didn’t lie to Elizabeth or have any crazy attic wives coming after her either.

As tightly written and sensible as the first sections of the book are, the last third drifts off into coincidence and cliché. Jane is a very smart cookie yet she suddenly runs off in the night with almost no money, and spends every last shilling that she has on coach fare to the middle of nowhere. She couldn’t save a few shillings for some food or a room at an inn, or look up the long lost relative that was just waiting to die and give her money? She then  goes on to “starve” for two or three days before being welcomed into the bosom of a family who coincidentally turns out to be her long lost relations, whom of course, she adores. Within the space of six weeks she finds a job at the same salary that Rochester paid her, and a week after that she is an heiress. Really Charlotte Bronte? You can do better than that, can’t you? I just got the feeling that this story needed to be over when Bertha Mason was unveiled – either leave or stay with him. The wandering around the countryside to magically become Rochester’s equal, well – after he has been blinded and maimed,  just struck me as ridiculous and a little lazy.

And, I get that both Bronte and Jane were both totally radical and badass back in the day, but I was never able to get over the fact that Jane was an emotionally sheltered child with ZERO experience with men, painfully out of her depth. Nothing would ever be able to even out her relationship with Rochester. Even by 1847 standards Mrs Fairfax thought he was to old for her, and I agree, though it wasn’t the actual age difference that bothered me, so much as that she was not a match for him in any real way, in any way shape or form. It was just gross. Bronte knew that she was out of her league, and so did Jane on some level, otherwise they both wouldn’t have had to work so hard to bring Jane up while pulling Rochester down to her level. Like I said, totally compelling but equally WTF? by the end.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Merry Christmas!

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26 Comments

  1. I love Jane Eyre, but the part where she runs away I too found ridiculous. It was too much of an easy thing to have her rescuers turn out to be family, but then that seemed to be one of the plot devices back then. It was interesting to read your review because other than that, you’ve covered things I hadn’t thought about so much or at least glazed over in favour of other points. The age different was quite big and you’re right, he was the first man she’d come across. I was taken by the humour of Rochester, to me he was a great character, if flawed.

    1. I still had all of my issue with their relationship, but I was pretty content with the book up until she ran away. Then it just slipped into the ridiculously implausible and it was hard to feel quite the same way about it. Rochester was definitely a smart guy, but I definitely didn’t find him amusing in light of what he was trying to pull off.

  2. I could seriously ditto your entire post. For some reason, I both love this story and am totally frustrated by it. It is beautifully written and oddly compelling but a few of the events that take place are completely ridiculous, far-fetched, and just plain frustrating. Perhaps figuring out the love-hate contradiction is something that has aided the books timelessness.

    1. I know! I had issues all over the place but I was riveted, until that last third of the story where Bronte just completely lost me and then she just slapped Jane and Rochester back together. I an see that there is a lot there to like but it probably won’t be one that I revisit anytime soon.

  3. Well, I am a little embarrassed to say that I’ve not read Jane Eyre. And yes, I still read your post, because I’m twisted that way. What the hell, I like knowing what I’m in for when I do read it. I suspect I’d feel the same way you did. If you want to see me have a fit, just tell me that Wuthering Heights is supposed to one of the biggest romance novels of all time.

    1. Ha! I was actually warned away from reading Wuthering Heights. I think I read it in high school or college but it didn’t make an impression on me because I have no memory of it. But I hear that Heathcliff is an ass. Jane Eyre is weird in that even if you know the entire outline of the story, the details make it fascinating to read anyway. It won’t spoil your reading because you will still be wondering at the gall Rochester had to say and do the things he did.

  4. Ugh, I can’t stand Mr. Rochester either, much less consider him a “romantic hero”. He’s so awful! And I appreciate your point that it seems like Jane only really likes him because he’s the first man who’s shown interest in her. Also the fact that the people who take her in at the end turn out to be family? Well THAT’s convenient…overall I really did enjoy this book, though!

    1. I loved reading it even though Jane is not a character who is easy to know, nor did I think the relationship she was in a healthy one. The credibility of the story was just lost on me when it wandered into the silliness that it did. It made it too long and lessened my ability to see it as seriously as I did.

  5. I always thought Jane Eyre was a book best served by reading when you’re young, naive, and easily entertained. So, that maybe your suspension of disbelief is not as hard. The whole runaway part is just a little to school girl fantasy.

    1. You definitely might be on to something there Martha. I read it when I was young and didn’t remember it at all, but I did remember that I liked it. Not so much as an adult.

  6. What a great review! I love the line about Jane and Bronte being badass back in the day. Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books but I haven’t read it in several years. A lot of my opinions on the book may be a bit skewed because it has been so pop-culturized. But, I always thought their relationship made sense and that her motivations were clear. She saw herself as a plain person who would live a life alone. She was also relivious and believed that fate intervened in strange ways. It doesn’t surprise me that she would fall for the first man she meets, a parental figure, who may have been a bit brutal and strange. She doesn’t think very highly of herself or see herself as a girl with many options. As she comes into her own and leaves the estate she feels a pull for Rochester, she hears him, feels connected to him for reasons she can’t explain. I love that she trusts that connection. Yes, Rochester had a lot of demons in his past, but so did Jane. He didn’t see her as a frivelous girl like so many of the other women in his life, which I liked about him. I believe there was a mutual respect even if he kept secrets from her. Weren’t they both just trying to cover up their screwed up pasts?
    Rochester as a better hero than Darcy is bunk, though. He’s an old, ugly, blind man. And Darcy is Colin Furth. There’s no comparison.

    1. I thought that the relationship made sense from her perspective, I could understand why she would fall for him, but I definitely didn’t think of it as a love story that I would aspire to or even want for a friend. He took horrible advantage and I think he knew and just cared about what he wanted. She might not have been frivolous, but she was a young and inexperienced girl and he wasn’t honest with her. She didn’t try to cover up her past, nor dod she even really have a past to cover up.

      And yes. No competition.

  7. I recently read Jane Eyre for the first time and I loved it. But I still agree with everything you said. Parts of the book are irritating, frustrating, and some of it is just downright silly (no one ever runs away without at least taking something with them!?) but I still loved it. So very much loved it. 🙂

    Oh, and the Darcy Rochester comparison — there is no comparison, it will always be Darcy.

    1. I loved reading it though I disagreed with what was going on with the characters, but then the last third happened and I lost my love for it. It just pushed it too far. I will never understand Rochester over Darcy. Never!

  8. So yeah, I can only imagine how maddening this book would be for a reader who couldn’t get behind Jane and Rochester’s relationship. They’re one of my utterly favorite literary couples — they’re both quite flawed, but they make each other laugh, and that is an aspect of romantic relationships that a lot of Victorian novels skip. That’s why I like them. I can imagine them still wanting to spend time together ten years on from the end of the book, which is more than I can say for Elizabeth and Darcy (of whom I am also very fond! Of course!).

    1. I guess the humor in their relationship is colored for me by the fact that he was always lying to her. But I guess I can see that they might have had a chance at a good relationship if they were able to put all of that behind then and Rochester was intact, but he had changed so much that I am not sure I believe that.

    1. No need too worry. The books is really interesting. I flew through it, and it is a long book. I just cringed at their relationship and am not a fan of Rochester or the last 1/3 of the book (which I think is just bad). I think you all will have lots of great discussion.

  9. I actually really liked the book, right up until she ran away. I thought that was some inexcusable EPIC FAIL from an otherwise very rational think-before-you-act character. Not to mention the deus ex machina that her running away gave birth to. I rolled my eyes every chapter from then on out.

    1. I don’t see how Bronte made such a jump either. The plotting and the quality of the last third of the book seemed very different from the rest. It just got so ridiculous that it mostly undid the rest of the story for me. I am totally with you on the eye rolling. And I just don’t buy that Jane ever came to the relationship as an equal when they had to destroy Rochester as he was, for her to do so.

  10. I read this book so many centuries ago that I barely remember it now. Except for the story I guess. Most of the Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte jokes/references/spin-offs came about much later, so there’s a lot I want to recollect. Now that you mention it, I do remember that I didn’t see any motivation in Jane for going after Mr. Rochester. And the spin in the end – his wife and all – totally disappointed me. (I was reading the book at an age when true love was to be “pure” and not naughty!) You’re right, that’s definitely badass for their times!

  11. This was the first classic I read by choice in high school so I will always love it. I am afraid to re-read it because I don’t want to see all of the flaws you pointed out. I’ll just tell myself that you’re wrong and go on loving Jane and Rochester 😉

  12. I thoroughly enjoyed your review – and the comments afterwards. I felt as though I was a part of an online bookclub 🙂

    I read this book for the first time about four years ago and I came with a very neutral feeling. I much prefer P&P – but I have often wondered if it is because I teach it and have read it numerous times.

    I do plan to reread Jane Eyre before the opening of the movie release in March. I am anxious to see if my opinion changes the second time around.