Monday, March 05, 2018

On Reading Jane Eyre: The Platypus Reads Part CCCXV

Note: this is a reworking of an old blog post and appeared originally in the journal "Old Roads". Three friends have mentioned it in the past few weeks, so I thought that I would re-post it here.

Favorite books are like old friends: they age with us, bringing new treasures as the years go by. One of my old companions has been Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I was first introduced to this strange and wonderful novel in tenth grade as part of the literature curriculum.  Since then, I’ve made a habit of picking up Bronte’s master-work every few years.  It never disappoints.  Rather, as I grow and mature, there’s always some new facet of Jane Eyre that sparkles with a light I hadn’t seen before.  I’m sure I’m not the only one for whom Bronte’s tale of the orphan girl making her own way in the world is a perennial favorite.  For those of you who also appreciate the richness of one of England’s foremost Gothic and Romantic tales, I’d like to share two themes from the book that I’ve gleaned over the years.  My hope is that sharing a little of what I’ve learned will prod you to pick this classic up, whether for the first time or the thirty-first time.

If you wanted to sum up the ethical philosophy of Jane Eyre in three words, you could do it with the classical maxim "nothing too much." Bronte is a staunch advocate of being in the middle; specifically, she follows Aristotle in believing that virtue is a midpoint between two opposites. In each area of Jane’s life, she is called to avoid extremes personified by the other characters of the work. In the domain of religion, Jane avoids Brocklehurst's hypocritical Evangelicalism as well as Eliza's sterile Anglo-Catholicism. She skirts (barely) Helen Burns' optimistic Universalism, but also (barely) St. John's pessimistic Calvinism. In matters of the heart, Jane learns to temper her passionate nature at Lowood, and because of this self-disciplined practicality, she resists becoming Rochester's doxy. However, she keeps enough of her romanticism to also reject St. John's utilitarian offer of marriage. Jane works hard to overcome the social boundaries placed on her by her low-class birth and orphan status, but also gives away three-quarters of the fortune left to her by her uncle, refusing to be a wealthy socialite. In terms of femininity, Jane rejects both Georgiana's coquetry and Eliza's prudery. Everywhere we look in the book, Jane finds a mean between mighty opposites.

The image of Jane beset by dangers on both sides, keeping to the middle way, recalls images from The Pilgrim’s Progress: both the lions chained by the gates of the Palace Beautiful, and the chasms on either side in the darkness of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Bronte was heavily influenced by John Bunyan’s allegory, and her work guides us through other themes besides “middleness” using a similar allegorical structure and typological names. Jane Eyre represents a journey, not to a celestial city as in Bunyan’s work, but to finding one’s proper and virtuous place in this world. Jane begins her journey at Gateshead (the head of the gate, or beginning of the journey) as a friendless and status-less orphan. Here, Jane is under the strict discipline of Mrs. Reed (in an interesting play on her name, Mrs. Reed keeps a switch by her bed for discipline). When Jane launches an ill-considered revolt against Mrs. Reed’s abusive discipline, she is sent to Lowood School. Like Dante, Jane finds this low-wood to be a place of moral confusion. Jane is rescued by Miss Temple and Helen Burns. Miss Temple, true to her name, teaches Jane to reverence the personal worth of each individual, including Jane herself. Helen, named for the most beautiful of women, teaches Jane how important it is to have a beautiful soul. After several years at Lowood, Jane again feels out of place and so takes a job as a governess at Thornfield Hall. Here, Jane labors among the cursed thorns as Adam after Eden (indeed, Thornfield is literally under the curse of Bertha), but it is also a place where Jane must resist the temptation to let the thorny cares of this world, in the form of Mr. Rochester, choke out the seed of faith within her. In a final attempt to protect that faith, Jane flees Mr. Rochester and casts herself on God's mercy. This leads her to the cross-roads at Whitcross, where she loses the parcel that contained all her worldly goods. The image of losing a parcel at a cross is lifted straight from Pilgrim's Progress, but the image of choice and decision is heightened by setting the scene at a literal crossroads. Jane is saved from the false paradise of being Mr. Rochester's mistress, but is left a beggar both spiritually and physically. Alone, she almost perishes from want until she is taken in by the Rivers. With a family of Rivers and a thorough drenching from a storm, Jane's metaphorical baptism is complete and she enters into Christian fellowship. Moor House, a bleak but wholesome place, becomes a school of spiritual discipline for Jane. The two Rivers sisters, Mary and Diana, both impress Jane with their cultivation and she learns from them. The words "pagan" and "Christian" appear throughout the chapters detailing Jane's stay at Moor House; Diana, as the Greek goddess of ideal virgin womanhood, and Mary, as the Christian ideal of the same, provide Jane with friendship, community, and dialogue. St. John, spiritual and aloof, with his eagle eyes (the eagle symbolized John the Evangelist in medieval iconography), presides over the whole. Her time of spiritual growth at an end, Jane is faced with a choice that tests her willingness to follow God and her ability to hear Him. Jane almost acquiesces to St. John's seemingly godly call for her to sacrifice everything as his wife and a missionary to India. At the moment of crisis, Jane calls out to God to make His will known and hears the voice of Rochester calling to her. Jane takes it as a sign and refuses St. John's offer in spite of the estrangement that it brings. When Jane is united with Rochester, he has lost his wife, his house, one hand, and one eye. Where he was unable to cut off the hand or gouge out the eye that offended him, God has literally done it for him: thus he has been symbolically purged of the sins of the eye, the sins of the flesh, and the boastful pride of life. With Rochester reformed, Jane can now marry him and live in the more modest estate of Ferndean, where she finally finds her home in an Eden-like retreat. Lest we be lulled into thinking that an eternal paradise is possible on earth, however, the novel gives the last word to St. John Rivers as he lays down his life for the gospel in India.

So, dear reader, the next time you pick up this rich and varied work, be alert to Jane’s perilous balance between extremes, and her allegorical journey toward Christian virtue and real community.  There are, of course, many more facets of this literary diamond yet to be examined.  Why not pick up Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and discover them for yourself?

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