Friday, April 29, 2011

Jane Eyre

Yes, this is another one of those books that it seemed everyone but me has read. Since it's around 450 pages, I wasn't sure if I could finish it in a week, but I managed to join the ranks of the initiated. (Note: I read this the week of April 10-16. Once again, I'm abreast of the reading, behind on the blog) I was familiar with the plot from listening to other people's discussions, but I had purposefully avoided watching any of the films or miniseries until after I had read the book.
     Jane Eyre was not unique in having attained a measure of familiarity in my mind; I was already familiar with the plots of most of the classic novels I have read thus far in 2011 for the reason mentioned above: these are well-known books and I've heard other people discussing them.  But each week upon choosing and reading a novel, I am surprised that the aforementioned discussions revolved solely around the major plot events or characters (Wasn't Mr. X creepy? I think Ms. Y should have chosen Suitor 2 instead of Suitor 1. There were too many minor characters.) without touching on the themes of the books. Silas Marner isn't just about the love of an old man for an orphan; it's about betrayal, redemption, suspicion, greed, alchemy and love (among other things). The Pioneers isn't only about a small village and its wild and wandering hero; it's about the tension between wilderness and civilization (social and psychological as well as geographical), justice, intercultural relations, land ownership and environmental conservation. Should I have been surprised that Jane Eyre is more than a gothic romance? And why do people seem to forget the themes of books but remember the plots?
     Jane Eyre is indeed partly autobiographical, with many of the characters and places paralleling those of Charlotte Brontë's own experience. The novel is known for its exploration of class and gender relations, but it also addresses religion, God, morality, forgiveness, and the relationship (or lack thereof) between those ideas. Themes of fear, the supernatural and madness place the novel firmly in the gothic or gothic romance category. Having read Wuthering Heights a few months ago, I can see similarities between Emily's and Charlotte's styles, themes and characters. I can also say with certainty that the next time Jane Eyre comes up in conversation, I will think not only of the memorable characters, but also of the themes exemplified through the characters' thoughts and actions.

Byronic anti-hero (mandatory in gothic novels): Edward Rochester
Hypocritical pietist: Mr. Brocklehurst
Victim of consumption (also mandatory in gothic novels): Helen Burns
Madwoman in the attic: Bertha Mason
The guy who wrecks the wedding: Richard Mason
Devout-in-all-the-wrong-ways Calvinist: St. John Rivers
Lower class governess who survives the odyssey into selfhood: Jane Eyre
There was a lot of: fire, allusions to burning, mysterious bumps in the night, miserable living conditions, secrets, people trying to guilt Jane into bending to their will
There should have been more: lucky breaks for Jane...but that wouldn't have made a very good bildungsroman, now would it?
This book makes you want to: give an orphan a better life, observe others more keenly, learn to draw, put on a couple sweaters and eat a big dinner, rethink society's definition of mental illness and its treatment of people in that category
This book makes you glad you don't have to: dodge books thrown by hateful cousins, interact only with a narrow stratum of society, travel long distances by coach, narrowly escape bigamy

1 comment:

bren j. said...

I've been thinking about why most people remember characters/plots but not themes. A lot of the 'classics' aren't books that the average person ever has read or needs to read with a critical eye. We're looking for a diversion, an escape, not to read as an academic pursuit (which is not to suggest there's anything wrong with that!).
In my own experience, I would sooner write a 10-page paper on some random topic than a five-page book review. They're so much more work than anyone ever tells you. And elementary age book reports seem more to stress that the student has simply READ the book than to emphasize what s/he might actually have gleaned from it theme-, character-, plot-wise.