"All governesses have a tale of woe. What's yours?"
So demands Edward Fairfax Rochester, the brooding master of Thornfield Hall. The object of his ominous inquisition: Jane Eyre, a "plain and little" young woman who's been hired to care for the wealthy Englishman's charge, a French girl named Adele (who may or may not be the man's daughter).
Jane does indeed have a tale of woe. Orphaned when her parents died, adopted by her cruel Aunt Reed, then shuffled off to a boarding school run by sadistic zealot Mr. Brocklehurst, Jane's life has been shot through with mistreatment, misunderstanding and misery. Yet Jane neither fixates upon her suffering nor breathes a word of that woe-full past to anyone—let alone mercurial Mr. Rochester. Instead, she devotes herself to her duties. Her quiet conscientiousness wins a friend in Mrs. Fairfax, the chatty, advice-dispensing housekeeper who keeps Thornfield humming. And her noble character quickly attracts the attention of Rochester, too.
At first, Jane doesn't understand why he's begun treating her more like a confidante than a servant. But when his intimations become more pointed—"My equal is here, and my likeness," he tells her—only the slightest hint of a smile on Jane's face lets us know that she, too, might be falling in love.
Soon: an engagement. And what was once Jane's well-guarded secret, too impossible to be true, blossoms in plain view.
But it is too good to be true.
And when Rochester's own dark secret claws its way out of Thornfield's attic, Jane has no choice but to flee into the desolate moors of northern England, once again dependent upon the mercy of strangers.
[Note: The following sections contain spoilers.]
Jane Eyre is determined, above all else, to be true to herself. She doesn't let the misfortunes that have befallen her shape either her identity or the possible future happiness that she longs for. Instead she resolves to do what is set before her … and to cultivate a spirit of quiet contentment.
Rochester's growing affections, of course, put Jane's convictions to the test. Though the older, more powerful man repeatedly alludes to his interest, it's only when he proposes marriage that Jane lets down her guard and her sense of what is proper between employer and employee.
Mrs. Fairfax wisely warns Jane to keep guarding her heart, though, even during the engagement—intuitively sensing that all is not as it seems. Indeed, as Rochester rushes Jane to the altar, a man breaks into the matrimonial proceedings, breaking Jane's heart when he speaks: Rochester is already married to the stranger's sister, Bertha Mason.
Jane dutifully listens to Rochester's explanation of what happened, how he was compelled by his father to marry a woman who proved to be both unfaithful and insane. Rochester eventually locked her in the attic at Thornfield, a prisoner only he (and one other trusted servant, apparently) ever knew about.
Rochester pleads for Jane to agree that those circumstances invalidate his marriage to Bertha in the spirit if not in the letter of the law. But Jane will hear nothing of it. When he talks of love and fidelity, she responds, "What of truth?" When he insists that he would have told her the truth about his situation in time—after being illegitimately married to Jane—she responds simply, "You are a deceiver." And when he accuses her of having more respect for the law than she does him, she tells him, "I must respect myself."
Then, even though she still desperately loves him, Jane leaves Thornfield and runs, alone, into the desolate moors, praying, "God help me."
An answer to that petition comes in the form of the Rivers family. Stumbling through the dark and rain, Jane comes across a lone house. In it live a young, single pastor, St. John Rivers, and his two sisters, Diana and Mary. They take Jane in and resuscitate both her body and soul. In time, Jane (now going by the last name Elliot) becomes the headmistress at the small, poor, rural school attached to St. John's parish.
Given another, albeit humble chance at a fresh start, Jane again excels. And her indomitable spirit again attracts attention, this time from St. John, who asks her to marry him and accompany him to the mission field in India. Jane insists that she sees John as a brother, not as a potential husband. And once again she must resist as a man in a more powerful position than hers tries to "reason" her out of her conviction.
While she's with the Rivers family, Jane learns that she's inherited a fortune from a deceased uncle. But she chooses to give most of it away, insisting that John and his two sisters have a portion equal to hers.
Themes involving Christianity underpin Jane Eyre. Accordingly, we glimpse at least four expressions of what the Christian faith can look like.
1) Mr. Brocklehurst's school, the aptly titled Lowood Institution, is a horror. Brocklehurst is, quite simply, a monstrously misogynous miscreant driven by a twisted caricature of faith. The meanspirited man talks of evading the fires of hell, mortifying the flesh and driving out sin; and those goals are accomplished through corporeal punishment, bullying and shaming. In true Dickensian style, he doesn't have a charitable bone in his body.
2) Jane's closest confidant at Lowood, a girl named Helen, explains that her faith in God, whom she loves dearly, enables her to endure the injustices she suffers at the hands of Brocklehurst. Her love for God seems as pure and beautiful as the headmaster's is warped, and that faith seems to inspire Jane.
3) St. John is an earnest Christian on the verge of devoting his life to missions work. And we hear him praying repeatedly before meals. His is a strong yet stern faith, one that gives little credence to the emotional life Jane so deeply values.
4) Jane, too, has faith in God, as evidenced by her desperate prayer noted above and the fact that she warns her cruel aunt that her evil deeds will not go unnoticed or unpunished, even if it's only in the afterlife. Then, proving the absence of vindictiveness in that statement, she later says she's forgiven Mrs. Reed when the older woman is on her death bed.
If Jane is a woman of faith, though, it seems clear that her own thoughts and feelings are equal partners in the way it gets worked out in her life. Her convictions, then, are informed by Christian propriety even if she herself is not motivated by Christian belief in the same way St. John and Helen are.
Elsewhere, Mrs. Fairfax says grace before a meal. Several times, Jane hears haunting voices call her name. Mrs. Reed locks her in a room that is considered haunted by the spirit of a deceased woman, and some strange (startling) noises do indeed emanate from its chimney. We hear passing references to several spiritual beings, including incubi, demons, imps, elves, "little green men" and spirits of the dead. Adele believes Thornfield is haunted by a bloodsucking specter.
The most intense things ever get is a passionate, drawn-out kiss between Rochester and Jane after he proposes. (They kiss several other times as well.) But despite that physical restraint, there remains an undeniable riptide of desire under the surface of Jane Eyre. It's punctuated by two scenes that focus on a Renaissance-style painting of a nude woman. In the first, Jane notices the portrait in passing in a hallway at Thornfield. In the second, she stares intently at the woman, and the camera does the same as it zooms in on her bare thighs, torso and breasts. It's a scene that evokes intensity of Jane's own desires.
When Jane arrives at Lowood, she's demeaningly told to remove several layers of clothes, and we eventually see her apparel pared down to a body-length slip. We see her in a similarly conservative (by today's standards) slip again when she hastily removes her wedding dress after her marriage ceremony to Rochester gets interrupted.
It's implied that a dalliance between Rochester and a French woman resulted in Adele's conception, and two conversations allude to the possibility that the woman was a prostitute.
A handful of violent moments include: the bleeding stab wound of a man who's been attacked by Bertha; Rochester choking a man; Jane being hit with a book and having her head knocked against a wall by her stepbrother, whom she then fiercely attacks with her fists; a horse falling on Rochester; and a nasty whipping Helen receives at Lowood.
Jane helps Rochester put out a fire Bertha has set in his room. And she lies next to Helen the night she passes away. (We see Jane next to the girl's corpse the next morning.)
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Rochester has a penchant for cigars, and we seem him slowly exhaling smoke several times. He generally combines that habit with a glass of Scotch or perhaps sherry.
Other Negative Elements
Rochester struggles mightily to tell the truth and to come to grips with the consequences of his choices. Unlike Jane, he's in bondage to regret about the way things have worked out in his life. He responds by trying to force things to work according to his own selfish desires, with little regard for the law of man or God—or Jane, for that matter.
Rochester's public pursuit of Blanche Ingram represents another blot on his character. Until the moment he unexpectedly proposes to Jane, everyone (including Jane) believes he's courting the other woman to be his wife. Rochester also refers to marriage as a "sacred noose." He often treats his servants and Adele very rudely, lacking basic respect for their dignity and value.
Volumes have been written about the intertwined themes of love, honor, truth, faith and propriety in Charlotte Brontë's massively influential 1847 novel. Indeed, I've penned a few pages myself, as so many high school and college students are wont to do (at their teacher's prodding) after reading this definitive Gothic romance.
I've concluded that Jane Eyre, especially this version fronted by 21-year-old actress Mia Wasikowska, is at its core a study in one young woman's character even more than it is a study in romance. Jane Eyre skillfully paints the portrait of a woman of conviction, someone who's certain of what's right and determined to pursue that course, regardless of the cost to her life and her heart.
In that, Jane is a breath of fresh, ahem, air. Unlike so many people in our time, Jane refuses to retreat narcissistically into victimhood, despite the obvious cruelties repeatedly heaped upon her. Also in sharp contrast with the values so many hold today, she's convinced that doing what's right and true matters more than acquiescing to the deep desires of her heart.
Her conviction to be true to herself and, perhaps to a lesser extent, to God, compels her to do the higher thing even when she's so desperately tempted to take the lower road—a path Rochester himself has long since decided is the only one he's capable of traveling.
The worst of it? The full exposure of the nude painting. The best of it? Jane's convictions are duly rewarded, if not in the way she might immediately want them to be.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre; Amelia Clarkson as Young Jane; Michael Fassbender as Edward Rochester; Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax; Jamie Bell as St. John Rivers; Sally Hawkins as Mrs. Reed; Simon McBurney as Mr. Brocklehurst; Freya Parks as Helen Burns; Imagen Poots as Miss Blanche Ingram; Romy Settbon Moore as Adele Varens; Valentina Cervi as Bertha Mason
Cary Joji Fukunaga ( )
March 11, 2011
August 16, 2011