My mother has often mentioned in passing that her father, my grandfather, carried around a copy of Jane Eyre for months- reading small bits, diligently marking quotes or looking up old English words, and fondly carrying the book around everywhere he went.
I, of course, am not privy to what fascination the book held for him, or what significance his fascination with this book holds for my mother. But this awareness about the book has lingered, and I finally got around to reading it. I think I read it through more quickly than usual (I’m afraid I do usually read how my grandfather read Jane Eyre).
I wondered for a bit, upon finishing, about what the book was really about. For one, it is a feminist book. While reading it was clear enough as Jane Eyre seeks independence and establishes her position in life through her efforts and talents. She also displays strength of character in renouncing an ill-fated romance, and following her principles and convictions in rebuilding her life. I am sure it was revolutionary already in its time- in early 19th century.
But the book becomes truly feminist in its ending- and it takes a moment to appreciate that. Towards the end, Jane faces the choice between doing that which is glorious and noble in the eyes of the world- proving her usefulness, fulfilling her true potential as some would say, versus doing that which is regular and unnoticed, but brings her alive. It is here, when she makes this choice, that one wonders for a moment- is this a feminist book after all? And it is, because she neither acts from conditioning as a woman, nor acts from a sense of rebelling against her gender- she simply does what expands her soul.
This is the biggest impression that stayed with me- there is no better/ worse, more or less noble, more or less appropriate- only that which constricts your soul, or that which expands your soul. That’s all the guidance needed.
And while that is clear enough, in the real world there is always a price- what expands your soul may be considered immoral by standards of society. And it is here that Charlotte Bronte makes twists to the story which I think are not mere twists to make the story interesting, but a calculated price paid by the characters for the wrongs they do along the way from a moralistic viewpoint. Like Mr.Rochester’s handicap- only after that can he be considered to have atoned for the sin of withholding information about his living wife- only then can a union with Jane take place. I wondered if the author really needed to do this- perhaps she did- either to make the story more palatable at its time, or for the fact that life after all is never perfect.
All lessons or agendas- intended or otherwise- aside, what the book does really well, like all classics, is the richness and relatable accuracy with which it paints its characters. Especially impressive is the initial part of the book where Jane is a neglected, ill-treated and intense child- the author displays sensitive understanding of the gravity of daily situations for such a child, and portrays it well. As is the portrayed fascination of a world-weary man for a young uncorrupted girl, or that girl’s fascination for a worldly-wise mysterious man. Or the portrayal of an ambitious man on a mission who has no time for trivialities. Everything else works, because this works.