Jane EyreSo I’ve never read Jane Eyre.  Even as an English major.  Sue me.  I just read this for the first time in preparation for the new movie adaptation released March 11.  Watch the trailer here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8PLpXvhtlc.  The review for that probable disaster is coming soon.

I usually dislike novels deemed as “classic,” and I prepared to slog through Jane Eyre and ultimately hate it. When I picked it up from the library and saw just how many pages it had, I groaned.  But, I have to admit I really liked it.

I love strong female characters.  Bella Swan?  Fuck her.  Give me Katniss Everdeen any day.  The best advice I could give to a 13 year old would run along these lines: “Be Katniss.  Not Bella.”  But the first, real, strong female literary role model available to women was Jane Eyre.  She started it all.  It is popular to critique this book as a feminist text, but I think the book is so much more complex than that.  There are some very good feminist themes throughout like the way Jane speaks her mind, doesn’t accept that every woman must marry to fully realize her worth.

As a feminist text, Jane Eyre lets women know it is ok not to conform to the societal ideal of femininity.   Jane says,

“Women have the same selfish thoughts, same raging emotion, and same ability to become dissatisfied as men.  Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”

The idea, at the time Bronte wrote Jane Eyre, was revolutionary.  A woman?  Wanting more than just a life as a housewife? Whattt?  Shocker.  However, even with these feminist themes, I didn’t feel the whole book was as feminist as critics and readers believe.  For example, Jane seems to have a bit of a weak spot when it comes to men.  Don’t get me wrong, she does speak her mind and she does have an inner fire that can’t really be put out, but she is so compliant when dealing with men who are in positions of power over her.

When she became a governess at Thornfield and met Rochester for the first time, he had this weird ability to get her to do anything he wants.  He could demand anything and she would do it.  He was coarse, rude, and demanding but she didn’t even bat an eye.  Granted, he was her employer, but even when their relationship changed, she still called him “sir” or “Mr. Rochester.”  Something about that just sat wrong with me.  Let’s ignore the fact that she’s 18 and he’s about 37 – I’m willing to overlook that for the sake of the story and the fact that it was like 1850.  Then, when she runs away from Thornfield, St. John has a power over her too.  She doesn’t love him, she never did, but she doesn’t have the power to resist anything he says.  She learns Hindosantee, she follows his commands of “Come,” “Sit,” or any other variation of commands you could give to a dog.  I mean, really?  You’re supposed to be feminist?  Jane, please stop.  Tell them, especially that complete douchebag St. John, to shove it.

When she finally marries Rochester, (thank GOD she didn’t marry St. John) it’s almost like Bronte humbled him and literally cut him down to size for Jane.  He is blind and crippled and doesn’t have the same bravado that he wielded to order Jane around earlier in the book.  He is more pliant, willing, and lets Jane do what she wants, instead of trying to force her to become the wife he pictures.  The first time around he showers her in pearls, new clothes, and whispers pet names into her ear.  When the actually marry, Jane and Rochester don’t go through all that bullshit.  They just get married, the way Jane wanted to do it along.

I think people get too caught up in labeling her a feminist or anti feminist character.  She is a woman with depth.  She makes mistakes, she falls in love, and she finds her way in a world made for men.  She’s complex and can’t fit into any one box, just like every other woman.