Jane Eyre – Burn that House Down, Girl

In preparation for reading Sarah Shoemaker’s Mr. Rochester, I did my due diligence and put in the time to reread Jane Eyre. I honestly wasn’t expecting to get as much out of it as I did, and as someone who has been reluctant to reread in the past in the name of an ever growing wishlist of new things to explore, I severely underestimated the wealth to be found in studying a familiar story. I was more capable of picking up on nuances and subtleties that would have otherwise been lost on me if I hadn’t had a loose recollection of where the story was going, and I felt like I heard Bronte’s voice more strongly than I did in my first pass. I also realized how little of the actual story I did, in fact, remember, so it wasn’t nearly as repetitive as I had anticipated.

Whenever I pondered Jane Eyre, I mostly found myself reckoning with Bertha. Why write the crazy wife in the attic? Why have her burn the house down? Why have anti-marriage Jane draw such a moral line in the sand when she discovers Mr. Rochester’s entrapment with a mentally unsound spouse? I hadn’t read Bertha as Jane’s true adversary as her destruction seemed too intentional, too useful, to feminist Jane, who understood marriage as a real degradation to women. I highlighted line after line of Jane’s rebuttals against smitten Mr. Rochester’s desires to dress her up like a doll, declare her angelic, essentially claim her as his pet, his “girl-bride.” This is one of my favorite passages from killjoy Jane, in one of her many attempts to reel Mr. Rochester back in:

For a little while you will perhaps be as you are now, — a very little while; and then you will turn cool; and then you will be capricious; and then you will be stern, and I shall have much ado to please you: but when you get well used to me, you will perhaps like me again, — like me, I say, not love me. I suppose your love will effervesce in six months, or less. I have observed in books written by men, that period assigned as the farthest to which a husband’s ardour extends. Yet, after all, as a friend and companion, I hope never to become quite distasteful to my dear master.

In short, Jane herself is getting ready to burn the house down, watch the institution that wishes to enslave her collapse to the ground. Fortunately for me, I have a literature loving husband who pointed me to a new holy grail, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. As you can deduce from the title, there is a fabulous discussion of Jane Eyre, in which my mind was blown: Jane and Bertha are one and the same. In thinking about Jane Eyre‘s introduction, i.e. Jane’s confinement to the ghostly red room by Mrs. Reed, Jane spends the remainder of the book trying to escape various forms of imprisonment. Lowood, her subsequent boarding school, is no better, with the terrible Mr. Brocklehurst and the resigned Helen Burns, who gladly welcomes death as an escape from her imagined future struggles. (These are not my original ideas, I’m merely sharing the genius of Gilbert and Gubar.) Bertha destroys not only the repressive, gray, Thornfield, but also Mr. Rochester himself, who is emasculated and deformed by the fire she sets. Once he is emasculated (and Jane has secured her own fortune), she eagerly returns ready to marry him.

The other gift to come of The Madwoman in the Attic, was the discovery of other works by Charlotte Bronte that were not familiar to me. Gilbert and Gubar suggest that Villette is Bronte’s most pointed feminist work, so I will definitely be continuing my Bronte study with this. Jane Eyre makes plenty of loud statements, though I suppose ultimately Jane does still end up married in the end, even if she’s burned down a house and poked her future husband’s eye out in order to make it seem more palatable.

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