Friday, January 7, 2011

Starting Jane Eyre

I'm only on chapter five; but thought I'd start the ball rolling anyway.

Reading about how unloved Jane was as a child I find it amazing she didn't turn out as twisted as Mrs Reed accuses her of being. I can only think that the affection that Bessie shows her does mitigate the lack of affection and the outright cruelty of her aunt and cousins. Or is a wonderful demonstration of how resilient children really are.

The detail that stood out most in the first chapters was about Jane's doll:
To this crib I always took my doll; human beings must always love something, and in the dearth of worthier objects of my affection, I contrived to find a pleasure in loving and cherishing a faded graven image, shabby as a miniature scarecrow. It puzzles me now to remember with what absurd sincerity I doated on this little toy, half fancying it alive and capable of sensation. I could not sleep unless it was folded in my nightgown; and when it lay there, safe and warm, I was comparatively happy, believing it to be happy likewise.
I think what strikes me most is how puzzled the adult Jane is at the memory. I suppose in part her reaction seems odd because it's such a contrast with a Christmas picture book I've been reading over and over again to Isabella, The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden, which is the tale of a little orphan girl who falls in love with a doll. And of the doll who falls in love with the girl. Godden takes it for granted that a doll is a worthy object of affection for an orphan child. Though she also provides Ivy with an adoptive family at the end of the story, so I suppose the doll is necessary but not sufficient. Godden has written quite a few doll tales, all of them are at least in part told from the dolls' point of view.

Jane on the other hand seems to feel some distaste for her childish affection for the doll. I can't tell if it's just that it was meant to be a rather hideous and pathetic doll or if it's a more general feeling of revulsion for that much emotion being lavished on an object rather than a person. I suspect the latter though since she refers to it as a "graven image". We're meant to see it as a sort of idolatry.


Enbrethiliel said...


Melanie, I think the point you raise is interesting in the light of the memoirs we've been reading, particularly The Liars' Club and Parched. In a certain sense, Jane Eyre is also a memoir, and we are forced to see the younger Jane through the more critical eyes of her older self. But we have no guarantee that the older self can be an unbiased narrator.

I never really noticed this passage before, but now that you've got me dwelling on it, I find it makes me uneasy. Jane does seem to think it was a sort of idolatry--or at the very least, a shameful sort of crutch--when it's perfectly natural for children to want something to cuddle and care for and project their feelings into. Perhaps the older Jane just wasn't sentimental in that way, or not very forgiving of what she (later) saw as a kind of weakness in herself?

Come to think of it, she is much kinder to that doll than she becomes to Adele . . .

BettyDuffy said...

Just caught up with you Melanie. It has been so long since I last read this book. Not surprisingly, it's a completely different novel to me than it was in high school.

Been reading Harold Bloom on the Western Cannon, and he talks about Characterization in Shakespeare, how he was the first to employ the technique of allowing characters to make judgements on their own actions and even to change in the middle of a work.

Jane seems to be the only character in the book who has this ability, and I understand that it's a function of the first person narrative, but so far, not a single adult in the book displays any behavior that could be interpreted as self-reflection, and it makes me uncomfortable. To me, this is more disturbing than their treatment of Jane. They are cruel, yes, but their single-mindedness in their cruelty makes them feel like charicatures--which is probably how they live in Jane's memory.

Enbrethiliel, I'm glad that you pointed out that this is written as Jane's memoir. Wouldn't have occurred to me--but it makes sense when you consider how much more rounded Jane's character is than anyone else's. She's intent on undermining any of the expectations we might have of her. "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." Nevertheless, Jane didn't want to take a walk. She holds her doll, but she thinks that holding her doll is pathetic. She seems to be establishing her worthiness as a heroine, in spite of her plainness, reduced circumstances, and the testimony of everyone around her that she is unworthy of attention.

Melanie B said...


A very interesting point about it being told as a memoir. Definitely Jane as adult deliberately shapes the story she tells and how she presents herself. Something to keep in mind as I read.

The ethos she tries to project is one of being scrupulously fair to the other characters. She does try to be fair to Mrs Reed and understand that she was put into an awkward position by her deceased husband. She does try to make allowances for those who mistreated her as a young child by pointing out that she wasn't naturally pretty or vivacious and that was what society preferred.


"She seems to be establishing her worthiness as a heroine, in spite of her plainness, reduced circumstances, and the testimony of everyone around her that she is unworthy of attention."

That does raise an interesting point. What makes a worthy heroine-- at least as far as Bronte is concerned?

Re Bloom and characters who are self-reflexive and capable of change. That's a great point about the early chapters. Though I think Jane's school friend Helen Burns is self-reflective and capable of judging her own actions, she isn't an adult so. I think she's a fascinating character, by the way, in the way she acknowledges her faults and accepts correction for them. Clearly she's meant to be a sort of ideal that Jane hold up for herself to be compared to. A bit of the Victorian child martyr typology there, of course.

Mr Rochester also seems to be self-reflective but whether he's capable of change is less clear. In fact, I'm fascinated by the way Jane dramatizes his outward manifestations of his internal conflict as he becomes aware that he is drawn to her. She's both naive in the moment as the observer and yet aware as the narrator reflecting back on his actions. She wants the reader to experience her naivite and yet she also drops clues that lead us to suspect what the younger Jane does not yet guess.

Incidentally, my edition calls Adele "Adela" for the first few chapters and then suddenly starts calling her "Adele" when Mr Rochester appears on the scene and Jane learns about her past and her French mother. Is it that way in your editions as well? Is it deliberate or an editorial glitch?

Enbrethiliel said...


We'll see Mrs. Reed and her cousins again when Jane goes back to Gateshead as an adult. And of course, Bessie comes to visit the grown up Jane, too, and is notably warmer than how she was portrayed at the beginning of the book. (I can't remember: does she chide Jane for having been cold and rebuffing other people's attempts at affection?)

For some reason, I never thought of the adults Jane knew in her childhood as caricatures, but I certainly consider her grown up cousins to be exactly that! I guess Jane can be excused for making them so two-dimensional in her memories of her childhood; she can't have remembered them very fondly. But her depiction of their grown-up selves seems to be a kind of justification of all her ill feeling towards them. ("See? I was right to despise them. Just look at what they've become!")

Emily J. said...

I'm just catching up, too - enjoying it, but still at Lowood. (but I did peek ahead and saw that my book has "Adela" also. Maybe she is called Adele later (with accent mark) to seem more refined/French?

It seems like Miss Temple is a self-reflective adult. She welcomes Jane and Helen into her little sanctuary for tea and warmth and suggests she cares more than she shows about their privations and sees the hypocrisy of Brocklehurst. Does she change?

In this exchange with Miss Temple and Helen, Jane's desire to be loved and petted is confirmed. Helen chastises Jane for thinking too much about being loved by others instead of taking assurance from her conscience. Maybe that is part of her grievance with the Reeds - they don't love her or recognize her sensitivity which makes being ignored and being shoved in a dark room such grave injustices.

Is it any wonder books like this lead readers to become anglophiles when they read descriptions like the one here about the coming of spring with all its primroses and mosses (despite the raging typhoid fever)?

My edition starts with a preface from "Currer Bell" thanking her publishers and the public and then addressing the few "whose ears detect in each protest against bigotry - that parent of crime - an insult to piety, that regent of God on earth." So she uses the preface as a reminder that "Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns. . . . narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ."

I never really thought about Jane Eyre being treatise against hypocrisy and bigotry.

Melanie B said...

I'm not sure that Mrs Reed changes much. She is repentant-- kind of-- but there are signs of her knowing she's in the wrong even when Jane is a child.

And I think the cousins just become more themselves. Interesting that Eliza becomes a nun. I'd forgotten that completely. Not a very favorable view of Catholicism, I must say.

Enbrethiliel, I can't decide if the depiction of her grown cousins is entirely self-justification or in part an attempt to show that Mrs. Reed was just as flawed in how she raised her own children as in her attitude to Jane. Just as Jane was neglected, they were spoiled and their poor upbringing is reflected in their shallowness of character.

The more I think about it, it does seem appropriate for the characters from her childhood to seem flat. After all children do see the world as very flat, very black and white. People are good or bad. As Jane matures so does her portrayal of the people around her. It becomes more subtle. Though Miss Ingram and the other society ladies are still pretty flat, I think that is deliberate. They are meant to be shallow and unworthy of Mr Rochester's attention.