Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: A late 19th-century analysis

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

This introduction to and analysis of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847) is excerpted from Life and Works of the Sisters Brontë by Mary A. Ward, a 19th-century British novelist and literary critic. Though much has been written about this novel, before and since, this excerpt abbreviated from Ward’s 1899 book about the Brontës is a critical yet insightful analysis of the beloved novel.

Ward doesn’t hold back on what she feels are the inconsistencies and even the absurdities of the plot and characters. Seriously — locking a mentally ill wife in an attic? But in the end, she overlooks what generations of readers have also looked past, and acknowledged that this novel is one of the greats because the author’s personality and talent shine through.

From an unknown to a secure literary legacy

Jane Eyre was first published in October 1847. Half a century—since this tale of the North by an unknown writer stole upon London, and, in the very midst of the serial publication of Vanity Fair, took the town by storm, obtaining for its author in the course of a few weeks a success which, as the creator of Becky Sharp (Thackeray) afterwards said to her, a little sadly and sharply, “it took me the work of ten years to achieve.”

… Judging by the books that have been written and read in recent years, by the common verdict as to the  Brontë sisters, their story, and their work, which prevails, almost without exception, in the literary criticism of the present day; by the tone of personal tenderness, even of passionate homage, in which many writers speak of Charlotte and of Emily; and by the increasing recognition which their books have obtained abroad, one may say with some confidence that the name and memory of the Brontës were never more alive than now, that “Honour and Fame have got about their graves” for good and all, and that Charlotte and Emily  Brontë are no less secure, at any rate, than Jane Austen or George Eliot or Mrs. Browning of literary recollection in the time to come.

A brief summary of plot

Jane Eyre, to run through a summary of the plot is the story of an orphan girl, reared at a Charity School amid many hardships, going out into the world as a governess, and falling in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester. She yields herself to her own passion and to his masterful love-making with an eager, an over-eager abandonment.

The wedding-day is fixed; the small marriage party assembles. But in the very church, and at the moment of the ceremony, it is revealed to Jane Eyre that Mr. Rochester has a wife living, a frenzied lunatic who has been confined for months in a corner of the same house where she and Rochester have had their daily dwelling; that Rochester has deliberately entrapped her, and that she stands on the edge of an abyss.

The marriage party breaks up in confusion, and Rochester’s next endeavor is to persuade the stunned and miserable Jane to scout law and convention, and fly with him to love and foreign parts. He shows her the lunatic, in all the odious horror of her state, and Jane forgives him on the spot, having never indeed, so far as appears, felt any deep resentment of his conduct. Nevertheless, she summons up the courage to leave him.

She steals away by night, and, after days of wandering and starvation, she finds a home with the Rivers family, who ultimately turn out to be her cousins. St. John Rivers, the brother of the family, an Evangelical clergyman possessed with a fanatical enthusiasm for missionary life, observes the girl’s strong and energetic nature, and makes up his mind to marry her, not in the least because he loves her, but because he thinks her fitted to be a missionary’s wife.

Her will is on the point of yielding to his when she hears a mysterious midnight call from Rochester; she hurries back to her master, to find him blinded and maimed by the fire which has destroyed his house and his mad wife together; and of course, the end is happiness.

A plot abounding in absurdities and inconsistencies

Now certainly there never was a plot, which pretended to be a plot, of looser texture than that of  Jane Eyre. It abounds with absurdities and inconsistencies. The critics of Charlotte Brontë’s time had no difficulty in pointing them out; they are, indeed, on the surface for all to see.

That such incidents should have happened to Jane Eyre in Mr. Rochester’s house as did happen, without awakening her suspicions; that the existence of a lunatic should have been commonly known to all the servants of the house, yet wholly concealed from the governess; that Mr. Rochester should have been a man of honor and generosity, a man with whom not only Jane Eyre, but clearly the writer herself, is in love, and yet capable of deliberately betraying and deceiving a girl of twenty placed in a singularly helpless position; these are the fundamental puzzles of the story.

Mrs. Fairfax is a mystery throughout. How, knowing what she did, did she not inevitably know more? What was her real relation to Rochester? To Jane Eyre? These are questions that no one can answer out of the four corners of the book. The country-house party is a tissue of extravagance throughout; the sarcasms and brutalities of the beautiful Miss Ingram are no more credible than the manners assumed by the aristocratic Rochester from the beginning towards his ward’s governess, or the amazing freedom with which he pours into the ears of the same governess a virtuous girl of twenty, who has been no more than a few weeks under his roof the story of his relations with Adele’s mother.

Contemporary Jane Eyre cover

You might also like: Quotes from Jane Eyre

Early scene between Jane and Rochester

Turn to the early scenes, for instance, between Jane and Rochester. They have been “several days” under the same roof; it is Jane’s second interview with her employer. Mr. Rochester, in Sultan fashion, sends for her and her pupil after dinner. He sits silent, while Jane’s quick eye takes note of him. Suddenly he turns upon her.

“You examine me, Miss Eyre,’ said he; “do you think me handsome?”

Jane, taken by surprise, delivers a stout negative, whereupon her employer, in caprice or pique, pursues the subject further:

“Criticize me: does my forehead not please you?”

He lifted up the sable waves of hair which lay horizontally over his brow and showed a solid enough mass of intellectual organs, but an abrupt deficiency where the suave sign of benevolence should have risen.

Poor Jane gets out of the dilemma as best she can, and gradually this astonishing gentleman thaws, becoming conversational and kind. And this is how he puts the little governess at her ease:

“You look very much puzzled, Miss Eyre; and though you are not pretty, any more than I am handsome, yet a puzzled air becomes you; besides, it is convenient, for it keeps those searching eyes of yours away from my physiognomy, and busies them with the worsted flowers of the rug; so puzzle on. Young lady, I am disposed to be gregarious and communicative to-night.”

Other weaknesses in plot

… As to the other weaknesses of plot and conception, they are very obvious and very simple. The “arrangements” by which Jane Eyre is led to find a home in the Rivers household, and becomes at once her uncle’s heiress, and the good angel of her newly discovered cousins; the device of the phantom voice that recalls her to Rochester’s side; the fire that destroys the mad wife, and delivers into Jane’s hands a subdued and helpless Rochester; all these belong to that more mechanical and external sort of plot-making, which the modern novelist of feeling and passion as distinguished from the novelist of adventure prides himself on renouncing …

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë on Amazon

Courage is the true subject of Jane Eyre

The true subject of Jane Eyre is the courage with which a friendless and loving girl confronts her own passion, and, in the interest of some strange social instinct which she knows as “duty,” which she cannot explain and can only obey, tramples her love underfoot, and goes out miserable into the world.

Beside this wrestle of the human will, everything else is trivial or vulgar. The various expedient legacies, uncles, fires, and coincidences by which Jane Eyre is ultimately brought to happiness, cheapen and degrade the book without convincing the reader … Jane Eyre is on the one side a rather poor novel of incident, planned on the conventional pattern, and full of clumsy execution; on another side it is a picture of passion and of ideas, for which in truth the writer had no sufficient equipment; she moves imprisoned … in “a narrow circle of thoughts.”

The personality of the author overcomes the book’s defects

If you press it, the psychology of the book is really childish; Rochester is absurd, Jane Eyre, in spite of the stir that she makes, only half-realized and half-conscious. Still, as a study of feeling, adapted to some extent to modern realist demands, the novel came at a happy moment. It is one of the signs, no doubt, that mark the transition from the old novel to the new, from the old novel of plot and coincidence to the new novel of psychology and character.

But, given the defects of the book, how is it possible to assign it a high place in the history of that great modern art which has commanded the knowledge of a Tolstoy, and the mind of a Turgenev, which is the subtle interpreter and not the vulgar stage-manager of nature, which shrinks from the merely obvious and vigorous, and is ever pressing forward toward that more delicate, more complex, more elusive expression, satisfying in proportion to its incompleteness, which is the highest response of human genius to this unintelligible world?’

  Yet, in spite of it all, Jane Eyre persists, and Charlotte Brontë is with the immortals … There are books where the writer seems to be everything, the material employed, the environment, almost nothing. The main secret of the charm that clings to Charlotte Brontë’s books is, and will always be, the contact which they give us with her own fresh, indomitable, surprising personality  — surprising, above all.

1943 illustration by Fritz Eichenberg fro Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Illustration by Fritz Eichenberg from Jane Eyre, 1943 edition

The magic of the unexpected

In spite of its conventionalities of scheme, Jane Eyre has, in detail, in conversation, in the painting of character, that perpetual magic of the unexpected which overrides a thousand faults and keeps the mood of the reader happy and alert. The expedients of the plot may irritate or chill the artistic sense; the voice of the story-teller, in its inflections of passion, or feeling or reverie, charms and holds the ear, almost from first to last.

The general plan may be commonplace, the ideas even of no great profundity; but the book is original. How often in the early scenes of childhood or school-life does one instinctively expect the conventional solution, the conventional softening, the conventional prettiness or quaintness, that so many other storytellers, of undoubted talent, could not have resisted! And it never comes.

Hammer-like, the blows of a passionate realism descend. Jane Eyre, the little helpless child, is never comforted; Mrs. Reid, the cruel aunt, is never sorry for her cruelties; Bessie, the kind nurse, is not very kind, she does not break the impression, she satisfies no instinct of poetic compensation, she only just makes the story credible, the reader’s assent possible.

So, at Lowood, Helen Burns is not a suffering angel; there is nothing consciously pretty or touching in the wonderful picture of her; reality, with its discords, its infinite novelties, lends word and magic to the passion of Charlotte’s memory of her dead sister; all is varied, living, poignant, full of the inexhaustible savor of truth, and warm with the fire of the heart. So that at last, when pure pathos comes, when Helen sleeps herself to death in Jane’s arms, when the struggle is over, and room is made for softness, for pity, the mind of the reader yields itself wholly, without reserve, to the working of an artist so masterful, so self-contained, so rightly frugal as to the great words and great emotions of her art.

Read the full analysis on Wikisource.

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