Teaching Jane Eyre: A Professor’s Perspective

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

If you’re obscure, plain, poor and little, life may not be smooth and easy for you. You may have to bite wicked older cousins who want to torture you, defend yourself from a jealous aunt who wishes you were dead, you may have to survive long solitary hours locked in a scary red room, then to strive to keep yourself sane and alive in a bleak, heartless place like a school for poor girls, you must accept to go on living without anybody caring for you or loving you

… but, in the end, you’ll meet your hero, your Mr. Rochester and have your own reward. Read on for a professor’s perspective on teaching Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.


Your groom has a mad wife in the attic

He is not tender and handsome, maybe, but impetuous, fascinating, authoritative, mysterious, restless. Anyhow, he doesn’t trample on you, he doesn’t make you feel a nobody, he treats you as his equal and trusts you. Last but not least, he desires you passionately.

What if you discover on your wedding day that he has a mad wife in the attic and can’t marry you? No panic, hold on, you can make it. You’ll have to endure the awesome shock, run away and give up your dreams for a while, live among strangers you’ll  learn to love for about a year, but be sure,  at last,  you’ll have your reward, you’ll have your happy ending.

 

Teaching Jane Eyre to students

Well, told like that, this incredibly beautiful story loses all its gripping quality. I’m not as good as a Brontë sister as a story-teller, I know. But I can assure you, that’s not how I usually talk about Jane Eyre to my students. It is, in fact, one of those novels I have read and studied several times and  in different moments of my life, and which I respect and deeply love.

It’s been some time since I last worked on it and read from it with my students. I’m glad it is  part of my syllabus this year and it is the subject of my lessons just these days. Every time I deal with the series of incredible tragic events in the Brontës’ lives or read one of their novels, I wonder how strong they must have been.

Those fragile little girls living at Haworth must have been as brave as Victorian heroines in their short unfortunate lives. As strong and brave as their own heroines.

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Contemporary Jane Eyre cover

You might also like Jane Eyre and I: A Love Affair for Life

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A temper and strong will

How can you not admire Jane Eyre’s temper and strong will? Her love for life, self – respect,  endurance, and intelligence, her independent spirit and sympathetic attitude to other human beings, especially those complex and damaged like her?

She’s strong and she manages to tame reckless Mr Rochester, her own passionate temper as well as life itself. She is a real winner: someone who gets to self-realization never accepting compromises. She doesn’t cheat nor pretend, she doesn’t hide her weaknesses, she doesn’t complain nor surrender.

 

Controversial in its time

The novel made quite a stir in its time since Jane shows a courage and a determination which contrast with Victorian ideals of female delicacy — such qualities were considered typical of men only. Jane Eyre is a passionate woman, but she’s never slave to love, she is ready to sacrifice it to her own notion of  honour and duty.

We can see this when Jane prays God to give her the strength to leave Thornfield and Mr. Rochester once she discovers he deceived her, or when she goes back to him in the end.

She only goes back when she feels strong enough to do so and even then the dialogue between her and Mr. Rochester shows the woman teasing the man and leading the game rather than mildly surrendering to him.

 

A modern heroine

We can definitely consider Jane Eyre a modern heroine. She wants to dispose of her life and her future according to her conscience, beyond conventions and circumstances, defending her own dignity and free will, stating she is Mr Rochester’s equal, a man’s equal.

That can sound obvious to us, present day readers, but definitely it was not current opinion in Victorian England. In fiction as in real life, the social and psychological inferiority of women was a dogma universally accepted.

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Bronte sisters

See also: The Brontë Sisters’ Path to Publication

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Stamp of approval from Dickens

Even Charles Dickens accepted it and he was quite a sensitive and committed writer, interested in many social issues, the advocate of children and poor people. As for women, he  reduced his female figures to two conventional types: one is the tall, self-confident, serious and constant  one, the woman a man can totally trust; the second type is the doll, frivolous, silly and irresponsible.

So, if you are looking for a real self-made woman, the forerunner of many modern women, able to build her life day by day with strength and courage, facing adversities and counting only on herself — no workarounds and no compromises … ask Jane Eyre.

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Maria Grazia is a longtime teacher of English to Italian students and a blogger for several years. She loves classic literature, reading, theatre, period drama, and art, which she covers on FLY HIGH and My Jane Austen Book Club.

One Response to “Teaching Jane Eyre: A Professor’s Perspective”

  1. Very true! I know Queen Victoria herself read the novel twice, and she thought JE’s character “a beautiful one.” Too bad the Queen couldn’t go on public record as endorsing a particular novel.

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