There’s really no way to describe the book other than saying it’s about the life of one Victorian-era working-class girl called Jane Eyre, so I’m just going to dive into the spoiler-y bit of the review.
While reading this book I regularly talked about it to a friend of mine who had read it previously. She kept telling me that it was apparently a big feminist novel, but truth be told, I couldn’t really see that until I had finished it and could look back on the story as a whole. Mid-story, Jane simply seemed like a very smart girl who knew where she wanted to be in life, but now I see that she asserts herself in some very dramatic ways, from how she handles her relationship with Rochester to her refusal of St. John. She’s definitely a strong female character, and I admire that about the book.
Actually, I really like Jane as a character overall. I would say she knows her place, but that sounds awful and also it’s not quite what I want to get at. What’s wonderful about Jane is that she’s honest. In her first days at Lowood, Brocklehurst accuses her of being a liar, and Jane spends the rest of the book refuting that. Having grown up neglected, she doesn’t have any reason to think very much of herself. So, while she knows what her redeeming qualities are, she doesn’t build herself up and doesn’t lie to herself about who she is and what she can expect out of life. Her experiences have made her more honest and down-to-earth than most of the people around her.
Although the principal woman in the novel is fully fledged and likable, I found the men almost exactly the opposite. Rochester is erratic and harsh, weaving back and forth between blind devotion and overbearing scorn towards Jane. St. John is not much better, being forceful and unrelenting in his insistence that Jane must marry him. It seems that in this novel’s attempt to put women in the best possible light, it has ignored the men and forgotten that they need to be consistent characters as well.
At the same time, I found the relationships between the characters fascinating. I reveled in Jane’s mindless attachment to the master of Thornfield, in St. Rochester and his religious parallels with the sickly Helen Burns, in the mysteries of Grace Poole and her insane charge. As Jane moves from one bewildering location to the next, the sets of residents she meets shapes all of her interactions thereafter, and seeing that progression was great fun.
As for the plot of the book, I enjoyed the first four hundred pages or so. Once Jane left Thornfield, however, things got a little dull. I found myself wondering where the plot had gone, and when Rochester was going to turn up and sweep Jane off her feet to some magical honeymoon (as he inevitably and somewhat predictably would). Still, by the end the plot was resolved nicely, with good follow-up on all of the characters. I found the return to Gateshead especially interesting (although that’s quite a bit before she leaves Thornfield), as it showed the contrast between who Jane used to be and how the family dynamics stand years later. It was a return to the familiar, but everything had changed (much like Harry’s return to the Dursleys’ home at the end of Philosopher’s Stone*).
In general, my reaction to Jane Eyre was a paradox of emotions. I nitpicked what was wrong with it (or funny about it, or both) while proclaiming that I loved it. I berated Jane while holding her aloft as the epitome of characterization. At the end of it all, I couldn’t possibly know why exactly I liked the book or its characters- only that I did, and that was that. Perhaps I’ll never know. That’s just fine by me.
*Recently I’ve been calling it Philosopher’s Stone, even though I’m American and here it’s called the Sorcerer’s Stone. I suppose it’s out of my respect for what Rowling intended. In other news, The Casual Vacancy is out. I’m only, like, ten pages in, but it seems great.