Charlotte Bronte, 1847
Book Review by Molly Lundquist
Possibly no book, other than Pride and Prejudice, has been as beloved by women as Jane Eyre, a Cinderella novel if ever there was one. If you haven't read it...what have you been doing with your life? If you have read it, read it again. It's one of many classic works that gets better and better with each successive read.
On its surface, Jane Eyre is a simple romance: a young girl, brought low by circumstance and maltreated by the very institutions that should have protected her (family and school), wins the heart of a wealthy, accomplished man. At its core, however, Jane Eyre is much, much more.
First, the novel is a trenchant critique of the class system, recognizing that true worth is dependent not on social rank but on inner character. The true aristocrats are those who possess intelligence, goodness, and humility. Second, the book offered a powerful indictment of 19th-century British educational institutions, which too often engaged in cruelty and deprivation at the expense of moral and intellectual instruction.
More recently, 20th-century feminists have viewed Jane Eyre as a proto-feminist work—ahead of its time, the book championed dignity and independence for women. Years later it spawned a groundbreaking work, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), which took its cue from Mr. Rochester's wife Bertha, a madwoman hidden away in the attic. Madwoman's premise followed an earlier insight made by Virginia Woolf—that literature portrayed women in only one of two ways: chaste and submissive (acceptable) or "unkempt" and monstrous (unacceptable).
Jane Eyre challenges that dichotomy—she is the opposite of submissive. She is the "I" of her own story; she disallows others to define her, whether it's her aunt, the charity school she is sent to, or even Mr. Rochester; she alone decides who she will become. As Gloria Steinman says in Revolution from Within (1992),
Charlotte Bronte made self-completion [as opposed to romantic love] the goal, the struggle to preserve an independent spirit...and loving oneself the only path to loving others.... Jane shows herself to be one of those rare young girls who escape the fate society holds in store.... [S]he is rebellious from the beginning.
Read—or re-read—this wonderful novel about an extraordinary young heroine, who prefigures our contemporary values of strong, independent women. Book clubs have two sets of questions to use for great discussions.
See our Reading Guide for Jane Eyre.
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