This post includes spoilers for chapters 1-6 of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
How is the reading going for everyone? It’s a long novel so I hope it won’t be too agonizing to keep up with. I’m amazed by how engaging this book is, and even though I’ve read it multiple times, it still isn’t boring. Especially since Jane is a child for these early chapters, and I am usually very bored by child narrators/child protagonists. I guess I’m just terrible.
Jane. What a cool kid. What a terrible kid. What a frightening kid! Almost immediately Mrs. Reed admonishes Jane for being so outspoken, saying “there is something truly forbidding in a child taking up her elders in that manner” (chapter 1). Of course, in Victorian times children were expected to be seen and not heard, but even so Jane is a very precocious little girl, constantly questioning her elders with a surprising amount of awareness. After her experience in the red room, Jane gets even more extreme with her thoughts and expressing them. Once she realizes that no matter what she does, she will be punished and abandoned by the people who are supposed to care for her, she has no chill whatsoever. Her situation is terrible but how she deals with it is entertaining to watch, although ultimately unsustainable.
That being said, here is my list of Sauciest Jane Moments thus far:
- “They are not fit to associate with me” (chapter 4) Jane announces when told that Jane is not edifying company for her young relatives
- Mr. Brocklehurst: “What must you do to avoid [hell]?” Jane: “I must keep in good health, and not die” (chapter 4). She makes a compelling argument…
- “I was about to propound a question, touching the manner in which that operation of changing my heart was to be performed” (chapter 4), when told that her heart must be changed because it’s evil. To be fair, a lot of typical Christian terminology is REALLY CONFUSING especially when you’re a kid. I love that she wants to question everything so much, not because she’s skeptical, but because she wants to understand it.
- When Jane has lost all of her chill and all hope that Mrs. Reed will ever love her: “You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so” (chapter 4). For a neglected and abused child, Jane has a lot of courage in confronting her caretaker so forcefully.
- “Deceit is not my fault” (chapter 4): again, Jane is very self-aware for her age, although she has her blind spots. It’s hilarious that Mrs. Reed informs her that being “passionate” is just as bad. Very Victorian.
- “Something of vengeance I had tasted for the first time” (chapter 4), Jane says when she tells off Mrs. Reed. These early chapters really feel like a villain’s origin story.
- Jane knows that in going to school she “shall soon have another set of people to dread” (chapter 4). Again, very aware of the world around her, very prepared to be careful and cautious (not surprising, based on the neglect she’s gone through for her whole life).
- Bessie observes “How coolly my little lady says it” (chapter 4). I love picturing tiny Jane Eyre, self-assured and world-wise, calmly talking to adults and freaking them out 100% of the time. Again, she has her faults, which become clearer in later chapters.
- “She has been my foe” (chapter 5): Jane finally is able to let go of any concern she had for Mrs. Reed’s opinion of her. Mrs. Reed is a “foe” and therefore someone to be escaped from. Even though she’s heading to school, Jane is freer now that she doesn’t worry about pleasing or displeasing Mrs. Reed.
- Jane is sure “we should strike back again very hard” (chapter 6) at those who hurt us. She’ll have to learn otherwise, but I still respect her ferocity.
Jane Eyre establishes Jane’s upbringing and how it shapes her character so clearly and firmly in these opening chapters that we know exactly who this girl is. As she grows up and makes choices, her character is perfectly consistent. Even if that’s all this book does, it would be a masterpiece of character study.
Like I said above, “little roving, solitary” (chapter 4) Jane is really neglected and abused (hopefully you won’t try to argue with me on that point). As the adults won’t accept any of Jane’s affection, she throws all of her affection at her doll “in the dearth of worthier objects of affection” (chapter 4). Since she’s so young, it takes her a while to figure out that there is no reason for the way she is being treated. At least, no reason that is based on her behavior. She’s doing her best to obey. “I could not answer the ceaseless inward question–why I thus suffered; now, at the distance of–I will not say how many years, I see it clearly” (chapter 2). That makes it all the more interesting when, through her experience in the red room breaks through that childlike self-accusation and enables her to see who the real misbehaving ones are: the adults.
Bessie and Abbot, the maids, are convinced that at best Jane is a strange little imp and at worst that she’s “a sort of infantile Guy Fawkes” (chapter 3). To Mrs. Reed, “I was a precocious actress in her eyes” (chapter 2) despite the fact that Jane is brutally honest to everyone. In those rare moments that Bessie, and no one else, are even the slightest bit nice to her, “Bessie seemed to me the best, prettiest, kindest being in the world” (chapter 4).
Of course, Jane doesn’t understand how much her class/social status dictates how others treat her. Bessie tries to explain it, saying “They will have a great deal of money, and you will have none” (chapter 2). Bessie is trying to get Jane to accept reality but Jane is developing a very black and white understanding of justice and treatment of others. Mrs. Reed, in the same vein, tells Mr. Brocklehurst “I should wish her to be brought up in a manner suiting her prospects” (chapter 4). Mrs. Reed is kind of the worst, but she as well as Bessie knows that Jane doesn’t have the same future as the Reed children, and want her to realize this. Jane is furious with Mrs. Reed for again portraying Jane as a liar or actress to Mr. Brocklehurst: “I dimly perceived that she was already obliterating hope from the new phase of existence which she destined me to enter” (chapter 4), but to be fair Mr. Brocklehurst treats all of his students terribly, even if he doesn’t think they’re lying delinquents. More on Mr. Brocklehurst later, probably. In any case, Mrs. Reed knows that the girls at Mr. Brocklehurt’s school are “quiet and plain” (chapter 4) and that’s all she wants Jane to become. WILL SHE SUCCEED? TUNE IN NEXT TIME.
Bit that cracked me up: Brocklehurst’s story about the “pious” boy who gets two delicious nuts for saying he’d rather read Psalms (chapter 4). That kid knows what’s up.
I liked the bit where older!Jane is reflected on her younger self’s aversion to poverty: “[children] have not much idea of industrious, working, respectable poverty” and “I was not heroic enough to purchase liberty at the price of caste” (chapter 3). Considering Charlotte Bronte’s poor but industrious upbringing, I like seeing how she criticizes treatment of poorer classes while admitting the wide variety of poor people. They can’t all be shunted into a box, even if young Jane thinks they can.
I relate to Jane’s sentimental goth love of storms: “as it was, I derived from both a strange excitement, and reckless and feverish, I wished the wind to howl more wildly, the gloom to deepen to darkness, and the confusion to rise to clamour” (chapter 6).
Helen Burns is an excellent foil counterpart to Jane. Helen is a little older, and has had a very similar cold upbringing to Jane’s, and yet she is quiet, forgiving, forbearing, and patient. I love how Jane is fascinated by her, like a mix of contemptuous disbelief that Helen would put up with her tormentors, but also admiring her for that same tolerance. Helen herself doesn’t exactly look down on Jane, but does NOT admire the fierce attitude Jane has adopted. She tells Jane, “it is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required to bear” (chapter 6), which is a very significant line for Jane’s whole life, really. Jane is very good at bearing things she doesn’t want to bear. Helen also criticizes Jane’s obsession with those who have wronged her: “What a singularly deep impression her injustice seems to have made on your heart” (chapter 6). Unlike Jane, who is determined to survive, determined to outlast anyone who mistreats her, Helen says “I live in calm, looking to the end” (chapter 6). Helen has all of the chill, Jane has none.
That’s all I have for this week, except Jane’s booklist below. Comment below with thoughts or questions, or if you disagree with anything I’ve said.
Jane’s literary influences (mentioned so far in Jane Eyre):
- Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson: A lot of early novels, like Pamela or Moll Flanders, had plots that were a prototype of Jane Eyre. They followed a young woman who falls into the power of an older man, often an employer, who tries to seduce them. If the young woman lets herself be seduced, she usually winds up dying painfully because of her sins. If she resists, she often goes through a lot of terrible experiences before being rewarded. We can argue about how much Jane Eyre has in common with this earlier genre once we finish.
- Bewick’s History of British Birds: This is an early field guide to birds.
- The History of Henry, Earl of Moreland by Henry Brooke: The protagonist is a rich young man who wants to become a social justice warrior, as far as I can tell.
- Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels is possibly the most iconic satire of English literature, but when read by a child is often interpreted as a simple travel-adventure story.
- “some Arabian tales“: I’m going to assume this is One Thousand and One Nights. We should do a readalong of these!
- Although it’s not to Jane’s taste, Rasselas by Samuel Johnson: The History of Rasselas is a philosophical novel that can be compared to Candide by Voltaire.
- “like Felix” (chapter 6): This is a reference to the Roman governor Felix, who delays putting Paul on a proper trial until he’s essentially out of office. You can read the story in Acts 23-25 in the Bible.
It’s interesting that most of these books are from the 18th century, so somewhat recent “modern classics” for Jane Eyre, living in the 19th century. She’s familiar with the problem of bookworms everywhere:
“With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy: happy at least in my way. I feared nothing but interruption, and that came too soon” (chapter 1).