There’s always a meditative joy in re-reading a classic; especially when one is older and hopefully wiser because of life’s travails. Subtle interpretations that one missed in the flush of youth now bloom gently and delightfully.
Jane Eyre is not a story that can be easily erased from memory. The characters of this story inhabit your mind for a long time, urging you to introspect, question beliefs and redefine ‘love’ as we see it today. I have to admit, I’ve not read any of the modern family sagas. I am not embarrassed to read love stories; it’s just that I feel nothing new, nothing stirring has been written in a long time. Nothing has compelled me to put myself in the protagonist’s shoes and ponder ‘What would I do if I were her?’ I am also guilty of basing my decisions on reviews, excerpts. But really, if something can’t catch my attention with an excerpt, there is no way I can wade through the book.
As a youngster, when I had read Jane Eyre (I think it was an abridged version), I found it to be one heck of a love story. But that was just the adrenalin speaking. Several years later, more recently, I found a wonderful hardback edition of this classic, with ‘opinions of the press’ possibly dated 1847, introduction and notes. Last week I succumbed to the schizophrenic weather of UK, and was in bed with a sore throat and cold. I’ve never enjoyed an illness so much.
Even as you tumble helplessly into the world of Jane, even as the tea is left untouched as you turn the pages; you have to stop and take a breath periodically to ponder over what you’ve read. As I lay back on the pillows - holding Jane’s hands during her difficult childhood, revelling in her success of a good employment, falling in love along with her with Rochester, weeping with her at the unfortunate turn of events – I understood the genius of Charlotte Bronte. I understood, and I bowed my head in awe and respect. To question strong beliefs and societal conditioning, in an age where pretty much everything was still considered a man’s domain, must have taken a lot of nerve. But to pose those questions as a part of the narrative, as a part of the very definition of the principal characters – it goes beyond genius.
Conflicts between man-made religious rules, rules on moral behaviour versus one’s own reasoning and dignity are beautifully interwoven in the story. At no point does the author impose her judgement or views on the reader; yet, it compels the reader to think. For example, one of the very tenets of Christianity is nurturing the virtue of forgiveness – one must forgive those who sin against us. But a young Jane points out spiritedly – 'When we are struck without a reason, we must strike back very hard'. She correctly points out that if we keep tolerating those who harm us, then they would continue to get worse and possibly inflict the same atrocities on others too. At a superficial level, the reader can smile at this naive outlook. This opinion as dispensed when Jane was but a child; a child ill-treated constantly by her step-mother and step siblings. One can laugh gently – surely, we cannot go through life with such a passionate attitude. And why not? I examined many of my own experiences where I chose silence over action. Was it fear? No, I would not call it fear. Actually I don’t quite know the word for it. It is probably the realization that confrontation would make things even more unpleasant. The best way to wear out a nasty person is to ignore them – how frustrated they get when you don’t rise to the bait. But it also means giving them the impression that ‘they have won’; that they have subdued you well enough; and they move on to the next victim.
The love story of Jane and Rochester is unlike any I’ve read. There is no ‘sweeping off the feet’ scenario – indeed it is the love story of two ‘plain’ looking individuals; two individuals who have very strong opinions on just about everything; two individuals who cannot be called a ‘great pair’ unlike Lizzie and Mr.Darcy. Jane is quiet, firm in her opinions, knows no diplomacy and can bluntly state the truth without malice. Rochester, the master of the house, her employer, is much older to her, cares two hoots for ‘moral’ way of life; has had mistresses all over Europe; he’s edgy, rude and even comes across an arrogant man. Yet, you never question for once the marked difference in their characters; you never think ‘how can these two fall in love?’ Their love story resonates in your soul because it is written at a level higher than a physical plane. Their love is more of a devotion; a spiritual union of sorts. As the story proceeds, you come to admire Jane’s insurmountable stature when it comes to her virtuous character; and indeed you fall in love with Rochester – for all his seeming arrogance and unconventional principles he is childlike in his fervour to make things right; his love for Jane is as unconditional as a mother’s towards her child. A sombre pair one would say – yet, you don’t feel weary at any point in time. The interaction between Rochester and his Jane is as crackling as the warm fire that burns in the gloomy manors of Victorian England, tickling the reader constantly drawing out chuckles and full throated laughs.
Just as a good painting is all about the blend of colours, so is this book. There are ‘support’ characters that embellish the story – drawing out sharp contrasts with the main hero, at the same time, representing lines of thought of the society. St John Rivers is one such superb character etched by Bronte. To me he represents THE MAN WHOM ONE SHOULD NEVER MARRY. Just as Rochester is a ‘man of the world’ who loves his comforts, St John is a man of God, a missionary, who wants to do good in mankind; who is not afraid of the mortal dangers of visiting far off places to uplift the poor and suffering. Yet, unlike the warm-hearted Rochester, St John is cold and calculating, a man who can use others around him with impunity by justifying that he’s doing so in the name of God. He proposes to Jane because in his observation, she would prove most useful as a missionary’s wife. He tells her that she is not made for love, but for labour. He is a young, good-looking man – a man who is in love with another girl; but feels that girl will hinder his progress in God’s work. Perhaps he feels saintly to stamp out the feelings of true love and instead select a partner who is ‘fit for labour’. Perhaps he thinks it is a good sacrifice. In my memory, I’ve never hated a character so much. How often we have come across such hypocrites! How often we have come across people who make snap judgements about us, and decide for us what we should do with our lives. How often we have come across such people who seem to have a mind-numbing sway over us. We strive to constantly meet their expectations, we go an extra mile to do so – and yet, we are never good enough for them. These are the parasites in our lives who chew at our self esteem, self respect and reduce us to snivelling bundle of nerves. How beautifully Bronte has cast this character – without directly criticising the so called men of God! She has left it to the readers to draw our own conclusions. Can a person who is not true to his own feelings be a man of God? Can a person who is cold-hearted be a man of God?
A good story, when told with a perfect language can become a work of art. This is indeed a work of art. Each and every description in the book is three dimensional – I don’t know any other way to describe it. Not only do you see the setting and events in your imagination, but you can also feel them.
'The ground was hard, the air was still, my road was lonely'...I smiled when I read that. This is indeed vintage England. Even today the countryside can be described by only those words.
'The charm of the hour lay in its approaching dimness, in the low-gliding, pale-beaming sun'... I’ve not come across a better description of an English winter evening.
Apparently a reader once commented that Mr Darcy and Rochester have spoilt her chances of romance in the real world – and I can’t help but agree with her. It is unlikely that one can be loved as devotedly as Jane. It is also unlikely that one can make a man fall in love hopelessly, helplessly, against his wishes – and be completely unaware of it; as Lizzie did to Mr. Darcy. For now, I am just happy to inhabit their world.
My next pilgrimage is to Bronte Parsonage, Haworth.
© Sumana Khan - 2011