“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will…” So asserts the titular heroine of Jane Eyre. Has there ever been a better declaration of female independence? When Charlotte Brontë published Jane Eyre in 1847, it was an instant, though controversial, bestseller. Some critics praised the work for its intensity and vigor, “a book to make the pulses gallop and the heart beat, and to fill the eyes with tears.” But even as the novel garnered huge popularity, it evoked controversy by bucking Victorian ideals of domesticity and delicacy; one critic described it as “one of the coarsest books which we ever perused,” while another dubbed it a wholly “anti-Christian composition.” People had a lot of feelings about this book, is the point.
More than 150 years later, Jane Eyre is still the object of intense readerly devotion (though few complain now about its "coarseness"). It is a work that deserves to be read a second time (and a third and a fourth…), and as you reread it, your perceptions of it will change: At times, you’ll read it as a romance novel, and then, as a coming-of-age story, and later still, as a gothic thriller—It is all of these things. It speaks to the power of Brontë’s writing that, to this day, the story remains immediate and addictive (and it certainly brings the drama—who needs soaps when you’ve got Jane Eyre?) Below, I’ve listed eight things you might notice as you delve into the novel again.
* Be warned, this post contains major spoilers for the book. If you haven’t read it (why haven’t you read it??), you can get it for free.
1. Jane is still the best
Jane’s essential awesomeness does not fade over time. Upon each rereading, her intelligence, her complexity, and her refusal to take shit from anyone only shine all the brighter. Let’s take a moment to think about how amazing this speech is, for a woman in 1847, today, and anytime in between:
I tell you I must go!” I retorted, roused to something like passion. “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!
2. You’ve been saying “St. John” all wrong
Given the spelling of St. John Rivers’s first name, it seems fairly obvious that it would be pronounced “Saint John.” But! You’re not taking into account the British predilection for pronouncing words in ways that make no sense whatsoever. As a given name, “St. John” should actually be pronounced “Sin-jun.”
3. There are a hell of a lot of coincidences
Many aspects of Jane Eyre feel like a true reflection of reality: Jane’s life at Lowood school, the day-to-day life of being a governess, the psychological complexity of Jane as a character. But there are also elements that stretch the boundaries of the imagination—the most egregious one being the way that Jane, upon running away from Thornfield, just so happens to stumble onto the doorstep of St. John, Diana, and Mary Rivers, the cousins she never knew she had. These incredibly convenient coincidences might make contemporary readers roll their eyes, but such instances were common in Victorian literature, particularly in gothic and sensation fiction. Jane Eyre strikes a distinctive balance between the gothic and the realist mode, pairing everyday scenarios with suggestions of the supernatural, portentous visions, and mysterious voices.
4. Remember that time Rochester dressed up as a gypsy? What the hell, dude?
Halfway through the novel, Rochester dresses in costume and fools the members of his house party into thinking he’s an old gypsy woman. He tells Blanche and Jane their fortunes, before Jane finally (finally!) figures out that the old lady she’s talking to is actually a brash, barrel-chested middle-aged man. The scene is bizarre the first time you read it, and it’s still bizarre the second time. Why does Rochester engage in this charade in the first place? How on earth does Jane, who has been gazing longingly at his face for the last 60-odd pages, not recognize him, even when she’s staring into the gypsy’s “bold and direct gaze”? Why does she just sort of accept this whole episode as normal?
5. Bertha Mason is at the center of everything
Bertha Mason, Rochester’s secret, mysterious wife, is arguably the most fascinating character of the book—and we know nothing about her. Her presence haunts every page, from the scene when the young Jane is locked in the Red Room, to Jane’s reunion with a blinded, lame Rochester. One thing that changes when you read Jane Eyre for the second time is that you know Rochester’s Big Secret from the beginning, and thus you see just how much Bertha’s presence influences the novel.
The nebulous Bertha takes on many roles in Jane Eyre: At times, she is a double for Jane, the rage-filled mirror image that reflects Jane’s own anger. Her fuzzy history as the wife Rochester picked up in Jamaica invokes a long history of slavery and British colonialism in the Caribbean, and while Rochester describes Bertha’s madness as the result of bad genetics and her own intemperate nature, his explanation feels inadequate. How did the “tall, dark, majestic” Miss Mason become the "strange, wild animal" on the third floor? What must she have experienced?
If you’re interested in this character, check out Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), an engrossing post-modern telling of Bertha’s origins in the West Indies. Rhys harrowingly imagines how a young creole woman might become the iconic “madwoman in the attic.”
6. Mr. Rochester has serious issues
Mr. Rochester is...kind of an ass. He lies to Jane throughout their courtship, manipulates her by flirting with Blanche Ingram, tries to trick her into entering into a bigamous marriage, and, oh yeah, locks his first wife away on the third floor. I think it’s possible to enjoy Rochester as an interesting, charismatic character, while still recognizing that he’s a deceitful, selfish man with major control issues. This is one guy who falls firmly into the “Boyfriend Only in FICTION” category.
7. In fact, the whole Jane/Rochester romance is kind of twisted, when you think about it
If Jane Eyre were one of your friends, you know that as soon as she found out about her fiance’s secret wife, you’d be saying, “Girl. GIRL. Do NOT go back to that evil jerkface. I don’t care if his spirit addresses your spirit, or whatever—He lied to you throughout your whole relationship. About having a secret wife living in his house. He tried to commit bigamy with you! That’s not someone who gets a second chance!”
8. But you’re still into it
Even acknowledging all of the unhealthy aspects of Jane and Rochester’s relationship, I still get stupid, happy goose bumps when I get to, “Reader, I married him.” It's fair to say that we can acknowledge all of the ways that the romance in Jane Eyre is problematic, while continuing to find it compelling. Whatever their issues are, Jane and Rochester have intense, palpable chemistry; When they talk, it’s with a sense that they genuinely enjoy each other’s company, and they banter with the ease and humor of people who truly understand each other. Their love, flawed though it may be, feels deeply authentic.
I’ve read this scene so many times—the scene of Rochester’s proposal—that I have it practically memorized—and I still think it’s just about the best thing ever:
I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you—especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame….
Images: Giphy (3); Focus Features (2)