Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Re-imagining Jane Eyre

A couple of weeks ago, Amanda Hess tweeted, "Is there a more unappealing romantic lead than Mr. Rochester?" It's a really good question. And the answer is, there probably aren't many male romantic leads more unappealing than the jerky Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre, the iconic novel by Charlotte Brontë has been recently re-adapted for the screen starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. We are once again presented with the story of a girl who fell in love with a rather unlikable man. The film has even inspired a challenge from The Hairpin that Jane Eyre, while a genuinely excellent book, pales in comparison to Brontë's work in Villette.

I recently re-read the book and watched the new film. I should note, this is the only film adaptation I've seen of the book. Spoilers ahead (though c'mon, the book was published more than 150 years ago).

The new remake takes care to pluck some of the more feminist-themed language from the novel and depict some of the key scenes that transcend the relationship from fairy tale to realistically complicated relationship. Freedom is a key theme in Jane Eyre, and much of it has to do with the freedom of women in this time.

For Jane, the titular character in the novel, she finds freedom through love. But it is love with a twist; Brontë makes the simple point that love—and ultimately marriage—should be between equals.

The power of this notion might be lost on modern women, who enjoy many freedoms women didn't in the era during which Jane Eyre is set, but the power to choose one's partner—as an equal—was a rather radical notion back in the day. Fans of Jane Austin's work note that much of her satire revolves around women jockeying for partners who will improve their status in live, and that status-changing partner isn't always chosen because of love. Generally women who loved the men they married in this time felt they lucked out. The radical notion of marriage between equals is what makes Jane Eyre a feminist (or, some might say, pre-feminist) story.

But much as this book is about gender, it is also about the freedom that comes with class. At the beginning of the book, Jane is poor. But though Jane is poor, it's clear she ranks above servants in the book. She works, but she is better educated than servants and had the freedom to leave her job if she wanted to. And much as Jane seems to genuinely in love with Rochester, he also represents the freedom that comes with money. Just because Jane Eyre is more earnest than Jane Austin's work doesn't mean the motivation to obtain a status-changing marriage disappears. In the end, Jane and Rochester only marry once their status has evened out a bit—after Jane has inherited a substantial sum of money.

It is possibly his financial status that, in part, makes Rochester more appealing to Jane. The character is imperfect: We witness him as dishonest, exhibit vaguely stalker-ish qualities, and speak in a manner that is quite rude. But Jane herself is a flawed character: She's awkward, defiant, and loves someone as imperfect as herself. In my mind, the idea that Rochester is unappealing is kind of the point of Jane Eyre. After all, it might be even more annoying if he were perfect.

Today, the idea of marriages between equals isn't so radical. Stephanie Coontz, in her most recent book, A Strange Stirring, in which she examines the effects of The Feminine Mystique, notes that bringing attention to gender inequality may have initially resulted in more divorces and declines in marriage happiness. But now that the idea that American marriages should be partnership between equals is considered a good thing. As a result, men and women are reporting happier marriages than they were before feminism arrived on the scene. Life partnerships need to be built on mutual respect, and that notion isn't so radical today.

For the most part, Jane Eyre is a window into the past. It depicts a time when women had few freedoms and women with little means had even fewer, but that window into the past reminds us of how far we have come today.

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