I find myself not knowing quite how to react to Jane Eyre. It seems full of ugliness that I am unable to fully process. This is most evident early on in the novel, when Jane is physically abused by her cousin, banished to the red-room by her aunt, and then slandered in front of her prospective schoolmaster. These scenes of hardship–continued at her school–are fairly standard genre trappings for a Victorian novel (consider Great Expectations), in which the hero or heroine must have something or someone to triumph over (as well as the audience something to reform). Even with this understanding, however, I am not clear how the reader is expected to respond when our heroine speaks so saucily to her aunt. Rebutting Mrs. Reed’s accusation that she is a deceiver, Jane feels that her “soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, [she] had ever felt” (23). Our we to feel our soul expand in the same way?
I confess, that if my soul exulted, my stomach turned. I was reminded of this scene from Donnie Darko (WARNING: Slight Language). Donnie speaks against Jim Cunningham, a cheesy Joel Olsteen-esque motivational speaker, at a school assembly and is applauded for it. This scene has always repulsed me, but it wasn’t until discussions with a good friend that I was able to place why: It places Donnie as the smart kid who can see above the other students/suburban clones, but he in no way acts as smart kids actually act. It instead plays like the fantasy of a kid who has never escaped high school, wishing he’d been clever enough to understand and say things when he was in high school. Jane’s speech to her aunt feels the same way; it feels like a fantasized rebellion speech that has zero grounding in reality and does little but present Jane as a shrew with an over-inflated sense of self-worth (yes, I would say the same thing about a male in this position, in fact, I just did about Donnie Darko).
This scene is fortunately countered by the remarkable Helen Burns, who advises Jane to behave with Christian grace and mercy, but it is unfortunately repeated when Jane burns the “slattern” note and, worse, authorized when Miss Temple encourages Jane to defend herself against accusations of deceit. This latter scene is an improvement, as at least Jane is encouraged to avoid letting her bitterness influence her account. This is not to say that I disagree Jane’s intentions, she was undoubtedly mistreated at home and school as she portrays it, and something absolutely needed to change. I simply do not understand why the novel portrays it so black and white–Helen is sweet, but brainless while Jane is intelligent, if caustic. Now, I recognize that I am unfairly simplifying the story. But, ultimately, I am frustrated by the implication that one can be smart or pretty (Jane vs. Georgiana), but not both, and smart or sweet (Jane vs Helen), but not both. I suspect Jane will learn sweetness through suffering, and I wish it were not so, but this novel does not seem to offer a significant amount of middle ground.