Plain Jane Speaks Out!

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.

Words Are All I Have To Take Your Heart Away!

Vicky Simpson’s article on storytelling in Jane Eyre brought up an issue I had not fully thought about while reading the novel previously, though I had made similar observations. Workman is said to have pointed out how Jane is “far less influenced by the Word of Christianity than by the words of passion, of desire, of love” (10). It is Rochester calling out to Jane that draws her back to Thornfield; she rejects St. John Rivers’ proposal to do missionary work in India, and instead decides to be with the man she loves. The distinction being made here is that “Word of Christianity” refers to Christian beliefs and principles, whereas “words of passion, desire and love” refer literally to words spoken by the people Jane knows. Two instances come to mind, the first of which is Jane telling Helen that she would rather endure having her limbs broken, or being tossed by a bull or kicked by a horse than to be shunned or hated; she desperately needed “real affection” from those that she “truly loved” (78). This is followed by Helen urging her to remind herself of ways to find independent and inner peace, and also consider another (non-human) presence that she should strive to win the favor of. “Hush, Jane! You think too much of the love of human beings; you are too impulsive, too vehement; the sovereign hand that created your frame and put life into it, has provided you with other resources than your feeble self, or than creatures feeble as you…God waits only the separation of spirit from flesh to crown us with a full reward” (78). We see Helen trying to redirect Jane’s powerful emotions towards faith in a supreme being rather than towards other mortals who, in Helen’s eyes, are feeble and flawed. However, chances are that Jane is only listening precisely because of her love of Helen, a mere human being – and possibly also because of the utterance of her name, which seems to always have a strong effect. As Workman notes, it is Rochester’s “Jane! Jane! Jane!” (though in a vision) that brings her back to him.

The second instance of Jane’s love of human beings comes through in a few particularly potent lines at the end of Chapter 24: “My future husband was becoming to me my whole world, and more than the world; almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for his creature, of whom I had made an idol” (272). Woo! Talk about some heavy stuff right there. While Bronte does not make Rochester as “ugly” in Jane’s eyes as she intends to make in ours (she does have one of Jane’s cousins call him ugly at one point, so that we understand how he is generally perceived physically), it is not Rochester’s looks that attract Jane as much as his words do. He is playful, stern, affectionate, mischievous and teasing by turn, and Jane derives much pleasure from talking to and listening to him. Again, her love for a human being takes center stage, and rather than make her more cognizant of God’s presence, power or bounty, as a passionate love may do for others, it eclipses God and religion altogether (though Rochester is fulfilling the role of an idol here, so it is not as though some kind of god isn’t present). It seems that the Word of Christianity constantly seems to be overshadowed by the qualities of the human beings that Jane loves – qualities she grows to admire sometimes when these individuals exhibit quiet patience or emotion, but most often when they speak their words.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. NY: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996. Print.

The Sound of Silence

In her article “’The eagerness of a listener quickens the tongue of a narrator’: Storytelling and Autobiography in Jane Eyre,” Vicky Simpson argues among other things that “storytelling is a way to reclaim one’s existence” (9). As I consider Jane’s power in telling her autobiographical story, I am also confronted with just how much silence is present in her account. Is silence anything more than the absence of storytelling? I argue that characters also reclaim their existence through silence.

Throughout the novel, the words “silence” or “silent” appear one hundred ten times. That’s a lot of quietude. Initially, this absence of sound occurs as punishment. Mean-spirited adults repeatedly demand silence, giving it a negative connotation. Silence also is associated with Jane’s loneliness, as we see her crying silent tears and thinking silently rather than speaking openly with others. In some ways, imposed silence might be viewed as a muzzle from which Jane needs to be released in order to tell her story and be whole.

At the same time, Jane seems to be master of her silence. As the narrator, she announces at the beginning of chapter ten her intentional silence about eight years of her life. Jane discusses her writing in terms of slavery—“I am only bound to invoke Memory where I know her response will possess some degree of interest.” By contrast to the discipline of her childhood, which often involved lots of shushing and people ironically yelling “Silence!,” now Jane seems to operate under a different system, one that binds her to speak. When she has the opportunity to remain silent, she takes it.

Helen Burns often chooses silence of her own accord, and perhaps she might be the inspiration for Jane’s changing thoughts about silence. Marked by tranquility, the child repeatedly determines not to defend herself when she is spoken against, and she also stays mum when others try to put words in her mouth. For instance, when Jane tries to supplement Helen’s description of their teacher by remarking on her cruelty, Helen remains silent, firmly yet graciously refusing to speak. On several other instances, Helen works, plays, or thinks silently, perhaps not because she is trying to make a statement but simply because she can.

Though silence is demanded as a punishment, taking away Jane’s voice in the beginning of the novel, Jane learns through her friend Helen’s example to harness its power in defining herself. Silence becomes a preferable state at times as she escapes the noises of the house for the refuge of silence on the third floor. By embracing silence, Jane does not necessarily yield to the control of others; rather, she appreciates and masters quietude, using it for her own purposes.

“A new servitude”

I have many times been both moved and intrigued by the prayer Jane makes when she first thinks of leaving Lowood: “‘Then,’ I cried, half desperate, ‘grant me at least a new servitude!’” (127). On this most recent visit to the novel, I was no less moved by this utterance than normal; however, what struck me as strange that had not occurred to me previously was remembering this statement while reading the scene in the second chapter where Abbot and Bessie are prepared to tie Jane to a chair because she is so strongly resisting their efforts to bring her to the red room.  Seeing that they are about to tie her down, Jane immediately begs them not to and promises to stay put (24). I found myself seeing, after reading this, other references to bondage and submission, and I wondered as I read what change had taken place in Jane between the scene in the red room and her decision to leave Lowood that makes her desirous for servitude, when before she fought with all her strength against attempts to restrain her?

Another instance of Jane’s declared unwillingness to submit is in her conversation with Helen Burns about the “disgraceful” (85) punishment Helen had received from Miss Scatcherd, and how quietly she had borne it. Jane herself, not “comprehend[ing] this doctrine of endurance” is convinced that “‘I should resist’” (85). This confident declaration is then put to the test just a few pages later when Jane is made to stand in shame before the rest of her classmates and does not resist, beginning to feel that “the trial, no longer to be shirked, must be firmly sustained” (100). Is this a turning point for Jane, in which her will is broken and her passionate nature curbed, which leads her to seek servitude when before she so adamantly resisted submission?

Perhaps the text can be read in this way; however, I propose another way of looking at Jane’s change of mind. Her friendship with Helen has taught her duty (85), forgiveness (89), and how to accept what befalls her willingly.  Her passion, far from being gone entirely, has simply been redirected and moderated. She still desires something more than the servitude she prays for (“Liberty, Excitement, Enjoyment: delightful sounds, truly” p. 127-28), but has come to recognize the value of conforming her will to reality, yet at the same time actively seeking out her own servitude rather than allowing herself to be a passive victim of her circumstances; to permit “no ill-usage [to] so [brand] its record on [her] feelings” (89), following in the example of Helen Burns.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York, NY: CRW Publishing, 2003.

“And the Psalms? I hope you like them?”

When Mr. Brocklehurst comes to Gateshead Hall and asks Jane whether or not she reads her Bible and which books from it she is “fond of,” she tells him that she likes “Revelations, and the book of Daniel, and Genesis and Samuel, and a little bit of Exodus, and some parts of Kings and Chronicles, and Job and Jonah.”  After further inquiry, he is appalled to learn that Jane does not enjoy the Psalms, which she considers “uninteresting,” and on account of her preferences he declares that she possesses a “wicked heart.”  What?  Not a fan of the Psalms, Mr. Brocklehurst?  In light of this man’s supposed religious zeal, I hardly think that he would admit to anything less than fervor for the whole of Scripture.  Why, then, does he pronounce Jane to be wicked for preferring Exodus and Kings over the Psalms?  I would like to suggest that Victorian conceptions of gender play into Mr. Brocklehurst’s conviction.

 

 

In “Gender Must Be Defended,” Nancy Armstrong suggests that, in the context of the Victorian period, “the minute one leaves the protection of the household, she ceases to be a ‘woman’ and loses the protection and support owed a gendered body” ­– that is, in the words of the Rivers’ housekeeper, Hannah, “the protection of gentlemen, and dogs, and guns” (Armstrong 543-544).  In light of Armstrong’s characterization of Victorian women as domestic, protected bodies rather than adventuring, protecting bodies, it is no surprise that Mr. Brocklehurst expects Jane to prefer the Psalms over Revelations, Daniel, Genesis, Samuel, Exodus, Kings, Chronicles, Job, and Jonah, most of which involve a great deal of masculine adventure, both in terms of exploits abroad and military defense at home.  In contrast, although the Psalms record a great deal of adventure (and violence), the psalmist is usually the supplicant in need of defense.  He calls out to God to protect him from his enemies who surround him from every side.  The role of the Psalmist, therefore, is more in line with the Victorian conception of the role of the female rather than the male.  In her preference for the accounts of the adventures of the Israelites over the psalmists’ supplications, Jane aligns herself with that which is masculine.  It is to this that Mr. Brocklehurst so strongly objects.

 

 

In light of the above, then, what are we to make of the fact that when Jane is in agony after learning of the existence of Bertha Mason and of her necessary separation from Rochester, the words of the Psalms – “Be not far from me, for trouble is near: there is none to help” (Psalm 22:11) – and not those of Genesis or Samuel “went wandering up and down in [her] rayless mind”?  Are we to understand that Jane more fully recognizes her role as a woman, dependent on the “protection of gentleman, and dogs, and men”?  While Jane certainly finds herself in need of help and protection after she flees from Thornfield, I do not think that by doing so she has surrendered to Mr. Brocklehurst’s notions of femininity.  Rather, Jane’s recollection of the Psalms in her hour of crisis reflects the development of her understanding of the character of God – a development that progresses with the narrative.  When Jane first arrives at Lowood School, her conversations with Helen Burns indicate that she does not yet know what she believes about God.  She asks Helen earnestly, “Where is God?  What is God?”  At that time, despite whatever religious teaching Mrs. Reed may have given Jane, and despite (or maybe because of) Mr. Brocklehurst’s religious teaching, Jane does not yet know God as her hope and refuge.  Helen Burns greatly influences Jane, however, and as Jane matures it seems that she, more and more, lives out the kind of faith first shown her by Helen Burns.  When Jane faces the pain of leaving Rochester, she turns to God not as an abstract religious teaching, but as a friend, as strength, as her hope, and as her refuge.  When Jane relies on God to lead her through the difficulties she faces after leaving Thornfield, she does embody the psalmist, but I would argue that she does so because her understanding of the character of God has changed, not because she has embraced Mr. Brocklehurst’s conception of Victorian femininity.

 

 

Works Cited

Armstrong, Nancy. “Gender Must Be Defended.” The South Atlantic Quarterly. 111.3 (2012): 529-547.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. projectgutenberg.org. The Project Gutenberg, 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.

 

Jane as Narrator and Character

Reading through Jane Eyre I was similarly struck as Simpson is in “‘The eagerness of a listener quickens the tongue of a narrator’: Storytelling and Autobiography in Jane Eyre” by Jane’s influence as a shaping force in the novel. As the narrator, Jane directs the progression of the story, and in doing so Simpson notes that she “deviates from the strictures of memory (5). Simpson recalls Jane’s own words that “this is not to be a regular autobiography” and therefore she is “bound to invoke memory where [she] know[s] her  (that is memory’s) responses will possess some degree of interest.”

The detail that I want to draw attention to is that while the narrator of the novel is clearly Jane, it is an older Jane, a more mature Jane. We don’t know how far beyond the events of the novel she is speaking, but it is clear that the voice of Jane the narrator is distinct from the voice of Jane the girl and then woman taking part in the events of the story. Thus our understanding of the narrative we are presented, the “autobiography” in Jane’s words, must take into account this difference.

Consider for example the opening to chapter twelve. Jane the narrator provides us with an overview of her first few weeks at Thornfield-Hall. She gives her impressions of the residents—Mrs. Fairfax and Adele—and then a rationale for the many different walks she took out “in the grounds,” “along the road,” or up to the attic to look at the view. She says that she “longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit” (178). We can only trust that the representation Jane the narrator gives of her younger self’s thoughts is true. However then we are given an interpretation of those thoughts that clearly belongs to the narrator.  She reflects on the “restlessness” of her nature in a manner distinctly separate and evaluative. Then Jane the narrator departs completely from the story and the actions of her younger self to share her ideology. She champions equality, proclaiming that while “women are supposed to be very calm generally,” they “feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties” and shouldn’t be confined to “making pudding and knitting stockings,” lest they suffer “too absolute a stagnation” (178).

However, these are the words of the narrator, not the Jane of the novel. Later when Rochester tells Jane how he sees that “the Lowood constraint stills clings to [her] somewhat; controlling [her] features, muffling [her] voice, and restricting [her] limbs” and he wants her to learn to be “natural” with him, the language recalls the earlier scene. However this comparison only comes about because of Jane the narrator’s choice of relating this conversation following her revelation of her beliefs about women. Thus, the contradiction between Rochester’s words and his actions (constantly trying to control Jane and maintain the upperhand–i.e. when he conceals his identity at their first meeting, orders her about, claims to know who she is and what she’s thinking, etc. not free her from the “close-set bars of the cage” as he claims) revealed by this comparison is not yet evident to the Jane of the novel and explains in part the development of their complicated relationship.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Canada: Broadview, 2004. Print.

Simpson, Vicky. “‘The eagerness of a listener quickens the tongue of a narrator’: Storytelling and Autobiography in Jane Eyre.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 4.3 (Winter 2008): n.p. Print.

Feminism

As I read Charlotte Bronte’s novel, I could not help but find myself endeared to Jane Eyre’s character. While I admired Helen’s meekness and acceptance of suffering, I was drawn to Jane’s inability to refrain from speaking against injustice, her deep love, and the quiet strength of her femininity. Mr. Rochester’s attraction to Jane’s beauty lies in her goodness. Jane’s moral force is not reminiscent of the dry, stereotypical womanhood of Mina Harker, but rather a lively presence grounded in truth. Jane’s integrity inspires Mr. Rochester to examine his own masculinity and honor.  Jane speaks the truth unwaveringly. Mr. Rochester confides in Jane:

…. imagine yourself in a remote foreign land; conceive that you there commit a capital error…. Bitter and base associations have become the sole food of your memory; you wander here and there, seeking rest in exile, happiness in pleasure—I mean heartless, sensual pleasure –such as dulls intellect and blights feeling. Heart-weary and soul-withered, you come home after years of voluntary banishment: you make a new acquaintance—how or where no matter: you find in this stranger much of the good and bright qualities which you have sought for twenty years, and never before encountered; and they are all fresh, healthy, without soil and without taint. Such society revives, regenerates: you feel better days come back—higher wishes, purer feelings; you desire to recommence your life, and to spend what remains to you of days in a way more worthy of an immortal being. To attain this end, are you justified in overleaping an obstacle of custom—a mere conventional impediment, which neither your conscience sanctifies nor your judgment approves? (300).

Of course, Jane remains her firm in her conviction. She echoes Helen’s earlier sentiment to rely less on the love of human beings: “a Wanderer’s repose or a Sinner’s reformation should never depend on a fellow-creature. Men and women die; philosophers falter in wisdom, and Christians in goodness; if any one you know has suffered and erred, let him look higher than his equals for strength to amend, and solace to heal” (301). Rather than accept Mr. Rochester’s thinly veiled confession as flattery, Jane recognizes that one’s conversion cannot simply rest on another human being, but must return to the form of goodness itself, God. While Mr. Rochester reacts in prideful sarcasm and unfairly toys with Jane’s emotions as he speaks of spending time with her on the night before he marries Miss Ingram, she holds her head high.

While Nancy Armstrong endorses a wider view of feminism in “Gender Must Be Defended,” I would argue that through the irresistible figure of Jane and her moral integrity, Bronte upholds her heroine as a model for authentic womanhood. Armstrong finds that “….traditional femininity produces the negative femininity that identifies certain people as those who can be allowed to die…” (546). While I am not sure if the death of the characters can be attributed to the play’s exclusive attitude towards gender, I would maintain that Bronte’s concern with moral truth is universal.

On Friendship

When I was reading Jane Eyre, I was thrilled because the idea for my blog post entry came to me rather early in the week: I would write about the importance of story in the novel. Then I read Vicky Simpson’s article, “‘The eagerness of a listener quickens the tongue of a narrator’: Storytelling and Autobiography in Jane Eyre,” and I became vexed. That’s right, my reaction was not unsimilar to this one (cue to 2:08, but really, you should watch the whole clip). In her article, Simpson claims, in part, at least, is that Jane’s storytelling and imagination are central to her identity and her pursuit of authority, specifically related to her gender.

Simpson’s argument is plausible. However, she views Jane’s storytelling, and by extension her imagination, as rather utilitarian. For instance, she states that Jane tailors her “tale[s] to suit the needs of her audience” (5). Furthermore, she believes that her stories are “a useful strategy” and “a tactic” (5). Is Jane really a tactician with her storytelling? No, of course she is not, at least not over the first half of the novel. Consider the ten year old girl from the first ten chapters. She is a scared little girl with no one to love her.

Simpson seems to miss an important component of Jane’s imaginative life, namely friendship. Even though Jane was seemingly a better match in friendship with Mary Ann, not least of which because “she could…tell me amusing stories,” Jane preferred the company of Helen because she could give “a taste of far higher things,” which turns out to be a relational and an imaginative boon for Jane (143). What I believe Jane means here is that Helen could make Jane feel less like the other. Though the storytelling that Jane can partake in with Mary Ann is a good, becoming less of the other is a higher good. Helen does this by befriending Jane when she first arrived at Lowood and did not have any friends. Moreover, Jane eventually feels close enough to Helen to tell “her all the story of my sad childhood” (135).

Helen furthermore attempts to help Jane feel less like the other by talking to her about God, the ultimate Other. Jane and Helen spend Helen’s last few hours alive talking about death, God, and heaven, the latter of which Jane conceptualizes heaven for the first time earlier in the evening in the forest. Helen assures Jane that there is a heaven, that Helen will shortly be heading there, and that they will eventually meet in heaven when Jane dies. Helen’s friendship, along with Miss Temple’s, helps establish the next eight years at Lowood as years of success and stability for Jane. Storytelling is vital to Jane in this early retelling of her imaginative life. Yet, friendship that yields “a taste of far higher things” is even more foundational.

Scooby Doo and Jane Eyre Too

Since I was a child I have suffered from a very low fear tolerance (uh, yes this is a real thing). I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I spent chanting “Jesus Loves Me’ in whispered tones to ward off the boogey-sandman hybrid that undeniably spent his vacation time underneath my bed.  So heightened was my fear of all things creepy that even the children’s cartoon Scooby Doo and that lovable gang of “meddling kids” gave me the willies. The teeming parade of ghosts, ghouls, phantoms, creeps, monsters and an unbelievable amount of eerie groundskeepers  kept my active imagination plenty occupied when the lights went out at night.  Therefore I was predisposed to be spooked by the haunting cast of ghosts and ghouls lurking in Jane Eyre.  Upon my first reading, I found myself immediately relating to young Jane’s terror of all the things that can, and do go bump in the night.  Though the number and variety of spooks rivaled Scooby and the Gang’s lineup I believe that Bronte didn’t include these gothic elements in her novel just to scare the jelly out of a jellyfish like me.  The addition of these supernatural elements in Bronte’s fiction actually serves severally purposes; first it creates suspense and interest in the tale she is telling, second it subverts (*somewhat) the stereotypical Victorian ‘marriage plot’ she is engaged in, and third it allows Jane Eyre as narrator and Charlotte Bronte as author to participate in a world that offered escape and power.

Imagine if the episodes of Scooby Doo were filled with the autobiographical tales of four friends and their talking Great Dane – no ghosts, no mysteries, just “The guy with neckerchief pairs off with girl in similar neckerchief, nerdy girl takes solace in books, slacker swears he sees ghosts whilst under the influence,” Hanna-Barbera would have effectively reduced their genius cartoon into animated reality TV.  The tales and trials of a homely orphan had already by covered time and again so Bronte distinguished her novel by blending the social realism of the orphan’s tale, with the gothic elements of horror stories.  We felt for little Jane Eyre when she was cruelly confined by Aunt Reed in the red-room but once we realized that this particular place held unidentifiable horrors our imaginations have been conscripted on the side of this terrorized child and we are doubly sympathetic.  Vicky Simpson in her article “The Eagerness of a Listener…” (here abbreviated because she isn’t kidding about that quickened tongue), says that “Ostensibly Jane deviates from the strictures of memory…by jumping over certain periods of her life and including stories in order to interest or entertain her reader, whom she refers to as a ‘Romantic Reader’ “ (5). The reader’s romanticism here should not be read as an indulgence in the eros-centric idea of romance but rather as a reader with a keen sense of sentiment and emotion.  However, it should be understood that there is a selection process at play with our narrator, Jane is picking the most interesting/spooky bits of her life’s tale in order to capture the attention of the reader.

Obviously the reduction of the story to a more straightforward ‘marriage plot’ does not interest Bronte, nor does she seem to think that it would hold the attention of her reader. Even Jane evinces disinterest in the classic ‘marriage plot’ popular in the books of her time. In conversation with Mr. Rochester as gypsy woman she explains that the plot ending in the “catastrophe” of marriage does not interest her in the slightest,  she even goes so far as to object to any relationship passing between her  and the master of the house other than the appropriate employer/employee exchange (224). Since Bronte is still endeavouring to throw the reader off the scent of the ending of her novel she introduces gothic elements that keep the reader invested and unsure about the progression of the novel.

However, the most interesting theory as to why Bronte incorporates the gothic is Simpson’s notion that the plot of Jane Eyre involves these elements because these kinds of fantasy allowed the marginalized women artists of the nineteenth century to create worlds in which they were  not restricted by the stifling Victorian Era code of socially acceptable behaviours.  According to Simpson Jane is employing an “active agency” by working these elements in her storytelling (6) Jane’s alterations of not only the ‘marriage plot’ but the typically male genre of the autobiography shows that she “value[s] elements of magical fairy tales and gothic romances because of the multiple possibilities they represent,” namely the possibility of escaping the “sterility” of the “conventional Victorian woman” (6) By so doing, Jane and Bronte claim for themselves the power of agency normally reserved for males by males.  So instead of a ‘meet-cute’ and subsequent courtship we have a dark and brooding older gentleman employ the plain but intelligent Eyre in his house full of mystery and strange occurrences. The Scooby gang itself couldn’t ask for a better setting.

Is Willoughby a Tool?

When introduced, Willoughby is a true cliché, a knight in shining armor.  He literally sweeps Marianne off her feet and illuminates her world.  Her young and immature mind allows her to fall deeply in love with Willoughby.  As the reader is aware, Willoughby abruptly leaves and cracks Marianne’s heart.  While she is in London, that crack develops into a rift and eventually shatters her heart.

While reading this novel, the character of Willoughby has the potential to reflect two drastically different aspects all depending on how the audience reads the story.  If reading the story through the eyes of a cynic and satirist, Willoughby and his relationship to Marianne represent a lesson that must be taught to all spoiled, prissy, young women of the time.  The other viewpoint is through the tearful eyes of an emotional reader where the viewer sympathizes with the cheated and heartbroken Marianne.

I believe Austen presents Willoughby as a vehicle to cause the readers to sympathize with Marianne and her struggle of maturing and growing up into a woman.  He enters her life and introduces her to a newfound set of emotions she has never experienced.  Every reader had a ‘love at first sight’ moment before.  So when he smashed her heart into the ground, the reader instantly feels for her.  This isn’t used as a satirical technique to teach her a lesson in life because even the cold and methodical Elinor feels for her sister.  She cries “’Ahh you call me happy… If only you knew.’” while comforting Marianne.  These are not phrases simply used to help Marianne.  They are genuine, loving, and reveal more about Elinor than a first glance can.

See John and Jane Fight: Textuality and Carnality

While reading Jane Eyre I was struck by the emphasis on textuality that appears almost immediately in the novel. In that early pivotal scene wherein she assaults John Reed’s fist with her face, we see texts are used as weapons, literally. As Simpson stated, “Thus she alludes to the profound effect that the books and the tales have on her throughout her life. She points out that she even draws parallels between the narratives and her own world, parallels that she occasionally declares aloud” (para. 10), after which Simpson cites Jane’s insult comparing Johnny Reed to the likes of Nero and Caligula, at least in her mind.

It’s a crucial scene in terms of narrative agency; here textual knowledge is used as a weapon, and the difference between the male and female usages is noteworthy. John is a fool, a dolt and dullard who lacks imagination as Jane cuttingly mentions: “he was not quick either of vision or conception” (65). He uses books as blunt instruments of domination and hierarchical enforcement. Secure in his position, he deigns not to attempt grace and wisdom, or even knowledge; Bronte’s ironic commentary is that he may own the physical object of the tome, but he does not own the knowledge contained within, which means it will forever be simply a possession to be hoarded and will never become a lesson to be learned. Jane, contrastingly, reads and appropriates the knowledge within, making her the true possessor of the book even though she is penniless and of low social status; she is elevated above her station due to the simple act of reading.

John chucks the book at Jane, the first textual attack, and Jane ripostes with a verbal jab equating him to “the Roman emperors!” (67). It is instructive that she immediately elaborates on this comment by citing the history book and providing two examples. “Also I had drawn parallels in silence, which I never thought thus to have declared aloud,” she comments (67). Incensed, the male assaults her with his body, unable to trade verbal attacks. The key element here is the vocal expression of her opinion. She often disparaged his behavior mentally, but until she vocalizes it she cannot change it. Throughout the remainder of the novel, her source of agency is her words, in her interactions at Lowood, at Thornfield, and with the Rivers, and this episode reveals the potency of her words, to herself and to readers, in affecting her environment, something with women of the time would not be expected to do. But the crucial detail is that she asserts herself through textual knowledge, which has the double advantage of appealing to the patriarchal society’s valuation of education and literacy, as well as demonstrating culture and education’s defiance against brutal oppression and ignorant sensuality embodied in our boy Johnny.

Lastly, Jane’s description of their tussle is interesting in the sensory language she uses and the negative connotations she ascribes. She describes a “drop of blood from my head trickle down my neck, and was sensible of somewhat pungent suffering: these sensations, for a time predominated over fear, and I received him in frantic sort” (68). Worse in Jane’s mind than his unjust attack are the physical sensations she describes, and this impels her to fight back. There seems to be a correlation between an overemphasis, an exaggeration of sensuality with the pernicious brutality and oppression of John. If we take Armstrong’s reference to Foucault’s theory of biopower, John enwraps Jane in a kind of “carnal embrace” (emphasis on the Latin etymology of carnal meaning simply “flesh”) which repulses her and firmly situates her within the Victorian rejection of overt carnality.

A Just World, or Just a World?

Throughout the novel, Sense and Sensibility, I have continuously found myself wondering about the moral mechanics of the world and society the book is set in.  In past novels, characters possessed of particular humanity, courtesy for others, and/or moral compass have often become the bearer of the greatest burden of punishment or mistreatment.  In Vanity Fair, the golden-hearted and honest Dobbin is more often than not dismissed as a fool or useless tag-along by those he admires (Amelia) in preference of a manipulating, dishonest, unfaithful, and selfish character (George).  Similarly in the Miller’s Tale, the Miller’s only apparent crimes were being relatively dim-witted and naive, shortsighted in choosing a younger wife, and being over-protective of his overly flirtatious wife; yet, he ends up discredited and alienated as a lunatic, loses his wife, and screwed over in a much more long term way than his victimizers.  In both readings, the author very obviously establishes the, though unfortunate, triumph of selfish advancement.

In Sense and Sensibility, the same negative correlation between soundness of character and success in achieving material gain can be observed in the initial dispersment of Old Dashwood’s inheritance and subsequent betrayal of his magnanimous wishes for Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters by his son, John (Chapters 1 & 2).  The selfish and cruel Fanny and John profit even further than their already considerable financial holdings, and the so far good hearted Dashwood girls are effectively disowned and left out to dry.

However, I find the later characterization of the Middletons to offer evidence contrary to this point of view.  Illustrated to be fun-loving (except for Lady Middleton), warm, and generous people by their actions towards the Dashwood girls and their seemingly humble natures and grounded approach to life, the Middletons seem to be perfectly comfortable and in control (Chapters 6 & 7).  Their lives are mutually satisfying and beneficial and they have a lovely estate and family.  Fortune seems to have smiled upon these good-hearted folk, and by extension upon the previously deprived and outcast Dashwood girls.  This leaves me to ponder still… are our heroines living in a just world, or just a world?

Practicality vs. Passion

From the attitudes of and decisions made by Marianne and Elinor so far in Sense and Sensibility, does one sister seem to specifically represent sense or sensibility? Is Austen trying to persuade the reader toward a worldview of sense or sensibility?

So far, Elinor seems to be the practical sister. She’s the common sense in the family and at only nineteen years old, seems to have her head on her shoulders more than her mother and sisters. She is always cautious in her decisions, even when it comes to love. Though attracted to Edward, she approaches with caution, not knowing his feelings about her. She even manages to stay calm when she learns about Edward’s engagement to Lucy. She also puts her family before her own love, Edward, when her family decides to move to Barton Cottage. Again, we see Elinor putting the needs of the people she care’s about before her own, like after the incident with Marianna and Willoughby when Marianne falls sick and is heartbroken over the whole situation. Elinor is patient and loving toward her heartbroken sister. Her practical outlook has gotten her and her family through everyday life.

Marianne, however, has been the sensibility of the two so far. She’s very passionate and doesn’t always think clearly before acting. We see this greatly when she falls head over heels for Willoughby immediately and again after their encounter at the party when she falls very sick and depressed. Marianne also harshly judges almost everyone around her. She immediately judges Edward’s appearance and goes further to judge the way he reads. She judges Colonel Brandon based on his age and appearance as well and even says that her own sister lacks emotional depth.

How Important is Commitment in A Relationship

How is Jane Austen trying to portray commitment in relationships?

When we think of the word commitment relating to relationships we automatically think of being dedicated to a person not just physically but emotionally. In Sense and sensibility the characters we see in “relationships” are not ones that we would model as committed relationships. When we meet Eleanor and Edward Austen makes us believe that they are perfect for each other, but soon we find out that Edward is engaged to Lucy for about four years now.  Edward has gone to visit Eleanor and has never mentioned being committed to another person. Edward had the chance to be honest with Eleanor when Marianne had asked about the ring of hair, but chose to lie.
One of the solutions is to be honest at the very begging of a relationship even though you might be interested in a person other than who you are committed to. Your eye may wonder but don’t lead the other person into false hope of lasting relationship.
Another solution would be to not at all involve yourself in getting to know someone based on attraction when you know that nothing good will come of it. One person is always going to get hurt from situations like this.

When we see Mrs. Palmer and Mr. Palmer they seem to have a odd relationship Mr. Palmer doesn’t pay any mind to her but they seem to get a long and be in a committed relationship. Is Austen saying that we don’t have to be in a fairytale relationship for it to be committed?

Who Loves Lucy?

Whether or not the reader can trust Lucy’s word concerning her supposed four-year engagement to Edward is one of the more captivating questions of the first portion of the novel.

 

There are essentially two solutions to this question, and they’re fairly obvious:  either Lucy is telling the truth, or she is not.  We can trace the development of each option with the line of Elinor’s thinking and interactions with Lucy at the end of Volume I and beginning of Volume II.

 

After Lucy shares the news with Elinor, the latter sifts through the evidence to determine a position.  Lucy’s testimony is consistent with the melancholy disposition of Edward during his visit to the Dashwood’s cottage, and the witness of the picture, Edward’s ring, and the many letters in his handwriting suggest that they indeed are secret lovers.  If this is the case, then our interpretation of Elinor’s sound judgment (which may be extended to represent sense at large) shifts to doubting her understanding of relationships, especially hers with Edward.

 

One could also form a convincing argument for the untrustworthiness of Lucy.  As Elinor points out, there is really no necessity for Lucy to share this information with her.  “That Lucy was disposed to be jealous of her” (95) could prompt Lucy to “jab” at Elinor in return how much Edward speaks of Miss Dashwood.  This is shown again in Lucy’s over-the-top and insincere flattery of Elinor’s wise counsel (101).  And another point to consider … if they were indeed engaged, how had Elinor never heard a single mention of Lucy?  This coupled with Elinor’s certainty concerning Edward’s genuine affection for her makes one question Lucy’s reliability.   If this is the case, then Elinor’s judgment simply undergoes a trial, but it eventually is verified, upholding sense-oriented judgment as legitimate.