The best novels, like the best people, are conflicted. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Erye is certainly no exception. At times, the novel seems almost at war with itself, an impression that may be explored only narrowly in this venue. Jane Eyre navigates a complex and treacherous territory between various extremes, mapping these spaces in rich detail for her “dear reader”. The novel unfolds on the boundary between the old, hierarchical social order of the ancient regime and the emerging autonomy of a more modern sense of self. It undertakes various pilgrimages through places where women are struggling (with varying degrees of success) to claim a meaningful freedom while living under the decisions of now-absent men. Perhaps most urgently, it seeks a fertile ground between hopeless extremes of human possibility – between passion (the “dark” madness of Bertha Mason) and reason (the logocentric rationalism of St. John Rivers).
In the end, Jane seems to have at long last found such a place to stand. One might wonder why Brontë, at the very end of the novel, returns to the story of St. John Rivers. For Brontë (and presumably for her contemporaries), the trajectory of unmediated passion is obvious enough—Bertha’s life consumed in it’s own burning unreason, a fate requiring no further explanation for the Victorian mind—but the internal logic of St. John’s choices remains less clear. Brontë needs to work out the destiny of a man like St. John, who has predicated his life on a turning from heart to mind, from human pathos to divine logos. Jane Eyre is finally an inquiry into the possibilities for human wholeness. At the novel’s close, Brontë turns to the cold and lonely gran...
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...ochester is no simple “happy ending”. Brontë’s Victorian critics were acutely sensitive to the rage that had accompanied Jane’s life, and were at a loss to understand her rejection of what must have seemed to them a lofty exemplar of Christian morality in St. John Rivers. The careful contemporary reader might note the curious violence that surrounds the final trajectory toward Jane’s conclusion: “My Edward and I, then, are happy” (385). Perhaps this resolution represents an incomplete (and somewhat forced) amalgamation of conflicting elements, rather than a reconciling synthesis. But Jane does ultimately come to the place she has yearned for; she finds a way to create a life for herself and those she loves, under the grace of a God of ordinary things.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Ed. Richard J. Dunn. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2001.
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