My favorite part of the novel was the time Jane spent with the Rivers’. Though I didn’t know that these people would ultimately turn out to be her relations, there was an easy, comfortable homeyness to their relationships. I also enjoyed how St. John was, aside from marriage, able to get the better of Jane. I say this not so much that I felt Jane needed any due, but rather because she, as written, had no real faults. This lack of fault in Jane, aside from a stubborn streak, is in part what keeps the novel as a whole from being a true masterpiece; the other nibbling quibble I have is Charlotte’s inability to fully describe a setting better than a rough sketch.
I could better forgive the later (the sketchiness of the descriptions) had Jane been someone who was not so astute, so observant, and also so taken by passion. I could also better understand it had Jane not been an artist. Yet this inability of the author to really let us see (see better than Mr. Rochester in the finale) coupled with the fact that Jane isn’t an unreliable narrator – people who are mean to her are not because of any oversight of her’s, they just ARE bad people – all this weighs the novel down and keeps it from rising to what I was expecting to be a much more brilliant novel.
Jane’s lack of faults and an overall lack of any sense of humor in the story (I can’t have more than passingly chuckled only a handful of times, and then it probably wasn’t even intentional) makes the novel a bit dull. Not even the unending pun of Jane (as in one who is plain) and Eyre (as in air, ire, heir) could get a rise from me.
Yet when the story is really going, when Jane is as passionate as the terrible weather that soaks every page with rain and snow and storm, when things are hot, the novel is really good and it’s hard to not get caught up in it. I did believe she loved Mr. Rochester and I believed he loved her.
But what I loved was the complicated relationship between her and St. John. I liked him even better than strange, ugly Mr. Rochester because he was flawed in a way that real people are flawed. He was sort of unbearable, intolerable, proud, and haughty. Add in that he thought himself blameless, that he believed his name was already written in God’s book, made him interesting – more interesting than Jane or her cousins.
In fact, Olivia, who loved St. John but whom he denied, as nice but dim as she was, served as sort of a metaphor for what a person the author didn’t believe people should be yet made Jane, in many ways, just as dim and dull.
As for the tendency towards melodrama in the novel, I kept wondering if Charlotte was writing a novel she was hoping to see herself in or was speaking to some greater truth of the human condition that 150 odd years since its writing no longer is able to get across well. There are moments, especially the fire at the end that are so over the top that the novel felt indulgent, however, it was such a good scene that it was entertaining. I wonder if Charlotte was just trying to spice things up a bit after pages and pages of interesting, but rather long-winded dialog.
I do understand that the novel has political and social consequences that in their historical context are quite important, and as a feminist tract this novel is very important in the western tradition. However, with fresh, modern eyes, I never felt that Jane was doing anything worthy of even a mild blush. No consideration was made for what other people in the novel felt about Jane’s situation so to learn that the novel was met with social resistance is purely a matter of the times the novel was written, an interesting societal footnote, but not at all indicative of the text on a larger scheme. There seems to be little intention on Charlotte’s behalf to ‘shock’ readers otherwise she would have put Jane’s travails in a larger, more controversial frame.
To better explain, it’s like talking about very early season episodes of The Simpsons: they were controversial at the time but there is nothing controversial in them, they just caused an uproar because they showed a rougher side to family humor. It was much ado about nothing.
And so I feel too is Jane Eyre: much ado about nothing.
Yet I did really enjoy the novel too. The endless dialog was, unlike Dostoevsky, never dull, seemed natural, and never dragged even when it was far from brief. Characters seemed most ‘in their element’ when conversing and when the story demanded action that Charlotte didn’t take into melodramatic waters, the situations were very interesting, such as the death of Mrs. Sarah Reed (another great character). Here the novel shines and though there may not be anything earth-shattering in its observations, that’s not what the book was going for. Charlotte wanted to draw us in, make us live with these people, make us feel that love she felt, and in that regard I was quite convinced.