“Reader, I married him.” The iconic line at the end of Jane Erye is one of the most memorable of the book. It can serve as a temptation to the skeptics of gothic romance to trivialize Jane Eyre as nothing more than a silly love story about a woman in a time when all there was to hope for was to get married.
But that would miss the mark. Embedded in Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel are lessons that reveal a heroine for all time. Here are some of the traits that Jane Eyre can inspire in modern women. (Spoilers abound!)
Jane is far from your typical “damsel in distress.” Instead she proves her heart to be resilient as she overcomes adversity. As the story goes, Jane is entrusted to her aunt and uncle’s care after being orphaned, but when her uncle dies her aunt becomes her sole guardian and refuses to show her even an ounce of love. Her aunt hatefully sends her away to Lowood School, which was akin to entering a gulag. The conditions are poor, the caretakers unkind (on the whole), and she never once is permitted to return to her aunt’s, even for holidays.
At first Jane reacts with fire to her ill treatment and harbors resentment toward her adversaries (she’s human!), but then she meets the girl who will become her dearest childhood friend. Helen serves as a figurative torch for Jane’s dark and forlorn heart. She instructs Jane that “life’s too short to be nursing animosity.” Their friendship has a love and depth known only to kindred spirits, but it's sadly cut short when Helen dies of a fever sickness. This friendship is the most formative of Jane’s life and becomes the catalyst for Jane to go forward to blaze a new trail while retaining a kind heart. This message of leaning on a friend to lift you out of dark times remains as true today as ever; that Jane uses this uplifting memory as fuel for her resilience in the face of continued negativity is a message that can speak to modern women facing their challenges today, whether toxic gossip in a workplace or betrayal by someone you trusted.
02. Sense of Direction
Jane is an exemplar of proactively examining one’s life situation to make sure it is what it should be or leading in the direction you hope to go. She also teaches timeless lessons on the value of hard work and finding meaning even when things aren’t ideal—lessons that are no doubt as needed today as when they were first published.
Jane finished her girlhood years out at Lowood School, moving her way up to the level of instructor. But after a course of events leads her to realize she will see none of the world if she doesn’t make her way out of Lowood, she resolves to make a change. Instead of being paralyzed by her inexperience with the outside world, she refuses to be passive and makes the bold move to place an advertisement for her services as a governess. Not long after, she receives her life-changing job offer.
Jane’s example speaks to the importance of cultivating an area of expertise and then applying it to take you where you want to go, even if you’re aiming high—lessons no less valuable to modern women navigating the desired career or life path ahead of them.
As the story progresses, Jane faces more than she bargained for as governess. But even in the face of the toughest challenges, Jane stays true to her conscience. Take, for instance, the part where she falls in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester (shocker of shockers). Everything seems to be perfect, until she discovers Mr. Rochester has an insane wife hidden away in the attic. As the union between Rochester and his wife remains morally and legally binding (hearkening to the vows “in sickness and in health”), Jane and Rochester cannot pursue marriage; but in desperation, he asks her to live with him anyway.
Jane is tempted to stay but ultimately declines. She admits, "that I must leave him decidedly, instantly, entirely, is intolerable." However, she overcomes this with the resolve of her truer compass: "But, then, a voice within me averred that I could do it and foretold that I should do it."
To the modern reader, the idea of self-denial seems antiquated. How often does modern advertising promote instant gratification? This desire for the shortcut to pleasure is a human impulse we can all sympathize with; even in Victorian times, Jane Eyre says that leaving Rochester would be "instantly...intolerable." But what is crucial in the face of temptation like this is what we do next. Jane Eyre pursues a much higher goal. She has principles that she sticks to. In the end, they are more important than her wants.
Despite the horrible loss of her love and dreams, Jane shows what it is to choose life. Instead of giving in to weakness and going against her conscience (akin to a spiritual death), she flees to the moors to get as far away as she can. She walks for days without food to find a new life, when she could have easily responded in Juliet fashion and lay languishing on the desolate moor to die in the elements. She does reach the point of death but begs God to not let her die—still holding on to the flicker of life in the darkest of moments.
What happens next? You either already know or need to read it yourself, but suffice it to say hope springs eternal. Modern women today may not all have exits as dramatic as Jane's or near-death experiences as a result of them, but we all have moments of doubt when we feel alone and hope feels far. No matter how bottom-of-the-barrel we may feel, it makes all the difference in precisely those moments to keep pressing on.
When Charlotte Brontë set out to write Jane Eyre, under the pseudonym Currer Bell, she wrote, “I will show you a heroine as plain and as small as myself." In the book, Jane is plain, yet, I find her to be the most beautiful character in all of literary history. Rochester says of Jane, “never was anything at once so frail and so indomitable. A mere reed she feels in my hand!...Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it—the savage, beautiful creature!” Indeed, she is more than a plain Jane. Jane Eyre as a heroine encapsulates what it means to be true to oneself and truly free. She may be a girl in Victorian England, but that girl has so much to teach all of us—both men and women in today’s world.
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures