Jane Eyre 2: Genre and Gender Revulsion and Consequent Critical Disdain for Jane Eyre

My ragged high school edition of Jane Eyre had a rather critical editor whose introduction seems to me a series of backhanded compliments, pretty much extolling Charlotte Bronte’s achievements and popularity, while, at the same time, expressing bafflement over them in light of the novel’s apparent inadequacies, including a perceived lack of humor. Though there is an iconoclastic trend among academics who enjoy knocking the “greats” off their pedestals and picking through the broken pieces of their shattered marble busts, it seems Charlotte Bronte gets more than her fair share from both critics in her own era and our own. From mid-nineteenth-century culture mavens to Harold Bloom, everybody seems to want to take a swipe at Jane and her creator. But why?  And why do we love them both anyway?

Currer = Charlotte

Most readers are aware that the Bronte sisters all took on pseudonyms in order to publish their fiction, and thus the fictional Bell brothers, of whom Charlotte was Currer Bell, were born. This was done to protect their identities and to meet social expectations—“Nice girls don’t go around writing ground-breaking novels about human passions.”  It also kept the fans away from the house, certainly an advantage in Emily’s case, as she would probably hide from the mailman bringing the fan mail, much less the fans themselves.

But it also was part of a trend we still see today, what our own John Granger wryly calls “Sarah Palin Syndrome”: the assumption that women in power must be defective somehow, that we patronize them rather than embrace their achievements. Thus, Rowling used her initials rather than her lovely and perfectly serviceable first name of JoAnn on the covers of the Harry Potter books, the theory being that a book with a boy protagonist would only be picked up by boys if they didn’t know the author was a woman. But once everyone knew Rowling was a woman, the critics, especially those in ivory towers, seemed to relish pooh-pooing her incredible accomplishment, dismissing it as junk fit only for the masses who don’t know any better, and certainly turning up their noses at claims of Rowling’s artistry and brilliance which have been made so effectively in The Deathly Hallows Lectures and our Headmaster’s brilliant insights on Rowling’s use of Ring composition.

The assumption is that women, particularly  women outside the academic elite, are somehow incapable of creating fiction that resonates with readers and displays artistry that engages people 150 years later. One unkind contemporary critic assumed that the author of Jane Eyre was a brother and sister team, partly because of the treatment of both men and women, but also because of the assumption that only a man could write anything of such  depth and power. Today, Stephenie Meyer is denigrated as “housewife” or, my personal favorite, the line featured in the new Jack Black movie styling itself Gulliver’s Travels despite only a passing resemblance to anything Swift would recognize as his own (no plans to see that one, but there was a preview at Voyage of the Dawn Treader): Black’s writer character, put on the spot to name his literary influences, spouts: “Shakespeare, Krakauer, that hot mama who wrote Twilight”; Meyer is merely an object (note Krakauer isn’t “that cool mountain dude who wrote Into Thin Air”).

Though there is a degree of sexism at work here (surprising, since many feminists seem to really writhe over Jane as well as over modern female authors who do not present women in their preferred light), that isn’t the only force at work, and thus cannot be addressed with the purchase of Bronte action figures, who made an appearance here some time ago and are worth a laugh if you missed them then.

Unhappily Ever After

Despite the Beatles’ assertion that all we need is love, and the fact that millions of people spend billions of dollars every Valentine’s Day (a holiday eschewed by some of us who resent being told what day of the year we have to express our feelings), romances, of which Jane Eyre is one, get a reaction from critics that resembles that generally given wet dogs who wander into dinner parties. In Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, you’ll find a great breakdown of the many different genres at work in the Hogwarts adventures, including the schoolboy novel, which is a genre much out of favor with British critics who rejected Harry Potter because of their boredom with the schoolboy novel setting.

An equally reviled (more so in the States) genre is undoubtedly the Gothic romance. Romance novels sell amazingly well, and this success is damning, combined with the fact that the vast majority of popular romance novels are formulaic and intended for one-time reading with little reader investment needed or expected. Unfortunately, the baby that goes hurtling out with the bathwater is the great tradition of fine literature written in (and in some cases creating) the Gothic tradition.

Just as I sometimes get students who think Shakespeare is terrible because his plays are just full of clichés (neglecting to realize he invented those phrases) or like the young lady I knew who didn’t have any interest in The Lord of the Rings because she thought they were “Harry Potter knock-offs,” the imitation has caused readers to revile the superior original. This is certainly not a concern exclusive to literature: how many people have rejected all religion because of a bad experience with a cult or other “imitation faith”?

Thus Jane Eyre, despite its artistry, power, and resonance, is relegated to the “just another romance novel” category, a realm the exalted critics refuse to enter while condemning as a Philistine anyone who does. And yet, Jane Eyre remains a popular, beloved novel, read not just by people with literature degrees who really enjoy the stuff that is assigned in college course.

The Perils of Popularity

And that popularity, combined with the genre, is another of the gnats on which the Jane critics gag. The assumption is that something can only be good if it is exclusive. I recently noticed on a box of Russell Stovers candies the phrase “Made by hand in Small Batches.” While I appreciate the emphasis on food made by humans instead of by machines, why should it be better to eat something that is only done in small batches? ( I come from a culture of huge Sunday covered dish dinners and biscuits as big a kid’s head.).

The answer, I think, has nothing to do with culinary care, but everything to do with the same sense of exclusivity that makes schoolgirls panic at the thought of another girl wearing the same prom dress.  There is a revulsion of the common, of the similar. Hence the car commercials that deride people who drive white sedans, not because there is something wrong with the engines or safety records, but because they are popular.

Jane Eyre’s popularity, its appeal to a wide range of readers (including many of us here, of course, as well as readers around the world who read the novel (in translation) garners it the same kind of criticism that is given to many of the other texts we discuss. Even in 1848, a critic derided the “Jane Eyre fever” sweeping Britain, convinced that the novel’s vast appeal must be due to mental defect and deficiencies of readers.

Yet, I am convinced that no one contributing to our conversations here (and precious few of the people who have revered Jane Eyre over the centuries) are mentally inadequate. Rather, this novel, like others that resonate with vast numbers of people, does something in, to, and for readers, something that brings them back to the book over and over again. Unlike the momentary popularity of a trade paperback romance novel, read once and discarded or passed along to another reader, the appeal of Jane Eyre is one enriched by return visits, producing new, rich treasures with every reading. It thus holds up to one of  C.S. Lewis’s tests for literary greatness: re-reading which is ever more enlightening.

The trashy romance novel or formula mystery is all about pay-off: consummating the relationship, solving the murder, etc.

The book with literary merit is not about payoff or finding out about what happens. Though I was well aware how everything plays out in the novel (Thursday Next’s interventions not withstanding), I found myself eager for every opportunity to sit down and read a few pages of Jane’s story. I already had the big pay-off, but reading this novel isn’t about that, which is why so many of those finger-wagging critics are off target. This is a text that opens new vistas to its readers on each read, and no amount of scoffing–from the feminist readers who balk at Jane’s return to Rochester, to the contemporary readers who hammered “Bell” for unorthodox religious ideas, to Harold Bloom himself—can take that pleasure, both visceral and mental, away from those of us who read and re-read Jane Eyre.

So, gentle readers, what is the novel’s appeal to you? First time or returning, what is it that drew you (or continues to draw you) back to Thornfield? If you find the novel flawed, why?


  1. Carrie-Ann Biondi says

    There are so many things that I find appealing about Jane Eyre and that make it such a powerful, “stage-appropriate” novel to teach in an Intro to Ethics course. I shall try to distill the most essential features:

    (1) As a tale of the emergence and development of moral agency, it is one of the best I’ve come across. From the moment that Jane first stands up for herself after being hit in the head by a book by her cousin John Reed and tells him–on account of her having read History of Rome–that he is “wicked and cruel . . . like a slave-driver . . . like the Roman emperors,” to her principled refusal to go away with Rochester as unmarried lovers after finding out about Bertha to her principled refusal to become a missionary wife with St. John whom she does not love, Jane proves herself to be a thoughtful, independent person who faces moral challenges and learns from life experience.

    (2) The complexities of deception, lying, and manipulation in juxtaposition to candor and honesty are explored deftly without caricature. There is no simple formula here, especially with respect to Jane and Rochester, which invites readers to probe the complexities of life, word, and character along with them as they navigate the moral landscape. We get to see their inner struggles and reasons for their actions, allowing us to reflect on what we would do in the shoes of various characters.

    (3) Speaking of moral landscape, I love the place/moral space imagery that is evoked throughout the novel: Gateshead (where Jane is mentally and emotionally cramped and has her birth as a moral agent), Lowood (where Jane starts at the bottom of the socioeconomic and moral ladder), Thornfield Hall (where Jane enters a transformative thicket of beauty and pain), Marsh End (where Jane undergoes more transformation as she explores her inner terrain and comes to know what she truly wants and becomes a wholly independent person), and Ferndean (where Jane returns as an equal to Rochester and where this ancient plant, i.e., the fern, has mythological powers of happiness that allows its holder to see great treasures).

    (4) The power and significance of two of life’s great goods–love and friendship–are given rightful prominence and depicted in terms of virtue ethics in a suitable blend of their intellectual and emotional dimensions. True love and friendship are rare, hard-won, and priceless, and so this is no mawkish tale of inexplicable sentimentality.

  2. I type at great risk; illness, meds and sleep deprivation have claimed my brain so be kind. Jane Eyre, here is a book I am supposed to love, a character I would adore to play and yet I cannot get through the book. Usually I try to stay away from movie adaptations until I read the book, but one rainy Sunday I happened upon a showing and I watched it. I quite enjoyed the story and was prompted to read the book – this invitation to discussion happened shortly after which was another sign. Imagine my disappointment, I just couldn’t get into it. It was such a chore to pick it up and continue, I finally gave up about half way through (which I almost never do). I just got tired of the preachy passages. I think the story does a pretty good job at depicting good and evil without the author having to explain it away. I just kept rolling my eyes, and feeling like I was trying to be converted or simply talked down to.

    Anyway, sorry to dampen the lovefest. On the positive, I will say I quite enjoy the thought of a web book club here. I am learning so much from you all.

  3. “This is a text that opens new vistas to its readers on each read”–and that’s a lot of what draws me back again and again. The character of Jane, for instance, is endlessly fascinating. She’s a very pure, strong spirit, she loves a man who is a moral failure, and she proves to have one of the few kinds of power that is really worth having: a steadfastness, wholly free from arrogance, that sets his own desires working toward his redemption.

    I love the writing, too. First person perspective can be really hard for me to take, depending on the personality of the narrator, but Jane’s voice is incredibly distinctive, sympathetic and readable. The language is beautiful and in keeping with the Gothic storyline.

    I am not much of a feminist, at least not of the feminism that appears to reject a comfortable and understanding relation to decent men, but it seems to me that Jane is a particularly empowered woman, especially for her time. Mr. Rochester and St. John and John Reed all try to control her and subject her to their will, and not one of them can do it. Mr. Brocklehurst shames her, but Jane proves stronger than him, too, at last. When Jane finally returns to Mr. Rochester, she does so of her own free will, and she goes to a broken, repenting man whose love for her has been purified and gentled.

    Carrie-Ann Biondi, excellent comments on Jane’s development in moral agency! I’d never thought of the place/moral space imagery, but that’s intriguing too.

  4. Excuse how brief I am. I am not a literary expert, just a huge book fan.
    There are few period books that I think have universal applicability. But Jane Eyre resists dating into irrelevance because it depicts the fundamental balance of human nature, the duality of organic individuals, and therein, even more importantly, the power of hope even in seemingly hopeless situations. It reminds us not to despair because, ultimately, change is inevitable in life (except from vending machines).

    I have recently re-watched the 2006 adaptation (possibly the most accurate) and am about to embark on re-reading the book. I find myself reflecting on a number of relationships in my life, especially a recent one, in which a man who seemed every bit as corrupted and deceitful as Rochester transpired to prove that people do and can change when their faith in human nature (or even just one human) is restored; when they regain hope. And hope will never go ‘out of fashion’.

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