Saturday, June 8, 2013

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

    The first time I read Jane Eyre, I was sixteen years old.  When I finished my thoughts were filled with disgust:  How did I possibly enjoy all the teen romance books I had previously read when they were nothing but a bunch of drivel?  This book is what true romance is all about!

      Since then I have read Jane Eyre several times, the most recently a couple of weeks ago, and each time I’ve read it I’ve gotten something more out of it.

Spoiler Alert!

       I suppose everyone has either read the book or seen one of the many movies made about it,   Just in case, know that I will be giving away some crucial plot developments so if you don’t know the story, don’t rob yourself of the thrill of surprise, shock and discovery by reading my review.

        An orphaned girl, Jane Eyre, is sent away to live in a strict boarding school where she suffers abuse and neglect.  After graduating she gets a job as a governess to a young French girl at a manor, Thornfield Hall, out in the country.  She eventually meets the Master of the house, Edward Rochester, and, as time progresses, she falls in love.

       Why does she fall in love?  For the first time, someone treats her with respect, treats her as his equal.  Spends time with her, enjoys her company as much as she enjoys his.  She fights against her feelings because she knows their stations in life will prevent them from ever marrying.

        In addition to that, it appears Rochester intends to marry another.  A young woman from a neighboring manor seems to have won his affections.  Blanche, tall, as beautiful as a Spanish princess, strong willed and high spirited has made it clear that she determines to have Rochester for a husband.  Who can fight against her beauty, her charms, her passionate personality?

        Not Rochester.  He talks to Jane often of his nuptial plans.  She tries to bear it but one evening she is over come with emotion.  The most romantic scene in the whole book, and my favorite ensues:

        Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you?  Do you think I am an automation?-a machine without feelings?  and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup?  Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?  You think wrong!-I have as much soul as you, - and full as much heart!  And if God had gifted me with some beauty, and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.  I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh:-it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, -as we are!”

       “As we are!” repeated Mr. Rochester “-so,” he added, enclosing me in his arms, gathering me to his breast, pressing his lips on my lips: “so, Jane!


  It turns out, that Rochester was purposely provoking Jane in order to draw this confession out.  There is a lot of witty dialogue in this section of the novel, including some telling ones on the mercilessness of the upper class towards the people “beneath them.” 

        Rochester declares his mutual love for Jane and they plan to marry.

        They don’t marry, however, due to the fact that at the wedding altar, someone announces the Rochester has a wife still living.  This pre existing wife turns out to be a lunatic.  Rochester tempts Jane to still stay with him. He claims their love does not need to be bound by conventional norms.  Which is another way of saying, “Be my mistress.”

      Jane shows her mettle by tearing herself away from Rochester and running away under the cover of the early morning, flees to she knows not where, and almost starves to death before ending up in an obscure village at the house of a minister, St John the Baptist, and his sisters, Diana and Mary.  A whole sub story occurs here as Jane learns to live again and enjoy her life with her new found friends.

      Again, Jane is tempted.  Not by love this time, but still by one who wants to marry her.  St. John the Baptist wants her for a wife so she can travel with him as a missionary to India.  Again Jane shows her mettle by standing strong against one who has a powerful personality and is determined to bend her to his own will.

      The contrast between Rochester and St. John are dramatic.  Rochester has black hair and coal black eyes.  His personality is one of passion and fire.  St. John is as handsome as an Adonis with blonde hair and blue eyes.  He is as icy and Rochester is fiery.

        I found this section of the book especially fascinating because St. John does not try to tempt Jane through love or romance but by manipulating her conscience.  He does not tell her that HE wants her to come to India but that GOD does.  If she refuses to come, she is not opposing St. John but rebelling against God.  The dialogue that ensues back and forth between Jane and St. John is compelling.  But although St. John gives forceful reasons, uses inflammatory language and religious “powerspeak”  to vanquish Jane’s objections, she’s up to the challenge and counters his every point.

      St. John doesn’t give up, however, and it seems victory is his through wearing Jane down through attrition.

           But just as Jane is ready to give in to his demands, something unexpected happens. 

           There is a lot of religious symbolism and many implications that God’s hand is involved in each turn of event in the story, but this is the first time in the novel where the story delves into the obvious supernatural.

             Jane runs out of the house, listening intently to something.  What has she heard?  Rochester’s voice calling to her.  Is she mad?  She doesn’t know, she doesn’t care.  She packs and returns to Thornfield Hall. 

             By this time, Jane has become independently rich.  It turns out she wasn’t completely abandoned but had an Uncle living in the Caribbean.  This Uncle is also the one who had connections to Rochester’s wife’s family and through a series of coincidences was able to prevent Rochester’s bigamous plans.  However, the episode so upset him that he became seriously ill and eventually died. He left all his money to Jane Eyre.

       Jane is now not only rich, she is filthy rich.  Through the inheritance she discovers that St. John and his sisters are her cousins (Yes, cousins married back then. Let’s move on.) She generously divides her riches with her cousins, which still leaves her a very wealthy woman. 

      She returns to Rochester to find him a shattered man.  His lunatic wife had finally succeeded in setting Thornfield Hall on fire and, as he was trying to save her, she jumped from the roof to her death.  A beam falls on Rochester causing him to lose an eye and one of his hands.

     Jane doesn’t care about his mutilated state and since they are now free to marry, they do.  Together they travel the world, keep house, have children and are frequently visited by Diana and Mary, St. John having finally left for India without her.


       As a teenager I identified with Jane Eyre because I was shy and withdrawn.  I had my few close friends but much of my time was spent indoors either practicing the piano or reading books. I could identify with her sheltered existence, her need to experience the world, to fall in love....

       Later, in my twenties, I had fallen in love, gotten I no longer needed vicarious romance but I still loved Jane because of the inner fire that is buried inside her tiny frame until it is ignited- not only by love, but by having the strength to do what is right when every thing inside of her wanted to do what was wrong.

       As the years and a divorce went by, I once again connected to Jane because I understood her struggle to survive and, after procuring a secure living, suffering through loneliness and depression because humans were made to do more than just exist.  I felt her longing for something more.  For a relationship with someone who was her intellectual and emotional equal.  I also respected her determination to sacrifice this desperately needed relationship in order not to compromise her Christian beliefs.

      The Christian symbolism throughout the novel did not become obvious to me until this last time when I read it.  One example is when Jane tells Rochester that she dreamt of a maniac coming into her room and the next morning finding her bridal veil torn in two from top to bottom.  (Matthew 27:51)

  And, of course, the conclusion that reflects Matthew 5:29-30.

    Besides all that, Jane Eyre has those wonderful ingredients that make it an enduring novel.  Powerful, multidimensional characters, strong dialogue and not only an outer, overlying story, but many underlying stories.  And, I’ve already mentioned the religious symbolism.

      In another few years, I’ll have entered into another season of life.  I wonder what I’ll discover in Jane Eyre then?
Charlottte Bronte 1816-1855

      This will be my last post for a couple of weeks.  I'm taking my son on a trip to Europe as a graduation present to him.  I won't tell you where we're going, I'll just say Buon Viaggio, Auf Weiderluege, Au Revoir, y hasta el tercero de Julio! God bless!

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Writing Life: Writers on How they Think and Work; A Collection from the Washington Post Book World Edited by Marie Arana

Marie Arana has compiled a collection of fifty-five writers from several different genres.  Each chapter starts with an introduction by Arana who gives a brief biography and commentary on the writer and is followed by an essay by that writer.  Most writers talk about what they write about and why.  Many of them go into how they come up with the material, organize it and flesh it out.  Others give interesting perspectives on specific cultural or sociological situations.

Part one is titled, On Becoming a Writer.  Several popular writers provide essays on how they became writers.  Authors include Joyce Carol Oates, James Michener, Mary Higgins Clark and John Keegan. 

Part two is called Raw Material where writers give the reader an insight as to where they gather their material.  Authors include Alice Mc Dermott, Jayne Anne Phillips and John Edgar Wideman.  George P. Pelecanos explains how he comes up with his crime stories.

An especially interesting essay is by Scott Turow titled, Can Whites Write About Blacks?  I thought his insight to the racial tension between the two races was perspicacious.  This particular essay was one of the most well articulated and researched of all of them.  Not that all the authors didn’t write well, but Turow’s lawyer background must have given him the ability to deal with a sociological theme in a way that was informative and absorbing.  It was also interesting to discover that the author of Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof wrote his books on the train ride to his law office and continues to practice law.

Parts three and four (Hunkering Down and Old Bottle, New Wine) include authors from different genres, such as historical writing (David McCullough) and science fiction (Ray Bradbury).  Other authors include Patricia Cornwell, Stanley Karnow, E.L. Doctorow, and Umberto Eco. Some, like Eco, discuss the problematics involved in translating a book from the original language into another.  Richard Selzer, who is a surgeon, writes on how he uses his job to provide plot lines and accurate information to his stories, which, naturally, center around doctors and hospitals.  Others tell us how they research for the historical nonfiction. Ray Bradbury gives us some extremely interesting background to his life and what his intentions are with his stories (“they’re all metaphors”).

Part Five, Facing the Facts, are a collection of authors who write nonfiction.  Carl Sagan has an essay here and so does Jimmy Carter.  Stacy Schiff lets us know that each of her biographies are love affairs and letting each of them go is extremely difficult.

The final section, Part six (Looking Back) has essays of authors, Carol Shields, Jane Smiley and Ward Just.  My favorite was of Michael Chabon, although I can’t help feeling a little bit jealous.  How many of us would die to have a college professor submit our work to a literary agent, without telling us, and end up with a nice, fat, writing contract? Chabon eventually wound up winning the Pulitzer Prize for his book, the Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. 

Every essay is interesting in their own way because it gives you the back story of people who started out like the rest of us but were propelled to success through various means.  I also like getting inside the head of other writers and seeing what makes them tick.  It also lets us know that there is no one way to write.

Of all the essays the one I found the most telling was by Michael Korda.  Korda is not a writer but an editor.  He reveals in his essay the difference between people who write literature and writing whores.  I know that’s a vulgar term but I don’t know how else to describe them.  For them it’s all about the money and they don’t care what kind of tripe or trash they have to put out to get it.  They’re hugely successful too, so if making a lot of money is your goal...whatever.

 Korda describes his session with one particular popular writer who writes erotica.  She

“liked to have me sit across from her in her pink I could read each page as it came from her pink typewriter (on pink paper) and edit it on the spot.”

Korda goes on to state that this woman was not only open to plot suggestions but demanded them.  Page by page she went over every thing with her editor.  It wasn’t about writing art, it was about making sure the product was marketable.

“When warned that one of the book clubs might not take her novel was too shocking, Jackie said... “I don’t write for middle aged men in suits.  I write for women on the subway.”

Then there was Graham Green who

“...neither needed nor accepted editorial changes.  Greene’s manuscripts arrived on my desk with a forbidding, neatly typed note on the title page that read, “Please do not change any of Mr. Greene’s punctuation or spelling!”  When his previous publisher had expressed some doubt about the title of one of Greene’s books, he had received a terse cable in reply that read:  “EASIER TO CHANGE PUBLISHER THAN TITLE.  GREENE.”

I’m under no illusion that I am the next Graham Greene, but I take comfort in the fact that we share the same principles when it comes to writing.

In conclusion, this is a great book for those who are aspiring writers and an interesting and enjoyable read  for those who would like to know more about their favorite authors.