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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, March 30, 2015

Why Jane Eyre is the most popular 19th-century novel

Started (re)reading Jane Eyre last night and immediately realized why it remains perhaps the most popular of all 19th-century novels and among the most popular in all of literary fiction - such an easy yet smart and precise narrative style, Charlotte Bronte immediately establishes the voice of Jane, looking back on her life from sometime far in the future and remember, in the first 5 or so chapters, her very difficult childhood as an orphan raised, at least for a few years, by a horrendous, bullying, self-centered aunt who allows everyone, servants and her children (Jane's cousins) to treat her cruelly - it's not a grotesque cruelty as we'd be likely to find in a 21st-century v. of this story, but just plain meanness, so that Jane feels isolated and hopeless - but she has a wonderful, strong spirit (and we know from the confident adult narrative voice that she's a survivor) that we read with pity but not with terror or fear: this balance makes her among the most likable, and credible, of all narrators. We're in her camp - and who can help but rejoice when ,about to leave her horrible aunt and her household for a school for young women that, in some ways, turns out to be even more oppressive, Jane lights into her aunt for all she's worth: Who has not wanted to tell off a mean teacher or parental figure in words like those? True, JE does not exactly sound like a 10-year-old. And, true, she's surprisingly unsympathetic to the lives of the truly less fortunate around her, the servants for example. But we feel we know her almost immediately and we want to know the course of her fate. Among the oddities of the seeming rather straightforward opening chapters (this is not a gothically complex novel like, say, Wuthering Heights), we wonder: Where are the men? Where are the fathers? We hear almost nothing about JE's father, apparently a clergyman who died of typhus caught while tending to the sick. We hear nothing that I can recall about the uncle in the family that's raising her: this absence of male figures is a strange anomaly in this novel, at least in the first sections - obviously a male figure, Rochester, will become very important to the plot at a later point. But we can infer that Jane enters adulthood w/ little knowledge of male behavior, without any strong male influence from father, uncle, or mentor - and that's a handicap as she works through her life and a need she will want to fulfill. Is it any surprise that, ultimately, reader, she married him?

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