Your Favorite Book Sucks: 'Jane Eyre'
It’s time for us to say what we’ve all been thinking for well over a hundred years: The Napoleonic Wars were a big mistake. Also, Jane Eyre sucks.
Imagine having a friend in middle school who is so obnoxious yet boring that you can’t stand her, but all your teachers think she’s great. So you put up with her and smile earnestly whenever she’s around, partially because you don’t want to be the mean one, and partially because you wonder if you’re just missing something that everyone else can see.
But then that friend continues to be aggressively bland and overbearing for the rest of her life.
That’s what Jane Eyre is like. The book, I mean, although maybe we could make a similar argument about the character.
It’s a classic, but there are so many flaws that it’s hard to understand why everyone clings to it so ferociously. Let’s talk about why this book isn’t all that great.
The Sheer Density
I am loathe to criticize a book for being a slow and thoughtful read. There’s no reason to demand that every book be a Michael Bay-style adventure of guns, girls, and plot structure that compensates with speed for what it lacks in clarity. Furthermore, I happen to think that a good long sentence with multiple clauses can be a joy to read.
Unfortunately, Jane Eyre fits solidly in both categories in a way that is utterly impenetrable. Just read the first few pages. You’ll be hard pressed to understand anything concrete about the main character despite it being written in first person perspective. You will, however, learn that Turks sit cross-legged … apparently.
The Unrelenting Length
Depending on the edition, Jane Eyre can run well over 180,000 words. Length doesn’t have to be a negative mark against a book, as long as it takes us somewhere. But instead of making something out of nothing, Bronte viced our versa and gave us long stretches of the stuff.
It’s often categorized as a coming-of-age story. But instead of showing us a single transformative stage in Jane’s life, Bronte wrote a coming-of-every-age story where we follow Jane from early childhood as an orphan through to adulthood, employment, and marriage. It would be easy to trim out roughly fifty percent and still have a coherent tale, possibly even more coherent than the original. At the very least, the book could be split into two smaller books, with a Dickensian tale about young Jane and then a romance about Jane and Mr. Rochester.
The Tiresome Animosity
Okay, Bronte, we get it; Jane is put-upon, persecuted, and mostly unloved, despite being lovely and admirable in every way. Everyone in the book seems to have it in for Jane, and it gets a little overwhelming at times. Conflict is important in a story, but at these large doses it starts to feel a little ridiculous. If Bronte were a writer today, she’d pitch a TV pilot to the CW called “Everybody Hates Jane.” The crazy aunt, the Draconian schoolmaster, heck, even the ostensible love interest, Mr. Rochester, seems annoyed with her.
The Insufferable Byronic Hero
Speaking of which, Mr. Rochester earns a section of criticism all to himself. Rochester is considered a Byronic hero, meaning he fits into a mold similar to the types of heroes written by the Romantic poet Lord Byron. These heroes are world-weary, sarcastic, brooding, antagonistic and cynical, but with a small glimmer of redeeming gallantry and affection underneath the jagged exterior.
In other words, completely insufferable.
Let’s return to the middle school analogy. Remember when that boy or girl in third period liked you, but for some reason they expressed it by being rude and mostly ignoring you? That’s what Mr. Rochester is like. We’re meant to like a guy who persecutes the woman he loves.
The Ridiculous Love Test
In fact, let’s break out another section of complaint just for this guy and his silly expressions of love. In a climactic moment in the book, often considered the most important moment for Jane’s character development (read: the only moment she stands up for herself and does something proactive), Rochester says he’ll miss her when she marries another man, but that she’ll probably forget him right away. That’s right, he baits her. Just like a middle school lover fishing for compliments. “You’ll never love me … right? I’m just unlovable … right?”
To Jane’s credit, she lets him have it, telling him that she’s loved him all along, etc., etc., cue swelling romantic music. And then Rochester has the audacity to say the equivalent of “Congratulations, you’ve passed the test. Now we shall be married.” What a dysfunctional relationship that requires one party to trick the other into admitting love, and making that a prerequisite to forming a real relationship.
The Psychotic Wife
Then Bronte does something odd. It seems like this would be the climax of our little love story, where we could spend a few pages outlining a happily-ever-after, but Bronte wasn’t done showing how bad things can get for our punching bag named Jane. So she prolonged the story by throwing in one of the craziest twists in literary history: a little Deus Ex Attica.
Except that the god in the attic is actually Rochester's crazy wife. Surprise, he's already married! Oh, and his wife likes to cause mischief and set her husband on fire. This development comes out of nowhere, and it bugs plenty of people. I happen to think it’s a little funny, and Bronte does actually foreshadow the appearance of Crazy Bertha, but it’s still disorienting. The problem isn’t the twist itself, but its place in the story structure. We’ve just solved the major conflict of the book, and everyone is ready for love, so it feels completely out of place when Bronte throws in an even crazier (literally) conflict to destroy all the progress we’ve made. Bronte is the queen of the bait and switch.
The Moor. Good Grief, the Moor.
This development leads us into the worst part of the book. Jane abandons Rochester, wanders on the moor, runs out of food, and nearly dies. That’s right, we’ve just followed this lady’s entire life of disappointment, survived a lunatic (and his crazy wife, zing!), and now we’re about to watch Jane starve to death in a marsh full of unsympathetic people. What a wonderful tale.
Don’t worry, it gets worse. She happens to collapse on the doorstep of a former suitor who rescues her. I kid you not, this guy’s name is St. John. We then descend into another interminable love story filled with dysfunction and lethargy before Bronte finally relents. Jane inherits a fortune and discovers she has some living relatives who love her after all.
Oh, and then there’s a love triangle with Rochester and St. John the Bovine, which Rochester wins by asking one last manipulative question. (“Am I hideous, Jane?” Yes, Rochy, one hundred percent yes. Strangely, Jane replies yes and still decides to marry him despite finally acknowledging the truth. Ugh, this book.)
The Overblown Legacy
And thus ends one of the most overblown stories in human history, which would go on to be read by millions of people over the next 150+ years, including you in high school. But now that we’ve put this out in the open, we don’t have to read it anymore, right? At the very least, we should read The Eyre Affair, wherein Jasper Fforde “fixes” Jane’s narrative and manages to be funny and engaging while doing it.
Am I hideous for saying so?
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