The revolutionary and game-changing nature of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in the history of literature is easily forgotten. The novel seems to modern readers, after all, a conventionally Victorian exercise in listening to the inner struggles of a person navigating a highly ordered and repressive society. But I consider that perspective to be akin to the ‘Seinfeld is Unfunny’ trope, insofar as anyone leveling that accusation must necessarily have limited knowledge of the medium.
Brontë’s sustained, sensitive, and extremely personal examination of the thoughts and feelings of her character Jane Eyre was daring and unconventional. It is no coincidence that many late Victorian realists as well as many early twentieth century Modernists cite Jane Eyre as a big influence. I could talk about this book from any of six or seven angles, but to give this article some focus (and prevent my endless rambling) I would like to make the case for Brontë’s achievement through just one of Jane Eyre‘s motifs: vision.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of Jane Eyre, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already read the book.
In his article, “In the Window Seat: Vision and Power in Jane Eyre,” Peter Bellis writes, “In Jane Eyre, sexual and social power is visual power” (Bellis 639). The equation of power in life with the power to be the observer in Brontë’s novel aligns with her overall project of dismantling the notion that conventional order is the same thing as proper or moral order. In order to see this, I would like to cover two moments in the book, one rather close to its beginning and one rather close to its end, wherein sight plays a significant role.
Jane Eyre and Helen Burns:
First, consider the commentary on death provided by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in its treatment of the death of Jane’s childhood friend and intellectual foil, Helen Burns: “She kissed me, and I her, and we both soon slumbered [. . .] Miss Temple [. . .] had found me laid [. . .] against Helen Burns’s shoulder, my arms around her neck. I was asleep, and Helen was – dead” (Brontë 98).
Here a common recurrence of failing vision, namely sleep, is evoked as being akin to death. Both girls undergo a failing of light together, but only one awakes. Despite the explicit lead-in to this scene describing Burns’ illness, one can see the vagaries of death, power, and the prospect of persistence of consciousness (beyond death) being considered hand-in-hand.
In the simple act of allowing Jane to wake up when Helen does not, and so allowing Jane to return from dark to light, Brontë imbues her character with vigor and power. Further, in acting as observer to Helen in both life and death, Jane attains a power of agency which surpasses that of Helen, who had previously been her superior. Helen remains in the dark. Jane reenters the light.
This incident precedes Jane’s first attainment of some modicum of independence in the novel, which comes from her professional status as a teacher. The association among light, life, and power in this sequence underscores the book’s overall project of casting her powers of observation as a ratification of her acumen and a proof of female power. Sight becomes analogous to her powers of perception more generally (this association will be most powerfully reinforced by Jane’s observation, curiosity, and subsequent moral vigor surrounding the actions and status of Bertha Mason).
Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester:
Second, following what is for some one of the sweetest, for others one of the funniest, and for all one of the most famous moments of convenient literary telepathy in the entire western canon, Jane Eyre travels a great distance to relocate Mr. Rochester. She finds him living alone, maimed and completely blind.
Readings of Rochester’s injuries in line with how Rochester himself interprets them, as punishments for his past sins, seem to me partially misguided. After all, Rochester is injured not by his bad behavior, but by his heroic attempts to save people from Thornfield Hall as it burned. This would be a sadistic atonement process conceived by Charlotte Brontë, and does not seem to align with the theme of forgiveness that undergirds the novel’s (and certainly Jane Eyre’s) conception of morality.
Rather, Rochester’s blindness strikes me as a straightforward comment on the power dynamics of the pair. In asserting her individuality and her independent moral rectitude after the first wedding scene, Jane Eyre seizes from Rochester the power which he had until then wielded socially. The book’s drama of expected duty versus respected identity—played out in the interlude with her cousins, especially St. John—is in part concluded by Jane’s large inheritance from her uncle, with which Jane seizes the power which Rochester had until then wielded financially. And finally, Rochester’s lost hand and vision leave him entirely dependent on Jane, such that she seizes the power which Rochester had until then wielded physically.
Just as the scenario with Jane surviving when Helen Burns dies exemplifies the inherent lively power and understated intellectual prowess that grants Jane Eyre her certainty of gender equality, so the scenario with Jane nursing Mr. Rochester back to health (and thereby regaining some of his ability to see) exemplifies her self-styled social positioning. As stated above, this locks in the notion, introduced in the St. John subplot, that Jane refuses to be a tool or “helpmate” rather than a self-determining agent.
The motif of vision and sight in Jane Eyre is just one thread that, when traced, reveals the intricate structure and revolutionary content of Charlotte Brontë’s best-known work. And when one takes a step back one can see that everything about Jane Eyre—from its style to the nature of its discussions of class, religion, and gender—is almost unprecedented in literature. If you are a writer and you want to know how to write a deep, nuanced, and interesting character, the eponymous heroine of Jane Eyre is nearly an unbeatable example.
And (bearing in mind that I have previously written about feminist thought all the way back in the medieval period) if you want to peer into a moment in history when it seemed like a radical new idea, put forth shortly before by passionate thinkers and writers like Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, that women are capable, powerful, and intelligent human beings, live a while in the quiet, emotionally tumultuous world of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.