Folks, it’s time. It’s time to start talking about the book I love more than any in the world: Jane Eyre. I’ve put it off for far too long, because I didn’t know where to start. I can’t tell you how many reviews I’ve started and then had to stop because they start to become ridiculously long. I can’t just write a book about how much I love Jane Eyre (well I could, but you know). So I’m going to break it down and try to isolate the pieces that inspire me. And write about them, for as long as it takes.
Because I have the most time to write on Saturdays and Sundays, I’m starting this series “Sundays with Jane.” We’ll start today just talking about some of the brilliant words that Charlotte Bronte uses (we’re starting super small). Other topics I plan to cover include:
- Fire & Ice
- Magic & Mysticism
- Emotion & Integrity
- Use of the 1st Person
No matter how many times I’ve read it, Jane Eyre is always a learning experience—if for nothing else, then for all of the words I learn (and then forget until the next time I read it). Charlotte Bronte was raised in an isolated family; they lived on the moors in Yorkshire, England, and didn’t get out much. So growing up, the way Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell entertained themselves was by writing and reading. Charlotte was a remarkable student, and admired authors like William Makepeace Thackeray and Samuel Johnson. Clearly very light reading. It’s no surprise then, since she admired the famous dictionary-writer, that her own writing style would be sesquipedalian (using long words).
Let’s explore some of the audacious words in Jane Eyre and uncover some of the great messages in the story.
The first word I want to talk about is actually one of my favorite words ever: automaton. It’s used twice in JE.
Automaton: n. a moving mechanical device made in imitation of a human being; used in similes and comparisons to refer to a person who seems to act in a mechanical or unemotional way
The first time Jane uses this word, she addresses Mr. Rochester, who has just (cruelly) led her to believe that he will be marrying Blanche Ingram and sending Jane away to Ireland, and then suddenly seems to change his mind and insists that Jane must stay, even after he is married to his new bride. Mr. Rochester has a history of trying to get under Jane’s skin, to stir up the passion that he knows exists in her. He certainly succeeds now. She responds:
“Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton—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?”
This scene has some of Jane’s best lines, and she thoroughly berates him for being willing to marry someone he doesn’t love. She announces boldly that she, Jane, is his equal. She certainly proves that she is NOT an automaton.
Later, after we discover the existence of Bertha Mason and Jane has left Mr. Rochester to escape the temptation of being his mistress, she goes to live with St. John and his sisters, and we witness an illuminating scene between St. John and the woman he loves, Rosamond. Rosamond is beautiful, and in love with St. John. She would marry him despite his penniless state, and St. John knows it. But he feels called to be a missionary in India, and knows that Rosamond could never be a missionary’s wife. Therefore, he shuns Rosamond, refusing to visit her and her father, while Jane watches on.
“Mr. St. John spoke almost like an automaton: himself only knew the effort it cost him thus to refuse.”
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Charlotte uses this word again here; she’s reminding us of Jane’s previous insistence that she does have feelings—and she isn’t afraid to share them. In contrast to Jane, we have St. John, who constantly fears emotions and feels that they are a betrayal of God. St. John will never confess his true feelings; he is an automaton. This small contrast is just one of many Bronte draws between these two characters (we’ll talk more about that later when we discuss Fire & Ice).
The next word in JE that always catches my attention is deglutition.
Deglutition: n. the action or process of swallowing
Although when she left Gateshead Hall, Jane swore she would never return, she decides to go back when she hears that her aunt is dying, hoping that they can be reconciled now that so many years have passed. While she’s there, Jane spends time with her two cousins, Eliza and Georgiana. Georgiana has become a plump, soft beauty; she’s physically, mentally, and emotionally mushy. She is lazy and sentimental, always bored and constantly crying. In stark contrast we have Eliza, whose austerity in appearance reflects her harsh, judgmental personality.
After a particularly vicious argument between the two sisters, Jane summarizes their relationship and draws a moral conclusion:
“True, generous feeling is made small account of by some: but here were two natures rendered, the one intolerably acrid, the other despicably savourless for the want of it. Feeling without judgment is a washy draught indeed; but judgment untempered by feeling is too bitter and husky a morsel for human deglutition.” [Emphasis added]
If you had to compare Jane to one of the two sisters, it would be Eliza. In fact, Jane later describes that after her aunt dies, she lives with Eliza for a time in relative peace. Eliza even admits to admiring Jane for her steady habits and quiet demeanor—much like Eliza’s own. But there is one important difference between them: Jane is conscientious, hard-working, diligent, and modest—but those qualities are balanced by her “sympathy” (a term that we would now define more like empathy or compassion) for others. Unlike Eliza, who pursues what she feels to be right, and scorns anyone who doesn’t live up to her expecations. This book is a brilliant meditation on sympathy, but we can get into that later. Jane’s point is: being overly sentimental and swayed by emotion is bad, but mercilessly holding others to your own standards is even worse. All of the “moral” actions in the world are nothing if there is not a corresponding amount of love and understanding to go along with them.
In this quote we again see that although Jane appears to be rather staid, she values human emotions and feelings. She has so much compassion for others, and will not ignore their feelings or her own.
These are important themes that we’ll continue to see throughout Jane Eyre. Next week we’ll discuss these gems: “puerile” and “hierophant.”