It’s impossible for me to be objective about Jane Eyre. Her story affected me deeply the first time I read it and through the years I’ve found the need to re-read it often. The introduction to my present copy of the book reads, “It fell like a meteor in 1847, and in more than a hundred years its glow has not faded.” In my case, the glow increases with time.
The book is many stories in one: a penniless outcast who refuses to be beaten down by circumstances, a woman who won’t compromise her principles no matter how tempting the offer of happiness, love lost and then found again, and many others.
This is at least my twentieth time through the book and I’m amazed at how long it has taken me to see the value of Jane’s year away from Thornfield. I must admit that I’ve often skimmed over the chapters about St. John Rivers and his sisters so that I can get back to Mr. Rochester and the “real” story. I’m astounded that I was such a blockhead. (I’m assuming that everyone knows the gist of this story. If you don’t, then be aware that plot spoilers will follow.)
Another blogger once wrote that it was important for Jane to leave Thornfield so that she could come into her inheritance and return to Rochester as an equal. But Jane had declared herself his equal (in heart and spirit) on more than one occasion so, to me, money was not the big issue. However, now that I’ve read the final chapters more closely, I must agree that they contain pivotal events in Jane’s life which cause her to return to Thornfield a much richer (though not in a monetary sense) and more self-assured young woman.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Jane and Rochester truly love each other, but the events in the latter half of the book clarify and, in a sense, purify their love. The whole distasteful episode with St. John starkly contrasts two types of domination. One man would gladly smother Jane for his own purposes, while Jane could call the other one “my master” without the slightest hint of self-negation.
Both Jane and Rochester come to important realizations during their separation. Beforehand he had wanted Jane as his wife no matter what the cost. But later, “Violent as he had seemed in his despair, he, in truth, loved me far too well and too tenderly to constitute himself my tyrant; he would have given me half his fortune, without demanding so much as a kiss in return, rather than I should have flung myself friendless in the wide world.” (p. 444)
Jane was so love-starved when she arrived at Thornfield Hall that it is no wonder she fell in love with the first man who showed her respect and kindness. That is why her time away is integral to the story’s satisfying conclusion. Given the same circumstances, who wouldn’t succumb to Rochester’s proposal? But Brontë does not leave us with a heroine who greedily grabs for her one and only chance at happiness. Instead Jane must make hard moral choices. And in leaving she learns that she can find fulfillment even apart from Rochester. She develops rich friendships with Diana and Mary. She experiences deep contentment in teaching the village school girls. She comes under the power of a cold, implacable man and succeeds in wriggling from his grasp. In just a year she progresses from heartbroken governess to confident young woman who returns to Rochester with her eyes wide open. Ironically, Rochester, though physically blind, now “sees” better than ever. He has come to believe in God and His mercy even before Jane’s return. The closing dialogue is the delightful converse between two adults whose love has been tried and found to be true. Deeply satisfying!