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Susan Shapiro Barash

Jane Eyre and the Modern Woman

Does Jane Eyre suffer from 21st Century problems?

The latest film rendition of Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska, Judy Dench, and Michael Fassbinder, reminds us that Jane Eyre is really a modern day tale in terms of the human psyche, jealousy and materialism. Watching the movie, I was struck by the similarity between many of Jane's travails and the 21st century problems that particularly affect young women.

As a young girl, Jane Eyre is orphaned and put under her Aunt Sarah Reed's care, but is mistreated by her aunt who favors her own children who are neither as smart nor as attractive as she is. Aunt Sarah Reed even tries to chisel Jane out of her inheritance, going so far as to say that Jane is dead to avoid relinquishing the money. This is a familiar scenario to us in comparison with competitive mothers and they way they position their children today. However, when the aunt brings her resentment to another level, banishing Jane to a strict boarding school for girls and not so much as allowing her home on holidays, we know this would be hard to pull off in 2011. That isn't to say it wouldn't be the fantasy of a rivalrous mother in modern times when it comes to erasing her daughter's competition, it is that few would resort to such tactics--since it could end up on Facebook or might even be tweeted.

Being the impeccable soul that she is, Jane makes lemons out of lemonade when forced to become an independent, penniless but educated young woman in a world where woman are treated as second class citizens - and are only as desirable as her dowry. Thus Jane's plan to support herself and to belong somewhere is challenging. Nonetheless, her ambition for this is what any young woman would want, be in mid-1840s or 2011. She is almost post-feminist when it comes to strength, individuality and intellectual curiosity.

Who can blame Jane, who feels so disenfranchised, for reaching out to St. John Rivers, the missionary, and his two sisters to become a kind of family? The problem is that St. John Rivers, the young, kind, upright altruist that he is, would only want Jane as his wife, not his 'sister,' when he leaves for India. Jane flat out refuses (very 21st century) since in truth, she is already in love with Rochester, owner of Thornfield. Rochester is a dead a ringer for the kind of guy a young woman would be drawn to today. He's part enigma, part rich cad, part hero, and awfully handsome. Jane met him because she has been hired by his housekeeper to be the governess for Adele, a young girl who might be his daughter, and is definitely his ward. Besides Jane - plain Jane, believes that she is not suitable socially or monetarily for Rochester, and doubts herself, despite the fact that he is the one with a questionable past. Chaste and refined, Jane would gladly look the other way rather than face Rochester's flaws, as much as a young woman might do today for the sake of romantic love.

But Rochester's secrets get more intricate--trumping today's juicy online scandals--when Jane learns that Rochester houses a crazy wife in the attic of the estate. When Jane actually meets her, the woman is beautiful, raging, and untamed compared to Jane's very staid, pale demeanor. Jane is too horrified to have much affinity for her and she flees Thornfield.

Still, Jane can't get Rochester out of her mind, and we, the female audience, always root for Jane. By the way, the best explanation of Rochester's wife in the attic can be read in Jean Rhys' prequel to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, entitled Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys interprets Rochester's first wife as extremely fragile, dramatic and complex -- the antithesis of most mid nineteenth century females. A native of Jamaica, this wife was too much for Rochester in every way, and so he brought her back to England to lock her in the attic. Again, no one could get away with such an act today, but the idea of emotional abuse is familiar to us.

All of the examples above paint a picture of Jane's struggles and fortitude. She never unravels like Rochester's first wife and she is self-supporting when she discovers her inheritance. But it is what Jane does for true love that so resonates for us, over one hundred and fifty years later.

Indeed, as I sat there watching Jane ditch the perfectly charming, attractive, holier-than-though missionary St. John Rivers for Rochester, and race across the fields to get to him at last, I couldn't help but wonder how one would advise their own 19-year-old daughter if she'd listen, given these two choices of men, two choices of lifestyle. It really comes down to the realization that no one can control the human heart.

Lucky Jane Eyre, she's off the hook about the morality of it all because when she returns to Rochester, her decision is justified. He's become blind because of an accident that occurred while he was trying to save his mad wife in a fire at Thornfield. Not only is the wife's demise a great break for Jane, but let's not forget, she returned to him knowing nothing of the fire, only that she loved him unconditionally. And so the feisty, if decorous, Jane proves passion and eternal love rule, and a troubled if winsome man can be redeemed. Talk about moving forward with some self-knowledge. What better model for a daughter today?


About the Author

Susan Shapiro Barash is the author of eleven books of nonfiction women's issues and teaches gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College.