Jane Eyre and the Invention of the Self

Those who remember Jane Eyre solely as required reading in high-school English class likely recall most vividly its over-the-top Gothic tropes: a childhood banishment to a death-haunted room, a mysterious presence in the attic, a Byronic hero, and a cold mansion going up in flames. It’s more seemingly the stuff of Lifetime television, not revolutions. But as unbelievable as many of the events of the novel are, even today, Brontë’s biggest accomplishment wasn’t in plot devices. It was the narrative voice of Jane—who so openly expressed her desire for identity, definition, meaning, and agency—that rang powerfully true to its 19th-century audience. In fact, many early readers mistakenly believed Jane Eyre was a true account (in a clever marketing scheme, the novel was subtitled, “An Autobiography”), perhaps a validation of her character’s authenticity. —The Atlantic

15 thoughts on “Jane Eyre and the Invention of the Self

  1. I think I first read Jane Eyre when I was in boarding school, sick to death with flu, in the infirmary. It was one one floor of an old brick dormitory, with hissing radiators and clanging pipes, a pleasant day room with a fireplace (not lit, as I recall). Fever-ridden, spending hours alone but for the nurse (in the days when they wore the white dresses and hose and hat), entranced, with New Hampshire snow outside and the view toward the chapel and campus Gothic buildings–well, it may be the only way to read the Brontës.

  2. Lisa Hommel, my memory ins’t of Jane Eyre, but probably the same Scholastic imprint: I remember getting a “pocket sized” paperback of Stoker’s “Dracula” at my fourth grade Scholastic book fair. That “pocket sized” imprint meant that the book was about seven hundred pages, and it had a great, grainy image of a book-accurate Dracula (long hair, long nails and big Russian moustache) on the front cover.

    My mom wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for a nine-year-old kid (I think less because of any content, and more because she’s never particularly liked the horror genre), so my dad agreed to read it first. He ended up loving it and passing it on to me, but not until he had devoured it himself. We must have been on some kind of beach or Disney vacation at the time, because when I got the book to myself, sand fell out of it.

    • Greg, my “Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte” had the same bulky structure, with a similarly-styled, book-accurate portrayal of Jane with her candle! Remember the excitement of poring over the inky Scholastic order forms, searching out the ones that held new adventures, intense lives? Everything I truly learned about history, politics, and sociology as a kid, I learned from those stories about the Underground Railroad, perilous escapes from Nazis, isolation on deserted islands, and so many other lives. My favorites became Friends, and it is still a bit sad for me when I have to buy a new edition with different formatting and cover image.

    • Lisa, that’s why I bought a deluxe edition of the classic “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” trilogy with the disturbing avant-garde illustrations a few years ago. I had grown up with three individual paperbacks of the three volumes (some of the most beloved, and most frequently banned, children’s books of the eighties and nineties), but recently they were re-published with more “kid-friendly” illustrations, and some of the nastier stories (all of which are either folktales or urban legends) excised.

    • For me, Greg, my imagination takes the horror genre beyond terrifying, into overload…yet, I’m still wondering if it was a disappointment to find those parts excised, rather like a mutilation. I was also about to respond about the gothic losses in the Secret Garden discussion, where I’m still reeling over the loss of some original songs and themes….

  3. I grew up rereading my Scholastic paperback copy of Jane Eyre to bits. Jane’s ability to be true to herself, even while experiencing heart-deep pain, was a guide to me.💗 (And helped me understand the complex Rochester’s of this world.)

  4. My fav Eyre spinoff series is a book called The Eyre Affair by English author Jasper Fforde — it’s like a sci-fi romp set in a world where people can go inside books. I love it.

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