Classic Remarks is meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating! This week’s prompt is:
Is Jane Eyre‘s Rochester an attractive, brooding Love Interest or Dangerously Manipulative?
This post contains spoilers for Jane Eyre!
The wording of the question probably reveals my bias against Rochester already. I never understood why readers have fallen in love with him or think him the ideal romantic lead. Abrupt, proud, and deceitful, he never seems like Jane’s equal from the start, but instead constantly refers to his superiority in terms of age and experience, and consistently intimates that he wishes to use Jane to help effect a sort of spiritual or personal renewal.
Their first formal interview is already marked by Rochester’s sense of superiority. “I claim only such superiority as must result from twenty years’ difference in age and a century’s advance in experience,” he says (170). Jane protests that “your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience”–a protest Rochester ignores as he states he has not spent his time profitably (171). Even as he admits at times that Jane may be right in her moral convictions, Rochester will continue to speak to her as if she is his inferior. His penchant to call her pet names is particularly grating, seeing as she is his employee.
Notably, Rochester also hints in their first interview that he already plans to do wrong to perhaps achieve right, or at least some sort of pleasure. To him, Jane is not a person but “as the wild honey the bee gathers on the moor” (174) or a “pilgrim” (175) inspiring him with new, higher thoughts, or one of the “good genii” (194). Rochester may be alluding to the idea that in a relationship, the parties should inspire each other to be their best selves. And yet his treatment of Jane suggests that he thinks of using her to regain his sense of integrity.
I argue that Rochester uses Jane because he in no sense ever really treats her as her equal as he courts her. He, of course, keeps his wife a secret, enlisting Jane to clean up after some of her nightly escapades, but always avoiding an explanation of the strange happenings at Thornfield. He fully intends to become a bigamist without telling Jane because he knows that she would never agree to do something she believes is wrong. When his marriage is revealed, he then tries to keep Jane, again knowing she would be revolted by the idea, as his mistress. He really seems to have little respect for her–or he shows his respect in a twisted way, keeping secrets from her so as to try to keep her pure and innocent of his own twisted intentions.
Before all this, Rochester deceives Jane yet again, masquerading as a travelling fortune teller so as to attempt to learn Jane’s thoughts about him. This, of course, is while he is actively courting another woman solely to make Jane jealous. He argues that the later jilted woman basically “had it coming” because of her pride and greed, and suggests it may have taught her a lesson. How very charming!
Of course, after all this Jane leaves, Rochester’s wife dies, and Rochester himself is blinded and apparently chastened. Jane and he can meet again on more equal terms (thanks in no small part to her new monetary wealth). But still I find few redeeming qualities in Rochester. And I can’t help but wonder, if Rochester were real, would people still find him romantic? If a reader had a friend falling in love with her boss, a boss who called her pet names, was rude, and clearly had some sort of deep secret (Jane thinks the mad wife is in fact a servant blackmailing Rochester–because that makes it better apparently), would that reader sigh dreamily with her friend over this man or should she advise that friend to run far, far away?
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Knopf: New York, 1991. Print.
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