Why Jane Eyre Is More Important Than Iran's Nukes

Danusha V. Goska
(with illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg)

Check out my Hollywood pitch: Three Hundred and One: The Sequel. After Spartan King Leonidas of the Mighty Six Pack and his hearty band of Chippendales Warriors are defeated by Persia's one-million-man slave army at Thermopylae, the Persians confront a new nemesis: Jane Eyre — a poor, plain, obscure and little English governess. Jane shocks fans by appearing clad only in a black leather thong, scarlet cloak, and artfully positioned shield. Her weapon of mass destruction: a stern gaze. The Persians are put in their place.

Hey, a girl can dream, can't she?

We live in scary times. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised the UN that if "you gathered all your ancestors from hell" they couldn't halt Iran's march toward nukes. Al Gore's noble, and maybe Nobel, efforts notwithstanding, global warming is unabated. America's honeybees, our crop pollinators, are disappearing. And that's just the macrocosm. In my personal life... let's just say that my dance card is full, and my partners are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

I'm responding to these catastrophes by spending hours a day online, discussing the BBC's latest adaptation of Jane Eyre. I'm an ostrich, right? Well, me... and thousands of others. What's the sudden appeal of an 1847 novel penned by a sheltered parson's daughter?

Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre tells the story of an orphaned girl who is not pretty, is not special, and is alone in the world. Her Aunt Reed despises Jane, and allows her own son to beat her. Reed loses her patience with Jane's refusal to accept guilt for her own victimization and packs her off to Lowood Institution, a sort of Gitmo for impoverished orphans lacking adequate legal counsel. Beating considerable odds — TB, typhus, and near starvation — Jane survives to age 18. Edward Rochester, of Thornfield Hall, employs Jane to serve as governess to his ward, Adele. Jane and Edward fall in love; the only thing standing between them is his mad Jamaican wife Bertha. Refusing to be his mistress, Jane leaves the only happiness she has ever known, and, again, strikes out on her own. I'll let you read the book to discover the ending.

This year, World Book Day survey respondents named Jane Eyre #3 of the Top Ten Books You Can't Live Without, placing it ahead of the Bible and Harry Potter. The International Movie Database (IMDB) lists eighteen productions with the title Jane Eyre; there has also been a Broadway musical.

The BBC's 2006 Jane Eyre is the most controversial. Reviews at Amazon and IMDB reveal a love-it-or-hate-it divide. Both camps cite the same innovation in this Jane; some value, and others, abhor this innovation. The controversy: in JE2006, Jane is pretty, Rochester is even prettier, and there is lots of kissing. JE2006's most unbelievable moment is its dramatization of the novel's most famous exchange. "You examine me, Miss Eyre," Rochester asks his new servant. "Do you think me handsome?" "No, sir," Jane forthrightly replies. When Jane (Ruth Wilson), tells Toby Stephens, with his rock star looks, that she does not find him handsome, the viewer is tempted to do a spit take on the telly. She must be blind, you think; but then you realize that the producers have denied her spectacles because "men seldom make passes at girls who wears glasses."

This pretty Jane and her handsome Rochester not only fondle and kiss on camera, repeatedly and open-mouthed, they also engage in a bit of frottage; Jane, fully clothed, lays atop Rochester; the camera pans to their shoes.

Heavens.

Imagine: in this corner, spinster librarians, tightly lipped and armed with stones; in the opposite corner, scarlet women, men in trench coats, and palpitating pubescents, marking off "the good parts" of their hot, new Jane Eyre DVDs for repeated viewing and YouTube sharing. Maybe the whole controversy is trivial; over nothing more than calculations, down to the milliliter, of spit swapped in the latest Victorian bodice-ripper.

I don't know. I enjoyed 300, a gorefest and Leni Riefenstahl wannabe. I reject 300's politics, but I firmly embrace, if only in imagination, its manly pecs and delts. And yet sexed-up, dumbed down, and prettified Jane Eyre depresses me; the online posts defending it depress me even more. And, yes, in a world headed to hell in a handbasket, I do think that this is worth talking about.

I'm not pretty, I'm not special, and I am alone in the world. I've climbed the Himalayas, ridden a bicycle across a besieged African country, and bird-watched in an Asian jungle where tigers prowl. Many factors contributed to my ability to transcend the crushing circumstances into which I was born. A major factor was that, at age 12, I read Jane Eyre, and have been continually rereading it ever since.

I often scan crowds and wonder. How many of us fear that we have been sentenced, by unseen, Kafkaesque judges, to lives of solitary confinement? How many of us conclude that the television, radio, internet, and newspaper media in which we are deluged all chant power-serving lies? How many of us suspect that the raw material of human connection — words — have been so prostituted that even if we did speak, no one could hear? How many women recognize Muriel Rukeseyer's prediction, "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open"?

When the dread that bullshit — please forgive the word but there really is no substitute — when the dread that bullshit controls discourse overwhelms me, I reread Jane Eyre. It's my B.S. antivenin of choice.

Stories are commodities; Marx got that much dead right. We surrender when we see the world through the eyes of the powerful, and we learn to surrender by telling the powerful's story as if it were our own. We thus cripple our own authenticity and strangle our own story. Charlotte Bronte resisted. Her sisters, the writers Anne and Emily, insisted that beauty alone rendered a woman worth talking about. Other than by making her sexually attractive to men, there was no way a writer, even a woman writer, could create a female protagonist. Charlotte defied them; the fruit is Jane Eyre.

"A naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?" a sadist, in the guise of a Christian philanthropist, taunts the small girl over whom he has complete control.

"They go to hell," the child replies.

"What must you do to avoid hell?" Mr. Brocklehurst, Lowood school's director, asks the young Jane Eyre.

"I must keep in good health and not die."

Charlotte Bronte will always have my heart for that snatch of verbal repartee. Jane Eyre isn't just about its operatic flourishes — Rochester's mad wife setting fire to Thornfield Hall — it's also about quiet, quotidian face-offs, and small, invisible victories.

In Chapter 7, Brocklehurst stands Jane on a stool and verbally dismantles her in front of the other inmates at Lowood. Jane is a ten-year old orphan girl; he's a powerful adult male, exploiting a façade of Christian authority. Bronte fearlessly exposes politically powerful, in-name-only Christianity; she contrasts it with the real, subversive deal. Another girl in the orphanage, Helen Burns, instructed by Brocklehurst to stare at loathsome Jane with hate, looks on her with love. Jane is transformed: "I mastered the rising hysteria, lifted up my head, and took a firm stand on the stool." Jane's triumph would be invisible to the casual observer. As any survivor of child abuse can attest, it is not stretching things to see Jane's invisible triumph as kin to that Auschwitz inmate Viktor Frankl described in Man's Search for Meaning.

It is in these early childhood scenes that Helen, tutoring Jane in Christianity, makes Jane's and Rochester's eventual epic love possible. Before Helen, like too many abused kids who careen from one bad relationship to another, unloved and orphaned Jane is a craven, feral creature:

"If others don't love me I would rather die than live... to gain some real affection from any whom I truly love, I would willingly submit to have the bone of my arm broken, or to let a bull toss me, or to stand behind a kicking horse, and let it dash its hoof at my chest — "

Had Jane remained this desperate beggar she was before she met Helen, Rochester would never have fallen in love with her. His own tortured past guaranteed that he would need, and appreciate, the integral woman Helen's teachings cultivated:

"Hush, Jane! you think too much of the love of human beings.... The sovereign hand that created your frame, and put life into it, has provided you with other resources than your feeble self, or than creatures feeble as you."

Helen alerts Jane to a power that transcends Jane's plainness, her aloneness, and her poverty.

In Chapter 29, an adult Jane, true to the integrity Helen insisted she rely on, has left Rochester, and, like millions of women before her and since (including this one), has walked out a door that offered some, however compromised, warmth and light into a world that promised neither. As a poor woman, she will be targeted for gossip, at best, and violation, at worst. Seeking shelter, Jane is insulted by a lesser creature, a maid, not lesser because of her employment, but because this maid sees only that currency which power values, and assumes a woman without looks or money to be debased. Jane insists on her dignity. "You are mistaken in supposing me a beggar. I am no beggar; any more than yourself. The want of house or brass does not make a beggar."

Here, as is often the case, when Jane says something right and true, her words are flat, almost autistic. That's because Jane is working to communicate truth, not to please or charm. In these scenes, Jane reveals a courage that rivals that of Leonidas at Thermopylae.

Don't believe me? Try it some time: be a woman, with no beauty or status to pave your route. Tell a simple truth, without first saying, "This may sound crazy, but..." or "You probably know about more this than I do..." or "Don't get mad at me for saying this," or any of the other feminine disclaimers that linguists like Deborah Tannen have pointed out are the necessary verbal burqa even Western women must hide behind before allowing their words out in public. Then see how many jobs you get, and keep. Or friends. Or dates. Or husbands.

In love scenes, Bronte could write more fevered prose. When Rochester torments Jane with his upcoming marriage to the beautiful, upper-class Blanche Ingram, Jane comes at him, both barrels blazing:

Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? ...Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you, — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; — it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal, — as we are!

Gentle Reader, I have read those words more times than I can tell; as I reread them now they excite me as much as ever. Make no mistake: it is Jane's understanding of her connection to God that transubstantiates her lowly station among men. This isn't the God of the Spartans, Riefenstahl, or Calvin Klein, a God who ostentatiously glories in the body beautiful while dictating that, behind the scenes, bodies deemed imperfect be eliminated. This isn't the God of karma, Deepak Chopra, or Louise Hay, a God who insists that misfortune is punishment for wrongdoing. Jane's relationship to her God fuels her integrity, and renders her irresistible to Rochester, who has had pretty, and disposable, mistresses. Jane's God here is the God who puts down the mighty and exalts the lowly (Luke 1:52); the God who is unimpressed by titles and status; (Acts 10:34); the God in whom "there is no male nor female" (Galatians 3:28). This is the God who ignited women like Thecla to redraw the map of ancient empire, when slaves learned that they were as good as their masters.

Rochester does, finally, kiss Jane after this speech. He could have tied her to a stake and struck a match; he could have requested permission to wear her lingerie; I wouldn't have cared. I simply rejoice that Jane spoke those words, thus making my life more possible than it would have been had she not been my ancestor, and not said those things.

In Bronte's Jane Eyre, the passion between Jane and Rochester is powerful because it is soul to soul, not because of his crinkly grin and her pouted lips. Jane arouses passion exactly because she is poor, plain, and obscure, and yet she is fiercely dedicated to her own integrity. Bronte made good on the dare she took up from her sisters. She gave the world an unforgettable heroine who is worthy to be loved not because she made the wise choice to be born pretty or lucky, but because of the character she demonstrated after being born miserably.

This is why not a single cinematic Jane has been definitive in the way that Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara is definitive. Gone with the Wind Producer David O. Selznick could accept and even identify with Scarlett; he would break his health and budget to bring her to the screen. Very like a Hollywood mogul, Scarlett came equipped with the same primitive control panel as a T-Rex: she used trickery, bullying, and sex to achieve purely carnal, narcissistic ends.

Hollywood has found it as hard to cast Jane Eyre as it has to cast Jesus Christ. Both perform values antithetical to the cult of celebrity. Jane's modesty has been mistaken for mousiness pleading for a spa makeover; her intelligence and even her defiance have been misunderstood as just another form of coy, phallocentric seduction; her decency and quiet strength have been perverted into the kind of morose pose that begs for a swift kick or a Sleeping Beauty kiss to awake it into a new life with Jane as mall rat or prom queen. Jane's concern for Adele has been all but erased. There is the temptation to understand Jane as a weepy Quasimodo; dial 911 for the nip-and-tuck rescue squad. Never mind that in the book Jane simply gets on with life and doesn't waste much time pining for a total body makeover. Joan Fontaine, in the 1944 version, is a pretty wimp who just needs some wardrobe advice and books on self-esteem. Statuesque Ruth Wilson, in this latest version, is all about plump lips and arched eyebrows; she's red-carpet ready.

JE2006 is not just noteworthy for its prettified stars and sexed-up scenes. It is also noteworthy for what scenes its writers chose to expurgate. The first ten chapters of Jane Eyre are a relentless, accurate, and scathing depiction of child abuse. If those ten chapters were all we had , the book would be worth reading. Powerful adults tell Jane that she deserves to be beaten for her perversity — that is, her refusal to play the role the world has assigned her: that of a lesser being, lesser because she is female, poor, and not pretty. Below, the ironically named Miss Abbot and the sympathetic, but flawed, Bessie testify to Jane's crimes:

"If she were a nice, pretty child, one might compassionate [sic] her forlornness; but one really cannot care for such a little toad as that."

"Not a great deal, to be sure," agreed Bessie. "At any rate, a beauty like Miss Georgiana would be more moving in the same condition."

"Yes, I dote on Miss Georgiana!" cried the fervent Abbot. "Little darling! — with her long curls and her blue eyes, and such a sweet colour as she has; just as if she were painted!"

Bronte didn't skewer only hypocritical Christians like Brocklehurst; she skewered the hypocrite in every one of us. We like pretty people more than we like ugly ones. We project our flawed perceptions onto the ugly folk we do not like, and do spiteful things to justify the worst in ourselves. The more that empowered others hurt Jane, the more they have to hurt her, to make her out to be the vile thing they must believe she is in order to justify to themselves their abuse of her. Here Bronte's understanding of the psychology of the abuser is acute. "How did Bronte know?" I ask myself, whenever I have the guts to reread these scenes.

JE2006 skimps on Jane's childhood, and alters Helen Burns. In Bronte's Jane Eyre, Helen advises Jane: "Observe what Christ says, and how He acts; make His word your rule, and His conduct your example." In JE2006, Helen advises Jane: "Advertise." In JE2006, when Jane is being humiliated on the stool, Helen offers Jane a piece of bread, not a transcendent look. The filmmakers perhaps do not know that not all women are for sale, and that we do not live by bread alone.

Hollywood's 1944 Jane Eyre, starring Orson Welles as a properly larger-than-life, gothic, and, yes, ugly Rochester, honored the opening chapters on Jane's childhood. Peggy Ann Garner is perfectly cast as the young Jane, a sort of Amish chick possessed by a Punk Rock dybbuk way ahead of its time. Elizabeth Taylor's great physical beauty conveys the inner beauty of Helen Burns. Margaret O'Brien, the loveliest child star of all time, is an appropriately charming Adele. The older parts are well cast, too: Agnes Moorehead is both unimpeachably regal and implacably evil as Aunt Reed; Sara Allgood, round as the Pillsbury Doughboy, was born to play Bessie. All these character actresses were ready-to-hand, part of the Hollywood stable, to play females younger, older, or not pretty enough to be the sexy lead.

I teach a course called "American Film: A Woman's Place?" My young students enter the class convinced that It Was Bad For Women Long Ago But Luckily Everything Is Better Today. I ask them, why is it that today Hollywood most frequently casts women as half-naked arm candy, while young and handsome men, ugly men, old men, poor men, men of color, drive plots? How come in the "bad old days" fat, ugly, Marie Dressler, whom even feminist film critic Molly Haskell labeled a "gargoyle," was a number-one box office star? How come older actresses like Maria Ouspenskaya, Margaret Dumont and Margaret Hamilton were key to box office success in a variety of genres, including comedy and horror? Blanche Yurka as Madame DeFarge in 1935's Tale of Two Cites: where is the part, the film, or the stable of actresses today to compare? Why did child stars like Shirley Temple, Peggy Ann Garner, and Margaret O'Brien, unlike child stars like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, never have to release, to universal display, photographs of gynecological detail to retain their popularity?

One Amazon reviewer argued that it was good that JE2006 skipped Jane's childhood and rushed to the good part: kissing. But, see, for me, Jane's entire life is the good part. And that is why so many of the posts gushing over JE2006 broke my heart. Not because it is so bold as to include kissing, but because it is so timid as to insist that Jane and Rochester must be pretty in order to be allowed to kiss. Because movie logic: "We are the two prettiest people in this production; therefore, we fall in love", is not what drives Bronte's novel: "Character has triumphed over appearance; our souls have met; let's kiss." Because, like today's Hollywood producers, who, director Kevin Smith reports, cast women by asking, "Would you fuck her?" JE2006's fans see a woman's worth as her being sexually attractive to a man. "Toby is so sexy," post after post gushes. "I want to lick Toby all over," a post reports. "Toby's wife is pregnant," kvells another. "Come visit this Toby fansite," a "Tobette" invites. These Toby-centered discussion threads, like most of the world, belong to the powerful, famous, handsome man, not to the poor, obscure, plain woman.

High school cheerleaders have dropped out of cheerleading squads rather than cheer for girl athletes, reported the New York Times on January 14, 2007. "It feels funny" to cheer for girls, one girl reported. On February 25, 2007, the New York Times reported that the Delta Zeta sorority leadership — themselves all female — at DePauw University in Indiana purged its membership of physically unattractive members. As HL Mencken said, "A misogynist is a man who hates women as much as women hate each other."

Something happened in our culture between Hollywood's Golden Age and today, I tell my film students. Maybe it was the introduction of The Pill, or the Baby Boomers' erosion of traditional values. But there used to be something in place, maybe modesty, maybe religion, that made Bette Davis, over 40 and fully dressed, in the 1950 Best Picture Academy Award winner All About Eve, worthy of attention. Today, the absence of that something dictates that the actress playing Jane Eyre must be depicted in a corset with her boobs smashed up to her throat.

Years ago I lived in a Himalayan village. It was, like Brigadoon, afloat on its own cloud. There were no radios. There was no electricity, or running water, or even outhouses. Planes did not fly overhead. There was not one flashlight. A villager inquired of me, politely, "What planet do you come from?"

Anthropologists fanned out to study how the human mind processes manmade images. When handed a photograph of themselves, taken seconds before, villagers had no idea what it was.

I did not own a mirror. I knew no one who did.

Our biggest holiday was Desain. We celebrated the beauty of Goddess Laxmi. "Beauty" was a word. It could mean one thing to you, and another thing to her, or him. A pock-marked girl, straw in her braids and soot dusting her cheeks, could be beautiful. There was no photograph to prove us wrong.

An onslaught of manmade images now inundates women and girls. In 2007, the American Psychological Association released the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.

"The proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising, and media is harming girls' self-image and healthy development," the report said.

We strive for greater and greater visual perfection, to match the perfection found in magazines, computer porn, and, now, in public television adaptations of classic novels. We cede that visual impression all power; any other qualities of worth we may possess are assessed as without value. Men report that they are less satisfied with their wives after viewing pornographic images. And women? Greatly enjoying discussing JE2006 online, I asked to share photos. Some demurred. I'm "dumpy," one woman said. "Overweight." "Ravaged by childbirth." Like the Toby-centered responses to JE2006, these self-abnegating, image-centered posts, especially in a Jane Eyre environment, broke my heart.

Which brings me around to my hyperbolic title. The stories we tell matter. Somali-born author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one of my heroes. How did she get to be the woman she is? She was inspired by Nancy Drew books she read as a kid, she says.

No matter how you feel about the politics of 300, you've got to admit that the two-and-a-half-millennia-old tale it tells is an awesome one. In a sense, though, the heroism it depicts is facilitated by the extreme circumstances the three hundred Spartans faced. Most of us will never be in so obvious a spotlight: at the gates of a mountain pass, invaders, who offer nothing but cruel death to us and our loved ones, approaching. In such a strait, who wouldn't chose death in battle? In our own small lives, if we can just complete the scrawled items on a given day's crumpled "to do list," commissioning us to slay minor dragons like a boss' ludicrousness or long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles, we're doing all right.

And that's why I love Jane Eyre. It has not helped me to slay dragons; in fact, if ever confronted by a dragon, I'm pretty sure my instinctual adrenal drive would instruct my muscles long before my thoughts could reach them. Like Charlotte's Jane, I've been handed a small-potatoes life. The eyes of a grateful nation, or even of a softball team, are not upon me. Like Jane's, my triumphs are invisible. Does such a "poor, plain, obscure and little" heroine offer me anything to face an increasingly scary world? Yes. Jane, the book's Jane, plain Jane, by doing the next, small, right thing, by believing in herself, even though she possesses none of the qualities that the powers of this world value, that Jane is my role model; it would not be too much to identify her as one of my patron saints. The pretty Jane of JE2006 is not. From her I learn what the rest of society tells me: pretty girls in tight corsets smooch with rich boys, and those kisses, along with Paris's, Britney's, and Angelina's, end up on YouTube.



Danusha V. Goska is poor, plain, and obscure. She is not, however, little; she likes to think she could have made short work of Brocklehurst. Her book Love Me More was inspired, inter alia, by Jane Eyre. For more of Danusha's writings in TheScreamOnline go to the Talent Index and her website.

Related articles from the NY Times:
"Pretty Words, Jane; Would That You Were Too"
If Jane Austen Were Among Us Now, Whom Would She Cast as Herself?

Artist: Fritz Eichenberg
from 1943 Random House edition of Jane Eyre

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