labingi: (ivan)
[personal profile] labingi
I suspect that Wide Sargasso Sea has forever damaged my ability to enjoy Jane Eyre. Mind you, I have never unreservedly enjoyed it and there are still many aspects of it I love, but Rhys's novel has reweighted the scales. It elevates what I always saw as the comparatively poor writing to egregious moral failing. (Fair warning: if it's not already plain, this is a bit of rant.)


Caroline Rody hits the nail on the head when she says of Wide Sargasso Sea, "Rhys seems to have stirred the literary universe in animation, to have summoned up and then actually changed literary history" (Wide Sargasso Sea, Norton Critical Edition 217). Rhys inserted Antoinette/Bertha Rochester into the narrative as a principal character, and never again can her personhood be conveniently erased. The fact that Rochester and Jane continue to do exactly this can, therefore, only mark them both as dehumanizing. Much of Rochester's life and all of his love with Jane is predicated on almost completely removing from moral consideration another human being. Now, Rochester didn't mean this cruelly. Even in WSS, where he shows understandable moments of venom, his principal motives aren't cruel. And he was genuinely in a difficult situation with Antoinette. He couldn't divorce her; he was responsible for her. It's true that she might have suffered worse fates if he had, say, abandoned her to an insane asylum. Nonetheless, his--and Jane's--inability to even imagine that Antoinette herself might actually have a perspective, her own version of this story, her own share of the tragedy, is so grandly unfeeling as to be downright frightening--and certainly not the stuff heroic couples I want to root for are made of.

This lack of compassion is symptomatic of a greater lacuna in the narrative. The text tends to dismiss anyone who doesn't fit neatly into the Jane/Rochester romance. Antoinette is the most obvious and total example. Another is Adele. I give Jane full points, in one my favorite moments in the book, for calling Rochester on his bullshit when he presents himself as so very long suffering for having taken Adele in, though she is probably not really his biological daughter, etc., etc. Adele needs a friend, Jane observes, since Rochester won't be one. Hear, hear... but Jane isn't really one either. She tries. It's not her fault that Adele pushes her buttons. And despite not really having much affection for Adele, Jane is good to her: thoughtful, responsible, consistent, correct, everything she was hired to be as a governess. But in her mind, she does not feel warm, and as much as Jane tells us that, in the end, she magnanimously brought Adele home from the too-strict bordering school where Rochester placed her (because he's such a great father), Jane soon sends her off to (a better) school again because Rochester, wounded, is taking all her time. She actually says that: between child and husband, it's clear where the priorities lie. Mary and Diana get the token "we all lived happily ever after" without ever having had much definition as characters. St. John goes off to be a missionary, so he is not going to impinge.

Re-seeing Jane Eyre in the light of Wide Sargasso Sea brings into focus what always bothered me about the story: its hypocrisy. The narrative presents itself as a study in good values while actually modeling--at least with Antoinette--gross inhumanity. It is cruel without acknowledging it is cruel. It is wrong without acknowledging it is wrong.

Jane Eyre vs. Wuthering Heights

With apologies to the Bront√ęs, I want to invidiously compare this to Wuthering Heights. It was always far my favorite of the two, and this new lens helps me articulate why. Wuthering Heights does not offend my sense of right and wrong. It might slightly baffle Charlotte--who wasn't sure if it was right to loose such beings as Heathcliff on the world--but I find Wuthering Heights the more moral book.

To be sure, Wuthering Heights is chock full of greatly flawed characters who do things that range from silly and selfish to bitterly cruel. It scarcely has a character who's not objectionable. Even Edgar can be clueless, occasionally overbearing, and coldly rejecting (to Isabella). Even Catherine the Younger is headstrong and makes ill-advised judgments. Even Nelly is judgmental to the point of being cold and uncomforting. And from there, it just gets worse, all the way up to Heathcliff, who is a violent, sometimes murderous, manipulative, swindling rapist. [1] But the narrative understands these flaws. Its characters may have skewed moral compasses, but the novel's moral compass points unerringly north.

For example, the Antoinette of Wuthering Heights is Isabella: though the two marriages serve different plot functions, both match the hero with a wife he despises and who marks his separation from his true love. But note the difference in the characters' construction. Bertha Rochester is nothing but a fiend: a mad, voiceless terror whose only function in the story is to make Jane and Rochester miserable. Isabella, on the other hand, is emphatically voiced. She gets the better part of two chapters to explain the wretchedness of her marriage in her own words; indeed, we see the marriage mostly from her point of view. The terminal argument in Heathcliff and Isabella's marriage is an argument between two fully realized people, each possessing his or her own voice and perspective. There is no question that Heathcliff treats Isabella execrably, though Isabella herself is far from a perfect person. There is no Wide Sargasso Sea for Wuthering Heights because Emily already wrote it. Her perspectives are multiple, and everyone's wrongs and rights are laid bare.

Jane Eyre, however, despite its incredible strengths--and they are many--cannot ultimately escape the fact that it is a story about two people finding happiness by ignoring, if not actively debasing, the humanity of a third and never getting called on it. Its happy ending is predicated on a vast, unremediated injustice, which costs its heroes much of their claim to our sympathy and the narrative much of its moral standing.

[1] It is pretty clear that, by modern standards, Heathcliff rapes Isabella, though in their own time and place it would not be considered rape because they were married.
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