It isn't every book that speaks to both the Wild Romantic and the Stern Puritan in me, and since the day I first read Jane Eyre - up in the woods of Michigan, the summer I was twelve - I have revisited it often, and always with pleasure. It is a book that speaks in many tongues, to many people, and presents many faces to the world, all worth exploring... Depending on who you speak to, this is the best and truest love story ever written - a narrative of the suffering and endurance of true love; a commentary on the social and economic subjugation of women in 19th-century England; or an oblique exploration of race and empire. It is all of these things, of course, but for me, the power of Jane Eyre stems from its keenly observed and acutely realized portrait of the conflict between duty and desire.From the very first line, when a hidden Jane looks out onto a rain-soaked world, I entered wholly into the psyche of this character. Her desire to love and be loved, so cruelly denied in her childhood, seemed as piercingly real to me as anything I had ever felt in my own life. Lonely Jane, for all the Gothic trappings that surround her, could be the poster child for that "transcendental homelessness" of which Lukács speaks...So it is, when Jane seems to find a home with Rochester, whose "bad-boy" persona would make any schoolgirl's heart flutter, I could enter with abandon into the almost ecstatic joy of her homecoming, her communion with another soul. Lonely Jane no more...And when Jane discovers the duplicity of her lover, and the insurmountable ethical obstacles to her happiness, her stern devotion to duty, her almost-desperate recourse to principle, permit her a tremendous (but costly) moral victory. To this day, I cannot read the scenes in which Jane must tear herself away from Rochester, or the following passage, without getting chills:Still indomitable was the reply--"I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad--as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth--so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane--quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot."
After many travails, Jane does find her happy ending (thank goodness), and having triumphed over her own heart, she is rewarded with her heart's desire. But that conflict, between the desire to be happy and the need to do right, is what gives Jane Eyre its peculiar power. It is Jane herself who is the masterpiece.more