Wednesday, 7 September 2011
Lois and I went to see the new movie version of Jane Eyre for my birthday. I don't need to provide a spoiler alert, do I?
What a good movie adaptation will do for a classic story - and this is a good one - is to strip away a lot of the incidental details and show the skeleton of the story in sharp relief. What we see is a story that, while never losing its focus on Jane as its heart, is structured around two interlocking love triangles.
If there is a more spiritually charged set of love triangles in English literature then I can't recall it. What is at stake here is not mere romance, or fortune, but people's souls.
Jane lives through hard times before finally arriving at Thornfield House as a governess and falling in love with her master, Edward Rochester. Although strange, and set against the background of creaky gothic horror, the romance seems set to end happily until the inevitable romance-tale hiatus. Edward is already married to poor mad Bertha, the spectre who is kept secure in a secret room at Thornfield.
From here Jane has a choice. Edward urges her to become his mistress, and she longs to say yes. After all, the conventional world of morality has done her little good. What claim has it over the passionate uniting of their spirits? Yet her conscience will not allow it. She refuses, and runs.
This decision almost kills her but it ultimately brings her a kind of peace, as she is rescued by St John Rivers and his sisters and given freedom, a loving family and rewarding work. Yet when St John asks her to marry him it is not out of love, it is a request to give up passion, to sacrifice all for the sake of duty and service. Once again she refuses this offer - she is indeed willing to serve and be dutiful, but not if in the process she must give up passion. Ultimately, her patience and refusal to settle for less are rewarded as she is mysteriously called back to Edward's side, to find him blinded but also widowed. Their marriage can take place on her terms, with a clear conscience. Passion and righteousness can share the same heart.
In the background to this story is Edward's own love triangle. On the one hand he has Bertha, who represents for him darkness, chaos, the evil we hide in our deepest selves. He cannot love her, she does not love him, yet he also can't disown her. She is his responsibility, and they are bound together for good or ill.
Jane comes as an angel of light, or as the fairy queen. He longs for her innocence and simplicity without understanding that they are won through suffering. In the attempt to possess them he almost destroys her - how could she be an angel of light and yet become his mistress? Doing the right thing is at least as costly for him as it is for Jane, perhaps more so. Bertha comes close to destroying him three times - once when she nearly burns him to death, once when he almost tricks Jane into marrying him, and finally when she burns Thornfield to the ground. The dangers of uncontrolled passion are to the fore, and while Jane must pay the price for her righteousness before she can enjoy her passion, he must do the reverse, paying for his passion before he can experience the peace of righteousness.
The final scene in the film says it all. I can't remember the exact words now, but as Jane holds his hand and he realises it's her, Edward says, "I fear that I am dreaming." Jane replies, "Wake up, then!" It's as if Charlotte Bronte, and director Cary Fukunaga, are saying to us, "Don't settle for half a life. Don't give up passion to do what is right, don't violate your conscience for the sake of passion. You can have both - if you are prepared to pay the cost."