Jane Eyre: An Autobiography ‘edited by Currer Bell’ (Charlotte Brontë), was published in 1847 and became an immediate success, and is to this day a popular choice around the world amongst readers, whether they fly solo or discuss it in groups.
The story of Jane Eyre is as classic a Bildungsroman as they come: an orphan, placed with an unjust aunt who begrudgingly makes a promise to her husband on his deathbed to keep her safe, is shipped off to a (horrible) charity school to toil and endure a bleak faith in the temperamental English countryside. Very Brontëesque, the weather plays a symbolic role in this constancy of inner and outer rebellion and feelings of injustice across the board. Injustice as to the way you treat an orphan, injustice as to how you educate children, not with pedagogical means but terror and the fear of an avenging God imprinted on their minds. And most of all injustice to women, how their station and role in life is predetermined and how this constantly and thoroughly impairs their independence.
As a young woman, Eyre leaves the school to become a governess for a little French girl at (da-da-da-da) Thornfield Hall, where dark and enigmatic master Rochester sits by the fire challenging this fresh and untainted, yet determined, addition to the house. Eyre becomes more and more infatuated by this Master – not just as you would expect in a romantic fashion, but more importantly as an equal. In the course of the story events and eerie sounds around the house, however, make her question daily life at Thornton Hall, and the peak of events which will send her spiraling in a new direction is just around the corner…
So what does Charlotte do when she does what she does to you and me through Jane?
For one thing there is a constant toying with perspective. The narrator (Jane) every so often directs her speech at you, involves you in the scenes, breaking down the wall between her life as a series of events and your comfortable situation as voyeur. She disarms you by presenting herself as a plain, working woman – let your guard down, no threat here, feel free to read on – but in reality the very fact that she is NOT that, is fascinating and, I think, part of the reason she gets under your skin as a narrator. The reader is not just a spectator, but one who lives through and with the narrators’ situation. She guides you through the story, and you build up a sort of special interconnection between you and her because of this narrative change.
This way, it’s like I, being the reader here, can invest emotions and bond with the experience on another level than the laid-back reader, cruising in and out of the pages. I know it sounds cliché, but examining the emotional/moral/ethical levels of the story, you are there in the moment, and the moment may as well be 2012 as 1847.
And this leads me to another interesting aspect, which is the philosophical discussions Eyre and Rochester spend many a page debating, as well as the many layered and complex issues otherwise presented throughout the novel. Unlike your ‘tacky’ romance novels with very little to offer on the contemplative side, Jane Eyre is not merely a story of two people from different standings in life that end up emotionally and passionately attached. For sure there is that too – and descriptions of their emotional connection in spite of their stature reaches toe cringing cheese-levels at times (just remember it’s mid-1800’s literature). But Brontë still manages to interlace this rather corroded theme with sharp socioeconomic critique, the question of human value and equality of the sexes in a 19th century melting pot that might just as well apply to current debates. What does it mean to be a responsible and ethical person, and how do the theoretical high-level terms of intellect and reason stand up when you have to get up from your chaise longue and apply them to daily life choices.
To me Brontë presents us with a type of girl who grows up to be a combination type of heroic-stoic-plain woman, hellbent on questioning these power plays, and notions of justice, meticulously picking her battle grounds and rhetorical weapons, and in just the ‘right’ situations answers them with a kindness that verges on the point of sacrificial behaviour. But she is not without fault, nor is she the self-sacrificer per excellence. Eyre is Rochester’s redemption, but not on his terms as one would expect in the power display that is very evident from the first meeting on. Jane is very much her own, an Individual – not property, or a mere employee. In the character of Jane Eyre we are presented with someone who is very much aware of the injustice towards her, and signs of power plays that complicate the notion of simply ‘getting along’ and respecting your fellow human: be it child, man, woman, peasant, servant, they all face unjust authority plays, lain on them by a system, other people or most challenging of all: one’s self.
Of course, many of the choices and situations throughout the book are irrevocably connected to religion or religious rhetoric/ethics – more precisely the Christian faith – and so issues of self-sacrifice, redemption and belief in a just power higher than that we can experience from any personal and worldly gain are abound. Nonetheless there are what I would deem to be universal humanistic features that go against that pious attitude displayed by for instance St. John, a clergyman with whom she does the epic battle of wills with: can she, a plain governess, really turn down marriage that will be based on duty to God? It comes down to a core element of proto-feminism: the fundamental right to decide one’s faith and worth.
I could highlight many more points, whole sections of dialogue in fact, that tickles my brainstem. It says something about the test of times, when you think of the language which is altmodisch in general, and yet manages to suck in a 21. century reader just as easy as modern-day narratives. And I know that many too have had this experience of immersion I have had with Jane Eyre, in spite of different time periods, and antiquated language, when I mention the book, and another replies ‘aahh, Reader, I married him‘, and smiles in the sort of ‘we-share-the-same-experience’-way.
Behind those sorrowful and attentive eyes lies a story fit for the history books. Let me introduce you to Ding Ling (1904-1986); Chinese writer, woman and revolutionary. She is the author of one of my favorite short stories, ‘Mrs. Sophia’s Diary’, written in a Westernized, cosmopolitan Beijing and published in 1927. Unfortunately, I believe, as a result of the hectic societal changes in China, during the former half of the 20th century, her writings got eclipsed by her personal life. When she was in her 20’s she flung herself passionately into her stories, exploring the female mind and mentality through different female protagonists in urban settings.
The 20th century in China was ushered in with two major political changes that are of importance for the attention Chinese female authors gained both concerning their role as authors and womanhood in general. The first one was the abolition of the traditional civil service examination in 1905, that ended a long tradition of educating male scholars for employment in the state. The education of women, ushered in by Western girl’s schools, was rapidly taken in by the intelligentsia. The second was the abdication of the Qing dynasty in 1912, ending 2000 years of imperial rule, and establishing the Republic of China. The presence of Western powers was very much a reality in China and this both nurtured cultural affinity and strong revolts. Movements, such as the Culture Movements and the May Fourth Movement, saw great advantage in the upheaval of traditional values and looked interestedly to the question of equality between the sexes. It was also an age in which the individual was scrutinized and portrayed in countless short stories, essays, articles and novels. All of which, as I must lay emphasis on, mainly took place in urban settings.
‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’ is a story about a young, tubercular woman who has left her family in order to move to Beijing, struggling to figure out who she is, but ultimately ends up in disillusionment. She is a perfect example of what some have called the ‘New Woman‘ or ‘Modern Girl’ in Chinese culture. With Sophia, Ding Ling explores the realm of moral virtue bestowed upon women, and challenges the notion that moral virtue arises from the female body’s natural disposition to be chaste. Written in a 1st person diary form, it gives a very realistic insight into the modern struggle and crisis of identity from a female point of view. With her Western-ringing name and in urban settings she is a woman of the modern world. But instead of writing about a strong female character that takes on the world head-on and achieves her goals, Ding Ling chooses rather to describe the inner workings of a woman isolated from the world, both of her own accord, but also because of the lack of understanding she feels her surroundings have for her. She is strong in her own way, but so many things complicate her life. Ding Ling portrays Sophia as an erotic being, but one who is unfamiliar with her own sexuality and torn between what she wants and what she is supposed to do. She exemplifies the fear of being stigmatized by a society that does not allow for women to be overtly sexual without being labeled as femmes fatales:
I know very well that in this society I’m forbidden to take what I need to gratify my desires and frustrations, even when it clearly wouldn’t hurt anybody. I did the only thing I could do. I lowered my head patiently and quickly read the name printed on the card, “Ling Jishi, Singapore…
Like Ding Ling, Sophia uses writing in hopes of reaching clarity and to take stock of her position in life. She feels at ease nowhere, with no one, and her interactions with other people leave her frustrated and alone. With these emotional levels, Sophia goes from high to low with every diary entry, and thoughts of death and suicide are reoccurring. The isolation and following depressive reaction shares obvious affinities with Western literature such as Goethe’s ‘Young Werther’ and Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’, struggles between society and individual that leaves the protagonist ambivalent and confused. Unlike the male’s experience with identity, Sophia is not only up against society’s expectations and the desire to change this, but she and others also question the very core of her being – her femaleness, and what that entails. Most of the rhetoric leading up to the 1920’s had been on female emancipation, claiming equal rights, education and a healthy nation, gaining freedom through financial autonomy, all set in ideological terms. However, Ding Ling takes it one step closer, to the intimate corners of femininity, where she bares Sophia as a sexual being in her own right. For many in the urban community, singlehood symbolized independency, showing social resistance towards marriage, but in more conservative circles it was a regular threat to the essence of Chinese society. In some instances, same sex relationships were feared as a potential outcome with this lifestyle. Same sex love is also insinuated in ‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’, with reference to the relationship between her and Yunjie predating the diary. Sophia moves on the border between familial sisters (jie) and sexual interest in her relations to other women – one character, Jianru, reminds her so much of Yunjie that she ‘started chasing her (…) writing at least eight long letters [but] she didn’t pay the slightest attention.’ But society’s moral virtue catches up with her and constantly makes her aware of her own personal deficiencies and how unwritten social codes still act as limitations on her behavior. However, she is still more concerned with how to respond to and understand the hazy term of love, both as is manifests itself as lust, passion an metaphysical love. The narration of Sophia, on her own terms, in her own words, places the reader as a voyeur, peeping in on a woman’s innermost secret thoughts. And in doing so, the reader is in the advantageous role of gaining insight into her struggles with identity and modernity.
As China’s political situation became more polarized, and the cooperation between Kuomintang and the Communist Party ended in a bloody showdown in the late 1920’s, Ding Ling was smack down in the middle of revolution, joining the Communist Party and participating actively. She was both a chief editor to a magazine and in the 30’s she joining the Communist Party in Yan’an where she teached, studied the life of the worker and peasants and wrote. The problem was only, her writings did not please others within the Party. Mao Tse-tungs ‘Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art’ in 1942 made it quite clear what role literature had in the greater scheme of party politics, namely subservient to the proletarian glorious struggle, under strict scrutiny by the body of officials that held posts within the organization. And Ding Ling had, unfortunately for her career as an influential writer in Communist China, written some rather critical essays and stories that questioned the use of the communist ideology by some at the expense of others. Among these were ‘When I was in Xia Village’ and ‘Thoughts on March 8’ – an essay about the inconsistencies in sexual politics in the CP. All hell broke loose and during a ‘Rectification Campaign’ she was heavily criticized which in return led to a public self-critique, confessing the errors of her ways, saying that she ‘merely pointed out some of the darkness and forgot to affirm the bright future.’ However, stories such as ‘Miss Sophia’s Diary’, which was by now considered a classic example of the petty bourgeoisie, subverting the ideology of peasant-worker revolution, was a black spot on Ding Ling. It was quite clear that there was no longer a place for an individualistic, creative attention to the female experience.
Woe is me, the pain and degradation in 19th century women’s literature! The anger, frustration and solitude!!
I just spent the last couple of days reading a book by Amalie Skram called ‘Lucie’. Recalling some of the passages still sends shivers down my spine. It is a story of society, marriage and the bonds that are being put on both sexes (but in all honestly, it’s mostly women who bear the heavier judgmental shackles).
Lucie is what you may call a fallen woman, one who has let herself be romanced into a relationship before marriage that results in a child who dies at an early age. In the beginning of the novel she manages so fortunately to marry up in society to a Mr. Theodor Gerner, attorney. And while optimists would have liked this to be a happy-go-lucky situation for our girl here, she soon finds out that marrying Gerner is not all sunshine and cream cakes, far from it. Instead of putting her past behind them, Gerner ends up being a jealous husband who sees it as his role as a man and husband to educate, save and punish Lucie like an ill-behaved child who has had her hand too many a time in the man-jar.
If only she would not stand up to him, answering rudely like this morning. Resentment flushed his face red. This had to be dealt with in all strictness, uprooted; she had to learn, once and for all, that this was not proper behavior. Was this the kind of gratitude she owed him? No, she had to apologize, he would not tolerate being berated by her. He would make her aware of what she had done. Of course, he would forgive her, but first she had to be punished resoundingly.
And the worst part is that Lucie initially bows to his dictatorship and jealous behavior, because she really is in love and feels grateful. As time goes by though, she is more and more disappointed and grows depressed, because no matter how she carries herself at dinner parties or other social gatherings, she can expect a scolding from her loving husband. And Theodor is torn between loving his wife and being angry at her ill mannered temperament. The relationship grows sick, and the novel really is breathtakingly good at exploring the psychological terror of a mismatched relationship:
… and the palpitations she got when she heard him coming home, or when she just sat there waiting for him. In the end she had thought that she saw ghosts in the corners and black shadows everywhere, creeping around her. And when he sat there silently it was like his silence whooshed in her ears and filled her with fear. Oh, the kind that made her want to kill herself out of sheer fear. And it was not until she went to him, crawling on her knees, begging and crying like a madman, that he pardoned her. It was always like that. Not until then did her pardon her. Oh how he had broken her – he was strong, the fellow, and he would not budge. Not even if his life depended on it would he budge. Now he had gotten what he wanted; she was on tenterhooks all the time and was so afraid of him that she would shiver all over simply if he looked at her. He had succeeded in civilizing her, and he probably thought it was all well and done with, because now he was merciful and gentle with her. If only he knew how angry and bitter she was with him. Every once in a while she thought that she desired to kill him just to get back at him. She wished to God she had never known or seen him.
Both Theodor and Lucie are victims of societal norms that destroy both of them. She hopes for a leg up in society, to be respectable, liked, loved and feel secure. He hopes for love, properness and the chance to reform a ‘lost’ soul. Whatever their reasons for marrying are, the novel makes a model of a critique in Scandinavia in the 1880’s that has become known as ‘sædelighedsfejden’ – a battle of morality against the contemporary society that held women in a prudish role, repressing their desires to express/live their sexuality and granting a free-pass for men to do and go as they pleased, in and out of wedlock. It is a strife within a society built up on double standards. Many others like Amalie Skram voiced their critique in letters, novels, plays and art, amongst which probably the most famous is Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, who set up the play ‘Et dukkehjem’ in 1879 in Copenhagen.
Lucie is an important piece of literature in the sense that the voice of a societal outcast is being portrayed, taken out in to public and given a voice. Even though her situation is dramatic and tragic to the core and pessimism is dripping off the pages, it also offers some insight and a chance to say, ‘this must be changed, the outrageous situation is not viable in our society’. And hopefully, this will continue to stir people’s minds, make them think and, most importantly, act.
On March 30th the Nordic Council Literature Prize 2010 was awarded to Sofi Oksanen for her novel Puhdistus.
I had planned for a long time to read it, as I read an interview with her and several reviews that spoke highly of the novel. Usually I don’t select my readings by reviews, but everything I read, both on and in between the lines, hinted at something special, so I reserved it from my library as soon as I could (and ended up only no. 24 in line!). I finally got it and read it in two days. I know it is every publisher’s press release orgasm wording, but it sucked me in and wouldn’t let go until I had read the last sentence.
The novel takes place in Estonia, where an elderly farmer woman Aliide finds a woman called Zara, a trafficking victim, battered and bruised on her property. The women’s different yet similar histories are told in a very harsh but poetic way. Every imaginable pain, guilt and shame that can befall a woman both in a political dictatorship and tyrannical misogynistic rule is present. But just so it doesn’t all become one color, the story also tells of pride, survival instincts and imagination. And it made me angry, it made me empathize and gag and smile and nod agreeingly. There were so many layers of female thoughts all coming together in the novel. And I say female thoughts, not to say it is an entity far from male thoughts, but only to emphasize that the novel deals with the female experience of a system set in order by men, in which it is almost impossible for them not to step outside the line and get penalized. Male dominance is pervasive and his sexuality is being used as a weapon against, and on, women in ways that make you cringe.
Something I found very interesting was how Aliide’s jealousy of her sister manifested itself in the book. It is, for lack of a more appropriate word, beautifully described. It represents a woman engulfed in her sisters assets and successes so much that her sister almost gains a divine glare, a virginal innocence towards all evil thought and behavior, only thence to manifest darkness so more blatantly in Aliide.
She is such a complex figure in my mind, and yet so cliché when it comes to the failures in sisterhood. Aliide knows what she wants, and she is determined to get it at all (and I mean seriously at ALL) costs. I think she represents a figure who balances on the very fine edge of desire and survival. She is determined to survive, even if that means that she has to give up so many things that could enrich her life. She survives but at a cost. Is it society’s fault? Men? Her own or her family’s?
And when she lashes out, takes control of her life, person and property , it is almost as if it is too little to late, or in a totally exaggerated way.
Another interesting and reoccurring scene is when the women experience assault and their mind, in survival mode, takes them out of this threatening situation. Being the little piece of dust or a fleck of light on the hard cement floor, fleeing into a hole in the wood, and with every sentence being read you, the reader, are painfully aware, but not explicitly told of the horrors that are inflicted upon them. I can’t recapitulate the intensity of these passages with as much fervor as Oksanen does, but they are worth the read.
There is so much to delve into in this book, so much to emphasize, but I don’t want to make this too long. Safe to say, I will be picking this book up again at some point in time.