I recently watched a film version of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (a most excellent adaptation too, I may add). This particular version was made in 2011 with Mia Wasikowska, a gaunt, petite actress whose understated acting style and mousy yet soulful face was perfect for the role. However, more fascinating than the movie itself–and the novel from which it was adapted–is the extraordinary soul that lies within the pages. Jane Eyre, a quiet, meek girl who barely speaks above a coarse whisper throughout most of the book (in my mind’s eye, at least), is nonetheless one of the strongest and most mature female characters ever to be wrought from the imagination. Ironically, she is also one of the most ordinary heroines ever to be written about.
For all of Jane Eyre’s ordinariness, there is something so extraordinarily peculiar about her that makes her one of the most enduring characters in classical literature. Or, rather, two peculiar things. One, unlike the majority of heroes and heroines in literature, she is not exceptional in any way. Two, she is a creature of shadows and lives in darkness, yet somehow manages to be filled with light and beauty.
What makes Jane so ordinary is not so much her plain looks or even her reserved personality. It is her apparent lack of any special powers or talents that would elevate her to a conventional heroine status. She is not strong, nor exceptionally clever (though her wits are sharp). She does not have any ambition, nor does she strive to defy society or break barriers on restrictive social conventions. If anything, she is an anti-feminist, a silent observer in a world on the brink of madness.
And yet, she is exceptionally strong-willed and independent, one who speaks softly but carries a big stick of mental acuity and astonishing sensitivity to the demonic side of human nature. What Jane lacks in power she makes up for in wisdom; her sharp mind and heart brimming with compassion compensates for her apparently unheroic nature. And this, in and of itself, makes her extraordinary.
Another factor that shapes her literary legacy is her residence amongst the shadows. As anyone who has read the book can testify, Jane is no stranger to suffering: her parents and uncle are dead, she was forced to endure a miserable childhood–first at her cruel aunt’s and cousin’s house, then at a pious and dehumanizing boarding school–and the only man she ever loved, the tortured and beautiful Rochester (imagine Heathcliff and Mr. Darcy rolled into one giant package with more formidable sideburns), turns out to be married to a mentally insane woman that he has kept locked away for over ten years. Despite this sorrow, Jane manages to remain unblemished and good. It is not through a sort of naive optimism or resigned cynicism that Jane endures, but rather through a sharpness of mind, a keen understanding of suffering and human darkness. This stark sensitivity is artfully disguised behind a mask of shy bookishness.
Sometimes the most powerful voices are the softest, the quietest souls the most important. Thus, Jane Eyre remains to this day the most wonderful introvert in literary history.