Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Jane Eyre, adoption, and the subjugation of selfhood

The back story is this: I had a great love for all things Bronte when I was an adolescent, but my passion for mid-Victorian melodrama and naturalism was gradually eclipsed by a fascination with manicured, 18th century satire and cynicism. I wanted to see the recently released movie version, but not without first re-reading the novel. I dug out my neglected, dog-eared copy, expecting the vague sense of horror that Wuthering Heights, read at 30 rather than 13, had inspired. Jane Eyre held up better. 

Jane is an orphan. When the story opens, she is living with her uncle’s wife and children, her uncle having also passed away. Her aunt has no genetic connection to her, and while her cousins do, they treat Jane as if she is a foreigner. They base their feelings for Jane on their sense that she is not of their world; her father was a poor clergyman, her mother driven by passion to marry below her class. Jane is “poor, plain, obscure and little”, and at no point do the Reeds let her forget that. Ideally, Jane would have felt mirrored by her relationship to her cousins, but they do not accept her as their equal.  Her aunt demands gratitude for having rescued Jane and for blessing her with material goods. 

Sound familiar?

I was not abused, as Aunt Reed abuses Jane. But it is not difficult for even a ‘happy’ adoptee to empathize with her sense of alienation, isolation, and bewilderment. Jane is unable to command herself into a ‘proper’ posture of grateful submission, and her aunt’s frustration with her inability to meet expectations eventually leads to Jane’s banishment to a harsh, austere school. The headmaster of the school demands quietude, submission, and piousness, and since Jane cannot eradicate her intelligence and will, she is forced to subjugate her selfhood to her role in order to survive. Her inner world is rich, colorful, and fantastic, but her exterior expressions are passive and meek. She cannot reconcile herself. 

With Rochester, she is freed from submission. Treated as an equal, coaxed out of her role as a dependent, her inner life is given rein. When he calls her his equal and his likeness, when he acknowledges that he is not even her equal in his present debasement, Jane is allowed, for the first time in her life, to approach another human being as her full self.

It is ultimately her desire to reunite with her genetic heritage that belies the instability of her life with Rochester. In writing the letter to her uncle, a man her ‘adoptive mother’ attempted to keep from her, she sets in motion a series of events that lead to the intervention in Thornfield’s chapel. Rochester, her liberator, demands in his impassioned grief that she submit to yet another form of bondage – a bondage which accedes her will but not her independence.

Still with me?

She flees, and in a series of events in which the reader is forced to suspend disbelief, she is reunited with her cousins and is bequeathed her uncle’s fortune. When she discovers for the first time that her friends are actually her family – and are willing to accord her a place in their own definition of family – her reaction is that of an adoptee embarking upon reunion. 

Glorious discovery to a lonely wretch! This was wealth indeed! — wealth to the heart! — a mine of pure, genial affections. This was a blessing, bright, vivid, and exhilarating; — not like the ponderous gift of gold: rich and welcome enough in its way, but sobering from its weight. I now clapped my hands in sudden joy — my pulse bounded, my veins thrilled.

"Oh, I am glad! — I am glad!" I exclaimed.

St. John smiled. "Did I not say you neglected essential points to pursue trifles?" he asked. "You were serious when I told you you had got a fortune; and now, for a matter of no moment, you are excited."

"What can you mean? It may be of no moment to you; you have sisters and don't care for a cousin; but I had nobody; and now three relations, — or two, if you don't choose to be counted, — are born into my world full-grown. I say again, I am glad!"

Jane’s joy at the reunion, and her insecurity (“if you don’t choose to be counted”) are familiar. Once she is accepted as a true member of her true family, she is finally able to reconcile the disparate aspects of her selfhood. In the mirroring of her relations, she is able to weigh her personality against comparisons, and comes to a deeper knowledge and a freer exhibition of her core identity. The stubborn intractability of St. John, his rigid mastery over himself, allows Jane insight into her own struggles, and finally leads her back to Thornfield Hall. 

Whether or not Rochester is also forced to regulate his own passions before the consummation of their relationship is immaterial; it is Jane’s journey from debasement to passion to an integrated self that forms the scaffolding of the story. One senses that had she returned to Thornfield to find Rochester still in bondage, she would not have been crushed. She approaches temptation only after she has developed, in her own sense of self, an inoculation against it. A vision of her heritage called her away from Rochester; the reality of it allows her to return to him. 

Reader, she married him.

But more importantly, she reunited with herself.  

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I found your blog thanks to another blogger can't remember who it was. I'm a Swedish Korean adoptee. I wonder if I could add your blog to my section with other adoptees that blog ?