I read this as part of a read-along with Julie from My 5 Monkeys and Karen at For What It's Worth and those both link to their great reviews. The ideas here are my own, but they are wonderfully tempered (or emphasised!) by the fact we did weekly discussions of the book, at 10 chapter intervals. This was also done in March.
I'm also the last to post the review...Oh well.
Jane Eyre is the story of (you guessed it) Jane Eyre, an orphan born low and seemingly destined to be treated as such for the entirety of her life. Like any good classic, the opportunity to discuss social differences and prejudices is by no means avoided and even when the story could be considered dated or bizarre, it all comes together at the end.
In terms of the beginning, there isn't a great deal of import, in many ways. Sure it sets up character, background and all that, but failing (I think) in many classics is that they often feel the need to tell you everything about a person growing up rather than significant events. Maybe it's a period thing; in that people in the past preferred seeing events for themselves and making their own conclusions. Things get better (and more interesting) just before she leaves Gateshead. In some ways, it gets better when she's 18 and her voice starts to sound like her own and the story starts being believable in terms of her being reliable as a narrator.
Something that becomes clear at Gateshead is an idea of feminism. The feeling I got from the institution was that it was set up to make women and girls perfect wives: meek and quiet but educated. They should be practically subservient: inferior, on might say. It drove me insane and, thankfully, annoyed Jane too! One thing mentioned in the discussion was that even the self-assured women in classics want to be seen as conforming to what society expects of them. Jane, on two notable occasions I can think of, demonstrates this anger and fierce pride she has of being herself and being a women. There's this line in A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen where Christine says that she has important duties, not only to family and marriage, but to herself. For me, it was the same idea. She may be a servant/governess, and she may be socially inferior; but she is still a human- with feelings, hopes and ambitions- and should be treated as such, even by herself. On the occasions I'm thinking of: one concerning Mrs. Reed, the other with Rochester, she asserts such. She transforms from an inferior to position to one of being an equal- which is practically scandalous. Aristocracy, for Victorians, was the idea that the uppers classes were born to rule; and as such should be treated with great respect. In standing for herself, Jane goes against this. However, there is a voice telling me that this is not completely the case since her mother was, formerly, an aristocrat so she has some of that "right".
The romance is key to this book, since her relationship with Rochester (referred to as R. from now on) underlines the most important elements of the story and cause the main conflicts; asks the most important questions. I was of two minds about R. since he seemed like a great guy half the time, and other times he seemed like a completely different person. Ultimately, the impression I got was that I he couldn't trusted until his physical condition made it necessary for him to rely on people such that he needed their trust in its entirety.
The romance itself was nice though. It wasn't blindly amorous and Jane and R. were fairly vocal about one another with their faults. But the fact they couldn't get together straight away underlines the huge problem in the relationship (in my opinion) that Brontë gave us: R. did not need Jane. That sounds particularly harsh on him, but it's true. He didn't love her any less, not do I think he devalued her, but I think that he would have stifled her with how independent he was and how, in some ways, he was quite selfish. As he says himself, he tries hard to do the good thing, but I think it is in his nature to be somewhat self-centred- which is how Jane was (arguably) until she embraced religion.
Religion, I should say, is also important. There's a use of contrast in this sense since Jane has a very moderate, stereotypically liberal protestant kind of faith. She believes in the grace of God and such things, but she still believes that life is not merely spiritual and know that she can't live her life for a reward at the end of it. To use a recent internet meme, by whose use I feel I'm sullying everything I stand for, YOLO (You Only Live Once). She wants to enjoy her life and live it according to how she wants to live it. If that coincides with a very religious life, so be it. If not, she won't sacrifice herself and what she believes; she truly believes that who she is as a person is the most powerful and important thing about life. At least, that's the feeling I get.
Skipping a whole bunch, I'll give my opinion on the ending. You can basically sum up chapters 20-30 with what the hell just happened? and Who are and what have you done with and to my protagonists? It's weird, though the ending balances it somewhat.
The ending was great, in general. I had a few niggly nuances with the haste of it all, and it was a tad predictable but only in the sense that it is a classic with a happy ending, and Victorian novelists had a very specific idea of what defined happiness. I think what won the ending for me was that Jane seemed to truly be herself. Her life of being a servant in one way or another always seemed to hinder her somewhat. Her position was precarious enough that she had to maintain her manners and be a certain way since society demanded it, lest she be outcast to die. But in her situation at the end, she doesn't have these restraints. She's still polite and humble as a person, but she is free. If she is silent now, it is because she chooses to be, not because she must. She grew up and though she isn't blindly innocent, she is optimistic.
So it's a great book, and- since it need be said- Karen read it as her first (optional) classic so it might be a gateway classic for others who want to read it! Just make sure you read past the first ten chapters!