The “I will save you” syndrome

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In the mid-nineteenth century, the only way a woman could achieve a dignified and safe place in society was still through marriage. Girls were carefully brought up to that purpose and if they wanted to marry well, they needed to have many cards in their sleeves in order to reach the goal: beauty, social status, connections, fortune and many “accomplishments” as Caroline Bingley elucidated to Elizabeth Bennet :

quotation-marksA(n accomplished) woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved “.

(Pride and Prejudice  Chapter VIII)

Mr Darcy  will also add to the list :

quotation-marks All this she must possess, and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

(Pride and Prejudice  Chapter VIII)

No wonder Charlotte Bronte‘s best known character, Jane Eyre, has often been considered as a feminist forerunner, because she defies all those cultural standards. Plain, reserved, she has neither connections, nor fortune to offer but her determination and dignity. She has been brought up to rely on herself only and not on a male figure. In fact, she refuses matrimony twice (Mr Rochester’s first attempt and John Reeves) or she feels mortified when Mr Rochester wants to lavish her with expensive gifts in occasion of the imminent wedding:

quotation-marks the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation.”

(Jane Eyre  Chapter XXIV)

But what kind of man in Mr Rochester? If Jane cannot be considered a Cinderella type, certainly Edward Rochester is no Prince Charming . He is rude, arrogant, twice her age, sometimes violent and not even particularly handsome as Jane will notice the first time they meet:

quotation-marksmiddle height and considerable breadth of chest. He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth, but had not reached middle-age; perhaps he might be thirty-five. I felt no fear of him, and but little shyness. Had he been a handsome, heroic-looking young , I should not have dared to stand thus questioning him against his will, and offering my services unasked..”
 
(Jane Eyre Chapter XII)
 
Once he is back at Thornfield, he starts toying with Jane’s feeling, he tests and teases her encouraging our heroine to believe he is going to marry a woman of his rank more deserving than her: beautiful Blanche Ingram. He is a liar: he deliberately omits his married status. He is selfish: because he considers bigamy the only reasonable option to ensure HIS happiness. He is definitely unreliable but at the same time he is warm, seductive, passionate,  well….. the kind of man women like, even if we profess the opposite. Women never fall head over heels for the John Reeves of the Edgar lintons that people the real world. We like the fire and inevitably we get burnt. But this suicidal attraction for dangerous men is generated by an impulse or better by a syndrome – the “I will save you syndrome” – which affects each of us with no exception, Charlotte Bronte included. What does it mean? We deliberately fall in the trap of this kind of men, because we are convinced we are good enough to change them and turn them into “better” persons, weakening their strongest and most dangerous drives. That is: we are seduced by the Heathcliff type only to turn him into a more controllable Edgar Linton type, a living oxymoron. We already know, it is impossible, in fact, Catherine Earnshaw, the heroine of Wuthering Heights,  who had already tried to make this experiment, dies tragically before both of them. Charlotte Bronte’s malice is, therefore, clear: she had created a super macho man, one of the strongest male characters of the literature of the age, only to humiliate and destroy him both physically and psychically, without even hiding a certain sadism. So, while he tragically sinks among the ruins of Thornfield, Charlotte  Bronte endows her heroine with a fortune, a family and connections so when she finally makes her homecoming as an independent woman, Mr Rochester and Jane are even. And now that he has become weak and needy because of his blindness (even a little bit too pathetic), she will save him, marrying him and nursing him for the rest of her life. Every woman’s desire…….bah! Only at the end of the novel Charlotte Bronte seems to have mercy upon Mr Rochester (or maybe Jane), making him partially regain his sight:
 quotation-marksHe had the advice of an eminent oculist; and he eventually recovered the sight of that one eye.  He cannot now see very distinctly: he cannot read or write much; but he can find his way without being led by the hand: the sky is no longer a blank to him—the earth no longer a void.  When his first-born was put into his arms, he could see that the boy had inherited his own eyes, as they once were—large, brilliant, and black.  On that occasion, he again, with a full heart, acknowledged that God had tempered judgment with mercy.
(Jane Eyre   Chapter  XXXVIII)
Can this be considered a feminist victory? I really don’t think so.
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That’s why I don’t want to be Jane Eyre

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A couple of days ago I saw a headline on Il Corriere della Sera , which caught my attention: Perchè tutte (o quasi) vorremmo essere Jane Eyre di Charlotte Bronte” ( That’s why all of us (or almost all) would like to be Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte). It was a kind of  interesting, because, actually Jane Eyre has never been one of my favourite heroines, and certainly not one I naturally identify with,  maybe Angela Frenda, the journalist who wrote the article, had new fresh hints to offer.
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Jane Eyre belongs to category of the Bildungsroman, if fact we see her moral, psychological, and intellectual development from her early youth to a more mature age. Jane is an orphan left in the care of a cruel aunt, who gets rid of her very soon and sends her to a horrible school for girls, Lowood, to become a governess. After many years of troubles and hard work, she finishes her education and is employed at Thornfield, a name which can’t certainly be considered good omen.

images2VG97WDJThe owner of the house is Edward Rochester, a sort of Byronic hero, a mysterious, seductive, arrogant, passionate, handsome man who eventually falls in love with our plain Jane and proposes her marriage. He just forgot to mention that he was already married. It happens. His wife Bertha had gone mad shortly after the marriage, and lived in secret part of the house in the custody of a lady. Every now and then, she managed to escape the surveillance and she walked in night – veeeery Gothic indeed – spying the inhabitants of the house or trying to set  Mr Rochester’ s room  on fire, which she did. Shocked and humbled, Jane runs away penniless and is helped by a family, the Rivers, who eventually she discovers to be her cousins, and inherits a small fortune from an uncle. One night she has the impression of hearing Mr Rochester’s voice calling for her. She returns to Thornfield and finds the house burned down – it was Bertha’s doing – and Rochester blind and lame. He still loves her and now she accepts to marry him.

pictures-of-cinderella-8312Certainly our heroine doesn’t  belong to the typical prototype of Cinderella, that is I am beautiful and virtuous, therefore I deserve a prince and an easy life.  But, according to Angela Frenda : “Jane is a girl who has used no shortcuts, many of us see in her a metaphor of how life should be lived (by women, above all)”. Jane, in fact, is the kind of woman who obstinately and strenuously fights alone to reach her goal in a hostile, sometimes cruel world. Yet she accepts no compromises, she doesn’t want to use the charms and tricks, typical of the female world, but just hard work, sensibility, love and above all dignity. When Jane finds our about Mr Rochester’s wife, for example, she refuses to become his lover and leaves Thornfield without accepting any help from him.

imagesHVLYHC6UOk, I’m convinced: she is a saint, an example for us all, a metaphor, whatever, but there is one point I am firm: what is the reward for such immaculate perfection in the end? Mr Rochester? Love at last? Bah! We should remember that when Jane Eyre makes her homecoming at Thornfield, she is an independent, strong woman ( Charlotte Bronte had endowed her with a small fortune) while Mr Rochester is a weak man emotionally and physically shattered . She will have to nurse him for the rest of her life! If this is the reward, I’m sorry, but I’d rather be Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Even Bridget Jones would be ok.