On Jane Eyre, and Happy Endings


So I saw the new Jane Eyre tonight.  If you’re here to read a review on the movie, here it is: go see it.  It’s dark, suspenseful, wonderfully acted, and pretty darn true to the book.

What is it about nineteenth century period dramas that make such a high percentage of the female population turn into small, quivering puddles of jelly?  Give us a few petticoats, some pans of the English countryside, a brooding, pensive score jam-packed with violins, and a rough-around-the-edges cravat-wearing gentleman a-top a horse, and we’re more than ready to give up a century and a half worth of hard-earned civil rights to leap up there side saddle behind him.

I know I am.  Carry me away, Mr. Darcy.

We–the jelly women–are usually the same ones who mutter that Disney’s princesses are too subservient in public, only to rewatch our favorite flick at every opportunity.  We’re intelligent, powerful, respect-commanding females, well-educated, with big, bright futures.  Opportunity is our collective middle name.  And yet we’re suckers for this kind of entertainment.

What is it about us?  Is it that women, for all our modern strength and position, are naturally romantic and prone to fanciful daydreaming?  Is it in our feminine natures to be irrationally kind of a little bit pathetic?  I think not.

I want adventure in the great wide somewhere.  I want it more than I can tell.  And for once it might be grand, to have someone understand–I’ve got so much more than they’ve got planned…

Recognize the lyric?  That’s Belle’s reprise (and my twelve-year-old self’s heart’s refrain!).  Beauty and The Beast is my favorite Disney film–no surprise there.  I’m sure you have your equivalent. We can take comfort in the fact that at least Belle, like Jane and quite a few others (George Eliot’s Dorothea from Middlemarch comes to mind) is not at all pathetic.  These all are intelligent, spirited fictional female role-models who dream of doing something great with their lives, as we all should.  That’s a big part of why we love them–they are feisty and subservient to no one, despite their social limitations.

But why do these spirited heroines who dream big inevitably insist on doing little more than sticking by their men?  And why on Earth do we love them the better for it?  Wouldn’t they be much more worthwhile if they were to forsake social constraints and determine their own unfettered destinies, as we do?  What if Elizabeth Bennett were to inherit her own fortune and meet Mr. Darcy on his own terms?

Or Jane Eyre, who dreams of the wide world outside Thornfield’s walls, why doesn’t she say ‘fuck all’ to society and run away with Rochester when she finds out he is married?  Or better yet, why doesn’t she forget the a-hole who lied to her and accept St. John Rivers’ offer to travel with him to India?   No, scratch that, why doesn’t she just ditch them all and go to freaking India?

She could totally pull it off, right?  I mean, this is the woman who shouted, Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?  You think wrong!  —  I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart!  And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.  I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, not even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!

This is not some dainty dreamer waiting for her prince to come.  This is a sturdy woman who addresses Rochester spirit to spirit, an equal creature and more, despite his being her employer.  Ending here would have made for one dull book/movie though.   No one wants to watch a film where the romantic leads admit defeat, shake hands as equals, and go their separate ways, not even if that means to exotic India.

Not even this girl, that is to say me, who does so much talking about traveling to far-off places, would be happy leaving it at that.

It smarts a little at first because, in the movies, the heroines fall for flawed men.  Darcy is, of course, proud and insults Elizabeth in seventeen different ways.  Mr. Rochester is reckless by habit and is a total jerk to poor, friendless Jane.  He messes with her right and left and then leaves her standing at the altar, in fact.

But that’s what makes the movies irresistible–the mutual taming aspect of it.  You soon discover that both characters are in fact restless, reckless, flawed, and damn stubborn about it, but they discover in due course that what they were looking for was right next to them all along, and in time fate leaves them to it.

Of course, they  have to fight like cats and dogs for a while before they discover such a marvel.  The heroine has to make a stand.  The hero must see the error of his ways and pay some price for his reckless actions.  In the end, the heroine must  learn something about herself, something about how to love other people without sacrificing herself.  They must each don a little bit of humility and accept the way of things–become settled, though never entirely tamed, I guess.

So we come to it. For a film to draw us so intensely, it must have an intelligent, spirited woman, yes, and an equally spirited and thoroughly dashing man–oh, most definitely yes.  They must come together as equals eventually, that is key of course, and the strangely comforting constraints of Victorian society must be overcome for it to happen–yes, yes.

So you see, by a modern perspective, it is not entirely worthless.

But let’s just be honest.  The ultimate appeal to me personally, a modern Eyre, ‘poor, obscure, plain, and little,’ is that the heroine is not only noble and intelligent and spirited and well-loved by some delicious gentleman plus all of the above, etc.  The ultimate appeal is that everyone gets what they desire exactly when they come to deserve it.  And when they do, that is enough to make them entirely and, we assume, eternally content.  No more dreaming about adventure or escape.  Nothing unsure or unsettled.  In a film like this, two restless souls can be entirely filled and fulfilled by just one other person, and that’s it, the end.

That’s why it’s so appealing.  Because there is an ending.  A happy ending.  I mean, how often is life as simple as that?

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~ by Rachael on April 5, 2011.

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