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In Defense of Jane Eyre’s Rochester

My mom handed me a copy of “Jane Eyre” when I was 10, after she had finished re-reading it herself. Despite some rough going at first, I pushed my way through it and have a distinct memory of finishing it behind my prayerbook in the women’s section of an Orthodox synagogue in Rochester, N.Y. At the very moment that a family friend a few years my senior became a bar-mitzvah, my eyes popped open at the destruction of Thornfield, the death of Bertha, Edward Rochester’s maiming and Jane’s return. I still consider myself lucky to have read the book before I had any inkling that there was a madwoman in the attic.

As a child reading the book, I was puzzled as to why Jane loved Rochester — mostly because he was described as not handsome. But Rochester’s soul, which Jane Eyre finds beautiful, is a subject of much more debate than his appearance. A few writers this week, inspired by the umpteenth film adaptation, have written about the less savory aspects of Rochester’s personality. Jessica Winter at Slate writes, “our hero is, objectively speaking, a bit of a creep.” Edan Lepucki at The Millions goes as far as to list all the reasons for that creep-factor, while Sadie Stein at Jezebel says says, “Rochester is weird, manipulative and borderline sadistic.”

He’s hardly a conventional hero and his flaws are deep. But since I’m one of those die-hard feminists who is extremely fond of Rochester and finds his dynamic with Jane compelling, I felt I had to make the case for their love. Their dialogue is full of memorable metaphors about romantic connection. As Rochester says to Jane:

It is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. … I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.

The source of that connection, of the string that ties them together, is their shared position as outcasts. They both hate convention, and they seek refuge from a merciless world in each other. Rochester’s trouble arises from being a second son who was tricked into marrying a woman with a history of insanity in her family. His hand was forced by his family’s relentless need for money. Older and wiser, he now sees right through the hypocrisy of the genteel people who want to associate with him only because of that money. Like the orphaned and abused Jane, he has been beaten down by social rules and exactly like Jane, he has reacted by being caustic and rebellious rather than submissive. They are natural allies. The problem Bronte pinponts, though, is that even with their intense connection Rochester still has power over her due to his gender and social status. Although he loves Jane because she is his equal, he doesn’t know how to not flex his power.

So this relationship not always pretty. It’s true love mixed with power struggle: Rochester torments Jane by inventing a courtship with the more typically attractive Blanche Ingram to arouse her jealousy. But when she returns to him after he’s been blinded and injured and she’s gotten a cash windfall from a dead uncle, she does the exact same thing and gets his hackles up by dropping hints about her handsome, upright cousin St. John Rivers. Rochester used subterfuge to get her to confess her love, and she messes with his head upon her return by pretending to be one of the servants — taking direct advantage of his blindness. It’s twisted, it’s weird, it’s romantic and moving, too. (I always get emotional when the blind Rochester recognizes the touch of Jane’s hand.) And as Stein points out, it’s feminist. Jane drops the act after a day or two and agrees to become Rochester’s wife but only as a completely independent woman who joins him by choice. At the novel’s close, she says:

No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh.

The promise of their romance is the promise of equality and passion — it’s complex and dark, but also optimistic. This strange and potent mixture explains why neither readers nor filmmakers will ever be able to get enough of Jane and Rochester’s story.

Watch a preview of the new film adaptation of Jane Eyre:

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