When I met Jane Eyre for the first time in my sophomore English class, I met myself, too.
I had always been a bookish girl, but the central character of Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” was one of the most realistic characters I had yet encountered. For, unlike most literary heroines, Jane Eyre is not striking, beautiful, or even pretty. In fact, Jane Eyre is quite remarkable in being quite plain. The fact is that Charlotte Brontë, born 200 years ago today, specifically set out to create just such a character, an act no less than revolutionary for a novel-writer of her time. Her friend, biographer, and fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, reports Brontë proclaiming of Jane, “I will show you a heroine as plain and small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours.”
Like Jane, I had a very strong sense of self from a young age. Unlike Jane, however, my strong sense of self was nourished by my parents. Even so, I did not feel—because I was not—self-possessed; I had a sense of who I was, but I wasn’t yet comfortable in my own skin. Outside the protective buffer of parental love and encouragement, I, like the poor, orphaned Jane, had a sense of not really belonging.
But Jane Eyre seemed in so many ways to be someone like me. In reading and studying the book many more times later in life, I came to realize that this was because she really was. And, truth be told, a lot like a lot of us, too, because “Jane Eyre” is really about every adolescent. For adolescence, more than any other age, is a time of becoming, when we all must navigate through endless possibilities of being, and overcome countless temptations to become any person but one that reflects both the givenness of our being and the possibilities of our becoming.
In the course of the novel, Jane’s journey of gaining self-possession, Jane faces several temptations to betray both her God-given nature and God’s own laws in order to gain love and acceptance from others. Jane is a Christian, but unlike many characters in many works of the time, her faith goes beyond mere conformity to ritual and tradition, and rather is rooted in a relationship with God that makes her religious belief authentic and real.
Yet, clearly, hers is not an easy faith that offers comfort, solace, or shielding from difficult choices. It is all too tempting for followers of any creed to seek shelter in the cave of convention, to resist risk, to march in line with fellow believers. Not Jane.
She rejects the offer by the man she loves to live with him as his mistress. Departing from him, her answer when he asks her, despairingly, “What shall I do, Jane?” is “Do as I do: Trust in God and yourself.”
It is not so easy, however, for Jane to follow her own advice. She is a person of strong convictions, but she is human, too. Like any woman would, she longs to be with the man she loves, and she fights with herself about her decision. She is a woman of faith, but it is a faith that denies neither the soul nor the body. Alone and friendless in the world, she wonders, who is there on earth to care if she does right or wrong? “Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?” she asks herself. Her inner dialogue continues:
Still indomitable was the reply—“I care for myself. The more solitary the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?”
The story of Jane Eyre shows that the truest sense of belonging comes from feeling like you belong to yourself because of who you were created to be.
In the preface to the second edition of the novel, Brontë explained that she was depicting a character who adheres to the unchanging principles of her faith even while refusing conformity to some of the practices of her society. In doing so, Brontë’s novel demonstrates the truth that much of our becoming comes not from within but from without, from the revelations others give us about ourselves, from beholding ourselves in the mirror held up in the world around us, and, most of all, from the revelation of God’s own word. “Beholding is becoming,” as the philosopher Marshall McLuhan was known for saying.
This is the difference between self-esteem and self-possession. Self-esteem is the dark, distorted shadow of self-possession. Self-esteem gazes inward and wills the inner eye to like what it sees; self-possession looks inward only long enough to take a measure, then looks outward at the world in search of a fitting place—and settles for no less.
During the years in which I was facing similar, youthful struggles to become myself in the Lord, I found in Jane an example of a person who navigated that difficult middle way between the extremes of conventionality and safety, on the one hand, and rebellion and independence on the other. God used this novel, written by an unknown daughter of an obscure clergyman who was born 200 years ago, to help me see what it means to be who I am in Him—and it changed my life.
This article was adapted from “Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me” by Karen Swallow Prior (New York: T. S. Poetry Press, 2012).
For Further Reading:
Karen Swallow Prior, “Jane Eyre and Our Age of Authenticity,” The Gospel Coalition, April 21, 2016.
Karen Swallow Prior, “Jane Eyre and the Invention of the Self,” The Atlantic, March 3, 2016.
Marissa Krmpotich, “Jane Eyre,” Youth Reads, BreakPoint.org, January 20, 2012.
Eric Metaxas, “‘Booked’: Learning to Love God’s Gift of Literature,” BreakPoint Commentary, April 9, 2013.
Christy McDougall, “Something to Aspire To: ‘Unseduced and Unshaken’ Offers Women an Ideal of Godly Intelligence,” BreakPoint.org, April 11, 2013.
Image by F. D. Bedford, courtesy of Jane Eyre Illustrated.
Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University, research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She is most recently the author of “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah Moore—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist.”
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