A Romantic Ending In An Anti-Romantic Novel:
Does Jane Eyre End Well?
This paper discusses the ending of Jane Eyre, discussing whether it is a ?good? ending. The paper draws on three criticisms of both the novel and Romantic literature in general to conclude that, yes, it is indeed a good ending because it both fits the prevailing realism of the main character?s worldview, and conforms to the predominant literary trends of the period.
The climate in which Charlotte Bronte wrote her magnum opus was one that had almost fully recovered from the rationalist excesses of the Enlightenment. The existing climate had replaced ?scientific? realism with Romanticism of the Byronic sort, drawing on the ancient ideals of chivalry and the new ideals of individual freedom to craft a literature in which suffering does not end with the last romantic sunset.
Ultimately, concepts such as happiness cannot be guaranteed to skeptics like Jane Eyre and ?hideous? men like Rochester -- only the divine union of passion can be guaranteed. Yet, for Bronte?s characters, this is sufficient reward and an appropriate closure for a love story about such atypical characters. Below, I will use characterizations of the Romantic literary school, as well as criticism of Jane Eyre, to explain how the ending of the novel fits perfectly with the rest of the landmark novel.
Jane Eyre ends only after a succession of unlikely (and frankly hideous) circumstances come to pass, transforming the lives and psyches of Jane and Rochester beyond their stoic realism. However, because Jane and Rochester are such believable characters, the events that wrack their mortal lives are taken in stride by both the characters and the reader, although the graphic manner in which the narrator (Jane) tells of these events is intended to shock, and to convey Jane?s ultimate stoicism (Penner, 1999:140). This stoicism is also an indicator of control ? as stoics are in complete control of their emotions, so too is Jane in complete control of her life at the end of the novel. The survival instincts of both Jane and Rochester serve mainly to provide a contrast to the bald melodrama that typifies their declarations of love to each other.
Feminist criticism of Jane Eyre concentrates on this aspect of control and the shifting power dynamic between Jane and Rochester throughout the book. What starts out as a retelling of the Electra story ends as an assertion of feminist agency over the domestic fate of both Rochester and Jane. By acquiring an inheritance and overcoming her lowly past as a governess, Jane is able to get the upper hand in her relationship with Rochester, who is not only male, but landed nobility, and thus controls Jane?s health, happiness, and future to a great extent. By the end of the novel, emotion has made the two equals, and rather than Rochester taking Jane to the moon and feeding her manna, making her dependent on him for all her needs (Bronte, 1987:234). Jane states ?Reader, I married him,? in an active declaration of possession out of character for any Romantic heroine (Bronte, 1987: 387). This is absolutely in tune with the rest of her character; Jane has an un-Romantic attachment to truth, and a Romantic loathing of hypocrisy that makes her as strong as any Byronic hero. Bronte?s recounting of Jane?s childhood is peppered with instances in which she sees through the hypocrisy of the adult world (Oates, 1997). She is not, as most Romantic heroines are, an ?innocent? who still believes in the essential goodness of humankind. Rather, she is a realist, having experienced suffering firsthand, but unwilling to sink to the level of those who made her suffer.
The ending of the novel also conforms to a number of conventions of the gothic literary style. The symbolism of the burnt estate as the beginning of a new life for the couple in question is echoed in earlier and later narratives, notably Daphne du Maurier?s Rebecca, written almost a century later (Mellor, 1993:202). Unlike the thoroughly realist Rebecca, Bronte?s work retains the moralizing tendencies of the Romantic era, using the tragedy as a transformative event. That is, after losing a hand and his sight in the fire while trying to save Bertha Mason (his mad wife), Rochester is docile, tame, domesticated. The fire accomplishes what not even strong, willful Jane Eyre could have done -- it makes Rochester powerless before the random terror of Nature (Penner, 1999:135). Not woman, but fire, has made Rochester a more moral person, able to see his own faults and be more charitable to others. In the Victorian era that followed, women would be seen as agents of domestication and moral education, whose duty was to tame the wild male passions.
The main character?s realism concerning human suffering may make the ?happy ending? seem out of place, but the wedded bliss that Jane Eyre experiences is not an escape into a Romantic sunset honeymoon, but an attempt at real intimacy with a man whose body and soul have been traumatized. Even though Jane?s married life is described only in terms of abstract ecstasies of the spirit, the reader must discern that Rochester?s blindness, even if it is in the end reversible, is not part of an ideal life.
However, Bronte?s story is not a myth, and does not portray a perfect, or even perfectible, life. For a novel that explores the depths of human suffering, the only happy ending is one that treats that suffering responsibly, without sweeping it under the rug or magically disregarding it (Oates, 1997). The reader is not convinced that Jane and her new husband are really having an easy time of it at Ferndean. However, Bronte?s model couple are not drowning themselves in the blindness of new love, and are both well aware of each other?s human fallibility, which is probably a better ending than these two characters might expect otherwise (Mellor, 1993:118).
In conclusion, Jane Eyre ends both well and appropriately for the story and the author?s setting. The characters are Romantic caricatures only to a point, and when they return from ?the heights of bliss,? they do deal with the realities of their relatively painful lives. The novel ends well in that it is not a pat or hurried ending, and was clearly planned out in great detail and to great effect, to the point that one might imagine Emily Bronte betting Charlotte that she could not write a novel that ended with man and woman being absolute equals in marriage, and Charlotte producing Jane Eyre to satisfy the bargain. However, in a more realistic vein, the novel?s ending is able to adhere to some prevailing Romantic conventions (melodrama most noticeably) while providing the reader with a thoroughly realistic ending.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Norton, 1987.
Mellor, Anne K. Romanticism and Gender. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Oates, Joyce Carol, ?Declaration of Independence: the biggest surprise in Charlotte Bronte?s Jane Eyre is its unromantic heroine,? Salon.com Classics Book Group, accessed November 17, 2001, http://www.salon.com/sept97/oates970929.html
Penner, Louise, ?Domesticity and Self-Possession in The Morgensons and Jane Eyre,? Studies in American Fiction 27:2, 131-146.