Trial and Eyre: Reading and Lived Experience

A few months ago, I stumbled upon a recently established and already immensely popular website called Call Me Ishmael, operated by the mysterious Ishmael and the anonymous readers who leave the many voicemails he transcribes. Upon clicking on the first video, I promptly curled up with a cup of tea and settled in for three hours of enraptured listening to story after story about the impact of stories. Story after story about the intertwining of complicated lives with the written word consumed in times of confusion and need, from the abused Harry Potter fan who used the series as his patronus “to keep the darkness from getting in” to the reader that Crime and Punishment “slapped in the face” with philosophical questions. Such a powerfully infinite collection of testimonies about the ways lived experience impacts the way we read and about how what we read impacts the way we read our own lives. These voicemails, with their two-minute succinct summaries of literary life rafts, haunted me for weeks. They floated to the surface of my straying thoughts as I walked to work, did laundry, sent e-mails, set up to study in coffee shops. The chime of the typewriter and the dialing tone of the voicemail account found answering echoes in the least expected corners of my mind, and suddenly, it became impossible to not write about the story that shaped and sustained me through so many chapters of my own.

I grew up with Jane Eyre the way most of my generation grew up with Harry Potter (a series which I was not allowed to read as a kid, and so I did not discover its magic until I consumed it all at once underneath the desk during high school free periods and Latin classes). It’s spine holds more creases than I can count, and if someone were to ask to read my palm (as love interests masquerading as gypsies are apparently wont to do), I would hand them my five-dollar Barnes & Noble Classics paperback. It’s fine lines between lines, the wrinkles in its spine, mark my life, my thoughts, my fears, and my feelings far more accurately than my own body ever could. In true Bildungsroman fashion, I’ve read and re-read Jane’s journey, accumulating more and more meaning each time and connecting with different stages of her life at different stages of my own.

In fact, I’ve invested so much of myself into my frequent readings of this text that when I sat down with to discuss the novel in a seminar for the first time last semester, I found it difficult to study it objectively. To approach it as a mere, albeit intricate, linguistic collage of history, socio-political commentary, symbols, theories, and narrative arcs seemed foreign and surreal in the way it seems foreign and surreal to examine yourself as a product of cultural consumption, environment, and genetics. It’s fascinating and true, but it also feels incomplete. Once you truly connect with a book, when you have read its pages through the lens of your own lived experiences and then read your lived experiences through all of the subtle lessons and wisdoms embedded in its pages, it becomes something more than either you or the author ever intended. It has a heart beat. It comes alive.

For many first-time readers, Jane’s appeal only begins to emerge against the mysterious and passionate backdrop of Thornfield Hall, a restorative oasis rising, mirage-like, from a bleak landscape of relentlessly brutal origins. Many film adaptations, I’ve noticed, also seem to breeze past the first ten chapters, leaving perhaps a brief footnote about Mr. Brocklehurst’s weird hair fixation and Helen Burns’ death and then hurtling towards the brooding Byronic hero, nocturnal arson adventures, and triumphant true-love-conquers-all-even-deception-manipulation-missing-limbs-and-crazy-wives-in-the-attic-ending. But for me, the beginning has always held as much power and significance as the rest of the novel. Jane’s struggle in the Red Room during the very first chapter ensnared me and resonated with me on a level beyond immediate understanding. It was the first time I had ever encountered the quiet, reverberating thrill of reading your own thoughts and feelings on the page, seeing your own flesh and blood played out in paper and ink, and finding all the inexpressible corners of your mind perfectly articulated by a stranger. Her passionate declaration of confusion and retrospective examination of struggle, “Yet in what darkness, what dense ignorance, was the mental battle fought! I could not answer the ceaseless inward question- why I thus suffered: now, at the distance of- I will not say how many years, I see it clearly” (Bronte 11), spoke to me in a way that I could not speak to myself. I fell in love with her mental battle, her adolescent ignorance, and her ceaseless inward questions. I fell in love with the promise that at the end of however many years or pages, there would be answers and there would be clarity.

I read Jane Eyre for the first time when I was twelve.  Back then, I was still occasionally sleeping beneath my bed. I knew from a young age what it meant to be my own monster, hiding in closets, cabinets, under beds, seeking refuge in sites of fear at all hours of the night. I knew how to be afraid of something that cannot be named. Wide awake past midnight, heart-racing at the slightest creak, I would wedge myself between the floorboards and metal bars of my bedframe. On those nights, which at that point had thankfully become sporadic and rare, I threw myself against the walls of one specific memory until I slipped into unconsciousness. This was my version of unresolved self-reckoning. This was my Red Room.  I was only just beginning to realize what had happened to me several years before was abnormal. It would be many more years before I realized during those whispered confessions of female friendship, those #YesAllWomen moments precursing the creation of Twitter, that, in fact, what happened to me is all too common. Yet even then, it was a few more years before I would acquire the words to label it. Even now, I will not write it, because there is no need to.  And like Jane, trapped in her own vivid fear of long-dormant ghosts, part of me still subconsciously believes that to speak of sadness and trauma is to summon it, to invite it back in. Besides, we ask our whys ceaselessly, long after we receive our answers.

Less than a year after my first reading, I reached for Jane Eyre again, despite the eternally growing stack of unread books on my nightstand. By this time, I was entering eighth grade and my third year at a private, religiously affiliated middle school. Even scraping the bottom of the barrel of adolescent awkwardness and humdrum humiliations, I honestly cannot find much in my middle school experience to lament. I liked my peers and my teachers and as far as I can tell, they liked me. I got good grades, I stayed out of trouble (whatever that means), and for the most part, I avoided my allotted portion of angst. And even though my family never went to church, my spirituality and my religious beliefs had never been doubted, questioned, or challenged. When I read about Lowood, I saw a mere Dickensian sprawl of poor orphans badly in need of some social reform. I saw Charlotte Bronte’s grief in her masked elegies to her dead sisters. I did not, at that moment, see myself in those scenes.

A few years down the road, as I continued on into high school with the same group of people, my positive experiences continued, but some questions about belief in religious institutions began to arise. Our school pastor was fired due to charges of pedophilia. Abstinence only sex talks began, and all the girls were given purity candles, which if burned after each sexual experience, were meant to symbolize our diminished, dirty, permanently altered status. And list goes on and on. But so does the list of trusted Miss Temple figures, who sat down with small groups of us, sharing pastries and wisdom and providing living examples of love and leadership in action. Despite these parallels, my high school was no Lowood. We were not starved and abused, there was no typhus plague sweeping through our ranks, and there was no creepy man named Brocklehurst yelling about vanity and cutting off all our hair. But there were quite a few instances of religion being invoked in ways that did not quite compute and by the time I choose the Bronte sisters for my AP Literature project the summer before senior year, oh did I have some questions. Luckily, Jane, with all her chafing against injustice and hypocrisy, with all her wrestling with morality, and with all her unapologetic proclaiming of self-respect despite the world’s devaluation, had some fairly convincing answers. As Bronte succinctly summarized in her preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, “Conventionality is not morality.  Self-righteousness is not religion.  To attack the first is not to assail the last.” It seems like a fairly obvious distinction now, but it took a little girl, looking straight into the face of a tall, threatening minister who asked her how she could avoid hell and unironically replying “I must keep in good health and not die, sir,” to show it to me. It took Helen Burns, holding out a loaf of bread to Jane and helping her down off the “pedestal of infamy,” to talk me down off my first spiritual ledge, and many more since then. And I owe it entirely to Bronte that although I’ve felt alienated by religion repeatedly and its rhetorics have seemed at times unbearably cruel, I’ve never felt alienated from God. I’ve never lost my faith.

The next time I read Jane Eyre, I was nineteen, nestled into my familiar armchair for the duration of my winter break. Sophomore year of college I was still navigating my expanded horizons and new-found freedom. I was still experiencing the world and the people around me in entirely new and unprecedented ways, including my first faltering fall into love. It happened suddenly and unintentionally in long, segmented late-night conversations over plates of chicken fingers and Spotify playlists, rather than Byronic blazing fireplaces and cryptically exchanged insults. It was almost deceptively simple. I never felt the need to define what I felt.

I had long identified with Jane’s solitary strolls in the galleries of Thornfield and with her immense capacity to sustain herself with imaginings. But it was only knowing him that brought to life for me the painful, yet utterly privileged possibility of living in the world by wrapping myself in warm memories. He made the past an escape more pleasant than any fictional, fragmented alternative I might create for myself, and that in and of itself was a powerful revision of my vision. Jane Eyre is a narrative of looking back in order to look forward, an examination of inarticulate pain made possible by one fleeting, yet cataclysmic, moment of safety. It is a declaration that everyone deserves to “live a full life” beyond terror, violence, and self-erasure. Without speaking and believing those words, the beauty of Jane Eyre as a tale of resolution in retrospect cannot be fully realized or understood. And yes, loving and trusting him gave me the strength to forge forward, to walk into the moors, alone, unarmed, and unprepared, and to challenge myself to become who self-respect demanded that I be. But it also gave me the strength to glance back and make sense of where I’ve come from. To create something from unresolved, destructive chaos and to understand that that is exactly what Jane had been doing all along.

The last time I read Jane Eyre, I found myself sitting around a seminar table, confronted with the question of why this book had been attributed the coveted “favorite book” status of an English major. And I sat there, fumbling to explain how this book has come to encompass the very best and worst in me. And then, I gathered the tangled mess of the unsaid, placed it to one side, and dug into the text with fresh eyes. What I saw more clearly than any other scene or image was the blackened ruins of Thornfield rising up to crush all expectations of homecoming. I saw for the first time that the ending of Jane Eyre is not a simple, cyclical return. This is no mere going back, despite all of her looking back. Her journey home is a dynamic enactment of change, a pilgrimage back to familiar spaces  that seem alien, now that they have burned away their own ghosts. Ruins commemorate death and connote destruction, but they also break down walls and provide the breathing room for new life to grow.

Only now, as a graduate student looking back at that teenager who kept returning to this strangely timeless Victorian novel do I realize fully how much I owe to it, apart from my introspective journey to establish my identity. Finding such a wealth of relevance in a classic, a term which I initially assumed meant lengthy and just musty enough to be officially safe for adolescent consumption, opened so many doors to uncharted mental corridors and filled so many shelves with the likes of Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Hardy. But it’s silences also opened half-formed questions to be answered by the likes of Jean Rhys and her incomparable Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys, whom I discovered in one of the many appendixes of further sources and readings in the back of Jane Eyre, taught me to stare directly into my own blindspots. She gave Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic, the story she deserved, and made me understand that not all those ghosts, burned away to enable the growth of new life, are willing sacrifices. She taught me to be conscious of others in my scramble to claim a voice, to be wary of disempowering “them” in my desperate struggle to empower myself as an “I.” She taught me to be aware of my own peculiar positions of privilege, even as I grapple with oppressive experiences in my own past.

Rhys and Bronte are two sides of a story that too often remains unheard, a story that in its collective telling, transformed my life and the way I perceive the world. It changed the way I read and value stories by transmuting words into instruments of recognition, healing, and action. It is the part of my past that has propelled me towards my future. And Reader, I owe everything I am to Eyre.

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3 responses to “Trial and Eyre: Reading and Lived Experience

  1. Goodness gracious, this is an amazing post. As a fellow Jane Eyre lover and person obsessed with the Bronte story, this really touched a nerve. You should go visit the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth. It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in my life thus far. Really, she’s just waiting for you.

  2. Thank you so much! Writing about Jane Eyre seemed like such a daunting task, as there’s really no way to fully do justice to it, but I’m gratified to hear that it struck a chord within a fellow Bronte lover! The Bronte Parsonage is definitely the highest priority item on my bucket list- the very thought of it gives me chills! Hopefully I’ll get to experience it someday!

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Best Seller by Martha Reynolds & Giveaway | Wining Wife·

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