Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Jane Eyre and the Tradition of Self Assertion: Or, Bronte's Socialization of Schiller's "Play Aesthetic"

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Jane Eyre and the Tradition of Self Assertion: Or, Bronte's Socialization of Schiller's "Play Aesthetic"

Article excerpt

WE all know there are times to get angry and times to restrain anger, times to pursue love and times to resist it, times to question, perhaps even contradict, our doctor, and times to trust her recommended correction. The question is not whether to assert or to check our will, but when and where. Which does this time call for? Will our understanding come on time or be too late?

This all sounds too deliberate, of course. Sometimes our response requires little or no deliberation--and is trustworthy. Sometimes it explodes upon us and upon others, and still turns out to be trustworthy. Other times, we must admit, it is not. Jane Eyre opens with such an explosion. It gives us a concrete situation through which to test our notion of self-assertion and, especially, to consider under what conditions self-assertion is both productive and worthy of our trust. Bronte's novel also invites us to ask whether there might be a tradition of self-assertion. If so, does such a tradition help us understand the conditions under which self-assertion might be both productive and trustworthy? Or might the tradition need correcting?

Three pages into the novel, the fourteen-year-old John Reed enters the room and, without provocation, searches for his cousin Jane Eyre, four years his junior. He evidently has no good purpose in mind. As if we too were temporarily protected from it, like Jane, who is hiding behind folds of scarlet drapery, we hear from a secret, perhaps privileged, spot his varied bluster. John calls out "Bob! Madame Mope!" Failing to spot his cousin, he cries, "Where the dickens is she? Lizzy, Georgy! (calling to his sisters) Joan is not here: tell mama she is run out into the rain--bad animal!" His ugly nominations and her liminal reading space in the temporarily concealed window seat create a deep identification between Jane's first-person character and the readers.

When John's sister Liza exposes Jane and she comes out from behind the drapes, the give and take that follows sets the stage, despite the ages of its actors, for the question the rest of the novel will pursue, namely, under what conditions self-assertion is productive:

   "What do you want?" I asked, with awkward diffidence.

      Say, "What do you want, Master Reed?" was the answer. "I
   want you to come here": and seating himself in an arm-chair, he
   intimated by a gesture that I was to approach and stand before him.
   (9-10)

The posture of diffidence, the language of gesture, the over-eager desire to be recognized as "Master" make the passage sound like children engaged in a deadly play of adult, perhaps even court, life. The deadliness of what should only have been child's play is accentuated by the two facts of Jane's social existence which the exchange will reveal: she is an orphan "pretender" to the rights of the "legitimate" children, and she is a girl vulnerable to the demands of the other sex as well as to betrayal by her own.

After Jane is forced to hand over her hook and go stand by the door, John throws at her the very book she had been reading, opening a wound on her head. Jane loses her diffidence as terror turns to anger. Her imagination runs away with her, but when Jane shows John the terrible adult roles he could fulfill, she also helps us recognize that self-assertion has a social as well as psychological force to it. "Wicked and cruel boy!" Jane says, and then shows him his adult self: "You are like a murderer--you are like a slave-driver--you are like the Roman emperors!" The second two names (slave-driver, emperor) imply not only a psychological but a social aberrance which it would be dangerous for her or others to resist. Indeed, one of the lessons Jane learns is that self-assertion always has a social as well as a psychological force. The dominant society cannot be dismissed exactly, but alternative societies, or communities within a society, can be sought and, through grace and hard work, sometimes found--with Miss Temple and Helen Burns in Part I, with Mrs. …

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