Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte Feminist Tome
This is a feminist tome in so many ways. Right up front, we are told of Jane's plainness and in an age when being pretty was about the best a woman could hope to be, this is an especially significant detail. It quickly becomes clear that Jane will not make her way in the world thanks to her looks and it immediately frees the author to focus on what is truly important: Jane's heart, soul, and mind.
Her grossly abusive childhood is repugnant in all senses of the word and especially so when one considers that there were likely many, many young girls who suffered in exactly the way Jane suffers. This is a great characterization of the concept of heartless charity and false piety. Aunt Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst are textbook examples of Christians who have no real connection or adherence to their beliefs, who are more or less going through the motions in order to make themselves look good in the eyes of others. I find the scene where the sumptuously attired Brocklehurst women visit Lowood to be one of the book's many stellar scenes. With great subtlety and skill, Brontë drives home her point that those who excel at making themselves appear superior to others are often those leading the most hypocritical of lifestyles.
I am also always struck by the realization of how bleak Jane's prospects are. Ultimately she is fortunate to find a position as a governess in a house with one obedient and affectionate child. Though Adèle is nowhere near an intellectual equal to Jane, she is not the wild, spoiled child that many governesses likely had to suffer. What's more, Jane has an employer who may be absentee, taciturn, and mysterious but pays her well, solicits and respects her opinions, and sees her as his intellectual equal. Again, Brontë vividly underscores Jane's lot with the scene in which Lady Ingrahm bemoans the "martyrdom" she has suffered because of her many governesses, at which point her spoiled and gold-digging daughter professes how much she and her siblings enjoyed tormenting the women forced to attempt to educate them.
As for the romance, it is one of the very best. There is no scene that can even hold a candle to Mr. Rochester's description of the string that binds him to Jane. The passion between Mr. Rochester and Jane is so vivid that it practically leaps off the page and it is sexy in a way that no tawdry novel could ever hope to replicate.
Ultimately, though, it is Jane who makes the story what it is. Though it may break her will or her heart or both, Jane refuses to be anything less than true to herself, a truly revolutionary concept given the era in which the novel was written. Jane is strong-willed, loving, and intelligent and she never seeks more than to be exactly who and what she is. Though she is a kind person, she seeks no one's approval and when she must ultimately make a choice between her own soul and her heart's desire, she refuses to compromise herself in any way. There are few messages stronger than this for women of any age.
This is a truly ageless masterpiece that demands repeated readings and that deserves a place of honor on the shelf of anyone who loves literature. I can hardly wait to share it with my daughter when the time comes. In this age of Bratz dolls and Britney Spears, girls need a role model like Jane more than ever.