Friday, July 26, 2013
The Sinners We Love--Rochester
The following post contains great spoilers on the story of Jane Eyre, so read at your own risk. All sections containing major plot spoilers will be clearly marked. If you haven't yet read the book or seen the movie, you would probably be happier to save the spoilers for full gratification later on. ;)
Rochester may be an obvious choice for a sinner who obviously needs some repentance, but as he's a non-controversial sinner, and easier to get a grip on than most, I thought I would start off with him and get my bearings. Besides, he's a textbook illustration of just how a wicked man should be handled. And he holds the double advantage of being sinner and villain in one--after all, Mr. Rochester was his own and Jane's worst enemy, and the woman in the attic could hardly be blamed for all the heartbreak that occurred.
To set the scene for those of you who don't know the man:
Jane Eyre, plain school teacher and sole provider for herself, determines to better her position in life by taking up the occupation of governess. When a letter arrives offering her the tutelage of a little French girl at Thornfield Hall, Jane travels far from all the people she has ever known and soon finds herself face to face with Thornfield's master, and our example of choice for today.
An unmarried master, we might add. He's supposed to be plain, but nobody really believes that now, do they?
Edward Fairfax Rochester is a man disappointed with life, who swears, snaps, and scowls with a vengeance, and expects everybody to run at his beck and call. This is generally the point where most of us start falling in love with him, and certainly those who don't can't hold out very long. He's rude to his housekeeper, and holds his young French ward at arm's length, considering children to be a great bother and nuisance. A really nice fellow--or not quite.
Jane soon finds out that general incivility isn't the full extent of his problems. In a moment of rare revelation, he tells her about his past life: containing not one mistress, but three. A Celine, a Giacinta, and a Clara, all wearied of and discarded in their turn; taken up as an experiment to find his ideal woman. Not only that, but the little French girl, Adele, is quite possibly his child by Celine, and though he doesn't know for sure, he has taken her care and education upon himself.
He's not repentant in the least for any of these offences at the time we learn of them, and though Jane can't help but disapprove, she doesn't chastise him too severely; indeed, after that occurrence she promptly falls in love with him, forsaking the evidences of good judgment that she's shown thus far, and in our sympathy with Jane, we don't really blame her.
*Following section contains major spoilers*
The course of true love never does run smooth when one of the parties hides the full extent of their sin, however, and at the point when they're standing at the altar ready to be married, Jane discovers that Rochester isn't only a little loose in regards to his morals with women; he's downright wicked. After all, you have to be pretty far gone to attempt to marry one woman when you're already married to another. When his secret is out, he makes every attempt to persuade her to become another mistress just like the ones before her, swearing that he will love her always and they will seize their chance of happiness.
*end of major spoilers*
After Jane makes the decision to leave Mr. Rochester, we can finally see the master-stroke that Bronte has been playing all this time. Not every author can get the reader to identify with the choices the main character makes, but Bronte did with a vengeance, and still does years after the book came out. First we're rather wary of Rochester, but we come to love him as quickly as Jane did, and in the end, we make the same reluctant consent to leave him behind. And just as she harbors a secret ache and hope that somehow a way will be reconciled for them to come together, so we have that secret hope for her. Because after all, a life of love with Mr. Rochester is certainly a happier outcome than the duty of the doing to right thing and living as a country school-mistress.
Jane loved him, and left him, and then Bronte adds another twist to the agony in making her choose between seeming religious duty and human affection. She's a capable and intelligent woman. A suitor burning with religious fervor comes her way, and asks her to be his wife and journey with him to India, where they will bring the Gospel to the heathen there.
What can she say, and what can we say? I only know that when I first read Jane Eyre, I hated St. John Rivers with every ounce of passion in me, and though I couldn't lay my finger on it, I knew something had to be wrong with his request. But how can one refuse a pressing invitation to become a Christian missionary? There is no right way to refuse.
That was torture. Not only to refuse a man who it would be wrong to love, but then to face accepting a man who it would be wrong not to love. No author should be so cruel.
Story-wise, I'll stop there, so as not to spoil anything, but after the emotional turmoil had burned down, and I thought about it for a month or two, I drew a few important things about loving sinners from the classic story.
1. Sinners always use self-justification.
Writers are often taught, in the study of villains, that we must make them real. Don't just have them do the wrong thing, teachers say. Make them have a reason for why they don't do the right thing. Otherwise the reader will be left with a skeptically raised eyebrow, and absolutely no sympathy for them whatsoever.
Rochester is a master at self-justification: "You see how the case stands--do you not? After a youth and manhood, passed half in unutterable misery and half in dreary solitude, I have for the first time found what I can truly love--I have found you. You are my sympathy--my better self--my good angel...
I should have appealed to your nobleness and magnanimity at first, as I do now--opened to you plainly my life of agony--described to you my hunger and thirst after higher and worthier existence--shown to you, not my resolution (that word is weak), but my resistless bent to love faithfully and well, where I am faithfully and well loved in return. "
Oh yes, he can do it most eloquently.
There are, however, two types of self-justification, and when we evaluate the villains, it's a wise exercise to try to discern which type an author is using. Either the character will justify themselves, but it will still be obvious to everyone that they made the wrong life choices (like Rochester) or they will justify themselves so that the sin is no longer sinful.
Rochester may be a villain, and we may like him in spite of it, but at least Bronte never makes us sympathize with his sin, however much we sympathize with the man himself. One point scored for the way sinners ought to be portrayed.
2. It is not always obligatory to like the self-absorbed angel over the sympathetic sinner.
Which many of you knew. But for the sake of those readers out there like me, it is quite all right to dislike St. John Rivers, in spite of his religious fervor to go on the mission field and convert the heathen. He was a manipulative man and controlled people through guilt. I don't blame him, because he had no malicious intent in doing so, but he was wrong to try to make Jane come with him all the same.
Having a proper perspective of villains doesn't mean we mustn't like them at all. Rochester was a lot more interesting than St. John, and a great deal more intelligent, if I can be excused for saying so. I am far from remorseful that I wanted the latter to win out over the former. There is just a much good in staying behind to save one broken man from a life of sin as there is in saving hundreds from their ignorant state, and I think the reader unconsciously identifies that concept when they about Jane's dilemma, however hard it is to put it into words.
Point two scored for Bronte. Sinners, however wicked, are worth saving.
3. Sinners need to suffer.
Sinners need to suffer during their sin and after their sin. Even after repentance, scars still exist, and handicaps are still in evidence. Rochester suffered a great deal of mental anguish and love lost before he acknowledged his punishment was just, and even after he came to a more repentant frame of mind, he still had the physical handicaps that would stay with him his life-long as a reminder. In the end, it would be wrong to bring a sinner to repentance without any consequences for their deeds. After all, grace does not neutralize the effects of sin. But it does save us from the ultimate consequence of eternal separation. Bravo again.
4. Grace is always satisfactory.
The mercy and justice of God, when properly portrayed, as they are in Jane Eyre, are great enough and wide enough and deep enough to satisfactorily cleanse a man from his wrong-doing. No sinner is outside of God's ability to redeem. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and in the end, it should always be our desire to see them come out right rather than perish in their sin. Happy endings are legitimate and valuable things. Leaving the sinner in despair isn't the highest aim. After all, Jesus Christ came to lift us out of the miry pit and lead us to a cleansed and rejuvenated life in him. A little scarred, perhaps, depending on the depths to which we sank before our eyes were opened. But rejoicing in his grace nonetheless.
And Jane Eyre is really most satisfactory on the grace scale. :) I think Bronte did perhaps the best job I've read of a true sinner meeting with the appropriate consequences, and coming to a properly redemptive conclusion.
That's all for today, friends and fellow bibliophiles! On Tuesday, we'll be discussing a well-loved female sinner who received grace--but who's grace needs a little bit of explaining for a proper understanding of it. She, in fact, is the reason behind this series' existence.