I saw the new movie Jane Eyre two weeks ago. Beautifully filmed and sustaining incredible emotional intensity, it captures well the spirit of the book. I watched the whole time curled up in a tight ball, thrilled by that intensity. Even as I recall it I have to remind myself to exhale. The movie has stayed with me these two weeks, and the scene I keep returning to is the one I believe defines Jane’s character.
Jane has just learned that her would-be husband Mr. Rochester is already married, and that his wife is a lunatic confined in the Thornfield Hall attic. Rochester is pleading with Jane to be with him anyway, saying it would matter to no one if she did.
In the book he entreats,
Is it better to drive a fellow creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law—no man being injured by the breach? For you have neither relatives nor acquaintances whom you need fear to offend by living with me.
Jane considers the truth of this. She is sorely tempted to comply. Her “very conscience and reason” accuse her of “crime in resisting him.” She thinks of the love she feels for Rochester and the misery she will cause him by leaving. One voice inside her suggests, “Who in the world cares for you? Or who will be injured by what you do?”
To that voice Jane responds:
I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth – so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now it is because I am insane: quite insane – with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.
So she clings to the principles handed down to her through—what exactly? Jane was an orphan raised by an aunt who hated her and with cousins who were cruel to her. What morals had she learned from them? She then went to a boarding school where the teachers humiliated her and threatened her with eternal damnation. Was it there that Jane received her principles? True, she had a friend at the school, Helen, who told Jane of her confidence in heaven and died in her arms after declaring, “I believe; I have faith: I am going to God.” But did this abbreviated friendship give Jane the strength of conviction to stand firm in this most central and terrible decision?
It’s not clear whence Jane derived her moral resolve. No parent or mentor taught her the difference between right and wrong. She must know it through instinct.
Jane Eyre, of course, is a fictional literary character, but the evidence is all around us that in real life, humans have a moral instinct in spite of their selfish instincts. The New York Times last year published an article by a Yale researcher and psychology professor on “The Moral Life of Babies,” which I found a fascinating read despite disagreeing with the conclusion. The Yale lab found that infants were able to distinguish between “good” and “bad” characters in a cartoon movie, and when presented with the choice of the two characters in puppet form, almost always reached out to touch the good one.
Our culture, however, teaches us a particular kind of morality in which being good means being careful not to offend either the natural world or other people, and keeping a “no judgment” distance from others’ choices. Schools and universities encourage students to suppress the urge to impose moral standards on others. They nurture instead the selfish instinct and over-elevate the importance of self-esteem.
These attitudes make it easy for us to toss personal morals to the wind, especially when it comes to sexual conduct, the category under which Jane Eyre’s temptation falls. The contrast between Jane’s resolve and the moral relativism, now so dominant, is striking. How does a modern audience understand Jane Eyre’s wrenching choice to leave Mr. Rochester? My guess is that to most of my generation it makes no sense at all.
All her life Jane had longed more than anything to be loved. She had once told Helen, “if others don’t love me, I would rather die than live; I cannot bear to be solitary and hated.” Now that she at last has the unconditional love of Mr. Rochester, she must turn aside from it, become solitary, and live apart from that love. She has found something higher than even her highest ideal: doing the right thing, simply because it is right.
This concept, so alien to our time, must have seemed absurd to theater-goers in the past few weeks. “Poor girl, putting herself through misery,” they must have thought. “Society was so repressive back then.” What would it take for us to reclaim a morality that affirms, “Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this”?
I don’t know, but there may be a clue in the Jane Eyre movie, when Rochester is on his knees clinging to Jane—promising his love—begging her to stay. In that instant we see the pain in her eyes, the tempest in her mind—she gasps for air—removes his hands from her dress—cries, “God help me!”—and leaves him.