This Week In My Classes: Erring Women

In both of my classes this week we are focusing on young women making mistakes. It’s interesting for me (and I hope also for the students who are in both classes) to compare the very different ways their novels approach their rather different errors.

Both of them do wrong things for right reasons. Jane Eyre, for starters, is angry, rebellious, vengeful, even violent, in her early days at Gateshead Hall, but she is this way because she is miserable and unfairly treated and yearns for both justice and love. When she gets to Lowood, she continues to resist injustice and insist on her right to strike back against her oppressors: “you are good to those who are good to you,” she tells her new friend Helen Burns,

It is all I ever desire to be. If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way: they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should — so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.

But Helen counsels her to “read the New Testament, and observe what Christ says, and how He acts; make His word your rule, and His conduct your example.” “You will change your mind, I hope, when you grow older,” she tells Jane; “as yet you are but a little untaught girl.” Jane never does stop fighting for what she thinks is right, but she learns to control (or repress) her anger, and we know she takes Helen’s lesson to heart when adult Jane describes Helen’s grave: “now a grey marble tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name, and the word ‘Resurgam.'” One formal aspect of the novel that is easy to miss on a first reading, because the narrative of her childhood is so gripping and feels so immediate, is precisely that retrospective aspect: it would be our mistake to identify too completely with young Jane, to think she’s in the right–just as we would be replicating Jane’s own error if we didn’t see, well before she flees Thornfield, that her (initial) relationship with Mr. Rochester is all kinds of wrong. (If she read more novels, she too would quickly recognize the split chestnut tree as a warning sign!)

Dorothea Brooke’s errors are easier to spot, because George Eliot gives us not just Dorothea’s perspective but that of everyone around her and, most important, of the narrator. It mystifies every person in the novel that Dorothea chooses to marry Mr. Casaubon: they all believe that it’s a terrible mistake. We understand why she marries him, though, because we know all about her, meaning not just her desire to lead a spiritually significant life but also her impetuous nature and her tendency to interpret things according to her own desires. Of course, that last bit is at once her greatest failing and the one thing we all have in common with her, as the narrator will take pains to teach us. We are given more information in Middlemarch, but we are also kept at more of an emotional distance–both formal choices that serve the novel’s larger purposes.

In my experience, students sometimes find it frustrating that Dorothea is not more “relatable”: the things she wants are strange to them, and thus her decision to marry Mr. Casaubon just seems perverse, rather than something to sympathize with or pity her for. Also (and they aren’t wrong about this) they find her annoying–inconsistent, prone to displays of superiority (“How can one ever do anything nobly Christian, living among people with such petty thoughts?”). Working through this initial response is usually good for helping students see some key things about reading the novel–for instance, that you aren’t supposed to sympathize only with people you like, or who are like you, and that Dorothea too has some work to do, especially in learning to understand and sympathize with Mr. Casaubon. Like Jane, she will grow into greater wisdom. Also, as the students read on they will probably come to see her strangeness as a good thing. It is not actually better to be Celia and fit in than it is to be Dorothea and stand out, even though Celia never makes mistakes (not even when she gets the shocking news of Dorothea’s engagement–“The paper man she was making would have had his leg injured, but for her habitual care of whatever she held in her hands”) and Dorothea makes a lot of them.

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