Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre haunts the corridors of American education. The plucky orphan Jane survives abuse, rejection, betrayal, and other afflictions to become an esteemed governess and finally the cherished wife of Edward Rochester. Destiny rewards Jane’s virtue with a windfall inheritance from a remote uncle in Jamaica, even as the once-lordly Rochester is brought low by his mad Jamaican wife.
The magical undoing in this plot shouldn’t surprise us. Most story-telling offers some sort of wish-fulfillment. But Jane’s latest incarnation, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is worth noticing because the wishes it projects are more punishing than romantic. And that may be telling us something about the mental weather around us these days.
As Ann Lewinson grumbled in the Hartford Advocate about the new Jane (Mia Wasikowska), “Most grievously, she cannot play Jane in love, and honey you are kissing Michael Fassbender [Mr. Rochester] — what is wrong with you?” Well, Ann may have a thing for Fassbender, but in fact his Rochester is as tame as the unsmiling Jane. Their love scenes are achingly sexless. His past liaisons are so muted they could have been quilting bees.
Now here’s what’s striking: Stephen Holden’s New York Times review of Zeffirelli’s 1996 Jane Eyre almost exactly describes the new Jane as well. Lush production, anemic passion.
How to account for this peculiarly damp romance? One answer lies in the vindictive righteousness invested in Jane. While many feminists have moved on, 1980s victim feminism has hardly gone away. The recent Janes are outstanding victims of swinish boys (but not girlfriends), nasty schoolmasters, and a toxic stepmother. Though the new Jane steadfastly stands by Rochester, you might wonder why. She’s decorous to a fault. Why depict her as such a stick?
One clue lies in her only inner spark – moral aggression.
We’ve gotten used to Hollywood and publishers promoting tough, self-sufficient women who can “Kill Bill” and other malefactors. The fury of Stieg Larsson’s viciously abused heroine Lisbeth Salander is gentrified in the new Janes. This Jane’s not liberated-woman-as-killer, but as righteous judge. Invite her to play, and she’ll zing you with cold rectitude. When Rochester risks a little frisky wit, her repartee scolds. Mistreat her and she will forgive you to death.
In this adaptation, young Jane behaves as if traumatized and, frankly, never gets over it. She’s peculiarly anaesthetic. The film gives her a stick figure, a joyless face, and stubborn teenage idealism that parents in the audience should recognize. She’s supposed to be a gifted artist, but she seems impassive about her beautiful surroundings chez Rochester. (Thank Adriano Goldman for the luscious cinematography. Love those Vermeer blue window shots and mouth-watering candlelight, and russet reds that bloom when passion soars to its tepid russet heights.)
Reunited in the end with the blinded, gratefully emasculated Rochester, Jane’s safely in control of them both – and of the movie audience too. There’s no question who will be running the show from here on out. In a word, this is a gentle fantasy of righteous mastery and, by the way, getting even.
Third stream feminists argue that the 1980s emphasis on victimization promotes women’s helplessness. But it’s useful to keep in mind that victimization can also fuel aggression: specifically vindictive righteousness. After all, from infancy, personality develops around convictions of “what is right.” Shared with others, the sense of rightness allows us to feel at home in an overwhelming world. It’s crucial to our mental operating system. It makes the magic circle of everyday life seem natural.
One way of understanding the righteous Jane theme is to see it as a reaction against the tsunami of change that is making folks from Tahrir Square to Main Street feel orphaned and powerless. Granted, the Jane fantasy projects a gentry world in trouble. And so it appeals to a gentry that today faces economic threats and values notoriously under stress. In today’s terms, when Jane meets Rochester, fear of helpless unemployment meets what can jokingly be called “affluenza.” Rochester has everything anyone could need, but can take no joy in it. In order to feel, this limp couple needs Jane’s punishing rectitude and, finally, the crippling pain of a therapeutic fire that burns down the McMansion and makes pitying devotion exquisite.
But there’s a deeper level too.
You can also think of Jane’s masked anger operating in the service of mourning. Like an old Harlequin Romance, the film stops the instant the lovers kiss. But for all their supposed bliss, the lovers are implicitly mourning a lost past. And the film is playing to an audience that is mourning for a world of fading verities beset by psychic storms: a world in which imagination will have to put mourning to work sorting out the old stuff and kindling it to new life.