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Claire's essay and what her lecturer thought

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Essay topic:

Mr Rochester describes in Vol 3, Chapter 1, the circumstances in which he was married to Bertha Mason, and how he came to incarcerate her in the attic at Thornfield. What do we learn about him from this, and how far does the novel endorse his claim that he has acted for the best?


Jane Eyre endorses the view that Mr. Rochester believes that he has acted for the best. Mr. Rochester is presented to the reader as a sympathetic character, so the reader has some understanding of his viewpoint, the situation he is in and the choices he has made. However, the reader is also made privy to a darker, more shameful side of Mr. Rochester that suggests that the decisions he made were a result of weak character rather than a desire to do what is right. By looking at similarities between Jane Eyre and a fairytale and examining the sympathetic viewpoint of the narrator, the reader is presented with a sympathetic view of Mr. Rochester. comment This sympathetic viewpoint is also detected by looking at what voices or opinions are excluded in Mr. Rochester's story and the negative view that the reader is given of Bertha Rochester. Examples of Mr. Rochester's weak and manipulative character lie in his propensity to play the victim, his use of language and his warped view of reality. In this essay the word "endorse" is defined as "to support or approve of".

comment A fairytale reading of Jane Eyre shows a sympathetic attitude toward Mr. Rochester's actions. That is, the reader sees Jane Eyre as the story of a girl who begins as an "ugly duckling", falls in love with a prince, loses the prince then, after much ill fortune (and some happiness) gets the prince back. "In this context, the story of Mr. Rochester and Jane follows a similar path to many fairytales. In this reading, Rochester's actions are simply a natural progression of the story.

Apart from the general storyline, another aspect of Jane Eyre that is related to most fairytales is the sense of romance and fantasy that one is left with. Although Mr. Rochester bears little resemblance to a stereotypical prince, he loves his "princess" with such passion and devotion that it appeals to the reader's sense of romance. This is expressed in the following passage:

My living darling! These are certainly her limbs and these her features; but I cannot be so blest, after all my misery. It is a dream; such dreams as I have had at night when I have clasped her once more to my heart, as I do now. (p. 534)

comment Mr. Rochester's deep love for Jane is readily returned. Jane's view of Mr. Rochester colours how the reader views him because we see him through her eyes. Even if she does not directly endorse his actions, she is sympathetic toward him. She says "I pity you - I do pity you" (p. 374) when he tells the story of his past with Bertha. She also quickly forgives his deceit against her, which encourages the reader to do the same. Jane appeals to the reader by addressing them directly: "Reader - I forgave him" (p. 379).

comment Just as we see the novel through Janes eyes, we only hear the story of Mr. Rochester and Bertha through what Mr. Rochester tells Jane and Jane narrates to the reader. If we were to see the story through Bertha's eyes it would no doubt be very different. This exclusion of the voice of Bertha makes it very easy to believe Mr. Rochester's explanation. There is no other explanation provided. It is not just Bertha's opinion that has been excluded from the text but every other opinion apart from Jane and Mr. Rochester's. It is clear that the lawyer and the clergyman do not condone what Mr. Rochester has done; however, they are not given a voice to express their disapproval other than the act of stopping the wedding. Jane says "the clergyman stayed to exchange a few sentences, either of admonition or reproof, with his haughty parishioner" (p. 360). However, that sentence is the extent to which the reader is provided further opinion.

comment As indicated by the above, Jane does not show any sympathy toward Bertha. All her sympathies lie with Mr. Rochester. Therefore the reader must be more wary of the way in which we are invited to think about him, because he is already being portrayed in a positive light. If one looks closely at the text, as he tells the story of himself and Bertha one can piece together some of the elements of his character that have previously been hidden.

Mr. Rochester constructs his own reality where he can separate himself entirely from "falsehood and slander" (p. 368). He believes his own rigid view to be completely correct. He appeals to the other men: "With what judgement ye judge ye shall be judged" (p. 359). He believes anyone would act as he has and that he has done "all that God and humanity require" (p. 377). He believes himself not married. "I keep telling her I am not married and do not explain to her why" (p. 371). His inability to face his problems or accept his responsibilities prompts him to try to runaway with Jane to the South of France. He promises her "never fear that I wish to lure you into error - to make you my mistress" (p. 371) and yet, this is exactly his plan for her. Later, he tells Jane: "I do not wish to torment you with hideous recollections of Thornfield hall" (p. 366), yet it is not just Thornfield Hall that is tied to shame and secrecy but rather Mr. Rochester himself.

Perhaps the most striking new element to Mr. Rochester's character is his ability and readiness to play the role of the victim. This shows the reader that he is not as strong as the reader may have been led to believe. His self-assured, authoritative countenance hides a man who is rigid in his views, uncompromising and weak. He does not have the strength to take responsibility for his life or actions, but rather blames it on Bertha, his own father and brother, and Bertha's family. His father and brother "joined in the plot" (p. 373) against him, because of the thirty thousand pounds.

The language Mr. Rochester uses to tell of his own guilt shows that he is manipulative and a liar. His seemingly self-deprecating behaviour when he is telling his story is a device to make himself look decent. He wants to come across as apologetic for his sins and reasonably humbled. The majority of his self-derogatory statements begin with some variation on "you must think me . . .", rather than stating what he thinks of his own actions. He says, "as my pastor there would tell me, [I] deserve no doubt the sternest judgements from God" (p. 356). Later he says, "I am little better than a devil at this moment" (p. 356). However one would think that Mr. Rochester would have thought himself a "devil" throughout his courtship to Jane rather than just at the moment that he gets caught. This seems to signify that Mr. Rochester thinks himself a "devil" because he got found out, rather than for his actions. He is quick to overlook his own behaviour.

comment The reader is sympathetic toward Mr. Rochester's actions because of how he is presented in the novel. The narrator's sympathy toward him shows Mr. Rochester's behaviour as easily forgivable. However, Mr. Rochester's manipulative nature and propensity to do what he desires rather than what is right show the reader that his actions spring from a darker, more shameful side of his nature.

(1384 words)

comment BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bronte, C. Jane Eyre. Modern Publishing Group, 1991.

comment [Lecturer's overall comments]

Contradictory argument

Claire seems to change positions a couple of times here. She alternates between the view that the narrative is biased in Rochester's favour and the view that he is shown to be weak and manipulative.

Claire explains that the novel did not endorse his view, but then had trouble incorporating elements that didn't fit with this one-sided argument. However, Claire does not need to take a strictly 'yes' or 'no' position. The question is asking 'how far' the novel endorses Rochester's view of his actions (a little, mainly, completely?). Thus, she is able to make a qualified response that incorporates these contradictory views of Rochester's actions.

For an example of a qualified response to this topic, go to the section on Skills for Writing in Literature and select the topic Structuring an Argument; then select the task Writing a Qualified Answer.

NOTE: Most essays at university do not require a straightforward 'yes' or 'no' answer. Do not ignore contradictory evidence in an attempt to have a strong line of argument. In fact, your argument will be much stronger if you can address conflicting pieces of evidence, weighing them up before coming to a conclusion.

Apply this idea further

Claire introduces an interesting reading of the novel as belonging to the genre of fairytale. She argues that because Rochester is presented after the manner of a fairytale prince, he is portrayed sympathetically.

While Claire has noticed a similarity in the narrative pattern, she needs to examine further how well the novel fits within this genre.

For example, if this were a true fairy tale, wouldn't Rochester be classifiable in a simple way? Aren't Rochester's actions essentially unlike those of a fairytale prince?

In trying to understand how the novel both borrows from and moves away from the fairytale genre, Claire can provide a more complex assessment of Rochester's actions.

Good use of evidence

Claire has made good use of the text to support her contention that Jane "is sympathetic toward" Rochester, providing as evidence specific examples (with page numbers, where possible).

NOTE: Where possible, supply specific instances from the text to support any general statements you make.

Look through the rest of the essay to see where else Claire uses the text to support her statements.

Look deeper

On the surface, Claire's claim is justified. However, if we look at the overall presentation of the position of women in the novel, we can see that the novel does at times speak on behalf of 'the oppressed woman'.

In this case, it is literally true that we do not 'hear' others expressing their views in the same way that we 'hear' from Jane and Rochester (through Jane's narration). However, Claire might have looked at how the novel presents additional views to those of Jane and Rochester by considering, for example, the nature of the relationships between the characters and the circumstances of their lives.

No

No - Jane does express some sympathy for Bertha, in Chapter 26.

It is important to know very well the whole text that you are working on. Even though you might be concentrating on one aspect of a work in your essay, you will need to understand that aspect within the context of the whole.

Therefore, when preparing to write an essay, much of your time should be spent reading and re-reading the text. Listen to Claire's audio comment ("How I researched the essay") for how she went about re-reading the novel with the topic in mind.

What do you conclude?

Like the introduction, Claire's conclusion seems to waver between two views of Rochester. She has tried to summarise the evidence on both sides of the question, but now she needs to make an additional, definitive statement about how far the novel endorses Rochester's view that he acted for the best.

Given that throughout her essay she has given more reasons for us to condemn Rochester than for us to sympathise with him, her concluding statement should be in keeping with the evidence she has gathered.

Incorrect referencing

This essay correctly places the publication details of the novel in the bibliography. However, it has left out the place of publication.

It is important to include the details of the particular text used, as there may be some variation in wording and punctuation among the different editions that have been published. Also, other readers need to be able to look up your references to specific pages.

Sometimes you will be required to refer to literary critics (secondary sources) in your essay. If you do use secondary sources and use their ideas in your essay, you'll need to list the publication details in the bibliography.

To see what the lecturer had to say about the use of secondary sources in literature essays, go to the section of this module entitled "Lecturer's Advice".

Lecturer's overall comment

This essay received a high credit, which is a solid result in English.

As we have seen, Claire's final position on the question is unclear. She needs to provide a clear line of argument that balances the evidence she has gathered and provides a definitive answer to the question of how far the novel endorses Rochester's actions.

The essay also could have examined further Rochester's actions. For example, it could also have considered whether Rochester had any alternatives to his treatment of Bertha after it was decided that she was mad. The essay also needs to address Rochester's attempt to rescue Bertha from the fire - what does this tell us about him and does it serve to support his view that he had acted for the best in his previous treatment of her?

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