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Edward Rochester: The Ironic Hero of Jane Eyre

Last updated on February 27th, 2016 at 04:09 am

by Sophia M. McCullough

Literary scholars and leisure readers alike have often referred to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as a romantic novel, not only as a means of describing the style of writing, but in an attempt to categorize the relationships formed within the confines of its pages. As a result, Jane’s eventual husband is often lauded as a Byronic hero, a brooding and misunderstood man brimming with passion and, ultimately, good intentions and their reunion being spurred by Jane’s actions is often toted as bearing a feminist undertone. However, to claim Edward Rochester anything other than an abuser and declare Jane’s decision to return a product entirely of her freewill ignores the blatant manipulation, emotional abuse, and, at times, physical abuse and restraints the man imposes on the women in his life as well as the toll these actions take.

Rochester’s deceit always serves to further his ends, regardless of the cost to Jane or anyone else he involves. With each lie, each omission, Rochester masterfully crafts the reality he desires, willfully neglecting to consider the consequences of this manipulation on Jane. From their first meeting, Rochester cloaks his intensions in pretense. Rather than introducing himself and being forthcoming with Jane he plays the role of the naïve traveler, waiting until he is a position of power to reveal his true identity to her. Yet this marks one of the most honest moments Rochester has with Jane until the brunt of his treachery is revealed. As the novel progresses, Rochester’s behavior becomes almost pathological. Any reader need look no further than his decision to disguise himself as a gypsy with the sole purpose of spying on those present in his home. He would likely have never revealed himself had Jane not discovered for herself his true identity. Here and throughout the stay of his guests, Rochester toys not only with Jane, but with Miss Ingram, using her as a pawn in his attempts to win Jane. He openly admits to attempting to make Jane jealous rather than simply expressing his feelings for her. This speaks to his desire for control. Rochester cannot bare to tell Jane how he feels without the assurance that she reciprocates. He wants to be in a position of power over her, to ensure rejection is not a possibility, so he uses Miss Ingram and Jane as his playthings, treating their emotions as mere trifles to be won. While Miss Ingram was admittedly uninterested in Rochester for little else than his money, he still strung her along and led her to believe she would soon be in a match based on social standing rather than passion, an arrangement common for the time and often openly discussed in the book. From the moment Rochester chose to visit Miss Ingram, he was carefully plotting. While it is clear he meant to instill a sense of jealous in Jane, her reaction goes far beyond jealous as she tears at the very fiber of her being, attempting to reconcile her feelings with what she believes to be the reality of her situation, stating:

You.. a favorite with Mr. Rochester? You gifted with the power of pleasing him? You of importance to him in any way? Go! your folly sickens me. And you have derived pleasure from occasional tokens of preference– equivocal tokens, shown by a gentleman of family, and a man of the world, to a dependent and a novice. How dared you? Poor stupid dupe.” (Bronte, 163)

Whether he is aware of the mental anguish he causes Jane or not, his plans show a clear disregard for the thoughts and desires of others should they conflict with his own. Rochester’s manipulation hardly stops there, however. In fact, that is only a singular branch of his larger lie: that of his status as a bachelor. Rochester is willing to sacrifice Jane’s reputation, her purity, her honesty for his own benefit so he may use her as an escape and as an attempt at healing himself. It is patently clear through Rochester’s numerous deceptions that he cares little for others, even the woman he professes to love.

Emotional abuse is clear not only in clear-cut cases of deliberate misdirection, but in most every action Rochester performs and every word out of his mouth. While a great deal of the attraction experienced by both Rochester and Jane is the challenging of the other person, Rochester often takes his comments and actions too far. Jane always holds back. While she enjoys teasing and irritating Rochester, she never seeks to provoke him or anger him past a playful state. Rochester, on the other hand, meets most of the criteria for an emotionally abusive partner according to multiple sources on domestic abuse. He causes Jane to question her feelings, feel afraid, yells at her, and often treats her as his possession. He has a bad and unpredictable temper, acts excessively jealous and possessive by attempting to buy her expensive clothes and jewelry she explicitly informs him she does not want as a means of claiming her as his own, he controls her access to money the first time she leaves Thornfield to visit her ailing aunt, first giving her an excess of money so she feels obliged to return then keeping part of her wages when she refuses to take the extra money. This does not even factor in his attempt to prevent Jane from leaving to see her family and friends in the first place and, when it is clear he will not get his way, convincing her to stay for as short a time as possible. Emotional abuse is especially prominent in both the reveal of Bertha as his wife and the discussion Rochester and Jane have the following morning. It is especially evident when Rochester pleads:

“Jane!” recommenced he, with a gentleness that broke me down with grief, and turned me stone-cold with ominous terror — for this still voice was the pant of a lion rising — “Jane, do you mean to go one way in the world, and to let me go another?” (Bronte, 302)

Rochester clearly knows how to utilize his emotions to his advantage. He often comes close to convincing Jane to stay with him as his mistress through little more than groveling. Rochester enjoys exerting control in all things, and Jane’s emotional state is certainly no exception.

Rochester, though typically relying upon emotional abuse, resorts to physical abuse on multiple occasions. The prime example occurs not with Jane at its center, but Bertha Mason. Grace Poole reacts to Bertha’s attempt to strangle Rochester by “ him a cord, and he behind her: with more rope, which was at hand, he bound her to a chair’” (Brontë, 250) indicating that Bertha had often been bound as though a captive in what was still rightfully her own home. Instead of being sent to an institution to receive any sort of treatment, she is hidden away in terrible conditions and left in an almost inhuman state as a direct result. According to Iwama, “Quite interestingly, this was not considered acceptable, humane treatment of patients of mental illness, even by Victorian standards” (Iwama). Yet Rochester’s physical abuse is not limited solely to Bertha. On several occasions Rochester handles Jane roughly: the day of their wedding and the morning after his lies are revealed being among the most volatile. The entire walk up to the church, Jane claims “my hand was held by a grasp of iron: I was hurried along by a stride I could hardly follow; and to look at Mr. Rochester’s face was to feel that not a second of delay would be tolerated for any purpose” (Bronte, 278). This behavior is repeated once more to a more severe degree after Rochester reveals Bertha’s condition. After Jane continually refuses to be Rochester’s mistress,

His fury was wrought to the highest: he must yield to it for a moment, whatever followed; he crossed the floor and seized arm and grasped waist. He seemed to devour with his flaming glance: physically, felt, at the moment, powerless as stubble exposed to the draught and glow of a furnace… His gripe was painful, and over-taxed strength almost exhausted. (Bronte, 304)

Rochester is quick to anger, and one multiple occasions this anger manifests physically to the detriment of those around him.  Bertha and Jane are forced to endure the worst of these physical fits, Bertha being treated more like an animal than a human being.

Ultimately, the end of Jane Eyre serves to undermine any feminist pretext the book had previously been working up to. This is not because Jane gets married; in fact, her ability to choose whom she marries and her choice to choose love over duty speaks to a feminist perspective. Rather it is her decision to return to a relationship that caused her misery, a relationship that crosses the border from simply unhealthy and harmful to abusive on numerous occasions that is still praised as a love story that undermine this argument. Jane ultimately decides to continue an abusive relationship after being caught between its enduring hold on her and an equally strong sense of duty instilled in her by St. John’s guilt ridden friendship and loaded proposal. Rather than refusing both relationships and finding comfort in the company of Mary and Diana, Jane ends up choosing the one based in passion rather than duty, ensuring  her entrapment and thereby undermining the independent and strong willed nature Bronte spent the novel cultivating. After Jane’s return, the reader is meant to assume the two lived “happily ever after,” and perhaps they might have since Rochester’s character has been altered so much. Yet he must be deserted, mutilated, and handicapped to soften his countenance and even then he controls much of Jane’s life to the point she can no longer care for Adele in the capacity she would like. Jane has been sentenced to a life of tending to the man she loves, a man who never treated her well to begin with. Though Rochester’s nature seems to have undergone significant change after the fire, Jane willingly returning to the man who inflicted so much pain on her undermines the importance of her initial escape and implies he deserves forgiveness for his indiscretions, regardless of their severity. In addition, Jane may seem content at the book’s conclusion, but this is consistent with the honeymoon phase engrained in abusive relationships (Help Guide), and her enduring happiness is difficult to speak to. Jane’s return to Rochester signifies the degradation of any argument towards feminism within Jane Eyre.

Rochester is not her knight in shining armor, nor her refuge from an otherwise uncaring world and the only way in which he can be referred to as a hero of any sort is with the utmost irony. To put it plainly, Rochester is the abuser Jane could not walk away from, a fact that should profoundly disturb the reader. After all Jane has endured at Rochester’s hands, many still regard their union as a happy ending with feminism embedded in its roots. Upon further understanding the nature of Rochester’s relationships, it is clearly this is simply untrue. Perhaps Jane Eyre is more than simply a Bildungsroman; perhaps it is a cautionary tale on par with the misrepresentation suffered by “Romeo and Juliet”.


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