Doubting Rochester

(Be warned: This post is steeped in Jane Eyre spoilers.)

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the web series adaptation of Jane Eyre (titled The Autobiography of Jane Eyre). The videos number up to 40 or so now, and the narrative’s reaching the point where Rochester’s and Jane’s relationship develops from being merely boss/employee relations to something significantly more. Cue the cyber-squealing.

It’s the turning point of their relationship when you start to realize just how much Jane is comfortable around Rochester (and vice versa), and just how much of her happiness is derived from simply being around him. It’s also when you start to realize how well they are able to read each other, something to be cherished for someone like Jane who has been an outsider for much of her life.
The Autobiography of Jane Eyre

During my early readings of the novel, I was an avid supporter of the Jane/Rochester relationship. Not simply because Jane was so happy with Rochester but because he was one of the few people in her life, aside from Helen Burns, who truly cared for her, and truly understood her. Their conversation wasn’t simply enjoyable because of the witty banter, but was satisfying in the way that the exchanges revealed each other’s characters, as well as the influence of each on the other.

But lately, all that lovely stuff’s been submerged by some not so lovely considerations. My view of Rochester and Jane’s relationship is not as rosy as it once was. Frequent re-reads make me doubt Rochester’s claims, and question the reasons for his actions. Considering Rochester’s astute understanding of Jane’s character, his manipulations and deceptions appear to be all the more outrageous and unreasonable to me.

Toby Stephens as Mr. Rochester (JE 2006)
There is no doubt that he displays a deep understanding of Jane’s character. In fact, his descriptions about her are almost scary in their accuracy:

“I see at intervals the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage: a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high.” (Ch 14)

His most telling deductions are made in his guise as the gypsy woman:

“I see no enemy to a fortunate issue but in the brow; and that brow professes to say , – ‘I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.’ The forehead declares, ‘Reason sits firm and holds the reins, and she will not let the feelings burst away and hurry her to wild chasms. The passions may rage furiously, like true heathens, as they are; and the desires may imagine all sorts of vain things: but judgement shall still have the last word in every argument, and the casting vote in every decision. Strong wind, earthquake-shock, and fire may pass by: but I shall follow the guiding of that still small voice which interprets the dictates of conscience.” (Ch 19)

From this extract, and from Jane’s actions which follow later (and which are in exact correspondence with this deduction) it is clear that Rochester sees accurately that Jane favours reasoning as her governing tool; that she won’t simply give into passion or even the opinions or coercions of others.

In that sense, I suppose it is obvious then why Rochester chooses to hide the truth from Jane. He remarks that though he hadn’t wanted to deceive her, he feared that the “early instilled prejudice” would have turned her against him. So he sees that the ever reasonable Jane would not agree to live with him as his wife, and thus saw deception as the only way.
Knowing this, then, the reader has to wonder: was he ever planning on telling Jane? Sure, he says he was going to, but one has doubts; would living with Jane only have made him even more reluctant to reveal this shameful part of his past? And even if he was intending to reveal that he had another wife (though he refuses to see Bertha in that way) did he think Jane would have continued to stay with him after the revelation? I cannot think that she would have simply sat by once he revealed this secret later in their marriage. I see no reason why she would not act just as she does when his secret is revealed by Richard Mason much earlier than Rochester had planned. I believe that if Rochester did stick to his resolution of revealing his past after their marriage, Jane would still have chosen to leave him (provided there were no children involved).

Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester (JE 2011)

Rochester is so bent on securing Jane’s love and companionship that he turns a blind eye to the truths that are so plainly revealed to him. Truths of which, by the way, he clearly and frequently exhibits knowledge! This is a man who knows and understands Jane on almost every level. But his desire to unite himself with Jane is so strong that he refuses to see the reasons for which Jane might object to such a union. That seems to me a selfish act.

I know he is kind, and is one of the first people to treat Jane with respect and without reservation (aside from reserving the truth, which in a sense is also an act of disrespect if one wants to put too fine a point on it). But it seems half the allure of marriage with Jane is the fact that she will redeem him. She does influence his views of the world, there is no doubt in that, but Rochester’s intentions to marry Jane seem to be simply another attempt at erasing his first, disastrous marriage.

Did he love Jane entirely for herself? Or did the thought that he could atone for his past actions, do a kindness in helping an individual who was clearly so alone, have something to do with his attraction to Jane?

“It will atone,” he says (in chapter twenty-three) once Jane accepts his proposal. “Have I not found her friendless, and cold, and comfortless? Will I not guard, and cherish, and solace her?” 

I don’t know if I should be miffed on Jane’s behalf that he viewed their union as a form of atonement for his previous one. There is desperation in those lines, desperation to right his past wrongs by some misjudged view that he is helping Jane by uniting her to him, when in fact, his actions would do the very opposite. Rochester, himself, states earlier, that Jane has that strength of character which would enable her to continue by herself if needed. Did he have to delude himself into thinking that he was saving her somehow, in order to procure the salvation he wanted from her?

Timothy Dalton as Mr. Rochester (JE 1983)
The more I think on it, the more it seems that Rochester’s actions don’t add up. And I know, ultimately, he is a plot device in Bronte’s attempt to tell us this story (and oh, how she loves her plot devices), and that will have consequences on a character’s actions, but as the hero of the novel, he cannot be free from scrutiny. And sadly, the more I read it, the less convinced I am by him.

8 thoughts on “Doubting Rochester

  1. Excellent post. I confess, it has been a very long time since I've read the book. I have been following the Autobiography of Jane Eyre and I'm loving it! That Rochester has grown on me. The modern translation is always a lot to get used to. I love Jane, though.

    Thank you for this in-depth look into Rochester! I enjoyed it. I guess I'm due for a re-read. : )


  2. Ah, I'm glad you enjoyed it. And that web series is excellent isn't it? I'm loving their interpretation of things, very innovative, but true to the original at the same time. I quite enjoying seeing Jane in modern times, and I guess we all have our own perceptions of how Jane would be and what kind of quirks she would have.

    Yes, this novel always survives re-reads, I'm sure you'll enjoy 🙂


  3. Aaah what a good post (and I've missed YOUR writing as well!). And I must say I thoroughly agree. When the 2011 film came out I was resolved not to let Michael Fassbender's foxy ass change my mind about Rochester, and my perception of Rochester – from when I first read the novel in high school – was that he was manipulative, selfish, and – you totally nailed this one – seemed to be using Jane as a means to his own redemption, rather than loving her for her own sake, as it were.

    [SPOILERS] The ending would appear to put them both back on equal footing though, since the beginning & the development of their relationship was mired in a power imbalance that was hugely skewed in Rochester's favour. By the end, Jane has essentially become a self-made woman with a job and money and friends, and makes her own decision to return to Rochester, a broken man now stripped of all wealth and possession and power. That's something I can get behind, but it doesn't change the fact that their relationship kicked off and developed on super problematic terms, and that Rochester himself gives me the ickies, as much as I may still enjoy the story.


  4. Gosh, I have two copies of Jane Eyre on my shelves. Have I read it yet? No 😦 I need to read it ASAP. I feel like I know Mr. Rochester already, I have heard his name so many times. I have not seen the film versions, because I want to read it first. I skimmed your post so I won't spoil anything for myself.


  5. Thank you 😀
    I know, Fassbender's foxy ass does indeed have very persuasive powers.
    R is very much all those things – and I think he was all that before Jane came along, but what I can't forgive, or find hard to understand I guess, is that despite understanding her principles so much he still acted in a way so as to exploit them? It just doesn't make sense.
    And just to play devil's advocate, I know that Jane is depicted in the Victorian image of the 'Angel of the Hearth', the pure woman who can redeem the cold, embittered man, and there is every indication that Bronte intended it that way – but the fact that he was so obsessed with that – and I get it, he should be obsessed with it, with his past and all – but to allude to it right after his proposal is accepted is just WEIRD. (And I remember wondering why Jane never asked him for what it would atone.)

    You're completely right about that, of course. But it does impress on the mind that Rochester's manipulation and … corruption, for want of a better word, was so bad initially, that Bronte had to deprive him of a limb and some sight in order to improve his image. I mean, what does that say about his original standing, y'know?
    And what would he have done if Jane hadn't been so conveniently orphaned? If she'd already come to Thornfield with connections? Plus, there are those moments when he threatens to use, and almost does, physical force against her. He's a very dark hero, indeed. So much rambling, I couldn't help it. But yes, despite so much to dislike, there is a lot that's compelling in it, too.
    Was so glad to see your commet btw 🙂


  6. Yaaaasss, you must read it. Even if you don't love it immediately, there's lot to think about. It's sooo lovely that way. Haha, yeah, they are larger than life characters. I'm glad you didn't find anything to spoil it for you; hope you enjoy it!


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