Angie and I can just sit in a corner and chat about this one to each other. The rest of you can think about how perfect Shahrukh would be to play Mr. Rochester and whether or not Alia should play opposite him.
Jane Eyre is remembered for the Gothic romance of it, the madwoman in the attic, the troubled older difficult hero, the thunder and lightening and nightmares and craziness. All of that is great, it’s true. But what is the core of the story is the heroine’s internal journey to self-respect.
Which brings me to Huckleberry Finn. Huckleberry Finn is remembered for the jokes and adventures and funny writing. And all of that is great too. But what is the core of the story, is the hero’s journey to finding an internal moral compass beyond any he had been offered by society.
What both novels have in common is that the story is someone moving towards enlightenment, finding it, and then they keep going and we get a little bit more of a story as we find this now enlightened character navigating a different kind of life. It’s a writing challenge, to balance this inner/outer tale. And what these books say is “the inner journey is unrelated to the outer one”.
In Jane Eyre, our heroine is an overlooked and unloved as a child. She goes to school and for the first time gets a glimpse of self worth, of dignity and value for herself. She is offered principles by which to live and considers and sorts them into some sense of inner ethics. And then as an adult, she finds love, for the first time. Not just romantic love, love AT ALL. Finally there is someone who appreciates her mind, who understands her, who appreciates her. And on top of all that, he also appreciates her body, makes her feel sparkly and happy and in love and all the romantic things too. Being with him is heaven, not because he is rich or of a higher social status or any of that, but simply because he makes her happy for the first time in her life. And then she learns he is married. She has the option of staying with him without marriage, or going away and being sad forever. This seems like no choice at all, of course she should stay with him. There is no external reason not to, no family to object, not even any friends. He is rich enough that he can easily fake a marriage before the eyes of society, there would be no social judgement. This is the central question of the book, this is what everything is structured around, what should she do here?
Our heroine is an orphan with no friends, our hero is rich and uncaring for the thinking of society, and the wife is a secret madwoman in the attic all for this. Truly, NO ONE would be hurt if Jane just pretended to marry Mr. Rochester even though she knew he had a living wife. The Gothicness of the plot, the horror of her childhood and the completely disgusting terrifyingness of his wife, that is just there to underline the point that there is no external moral reason not to marry Mr. Rochester.
But our heroine decides this does not matter. Because even if no one else in the world cares what she does or if she lives up to her morals, SHE cares. She has self-respect and she will do what she believes is right because she matters too herself. It’s an amazing statement, to say that you can create your own world, your own morals, and respect them. To say that a woman, who has no legal power or freedom, can still create her own freedom within herself by making a determination for herself. THIS is the most important part of the book. Her realization that:
“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”
That is a radical statement. That is the peak of the novel. The rest of it, Jane running away from Mr. Rochester, building a new life, and eventually coming back to find him now crippled and widowed and free to marry her for real, that is just the epilogue. Once Jane discovers her internal strength, it leads her to make the step to build her own life, to be happy with whatever she is offered by life, to know that she can see Mr. Rochester again and walk away again if she has to.
And this brings me to Huckleberry Finn. Huckleberry Finn is a radically humanist novel. Our hero is a mixture of low impulsive behavior (learned from his drunken father) and rote understanding of morality taught by an uptight small town church woman. For him, things that are “good” are the things that the kindly spinster beat into him. And things that are “bad” are the lazy easy things his father taught him. And then Huck ends up traveling down river with an escaped slave.
What the book is careful to make clear is that Huck learned from the “good” people, from the minister in church, that the “good” thing to do is return an escaped slave. More than that, Jim belongs to a good woman, an older woman who was kind to Huck and to whom he owes a debt. Huck’s decision to stay running away with Jim is a little moment of him being “bad”. He feels a little guilty about it. The rest of the book is a slow inner journey through external moments. Huck learns to see Jim as a person, they build a bond, in moments of danger they save each other, and Huck meets a variety of other folks along the way who challenge his set views of the world from a family in the midst of a feud, to two conmen who are even better liars than he is. All of this is building to the most important moment of the book, when Jim is finally captured and threatened with being sent back to his “owner”. Everything Huck has been taught in his whole life tells him that this is “good”. He could do the little bad things of not reporting Jim, of helping Jim hide, but to consider actually helping Jim escape again is a terrible thing.
He thinks about it, he thinks about all the things he has always been taught, and then he thinks about what he has experienced in his own life, the human bond he had with Jim. And his end decision is:
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking–thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the ONLY one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”–and tore it up.”
There is an internal moral compass that is created outside of social rules. That is what both novels are showing. There are the things we are taught, and there are the things we learn just by going through life. Jane is not going to live in sin with Mr. Rochester because SHE knows it is sin. It doesn’t matter if no one else knows that, it doesn’t even matter if no one else believes it would be a sin. The point is that Jane believes that and she has the right, as does every human, to design her own morals and live by them.
And that is the point of Huck Finn as well, the point that Twain was trying to build very slowly and carefully over the whole book. There is a difference between an external morality which makes you feel “clean” on the outside, and an inner morality that brings you a surety on the inside. If we listen to that inner voice, of we allow ourselves to feel things and care for people and be simply “human”, than we will make the right choice every time.
Jane Eyre is a romance because the temptation to “sin” has to be worthy of Jane’s resistance. Mr. Rochester is an amazing romantic hero, designed to be a true temptation. He just sincerely LIKES Jane. The dialogue in this novel is irresistible for how it gives you that sense of a bubble dancing between then. And Jane sincerely likes him. If this were a novel with two conventionally attractive leads, we wouldn’t see that as clearly. But Mr. Rochester is older and ugly and rude and a lot of people don’t really like him. And Jane is small and simple and unnoticed. And yet with each other, they are magic. This is what Jane is turning her back on, the one person who fully makes her feel alive and loved, her “soulmate” in every way. And yet even that is not worth sacrificing her own self. No man has greater value than her own internal sense of self. Even the most amazing joy in the world, even the most miraculous romantic discovery of love, should not make Jane set aside her values, her values have value.
This is why these two books have lasted so long and resonate so well with readers from every time and place. Ultimately it is about what defines us as people. The rest is just details.
Speaking of details, Shahrukh and Alia? Sid M. as Saint John Rivers? Aishwarya as the Madwoman in the Attic? Or, Vijay Sethupathi and Kiara Advani? And Katrina as the Madwoman in the Attic? (no matter what, Sid M. has to be Saint John, it’s just the perfect role for him)