There are many modes in which we can read Jane Eyre: as a romance novel (or a critique of the traditional courtly romance of Brontë’s time), a coming-of-age tale, a gothic story, social criticism, or feminist statement. I would recommend reading it in parallel with Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, which adopts the perspective of Rochester’s first wife Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress, and Reading Jane Eyre While Black by Tyrese L Coleman. Perhaps the most important lesson I took from re-reading Jane Eyre is how multifaceted and chameleonic a text can be, and how it can mean different things at different times and to different people. Now, when I read it, it’s impossible for me to ignore just how racist and fixed in its worldview it is—while she was very well educated for the time, Charlotte Brontë would have been not much more worldly than her fictional heroine.
I chose this passage because it is an encounter that really encapsulates how skilfully Charlotte Brontë marries personal, emotional struggles with ideas of social justice and equality. Jane is asking Rochester to see her as she really is: his equal in every way. If they were to cast aside the shackles of their classist, patriarchal society, and love each other truly and deeply, he would be able to see this. This, in my mind, is the kind of love worth striving for.
“I tell you I must go!” I retorted, roused to something like passion. “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?—You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty, and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh:—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”