I first read Jane Eyre when I was 12 or 13, and like many other young readers, I fell in love with the novel and found in Jane a role model, heroine, and friend. I loved how the young Jane was outspoken and bold, and how the adult Jane was just as assertive, albeit more subtly and slyly. I found the scene where Mr. Rochester, the enigmatic and intimidating owner of Thornfield Hall, proposes to Jane to be overwhelmingly romantic. When Jane flees Thornfield, I despaired, and when she returns at the end of the novel to marry Mr. Rochester, I rejoiced. I dreamt of getting a tattoo of my favorite quotation: "I am no bird, and no net ensnares me."
One of the many joys of teaching literature is seeing how students, with their own rich and complex histories and identities and experiences, can come to the same novel and have entirely different reading experiences than other students' or even my own. As I began planning the Jane Eyre Unit for English 1, I was curious about how a teenager of 2022 might respond differently to the novel than I did in 2002. Forest Ridge students develop a strong capacity for recognizing and analyzing how power impacts relationships, in our own world and in the worlds of the literature we read, and so I was not surprised to find that the 9th graders had strong opinions about this "love story" between a forty-year-old wealthy landowner and a twenty-year-old impoverished governess. Where I found the relationship between Mr. Rochester and Jane to be the height of romance, they found it to be problematic, to say the least. As we read the scene in class, students couldn't restraint themselves from groaning, shouting, and pleading with Jane as if she were in the room with us and they could stop her from making a horrific mistake. When we watched the scene of the proposal in the 1943 film production, starring Orson Welles and Jane Fontaine, students recoiled and gasped as Mr. Rochester grabs Jane, shakes her, and demands that she say yes. When I first read the narrator's proclamation of "Reader, I married him" in the final chapter of Jane Eyre, I read it with satisfied delight. Many of my students, however, read that line with grim resignation. Others argued that Jane deserved to have her own happy ending, even if it looked different than the happy ending we might wish for her. Still others pointed to the ways in which the relationship between Jane and Mr. Rochester had become more equal, and was therefore more acceptable, than it was earlier in the novel.
For today's readers, Jane Eyre may not be the swoon-worthy love story that I, and countless of readers before me, found it to be. But it can still serve as a powerful story about a young woman's determination and her demand that people recognize her humanity and agency. And although I was forced to rethink some of my own adolescent stances on Jane's relationship with Mr. Rochester, I welcomed it wholeheartedly--in fact, reading Jane Eyre with my 9th graders this year was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. As I tell my students, "There's nothing that warms an English teacher's heart more than hearing teenagers argue about literature." This fall, my heart was very warm indeed.