Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Jane Eyre & Pygmalion

It's been almost a year since I saved this topic as a draft. That's what I do when I have an idea for a post: I put the topic in the title of a post, save it, and then add in the content later. And since March was the month that I defended my honors thesis last year, it's fitting that it is in March that I return to the concept that came up during that time.

I focused, in my thesis, mainly on the three main couples in Charlotte Brontë's The Professor, Jane Eyre, and Villette. I drew comparisons among the novels through character and theme, providing commentary about the different aims that each book provided as part of a distinct part of Charlotte Brontë's life. And one of the subjects that came up during the defense was the way in which Rochester attempts to create Jane, and how she resists the separate identity he tries to place on her. I argued that this is why she had to leave him: their relationship, at first, was not on equal grounds; later, however, they are both independent and can therefore start a real relationship.

But at the earlier point, Rochester tries to pour money on Jane with clothes and jewelry that she refuses. He tries to pretend that she appreciates this use of money and the status that could come with marrying him. But she doesn't. Even when she was still planning to marry him, this side of things always made her uncomfortable. So one of my professors brought up this idea of how Rochester is trying to create Jane's character in a Pygmalion-like way. That can be either Pygmalion the myth or the play. It doesn't really matter: they're both the story of a man forming a woman's identity, whether it is a sculptor forming a statue or a linguist teaching a flower girl pronunciation and manners.

What's interesting about whichever version of creating identity is the gray area. On one hand, if a man is helping a woman to adapt her character in a significant and positive way, then that can be a good thing. It is when he is overpowering who she is or not acknowledging that she is her own person that things start to go wrong. Think about Jane. Rochester, in his overbearing and rough way, did give Jane attention as a person. He listened to her opinions and sought her company. He was one of the few people to do that, so he helped her on her journey toward independence. But when he ignores her or anything she says in favor of what he is thinking or doing, then he crosses a line. His inability to understand her reluctance to accept expensive gifts has greater significance. And when Mrs. Rochester is revealed and he still offers to stay with Jane, he is showing that he is still being selfish in this relationship and that he does not yet understand Jane's moral sensibility that is the very center of her identity.

Rochester does not succeed in creating Jane--and thank goodness he did not. Instead, she took only the positive influence from him and literally fled to avoid any negative influence. And in the end, they were reunited not as Pygmalion and Galatea or Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle but as two separate, independent people who choose to be together. After all, that's why Higgins and Eliza didn't end up together in the play: he did create her and continued to view her as simply the flower girl he had taught the rules of society. She never quite proved herself independent of him and his teaching/creating--except when she left to marry Freddy. That's what I love about Jane Eyre: it is the story of independence because Jane leaves Rochester at that earlier point, but it is also a bit of a fantasy story because she is able to return to him in the end.


  1. Dear Dianna,

    As a student in Germanic languages and therefore following literature classes, I happened to have analysed both "Jane Eyre" and "Pygmalion".

    Having to present an examination soon on them both, I was wondering if the two could be linked in any way, and so I searched the Internet.

    You have really interesting ideas, and I cannot thank you enough for bringing clarity to my thoughts! I was more focused on how Jane and Eliza were defying the class system (Jane questionning her life with the Reeds, marrying a man from a whole different social class; Eliza being transformed into a woman that could pass for a princess) and your way of seeing a link between the two includes everything and adds even more.

    I will pay attention to your other articles, thank you very much!

    Nathan x

    1. Hi Nathan, I'm glad you were able to get some new ideas from my post. In all of my thoughts about identity and creating identity, I see that I was almost completely neglecting the idea of class, which you bring up.

      And now that I think about it more, I've realized something: Eliza succeeded more at defying class in the end, didn't she? Jane's focus was personal: she and Rochester essentially go and live in seclusion together at the end, apart from society. But Eliza, by marrying Freddy, is accepting her place in a higher class than the one she was born into.

      Ah, this reminds me how much I love these two stories.