On the 1 hand, I understand why they fall in love, why Jane accepts him and comes back to him in spite of his flaws and then stays with him in spite of his disability. It's shown from the beginning through their fun, witty conversations that they have things in common and understand each other, and both have known suffering. Living in the same house gives them the chance to understand more about each other and to develop their feelings, especially with certain incidents that bring them closer. To Rochester, Jane may look plain but is intelligent, introspective, artistic and independent, having her own opinions, and though she hasn't travelled, her experiences give her the depth, insight and sensitivity that can't be found in many other women, especially the pretty but shallow and pompous Blanche Ingram ("To women who please me only by their faces, I am the very devil when I find out they have neither souls nor hearts — when they open to me a perspective of flatness, triviality, and perhaps imbecility, coarseness, and ill-temper: but to the clear eye and eloquent tongue, to the soul made of fire, and the character that bends but does not break — at once supple and stable, tractable and consistent — I am ever tender and true."). To Jane, Rochester has his faults but is not a cruel man by nature, he can kill or leave his wife Bertha but doesn't, he can get rid of Adele but doesn't, and above all, being with St John Rivers makes Jane realise that she and Rochester match each other in many ways and she should not be with St John Rivers nor with anyone else. And in the end he changes for the better.
On the other hand, their relationship can be seen in a different way. Rochester may not be a cruel man by nature, but he isn't nice. Grumpy, coarse, irritable and moody, he doesn't treat women nicely- by "women", I do not mean the insane Bertha Mason but Adele's mother and all the women he meets between Bertha and Jane and perhaps also the young girl Adele, and even in the relationship with Jane, he can be dominating (for example, before the marriage he forces her to go to shops and then 'adorns' her, insensitive to her protest- chapter 24). Not only that, in the end he's lame and blind, entirely dependent on her.*
My new view is due to several factors.
1st, "The tenant of Wildfell hall" by Anne Bronte. Helen and Arthur Huntingdon, whilst having their distinct personalities, are in some ways strikingly similar to Jane Eyre and Rochester- making one realise the nature of the relationship between Jane and Rochester. Anne, however, had a different view- Helen leaves Arthur for good.
2nd, "The French lieutenant's woman" by John Fowles, about which I wrote in my exam this morning. The 2nd of the 3 endings is a conventional, happy one, where Charles and Sarah meet again after many years and are implied to get together, which means Sarah is restricted in the institution of marriage. It's only in the 3rd ending, when Sarah lives a stable, content life and has a job, dependent on no one, and rejects Charles, that she's truly free, truly liberated. The 2nd ending, whether or not deliberate, seems like a mockery of "Jane Eyre" ending.
3rd, Jane Austen. Though this is not something I'd like to admit. Before I always believed "Jane Eyre" to be a feminist novel, but let's consider these lines from the book:
"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!"
Of course Jane stays true to her principles and leaves Rochester, of course she later gets a job as a teacher and earns her own living, but it seems that to her equality is merely equality of soul and heart, equality in emotions, or at least that's the only thing that is stressed.
Jane Austen may not be called radical, but look at this quote:
"I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives." (from "Persuasion")
I haven't read this book, but it's clear in "Sense and sensibility" that, by telling the story from Elinor's point of view ("Elinor, this eldest daughter, whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart;—her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn; and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.") and depicting Marianne as impulsive and excessively emotional, Jane Austen was reacting against the 19th century notion of women as delicate creatures full of sensibilities without much sense, rationality or the ability to have their own opinions. Her novels, particularly her heroines' choices, also show that she, like my mom, couldn't accept stupidity, impulsiveness and "masochism" in women in relations with men**.
"Jane Eyre" thus can't really be called a feminist novel.
4th, my own change. I can't dismiss "Jane Eyre" altogether because of its defects*** since it has its strengths, its merits, but as I grow up and develop certain opinions about relationships, about men and women, and through observation and experience know that people can never change completely and a woman is just naive believing she can reform a man, my response to the book can no longer be the same****.
**: Anne Bronte and Jane Austen deal with the same idea in different ways. Jane Austen's heroines do not fall for assholes, and if they do at 1st, they realise it and make better choices in the end. Anne Bronte, in contrast, pushes her point to the extreme by letting her heroine make a mistake (= fall for an asshole) and suffer and later learn from it. The exploration and depiction of the life with an asshole is more effective and likely to create a deeper, stronger impression.
***: Another defect is that Jane Eyre, after leaving Rochester, ends up at the most impossible place- her cousins' home. The 1996 film by Franco Zeffirelli tries to fix it by letting Jane meet St John Rivers when seeing Mrs Reed the last time, so after leaving Rochester she goes directly to her cousins' place, but this also means the last quarter of the story is totally lost together with Jane's development and some of crucial themes of the original book.
****: This, as a matter of fact, doesn't have any effect on my perception of "Wuthering heights" and Heathcliff. Their love is convincing and understandable. "I am Heathcliff" is not a melodramatic statement but the truth: Heathcliff, more than a childhood friend, is the wildness in Catherine, the savagery she cannot get rid of even after the Lintons have taught her to dress and act like a lady. I understand, without feeling self-contradictory, how she may love both Heathcliff and Edgar Linton and how her love for them differs, because she herself has a split personality. However, 1st, the book as a whole is not a love story and Heathcliff's not a romantic hero. 2nd, Catherine Earnshaw isn't a nice person. 3rd, it's not (meant to be) a feminist work (no 'preaching' about equality). 4th, their love's not meant to be taken personally the way Jane-Rochester love may be ("Jane Eyre" is Jane's autobiography). And, for some other reasons, "Wuthering heights" is to have different standards, the same way you can't question the moral and artistic value of "Lolita" just because Humbert Humbert and Lolita aren't good, likeable characters.
Update on 5/12:
Chapter 24 ends with these lines:“Yet after all my task was not an easy one; often I would rather have pleased than teased him. My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for His creature: of whom I had made an idol.”
This is before the 1st wedding and I remember what happens afterwards, but these lines still make me feel quite uneasy.