Somehow, somewhere, someone had made a mistake, and I had ended up with the cool girls.
We cool girls called ourselves, simply, The Group, not realizing how much this made us sound like something from a segment of an After School Special that got left on the cutting room floor. In The Group, you were either in or you were out. Period. Sometimes people who were in got kicked out through a culling process that made cockfights look civilized. At any rate, I was in but had yet to learn that group membership and true friendship are not the same thing.
This was a lesson Jane Eyre, the title character of Charlotte Brontë’s nineteenth century novel, didn’t have to learn. Surrounded in early life by people she’d never mistake for friends, it was a long time before Jane had anyone she could even consider a friend.
By the time I met Jane for the first time in my sophomore English class, I had learned a bit more about friendship. And because of Jane, I was going to learn a lot more about myself. If there is just one novel that seems closest to the soul of who I am, that novel is Jane Eyre.
Jane Eyre seemed in so many ways to be someone like me. In reading and studying the book many more times later in life, I came to realize that this was because she really was. And, truth be told, a lot like other girls, too, because Jane Eyre is really about every adolescent. For adolescence, more than any other age, is a time of becoming, when we all must navigate through endless possibilities of being and overcome countless temptations to become any person but one that reflects both the givenness of our being and the possibilities of our becoming.
This search for the self is characteristic of the modern condition, and it is no coincidence that one of the first modern individuals in literature was a woman. Throughout history women have embodied, more dramatically and sooner than men, changing cultural ideas and conditions. There was no more dramatic cultural change during the time in which Jane Eyre was written than that which brought about the rise of the individual. Precisely because of an inferior place in society throughout all of human history to this point, no figure better depicted the rise of the modern individual than the woman. So while in the traditional Romances such as those of the Arthurian legends it is the noblemen, the knights in shining armor, who embark on a quest, in Jane Eyre it is a poor friendless woman who is on the greatest quest of all: the quest for the self.
This is what makes Jane Eyre a bildungsroman, a story of education, struggle, loss, and of finding one’s place in the world. Jane’s journey is a journey to authentic selfhood. It is the same journey that every modern young person must undergo. It is the journey I describe in Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me through the lens of the books that shaped my life and, ultimately, my faith. For a long time, I did not know that the truest sense of belonging comes from feeling like you belong to yourself because of who you were created to be. I was what one Old Testament passage says of the wandering Israelites: an alien and a pilgrim.
In the ancient and medieval worlds, people gained their identities not from their individuality but from their communities: the families they were born into, the traditions they were raised in, the social class they were part of, the bonds of religious belief they shared with others. Before the rise of the modern self, people simply inherited their identities, their “selves” directly from their families. The boy born to a shoemaker was destined to be a shoemaker. The girl born to an aristocrat would be a lady. But with the modern age came a new social mobility and with it the idea of the individual.
As a literary genre, the novel is, in fact, more than anything else about the rise of the modern individual, the creation of the self. As such, Jane Eyre is the quintessential story of the rise of the individual, the journey to create the self. The quest for self usually begins with the separation—first emotional, then physical—from one’s parents. It is this long and arduous process of emotional separation, in fact, that we call adolescence. This psychological feature of modern life explains why so many novels, from the form’s very beginnings in the eighteenth century, have main characters who are orphans or foundlings.
Orphans are literally what all of us are metaphorically as we begin to try to define ourselves as individuals apart from our parents. Once we’ve done so, we spend the rest of our adolescence and young adulthood, hopefully, individuating ourselves from our friends and the rest of society. (In fact, it takes some people so long to do this that the process continues on into mid-life, which then manifests itself in the ubiquitous and notorious mid-life crisis.)
No longer gaining identity from the community, the modern individual stands not merely apart but in isolation. The modern individual is orphaned from the community of old; isolation— alienation—is in fact the modern condition.
Modernity is eighth grade stuck on “repeat.”
A pastor once said that even Christ’s temptations—those he faced from Satan in the wilderness as well as those in the Garden of Gethsemane when he beseeched God for some other way than his impending crucifixion—were really temptations to not be true to his self, to betray his genuine nature and thus fail to fulfill the calling on his life. Even the greatest teacher who ever lived had to undertake the same journey for the self that we all do.
As the example of Christ shows, much of our becoming comes not from within but from without, from the revelations others give us about ourselves, from beholding ourselves in the mirror held up in the world around us. “Beholding is becoming,” as the philosopher Marshall McLuhan was known for saying.
Ultimately, Jane Eyre succeeds, despite many strong temptations that would lead her astray, in her quest to be the self—the person—truest to her nature. This is what makes her one of the first modern individuals in the history of English letters.
No wonder one critic remarked in 1855, eight years after its publication, that “the most alarming revolution of modern times has followed the invasion of Jane Eyre.” Jane Eyre is a revolutionary character because she chooses the integrity of her nature and self over social convention, material comfort, and even passionate love. She found true freedom.
By the end of the novel, Jane—like me, an alien and pilgrim—demonstrates her possession of true freedom: the freedom to be true to the self she knows she has been created to be. In Jane I found a worthy role model on my journey to the freedom of becoming, fully and contentedly, myself.
Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She and her husband live on a 100-year old homestead in central Virginia with horses, dogs, and chickens. And lots of books. Her most recent book is Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. Follow her on Twitter @ LoveLifeLitGod.