Thursday, August 7, 2014

Why We Should Love Jane Eyre

An online forum charged back and forth about the virtues of young adult literature, some even going to the edge and over the cliff, arguing that classic literature needs to be retired, the canon replaced by young adult authors. Countering that argument are teachers and readers who believe that some young adult literature does not rise to the level of timeless literature, that in style and expression alone, it falls short. I’m in that camp, but I also recognize the appeal of young adult literature. I have devoted two posts to a self-published series about Noah Zarc’s adventures and four to Divergent. Other posts prove that I’ve fallen in love with television series, including Breaking Bad, and films such as 2010’s version of True Grit. So I’m not a classic literature snob, but let us not forsake the classics.

Charlotte Brontë’s nineteenth-century novel Jane Eyre was one of the classic titles cited by forum respondents, but not for the reasons I believe it ought to be offered and when appropriate, taught. Jane Eyre continues to resonate with modern readers. It also has the appeal of many young adult stories. Part waif and orphan, needy and aggrieved, Jane, like many young adult protagonists, dwells on the fringes of society, but also like many young adult protagonists, she perseveres, finding her way as a good student and teacher, letting wit and talent guide her. Why wouldn’t teachers and adults want to share Jane’s story with today’s youth?

Surely the sun'll come out tomorrow.
Photo by Al Griffin
Jane’s story inspires anyone who ever doubted her worth, was bullied, and treated harshly. She’s condemned to live with a raisin-hearted aunt who has so little control of her own emotions that she resents a child for being in circumstances beyond her control. And that’s so characteristic of the nineteenth century, isn’t it? Children were in need of the rod lest they be spoiled. They were sold into slavery as chimney-sweeps, condemned to filth, lung disease, and early deaths. They were warehoused and worked to earn their keep upon this earth if they became orphaned. So Jane Eyre’s story teaches us about a past which we’ve escaped.

Or have we? In some places on this earth, children have no childhood. They labor in harsh, wretched conditions. Children who ought to be in elementary classrooms descend to work coal mines in India. In Afghanistan, a four-year-old joins his siblings to work off their father’s debt. And countless kids end up consigned to foster care or orphanages because their parents are addicts or abusive. Jane Eyre’s story may be set in a different time and place, her circumstances different, but her story allows us to glimpse the inner heartache and countless sorrows endured when parents cannot or will not carry their children to safe harbor.

So debate not, please. Seek out titles that are timeless because the human beings made manifest in those titles are our neighbors, family, and friends no matter what sort of dress or technological advances may characterize their age.

Reading Challenge:

Read Jane Eyre and all seven of the Harry Potter novels by J. K. Rowling. He’s another orphan and the star protagonist who perseveres against overwhelming odds.

Writing Challenge:

Write a poem of tribute to the child who not only endures, but triumphs over unimaginable sorrows.