In grad school, I took a class on Latin American literature, but not because I particularly wanted to. My program was small, and we didn’t have many options when it came to choosing classes. It was either that or a poetry writing class, which sounded worse than getting rabies. The Latin American lit class turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. I gained a new perspective on the world through reading writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Rosario Castellanos. I had never heard of magical realism, and it shattered my boring, Western, Enlightenment-based paradigm. But that is a story for another blog post. Something else that class changed for me was my perspective on reading books multiple times. I used to view multiple readings as something fun to do if you found the plot engaging and wanted to experience the twists and turns again, like riding a roller coaster multiple times. But the LA lit professor taught us books that she had read over and over with a solemn reverence, with an attitude usually reserved for things like Communion. She argued that it was essential to read the best books many times, because in the greatest books, each reading would yield fresh insight. The other assertion she made that has always stuck with me is that age matters when reading. We don’t read something the same way when we are 13 as we do when we are 23 as we do when we are 53. Not only do additional readings yield deeper meaning, but the perspective on the world that we bring to the book, the perspective that melds with the intention of the author to create the experience of reading, alters as we age so that we never really read the same book twice. I have found this to be especially true with my favorite book, Jane Eyre. There is a sense in which you could say that I have grown up with Jane, or at least that I have seen different reflections of myself in her story each time I have read it.
When I read Jane Eyre as a teenager, I was all about the romance. It was dark passions and moonlight in the thorny trees and brooding heroes and haunted secret passageways and lovesick heroines. I read it because I loved the love story and adored Mr. Rochester. I hated Brocklehurst, cried when Helen died, seethed with jealousy of Blanche, and was almost as terrified of Bertha as I was of St. John. In short, I loved the cheap thrills and didn’t get much of the real depth the book had to offer. It’s not a bad or an illegitimate way to enjoy a story, but it’s certainly not all that this wonderful text has to offer.
When I read Jane Eyre in my twenties, as I worked to carve out a place for myself in the world, it became for me a sort of proto-feminist manifesto. Jane was the oppressed woman, bullied in every way by a series of men throughout the book. John physically abuses her; Brocklehurst degrades her; Rochester manipulates her; St. John attempts to control her. At every turn, Jane proves stronger than her oppressors. She claims a unique identity in circumstances that mandate conformity. And even when she is faced with a love that spans the “depth and breadth and height” her soul can reach, she knows that if she acquiesces, this love will obliterate her self completely, and she turns aside from it in a compelling act of moral and emotional courage. I also saw my own happy marriage reflected in the deep kinship Jane and Rochester feel for each other. Like Jane, I had found someone whose soul was made from the same material as my own–too long a separation would snap the cord of communion and cause inward bleeding.
I’m in my early thirties now, and I just read Jane Eyre again. I saw Jane’s relationship with God rise to the forefront of her existence as her idols fell away and she was forced to depend entirely on her Creator for guidance and sustenance. I watched her faith grow slowly through the obstacles interposed by the hypocritical Brocklehurst, blossom under Helen’s guidance and example, and finally endow her with the strength of character she needed to run from Rochester. And by the time she’d arrived at the Rivers’ house, she wasn’t about to let the poor ecclesiastical example provided by the snobby St. John deter her from faith in a God who favors his children on the basis of Christ’s merit, not on pointless tokens of suffering they offer Him.
Jane Eyre is just one of those books I’ll return to again and again through the years. Age matters in reading, because books change as we change. I feel that there’s a sense in which I have grown up with Jane–I’ve seen my own triumphs and struggles echoed in her story (not literally of course; I doubt my husband is hiding a crazy wife in the attic). I can’t wait to see what I’ll discover at 40, 50, 60 and beyond.