Nonsensical Geometry: The Two Love Triangles of Jane Eyre

The central romance in Jane Eyre resolves happily. (Do I need to mark that as a spoiler? Surely not! Surely, if you haven’t read Charlotte Bronte’s triumph of a novel by this time, you’ve at least watched a movie version?) Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre overcome every obstacle, including those within themselves, to meet as equals at last in the eyes of all, marry, produce offspring, and live happily ever after. Good for them.

Good for them, but bad for two other characters within the novel. Because Jane Eyre contains not one but two love triangles. And the trouble with love triangles is that, inevitably, someone will lose. Someone will have their heart broken. Unless it becomes a weird love quadrangle where the thrown-off would-be lovers end up together, which I suppose could end happily for all involved… but that’s not what happens in Jane Eyre.

janeeyre002Two women lay claim to Edward Fairfax Rochester. One, as we all know, is Jane herself. Young, poor, fiercely intelligent, insistently independent, and resolutely conscientious Jane. She’s my favorite fictional heroine, and I haven’t adjectives and adverbs enough to describe how wonderful she is. Mr. Rochester agrees with me. He wants absolutely nothing more than to grapple Jane to himself with hoops of steel so they can never be parted.

But someone stands between them. Someone with an earlier claim to his name, his person, his love. Bertha Mason Rochester, his wife. Though she’s now joked about as the madwoman in the attic in our insensitive postmodern world, Bertha bears the sad honor of being the losing side of the love triangle. Edward Rochester may have loved her once, or been willing to love her. But her family’s deceit and her own behavior drove such tender feelings far from him. He spent his adult life searching for someone to replace the mad wife he hid in Thornfield’s upper floors. Bertha had no such options—no one to replace the husband who shunned her. And when she learns, somehow, that Edward means to marry another, Bertha fights for her marriage the only way she can. She attempts to destroy her husband. But she destroys only herself, freeing Edward at last to marry the woman he now loves.

As for Jane Eyre, two men also lay claim to her. Edward Rochester nearly wins her, only to lose her when the truth about his past destroys the future happiness he’d almost secured. Jane flees, eventually finding refuge with a trio of siblings who nurse her back to health and help heal her wounded spirit.

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One of these siblings, St. John Rivers, also desires Jane Eyre. Though he does not express a bodily, sensual desire for her, he wishes to marry her. St. John is preparing to embark on a missionary journey. In the time when this book takes place, missionaries did not expect to return home. Ever. Many of them packed their luggage in a coffin so that, when they inevitably died in their mission field, all would be ready for their burial. That being the case, St. John knows he will probably never find another Englishwoman so suited to being his helper. Jane is intelligent, pious, quick to learn languages, and has a steady personality. If he could but convince her to devote herself to being his helpmeet, he could face any heathen horde with equanimity.

St. John Rivers would probably grow pale and stern if told he’s made himself one point of a love triangle by demanding Jane Eyre marry him. He would insist he harbored no romantic feelings for Jane, and thus could not be part of any such nonsensical geometry. But it’s true, nonetheless. Like Bertha Mason, however, he must exit the story disappointed. Jane rejects his proposal with absolute finality, dashing this second love triangle to pieces.

We sometimes groan about how often love triangles pop up in modern fiction. Maybe if modern writers could handle them as deftly and unprosaically as Charlotte Bronte, we wouldn’t be so tired of them.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels “Cloaked” and “Dancing & Doughnuts” are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com

 

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9 thoughts on “Nonsensical Geometry: The Two Love Triangles of Jane Eyre

  1. Jennifer Schonhaar

    What a great, thought-provoking article, Rachel. Thank you. I never thought of Bertha as fighting for her marriage. I suppose in all madness there is a measure of sanity somewhere. And somewhere in that mad world she inhabited she feared losing what she had. I’ve always felt sorry for Bertha. Such a sad, lonely life.

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    1. hamlettethedame

      Glad you enjoyed it, Jennifer. I do think Bertha had some awareness of what was going on in the house, and what Mr. Rochester intended — why else attack Jane’s wedding veil specifically? Some suggest she may have been trying to warn Jane and prevent her from entering a bigamous marriage, even.

      And yes, one must feel sad for Bertha. At least Rochester didn’t have her committed to an awful asylum, though locking her in the attic and not telling anyone her identity was also not the nicest.

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  2. Charity Post author

    I’m really glad you wrote this article, because honestly, I never think of Bertha as being in a “marriage,” despite being the impediment to Jane and Edward’s happiness. She’s literally the “mad woman in the attic.” I don’t want Jane to violate her moral standards and live with Edward anyway, but she’s a barrier for them to overcome. In modern society, they’d annul the marriage and allow Edward to marry again, while treating her for her illness — but in those times, she was fortunate to marry someone who had the moral fortitude NOT to put her in an asylum even if it “got rid” of her. So in a way, I always saw her as the redeeming element in Edward. Proof that he wasn’t all selfish.

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    1. hamlettethedame

      Charity, I think that’s how Bertha gets viewed a lot, and she has so little pagetime that most of my impressions of her are fairly speculative. But you’re right, Edward caring for his wife to the best of his abilities IS a redeeming part of him. Though he abandoned her personally, he didn’t literally abandon her — he made sure she was cared for. Thanks for pointing that out.

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      1. Charity Post author

        Edward could have done any number of things to get rid of her (“Oh, she’s always been crazy… she wandered off one night and…”) so the fact that he provides for her at all, much less tries to save her from the fire says a lot about him.

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