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.
Two 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.
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.
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