I FIRST read ``Jane Eyre'' when I was about 11. It's a book that hits you with the shock of recognition. Like the story of Cinderella, it has universal appeal: A worthy young woman, mistreated by cruel and jealous rivals, grows up to have her true value recognized by a prince. But ``Jane Eyre'' is far more than a fairy-tale of archetypal figures moving through a simplified dreamscape: It is a richly plotted novel in which fully developed, highly individualized characters act out complex social, psycholo gical, and moral relationships. ``Jane Eyre'' seems familiar, not only because it harks back to Cinderella, but also because so many novelists who came after Charlotte Bront"e have been influenced by Jane Eyre's strikingly original variation on the old Cinderella theme.
In place of the docile, beautiful scullery maid, Bront"e gives us a poor, plain, outspoken young woman, with nothing but her native intelligence and conscience to guide her. Bront"e's heroine meets the man of her dreams, but he is not quite Prince Charming. He is an older man, well-off, experienced, even a little arrogant, seemingly sure of himself. Against all odds, he falls in love with her. She is fresh, sincere. But there's a catch before ``happily ever after.'' There's something mysterious in his p ast, something that may destroy the relationship, something our heroine will have to discover. In seeking out and grappling with this secret, she will eventually have cleared the way toward re-establishing their highly romantic love on a firmer foundation of reality.
This plot has shaped countless romantic novels since ``Jane Eyre,'' from Daphne du Maurier's ``Rebecca,'' to Victoria Holt's ``Mistress of Mellyn,'' to the ever more ``generic'' scads of Gothic romances that constitute a minor cottage industry. While the socially awkward, unnamed heroine of ``Rebecca'' is already a less interesting character than Jane, and while later Gothic heroines may be even paler imitations of the original, all of these women are heroines in that they are actively engag ed in solving a mystery.
Mystery is an important element in ``Jane Eyre'' and the novels cast in this mold. I remember also at the time I first read ``Jane Eyre'' I had a passion for mysteries. I haunted the stacks of our local library in search of mysteries with female sleuths, which were hard to find. ``Jane Eyre,'' of course, is not that kind of mystery. But it contained far more of the kind of mysteriousness I was looking for: the sense, so important to a child growing up, that life is an adventure with puzzling, fascinatin g problems that can be solved when one learns how to find the truth beneath appearances.
Mystery of any kind seemed in short supply where I was growing up, in the suburbia of the early 1960s. There were no ruined abbeys, abandoned forts, castles, or dungeons. There were no exotic strangers, no dramatic class differences, and no sense of a dark past. The very house we lived in was younger than I was: We were its first inhabitants. But to an 11-year-old, life itself is still pretty much a mystery, and romance the biggest mystery looming on life's horizon.
Although it is easy to criticize ``Jane Eyre'' - and even easier to criticize the lesser works patterned after it for being too ``romantic,'' too formulaic, the reason the formula appeals is that it contains a vital germ of truth. The heroine - like many women - fears she may be handicapped by a deficiency of physical beauty and an over-abundance of mental endowment. She finds she is constantly measuring herself against real or imagined competition - a live rival or a dead wife.
In a world where women are judged primarily by physical appearance, clothing, and social standing, Jane and her descendants prevail over their superficial rivals by virtue of intrinsic qualities: wit, honesty, goodness. The men, for some reason, are always ``arrogant'' as well as mysterious. When the heroine uncovers the mystery, what she usually discovers is exactly how the man acquired the patina of experience that has taught him to value the intrinsic over the extrinsic.
Charlotte Bront"e was well aware of breaking with tradition in making her heroine clever, but plain. She told her sisters she would prove to them that such a heroine could be every bit as interesting as a beautiful one. Her bold decision to write about someone like herself was a decision in favor of letting in more reality. At the same time, her determination to lay bare her characters' deepest emotions - in contrast to Jane Austen's focus on the social nuances - is what makes ``Jane Eyre'' a classic of Romanticism, which, unlike romanticism with a small ``r,'' is not an escape from realism, but a desire to probe beneath the surface of things.
Jane Eyre's distinction is not merely in coming first. As a character - and as a novel - she continues to dwarf her descendants, none of whom can match her extraordinary blend of intelligence and passion. Her complexity is revealed through an equally complex storyline. At every point in her development, from the angry little orphan raging against her aunt's unfairness, to the indignant schoolgirl who admires but cannot imitate her friend Helen Burns's saintly acceptance of injustice, to the young woman who first turns down Rochester's offer of illicit passion, then rejects St. John Rivers's offer of a passionless marriage, Jane refuses to be forced into categories. She's a girl who ``wants it all,'' except that unlike some of today's more manipulative heroines, one of the things she wants most is a clear conscience.
FINALLY, ``Jane Eyre'' is a great novel because it repays rereading, revealing new meaning each time. It's that same richness that has encouraged so many writers to retell its story, even, in the case of Jean Rhys's ``Wide Sargasso Sea,'' to retell it from the perspective of Rochester's mad first wife.
Having reread ``Jane Eyre'' many times myself, I've experienced in my own changing reactions a sort of one-woman version of the multiple readings found in collections of conflicting interpretations by various literary critics.
My initial response was complete with sympathy with Jane, the sensitive girl treated so harshly by a snobbish society. On a later reading, she struck me as priggish - indeed, downright cold - to leave her errant groom standing at the altar. After all, he had no choice but to remain married to his lunatic wife. Since it was a marriage in name only, I reasoned, why didn't Jane go abroad with him, as many other people did in those days?
Later, I sensed something even more disturbing about Jane. Or was it about her creator, Charlotte Bront"e, who does not allow Jane to find happiness until her once-proud lover loses his strength, home, and eyesight - not to mention his inconvenient first wife - and becomes utterly dependent on his former employee? Wasn't there a certain vengefulness in this? But looking at the story yet again, it became possible to view this as a bold feminist correction of the traditional imbalance of power between men and women.
My readings had come full circle. Each, in its own way, carried conviction. I have a feeling that more are yet possible. The dynamism of ``Jane Eyre'' comes from its rich, always shifting field of potential meanings. No wonder writers keep retelling Jane's story; no wonder we keep reading it, one way or another.