But before the selfie came “the self,” or the fairly modern concept of the independent “individual.” The now-ubiquitous selfie expresses in miniature the seismic conceptual shift that came about centuries ago, spurred in part by advances in printing technology and new ways of thinking in philosophy. It’s not that the self didn’t exist in pre-modern cultures: Rather, the emphasis the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century placed on personal will, conscience, and understanding—rather than tradition and authority—in matters of faith spilled over the bounds of religious experience into all of life. Perhaps the first novel to best express the modern idea of the self was Jane Eyre, written in 1847 by Charlotte Brontë, born 200 years ago this year.
The broader cultural implications of the story—its insistence on the value of conscience and will—were such that one critic fretted some years after its publication that the “most alarming revolution of modern times has followed the invasion of Jane Eyre.” Before the Reformation and the Enlightenment that followed, before Rene Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), when the sources of authority were external and objective, the aspects of the self so central to today’s understanding mattered little because they didn’t really affect the course of an individual’s life. The Reformation empowered believers to read and interpret the scriptures for themselves, rather than relying on the help of clergy; by extension, this seemed to give people permission to read and interpret their own interior world.
To be sure, early novelists before Brontë such as Frances Burney, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Mary Shelley contributed to the form’s developing art of the first-person narrator. But these authors used the contrivances of edited letters or memoirs, devices that tended toward underdeveloped characters, episodic plots, and a general sense of artificiality—even when the stories were presented not as fiction but “histories.” No earlier novelist had provided a voice so seemingly pure, so fully belonging to the character, as Brontë. She developed her art alongside her sisters, the novelists Anne and Emily (all of them publishing under gender-neutral pseudonyms), but it was Charlotte whose work best captured the sense of the modern individual.
There is nothing of the book, Woolf declares, “except Jane Eyre.” Jane’s voice is the source of the power the book has to absorb the reader completely into her world. Woolf explains how Brontë depicts:
… an overpowering personality, so that, as we say in real life, they have only to open the door to make themselves felt. There is in them some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently.It is exactly this willingness—desire, even—to be “at war with the accepted order of things” that characterizes the modern self. While we now take such a sense for granted, it was, as Brontë’s contemporaries rightly understood, radical in her day. More disturbing to Brontë’s Victorian readers than the sheer sensuality of the story and Jane’s deep passion was “the heroine’s refusal to submit to her social destiny,” as the literary critic Sandra M. Gilbert explains. Indeed, one contemporary review complained, “It is true Jane does right, and exerts great moral strength,” but the critic continues that “it is the strength of a mere heathen mind which is a law unto itself.” In presenting such a character, the reviewer worries, Brontë has “overthrown authority” and cultivated “rebellion.” And in a way they were right: “I resisted all the way,” Jane says as she is dragged by her cruel aunt toward banishment in the bedroom where her late uncle died. This sentence, Joyce Carol Oates argues, serves as the theme of Jane’s whole story.
I love the opening passage and with true self-doubt find I wish the book were "Mrs. Reed":
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.
I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.
The said Eliza, John, and Georgiana were now clustered round their mama in the drawing-room: she lay reclined on a sofa by the fireside, and with her darlings about her (for the time neither quarrelling nor crying) looked perfectly happy. Me, she had dispensed from joining the group; saying, "She regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance; but that until she heard from Bessie, and could discover by her own observation, that I was endeavouring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner—something lighter, franker, more natural, as it were—she really must exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy, little children."
"What does Bessie say I have done?" I asked.
"Jane, I don't like cavillers or questioners; besides, there is something truly forbidding in a child taking up her elders in that manner. Be seated somewhere; and until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent."