Online Book Club with On Eyre: Jane Eyre Chapter 1
And so it begins! Before you continue reading this post, be sure to do the following:
Read the first chapter of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
Listen to the Hot & Bothered podcast episode On Eyre: No Possibility of Taking a Walk
Let’s summarize the first chapter.
Jane narrates her story beginning at age ten. She lives in her aunt Mrs. Reed’s house with her three cousins Eliza, John, and Georgiana. She lives with them because she is an orphan. Just like her parents, by the time Jane is ten Mr. Reed has passed away too.
It’s raining, and Jane can’t go on a walk. The Reed cousins gather around their mother, who excludes Jane. She finds a book to read (Bewick’s History of Birds) and sits on the window seat hiding behind the scarlet curtain. Still her cousin John hunts her down, insists she call him Master Reed, grabs her book and hits her over the head with it. She falls, cutting her head and bleeding. She then fights back and Mrs. Reed orders for Jane to be taken to the red-room and locked inside.
Vanessa and Lauren, the hosts of On Eyre are discussing Jane Eyre with these questions in mind:
Where is the power?
Where is the desire?
Let’s begin with a discussion of power.
At the time of this book (early 1800s) the socioeconomic power structure is one of male inheritance. This puts John Reed and Jane Eyre at opposite ends of a power continuum. John will inherit the estate and even as a teenager effectively has more power in the household than even his own mother who is a widow. Jane in contrast is an orphan girl who has nothing and is treated like a burden by her aunt. In fact, Jane has even less power than the servants who can scold her and give reports to Mrs. Reed of Jane’s behavior.
In this first chapter Jane has not one safe space to retreat. The weather keeps her stuck inside, Mrs. Reed pushes her away from her and her children, John disrupts her reading in the window seat, and finally she is locked in the red-room. Jane is abused and assaulted, and when she finally resists she is locked away. This first chapter is a microcosm of the overall story—I don’t think you have to have read Jane Eyre to know she ends up locked in an attic.
The power dynamic between Mrs. Reed and Jane:
Jane says Mrs. Reed “regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance.” Mrs. Reed rejects responsibility for her treatment of Jane.
Lauren says, “If it was just Mrs. Reed saying, ‘I can’t stand the sight of you,’ she could fight back. But the notion that there is […] some larger force that Mrs. Reed is beholden to, Jane has nothing to fight against[….] She can’t fight Mrs. Reed because it’s not up to Mrs. Reed. Except, it is” (15:00).
Here’s another question: why does Mrs. Reed dislike Jane so much? Is it really just dislike, or is it something else?
Vanessa thinks that “we as a society just have a distaste for people who are unlucky.”
Lauren points out that “it’s worth remembering that Mrs. Reed is also unlucky in her own way. Her husband died. She lives in a patriarchal society without a husband. She has very little power even though she has some financial comfort.”
My take: Jane is one of the few people over whom Mrs. Reed can assert power and she takes advantage of that.
We can’t talk about power without talking about John Reed and what he does to Jane here.
Lauren calls John all the names: “an idiot,” “a classic bully,” “a total fuck-up,” and finishes with “ugh, he’s the worst.” He really is.
John bullies Jane “not two or three times in the week, nor once or twice in the day, but continually.”
Vanessa explains John’s treatment of Jane in terms of control: “Men who are also victims of patriarchy, men who are taught they should have power, nothing offends them more than a woman who they feel as though they cannot control. [John] wanted to be able to assault [Jane] in a room, and he couldn’t find her, and that annoyed him on a new level. Or he wanted her to have run off outside so that he could tattle on her. He just wants to be able to control her, and he can’t” (23:50-25:30).
Lauren sums it up this way: “He feels totally threatened by her ability to sit and read a book. It is the thing he has failed at. The way he has shamed his family is being kicked out of school over and over” (26:00).
I think they’re both onto something, what do you think? With either explanation, John's power is threatened. But I do think it has something to do with her showing him up, and that has me leaning toward Lauren’s point. Do you think something else might be going on?
Let’s talk about desire.
Jane wants to escape the house, the Reeds, her bully. She finds a book to escape into, which endears her to us readers who pick up her story to read ourselves, as Lauren points out.
While Jane certainly wants out of her situation, she also wants the people around her to recognize the injustice she faces. She says, “the servants did not like to offend their young master [John] by taking my part against him, and Mrs. Reed was blind and deaf on the subject.” They don’t acknowledge her suffering, which must make it all the more isolating.
I love this quote from Lauren about Jane’s desire: “What she wants is power and what we know she’s going to gain eventually is the power to tell her own story, the power to see herself and present herself so that we can see her. And I think there’s a justice in that” (32:00ish).
Vanessa suggests that Jane wants to fight back and this first chapter depicts the day she does. It takes “four hands” to restrain her and bring her to the red-room. And one of the maids says “Did anybody see such a picture of passion!” In that moment of resistance Jane IS seen.
The color red plays an important role from the start. Jane hides behind a scarlet curtain in the window seat, she bleeds red from the cut in her head, she is locked in the red-room. What do you think is the significance of red here? What does it mean?
In the podcast Vanessa and Lauren discuss the book Jane selects to read at length: Bewick’s History of British Birds. They note that “birds” is British slang for young women, and that the word has been in use since the 15th century. It gives a double meaning to the moment when John takes the book from Jane and beats her with it.
What thoughts do you have about the first chapter of Jane Eyre?
What questions or lenses do you think we ought to be using as we continue reading?
And what are you looking forward to in the next couple of chapters?
For the next discussion, we will read chapters 2 and 3 and listen to the episode of On Eyre that will be released Friday July 16. Share any thoughts you have in the comments, and feel free to include Jane Eyre reading selfies!
Happy reading, my friends. 💗