Monday, 02 May 2011
I just came out of seeing the new Focus Features adaptation of Jane Eyre, and I intended to write a straight review highlighting the movie’s faithfulness to its source, which is exceptional, and its considerable beauty and arresting characterizations. As I was sitting in the theater, however, I couldn’t shake the overwhelming sense of similarity between this film and another I recently saw—Eat, Pray, Love.
On the surface, the two movies are worlds apart. Jane Eyre is set in the early nineteenth century and describes the life of the title character as she grows up an orphan and becomes a governess in a solitary Gothic mansion. The action mostly takes place in one house in the north of England. Eat, Pray, Love is set in the present time and follows a writer named Liz Gilbert as she searches for fulfillment across three continents.
Underneath the surface of the stories, similarities abound. Both women are established early on as passionate individuals who feel trapped and unable to express that passion, Liz by a difficult marriage and lackluster job, Jane by her poverty and station in life. Each, in her own way, goes in search of something to awaken her and give her a means to express the passion inside her. For both women, the journey leads to the arms of a man—to passion expressed as desire. Liz finds Felipe, and Jane finds Mr. Rochester.
Here’s where it gets interesting. After eating, meditating, and loving her way through three continents, the end of Liz’s story is her acquiescence to attraction. The woman who left her husband and leaped into the bed of a younger man in order to reignite her passion for life finishes her story by giving herself to another man, because that is where desire leads. Ultimately, Liz’s story is about a woman giving the passion inside her exactly what it wants.
Jane’s journey also leads her to a man’s arms and to what appears to be a happy ending—but the happiness is short-lived when she discovers that her fiancé is already married, to a woman who is insane and very much alive. Distraught, Mr. Rochester begs Jane to stay with him, since his wife is no wife to him, and he and Jane are in love with one another. Jane’s desire is clear, and her passion points one direction—the man begging her to live with him. At this point in the story, Jane has made the same journey as Liz and had her passion kindled by her love for a man.
This is where the stories profoundly diverge. Instead of giving in to her overwhelming passion, Jane chooses self-control and leaves Mr. Rochester before temptation overtakes her. With passion as strong as Liz’s, she says no to her desires and refuses to enter into an immoral relationship, even though doing so causes her extreme pain.
The final outcome for these two characters could not be more different. The end of Eat, Pray, Love is distinctly unfulfilling because it leaves Liz a prisoner—a prisoner of unrestrained passion and desire, bound to go wherever her wants lead, no matter how destructive or antithetical to commitment. Even more tragic, perhaps, is her lack of awareness of the prison of Self that encloses her.
Jane’s end is triumphant for the exact opposite reason—she is truly free. Her freedom has nothing to do with time, place, or circumstance. Liz Gilbert wandered three continents and remained a prisoner. Jane Eyre finds freedom in a world hardly bigger than a single house—freedom from Self. Her reunion with Mr. Rochester is beautiful in a romantic sense, but even more so for its significance to her character. She is able to experience true happiness because she has maintained freedom from the tyranny of her desires. Her happiness is a happiness free of compromise.
I wonder how audiences will react to Jane Eyre. After all, we live in a world where Liz Gilbert’s brand of self-imprisonment through self-indulgence is the order of the day. Jane is a different kind of heroine, one who realizes that to be truly free, a person cannot be enslaved to her own wants. Her quietly fiery resolve reminds us that passion without self-control is worthless, and her brilliantly satisfying ending illustrates that true happiness comes from true freedom.
What do you think of Jane Eyre? Do you think it was similar to Eat Pray Love?