Consider the selfie. By now, it’s a fairly mundane artistic tradition, even after a profusion of thinkpieces have wrestled with its rise thanks to the so-called Me Generation’s “obsession” with social media. Anyone in possession of a cheap camera phone or laptop can take a picture of themselves, edit it (or not), and share it with the world in a matter or seconds.
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.
Those who remember Jane Eyre solely as required reading in high-school English class likely recall most vividly its over-the-top Gothic tropes: a childhood banishment to a death-haunted room, a mysterious presence in the attic, a Byronic hero, and a cold mansion going up in flames. It’s more seemingly the stuff of Lifetime television, not revolutions. But as unbelievable as many of the events of the novel are, even today, Brontë’s biggest accomplishment wasn’t in plot devices. It was the narrative voice of Jane—who so openly expressed her desire for identity, definition, meaning, and agency—that rang powerfully true to its 19th-century audience. In fact, many early readers mistakenly believed Jane Eyre was a true account (in a clever marketing scheme, the novel was subtitled, “An Autobiography”), perhaps a validation of her character’s authenticity.
The way that novels paid attention to the particularities of human experience (rather than the universals of the older epics and romances) made them the ideal vehicle to shape how readers understood the modern individual. The rise of the literary form was made possible by the technology of the printing press, the print culture that followed, and the widening literacy that was cultivated for centuries until Jane Eyre’s publication. The novel seemed perfectly designed to tell Brontë’s first-person narrative of a destitute orphan girl searching for a secure identity—first among an unloving family, then an austere charity school, and finally with the wealthy but unattainable employer she loves. Unable to find her sense of self through others, Jane makes the surprising decision to turn inward.
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. Anne Brontë’s novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall contributed to the novel’s ability to offer social commentary and criticism, while the Romantic sensibilities of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights explored how the “other,” in the form of the dark, unpredictable Heathcliff, can threaten the integrity of the self.
One of the greatest testimonies to Brontë’s accomplishment came from Virginia Woolf, a modernist pioneer who represents a world far removed from that of Bronte’s Victorianism. “As we open Jane Eyre once more,” a doubting Woolf wrote in The Common Reader, “we cannot stifle the suspicion that we shall find her world of imagination as antiquated, mid-Victorian, and out of date as the parsonage on the moor, a place only to be visited by the curious, only preserved by the pious.” Woolf continues, “So we open Jane Eyre; and in two pages every doubt is swept clean from our minds.” 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.
But Jane’s resistance is not the empty rebellion of nihilism or self-absorption (consider how current practitioners of “selfie culture” frequently weather accusations of narcissism). Rather, her quest for her true self peels back the stiff layers of conventionality in order to discover genuine morality and faith. As Brontë explains in the preface to the novel’s second edition (a preface necessitated by the moral outrage that followed the novel’s publication),
Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last … These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world.
In a letter to a friend, Bronte responded to her critics’ objections by declaring, “Unless I have the courage to use the language of Truth in preference to the jargon of Conventionality, I ought to be silent ...”
The refusal of such a woman, who lived in such a time, to be silent created a new mold for the self—one apparent not only in today’s Instagram photos, but also more importantly in the collective modern sense that a person’s inner life can allow her to effect change from the inside out.
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