Wednesday, May 17, 2017

By Dr. Karen Swallow Prior

Since I was a very little girl, I have lost myself in books.1 I’ve found myself in them, too. In fact, I wrote an entire book about the books that shaped my soul and formed my identity, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. The book that was most formative in my life was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. 

In addition to teaching me how, ultimately, to be myself, Jane Eyre perfectly portrays the quest for identity within the context of the modern condition. In fact, the novel embodies, to a remarkable degree, the modern quest for self-identity described by Charles Taylor in The Ethics of Authenticity. According to Taylor, authenticity as a moral value emerged in the late 18th century, and is rooted in Enlightenment subjectivity. As Taylor describes it, authenticity was connected to another moral value of the age, “self-determining freedom,” which he explains is the impulse to “decide for myself what concerns me, rather than being shaped by external influences.”2

Not coincidentally, it was also around this time, in the eighteenth century, that the novel developed as a literary genre. The novel is a form uniquely expressive of modernity, particularly individual autonomy and subjectivity – the central ingredients of identity. Bronte’s publication of Jane Eyre in 1847 marks a point at which the rise of the novel and the rise of the modern notion of the self converge. Centered on the heroine’s quest for her authentic self, Jane Eyre depicts what Taylor calls “the massive subjective turn of modern culture, a new form of inwardness, in which we come to think of ourselves as beings with inner depths.”3

Modernity radically changed the way we form our individual identities. Before the modern age, Taylor says, being “in touch with some source—God, say, or the Idea of the Good—was considered essential to full being.”In addition to drawing from transcendent notions of God and the good, the peoples of the ancient and medieval worlds gained their identities from their communities: the families they were born into, the traditions they were raised in, the social class they were part of, the bonds of religious belief they shared with others. Before the rise of the modern self, people simply inherited their identities, their “selves” directly from their families. The boy born to a shoemaker was destined to be a shoemaker. The girl born to an aristocrat would be a lady. But with the modern age came a new social mobility and with it the idea of the individual. The modern shift, however, replaced this external source of authority with the notion that, in Taylor’s words, “the source we have to connect with is deep in us.”

The story of Jane Eyre reflects this inward turn through its masterful use of first-person narration—Bronte’s primary contribution to the novel form. It is essential to the story of Jane Eyre, even though it is a fictional work, that it takes the form of an autobiography. One of the most distinguishing aspects of Jane Eyre is the “voice” of Jane, and it is no coincidence that the term “voice” has come to mean in modern usage much more than just the sound made by the vocal organs, but also the means by which we make our individual selves known, not only to others but to ourselves. For the connection between the self and language is inseparable: it is through language that the self becomes and that identity is formed. Most critics and readers agree Jane’s voice—not the overly romantic plot—makes an otherwise unrealistic story so compelling and believable. Jane’s powerful narrative voice illustrates Taylor’s observation about the “dialogical character” of the human condition in the modern age. He explains:

We become full human agents, capable of understanding ourselves, and hence of defining an identity, through our acquisition of rich human languages of expression. . . . No one acquires the languages needed for self-definition on their own. We are introduced to them through exchanges with others who matter to us.5

Jane comes to find her own voice—and therefore her authentic self—through a dialogical process with the people in her life who are her friends and her foes. Her story—which finds her going from being an orphan abused by a cruel aunt, to being a student at a deplorable charity school, to being a lowly governess in love with a wealthy employer—is one in which she seeks love from others, but not at the price of sacrificing her individual identity or self-respect. Hence Jane embodies what Taylor describes as modernity’s “new importance to being true to myself” as a “certain way of being human that is my way . . . not in imitation of anyone else’s.”

But while modernity makes authentic identity and autonomy seem inseparable, they aren’t, as Jane’s character shows. Jane embodies Charles Taylor’s notion of the genuine authenticity possible for the modern subject, one achieved only by looking outside the self. True self-fulfillment, Taylor explains, is derived “against the background of things that matter” with attention to “the demands of our ties with others.” As Taylor explains, a quest for the authentic self-detached from “horizons of significance” outside the self leads to relativism and, ultimately, insignificance:

The agent seeking significance in life, trying to define him- or herself meaningfully, has to exist in a horizon of important questions. That is what is self-defeating in modes of contemporary culture that concentrate on self-fulfillment in opposition to the demands of society, or nature, which shut out history and the bonds of solidarity. . . . To shut out demands emanating beyond the self is precisely to suppress the conditions of significance, and hence to court trivialization. Only if I exist in a world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial. Authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands.6

This is precisely the genuine authenticity we see in the character of Jane Eyre. For unlike many subjects lionized in great modern literature, Jane’s true self is rooted in something outside herself. And that something is God.

Throughout the novel, Jane is tempted to betray her true self by imitating the ways of others. She’s tempted to imitate her beloved Christian friend Helen Burns by embracing Burns’s otherworldly stoicism. She’s tempted to imitate her cruel aunt by returning an unforgiving spirit. She’s tempted to imitate her cousin in marrying not for love but for service on the mission field. She’s tempted to imitate her beloved by compromising her Christian faith in order to remain with him. But, despite pain and struggle, Jane resists each of these temptations to be something other than her true self.

When Jane realizes that to be her authentic self she must choose between passion and principle, she determines:

I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?7

Jane’s self-determination does make her a modern, self-created subject. But because she turns outward rather than inward, she achieves the genuine authenticity Taylor describes. In using her sense of self and her moral agency to become the person God calls her to be, Jane achieves genuine authenticity and true freedom, which are necessary for healthy identity.

In portraying a character whose self-creation is rooted in something outside the self, Charlotte Bronte offered a great gift to the modern world—and to me, personally, as I was seeking my own identity and sense of self as a young Christian woman. As Marshall McLuhan was known for saying, “Beholding is becoming.” Jane seemed in so many ways to be someone like me. In reading and studying the book many more times later in life, I came to realize that this was because she really was. The story of Jane Eyre, in giving me something worthy of beholding and in so doing helped me to become myself.

1. A version of this article originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition. Additional passages are drawn from Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012).

2. Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 27.

3. Taylor, Authenticity, 26

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., 33.

6. Ibid., 40.

7. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, (New York, NY: Bantam Dell, 1987), 342-43.