In the library of the public high school I attend for choir class, there is a poster on the wall depicting Shakespeare sitting in front of a laptop. The caption on the poster reads, "What are they saying about me now?"
Whoa. Back up a second. "What are they saying about Shakespeare"? Whatever happened to what Shakespeare has to say? But it isn't about Shakespeare anymore. No, now it's "how many social and political aspirations we can throw on Shakespeare"--or on any other great writer, for that matter. I have noticed more and more that today's literary critics and scholars--in an ironically narrow-minded approach--tend to construe the classics into our own modern, secular, materialist mindset. Invariably, the result is an ugly and sterilized re-visioning of a really beautiful piece of literature.
I had a very interesting experience of this recently while reading Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. I had never read the book before. The copy of Jane Eyre that I picked up from the library (the same library, incidentally, that had the misled Shakespeare poster) was a Penguin Classics edition, "enriched" with a new introduction and endnotes. The summary on the back cover summed up the book thus: "A novel of intense power and intrigue, Jane Eyre (1847) dazzled and shocked readers with its passionate depiction of a woman's search for equality and freedom."
"A woman's search for equality and freedom"? That put me on my guard. I flipped open to the introduction, and my fears were confirmed--Jane Eyre was being put forward as a triumph of political and social rebellion, which spoke out against authority and convention. It was almost hailed for being feminist. My heart fell at once. I had wanted to read a good story, not a subversive feminist manifesto.
But I couldn't be sure yet what it was. In Bronte's own preface to Jane Eyre, written for her contemporaries, she admits that the book might seem radical to some. But, she retorts, "Conventionality is not morality....narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ." Somehow, this just didn't sound feminist to me. It sounded Christian.
So I decided I'd let the book itself tell me what it was. I began reading--cautiously at first, on the lookout for any sentiments or turns of phrase that a modern politically correct scholar would approve of. There were a few. In one notable paragraph (which I will only quote parts of, as it is long), Jane gripes against the quiet and unchallenging duties of her post as governess at Thornfield Hall:
"It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action.... Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do...and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags." ("Jane Eyre", Chapter XII)
I can easily see how a feminist would latch onto such a paragraph with triumph. But I think these outbursts are misinterpreted, and anyway they are not the norm in the book. In fact they are rather rare. As a whole Jane Eyre is thoroughly Christian, and at times it is deeply reverant. This beautiful passage occurs in a scene after Jane has fled from Thornfield Hall. She has escaped from sinning with her employer Mr. Rochester, but she still loves him and agonizes over his fate. (Forgive the length of this excerpt--I simply couldn't bear to cut a sentence of it):
"Worn out with this torture of thought, I rose to my knees. Night was come, and her planets were risen: a safe, still night: too serene for the companionship of fear. We know that God is everywhere, but certainly we feel His presence most when His works are on the grandest scale spread before us; and it is in the unclouded night-sky, where His worlds wheel their silent course, that we read clearest His infinitude, His omnipotence, His omnipresence. I had risen to my knees to pray for Mr Rochester. Looking up, I, with tear-dimmed eyes, saw the mighty Milky Way. Remembering what it was--what countless systems there swept space like a soft trace of light--I felt the might and strength of God. Sure was I of His efficiency to save what he had made: convinced I grew that neither earth should perish, nor one of the souls it treasured. I turned my prayer to thanksgiving: the Source of Life was also the Saviour of spirits. Mr Rochester was safe: he was God's, and by God would he be guarded. I again nestled to the breast of the hill; and ere long forgot sleep in sorrow." ("Jane Eyre", Chapter XXVIII)
Could a "self-empowered" feminist ever rise to such beautiful trust?
The whole plot of Jane Eyre is clearly and gracefully directed by Providence. And it is telling, I think, that the book does not end with Jane going out into the world to find the vague "action" that she mentions in Chapter 12. At least, not action in the worldly sense, not in the sense that a feminist would have it. The book ends with Jane returning to her beloved Mr. Rochester, marrying him, and helping him lead a holier life. And that is the splendid adventure, the great action, that feminists shrink from in fear.
After finishing the book, I looked back at the critic's introduction and couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry. The themes were so typical, so sad: "The Politics of Jane Eyre", "Jane and the Self", "'My Master': Power, Sexuality and Marriage". The poor critic had utterly missed the beauty of the book by blowing its social and political aspects all out of proportion. Jane Eyre is not a woman's search for social "equality and freedom". It is her search for love and redemption. How much bigger and more wonderful those words are than "power" or "politics".
Modern scholars and critics may try to use the classics to justify our own secular attitudes and ever-changing principles. But all they can really make is a mockery of themselves. They can only twist and distort, never beautify. They analyze and speculate and talk about what they know not; but the classics will endure it all, and will wait to speak out thunderously, to those who are brave enough to stand in the deluge of beauty and truth and to listen.