As Jane Eyre’s story begins, there was no possibility of taking a walk that day, mostly because we were in school hours and I’m supposed to teach children literature, or something like that. And I was glad of it, just like Jane, because I would always skip a walk outside for the opportunity to geek out over books with teenagers.
The scene I’m about to describe occurred in my twelfth grade Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition classroom this semester. For those of you unfamiliar with American schooling, twelfth grade is our final year of school before university, and Advanced Placement (AP) courses are college (university) courses taught in high schools, with collegiate work and rigor, and they end with an exam, the score of which can sometimes help you earn advance credits for college. I teach this class once a year with a small group of twelfth graders, or seniors, many of whom have been identified as gifted and/or talented back in elementary or middle school. These groups, like every group of GT students, can present their own challenges, but typically they’re a delight to teach – and they keep me on my toes as a facilitator of discussion. It’s not uncommon for me to have accomplished athletes, artists, musicians, actors, and thinkers among the students in this course, most of whom go on to (thus far) successful careers in college.
On this lovely day without a walk but with plenty of Charlotte Brontë, my students and I were a little over halfway through Jane Eyre, not yet to the big reveal regarding the household’s mysterious laughter (I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it), but nearing Jane and Rochester’s matrimonial attempt. We were discussing what made Jane and Mr. Rochester a suitable couple, and whether we were rooting for them to earn a happily-ever-after or not. While the students found themselves put off by the age difference between Jane and Rochester, as well as by the employer-employee imbalance of power, they were drawn to the witty quips and intelligent exchanges that pass between the two throughout the novel (“verbal foreplay,” one student called it). It seemed to put them on even footing, my students said, making their connection more believable.
Far beyond Jane’s other qualities – and I’d argue that there are many – my students were impressed with her vocabulary, her wordplay, and the depth and breadth of Jane’s conversational skills. “She keeps up with him on every subject, and it doesn’t seem like Rochester’s enjoyed that before,” one young lady pointed out. “It doesn’t seem like his French mistress was very smart.” Brontë’s characters have no love for French intellect, it’s true, but Jane does seem an intellectual giant compared to most of the other female characters in the book – and many male characters as well. Even her (initial) supposed romantic rival, Blanche Ingram, while Jane’s equal in education, comes nowhere near matching Jane’s tact, discretion, or good taste – or depth of consciousness and conscientiousness. (In fact, when Jane remarks that “genius is self-conscious,” and notes that while Blanche may not be a genius, she is self-conscious, she is aptly describing herself – a highly intelligent, highly self-conscious and self-aware individual .) It wasn’t just Jane’s intellect that most of my students felt made her a perfect match of Rochester; it was some other unnamed quality she had, something that set her apart from other women in the novel.
I asked them to describe what this other quality (or qualities) might be: what made Jane so different from everyone else? Students pointed to her firm, if sometimes absurd, grasp on the reality of her disadvantaged situation; her undisguised blunt honesty in addressing shortcomings on behalf of herself and others (such as calling both herself and Mr. Rochester ugly); her cool removal from many situations, as in her unwillingness to be duped by superstition; her seemingly effortless intelligence and skills, such as her art. “Jane’s just deeper than all these frivolous women we see everywhere else,” a young lady said. “She’s got a lot of spirit. She isn’t going to go with the crowd, or let anyone run her over. She’ll think her way through first.”
“Should we admire Jane for not ‘going with the crowd,’ then?” I asked. “She can be off-putting at times, and she’s kind of a loner – a solitary soul. Do we admire that quality about her?”
“Yes,” a young man responded, “when the people around her can’t match her intelligence.”
“Except for Mr. Rochester,” added another student, one who firmly subscribed to the novel’s love story.
Finding this was the right time to pose a new question to my students, I said to them, “Consider all the things you’ve just said. Jane’s special. She’s different. She was precocious as a child, and she’s always been intelligent and artistically talented. But she doesn’t get along with many people, or she’s at least conscious of the difference in intellect between them, and she has her own way of looking at the world.” I’ll admit, I paused for dramatic emphasis. “Is Jane Eyre… gifted?”
My students raised a few eyebrows. “What, like TAG?” one asked, referring to our school district’s Talented and Gifted program.
“Yes, just like that. How many of you were identified gifted as children?”
Most of the class raised their hands – the response I had anticipated.
“How many of you know what that means?”
Most of those students put their hands down – again, as I had anticipated.
“It meant, like, we were smarter than the rest of the students,” someone offered. “Not to be vain about it or anything. We just knew material a lot faster than them, so we got to leave class in elementary school and do enrichment stuff, like math.” Several students chimed in after this, reminiscing about the math class in question – mostly about how it got them out of their regular class. The students also remembered their English enrichment activities, such as reading and performing excerpts of Shakespeare at the middle school level. Another student recalled the pressure of having to “audition” for the TAG program; apparently the directors had not thought she was gifted “enough,” and made her demonstrate her giftedness – whatever that means – before a teacher panel by answering questions on different academic subjects. Her peers in the gifted program appeared to have not thought differently about her; based on their recollections (“Yeah!” “I can’t believe they made you do that!”) they didn’t seem to believe she was any less gifted than they were. On the whole, many of their remarks indicated that being identified as gifted, and pursuing the enrichment or extra education the school had offered them, had set them apart (perhaps, in some views, above?) their peers.
My next question followed this line of thought, being about their social lives as gifted students. “How did you get along with your peers?” I asked, not wanting to lead them to an answer. “By peers, I mean both other gifted students, and students who were not identified as gifted.”
“Well, most of my friends were in the gifted program too,” “I made friends in the enrichment classes,” and “I think we all bonded doing those crazy math games together,” were among the responses to this question; but the common refrain “But sometimes I felt frustrated in regular classes, because I didn’t understand then why other kids couldn’t get what I already knew” appeared several times as well. Nobody reported getting in trouble (like Jane, when she responds smartly to Mr. Brocklehurst’s question about what she can do to avoid hell [“I must keep myself in good health, and not die” (31)]). Personally, I found the reported ease of social interaction impressive; I myself was one of those socially awkward gifted children who was impatient with peers, and as an elementary school student in the early 90s, I did not always play well with others. These students, at least, seemed to have interacted well with each other, although I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that some of them had experienced difficulty interacting with peers, or had acted out in some way. (Some of them are still acting out in small-ish ways this year.)
“So you bonded the most with students who went through the same experiences, or who could perform at the same level as you,” I said.
“Yes, because they were more like me.” “I felt like I had more in common with them.” “…a lot like Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester!” “Well, he’s the first intellectual equal she’s met. They have these conversations where they totally get each other, where they talk about the cadeau and whether she’s a sprite.” “And Mrs. Fairfax can’t really keep up, but they just have this instant connection.” “They have those quick, witty exchanges like the Gilmore Girls… ooh, and Rory Gilmore’s gifted too, right?”
Right indeed, on so many counts. My students were intrigued by the idea that hyperintelligent and self-reflective Jane Eyre might be gifted and talented like so many of them, and began to reflect on how frustrated or restrained Jane must have felt in homes or vocations where she had no outlet for her intelligence or creativity: being forced to hide with her History of British Birds, or being underserved at Lowood, or feeling “degraded” by teaching the country school in St. John Rivers’ parish, where her “sentiments and tastes” would just have to keep, instead of being used (8, 39-78, 332-336). They were all the more impressed then by her ability to articulate her sense of self, especially as a woman in the 19th century, and especially when under emotional, often romantic, duress. They returned with admiration to the passage where she announces herself Rochester’s equal, and several days later, when she was able to respond to St. John’s influence (again, I’ll refrain from spoiling you), they cheered aloud when she “assume[d]” “her ascendancy” and when her “powers” were “in play” (238; 391).
Following our discussion, it seemed clear – to them, at least – that Jane’s independence and spirit were inextricably linked to what we had suggested was her giftedness, and that it was her giftedness that contributed to what Shakespeare might call “the marriage of true minds” she and Rochester experience. And it is an exciting idea, that Jane’s particular intelligence and sense of self could contribute to what many critics consider to be one of the first stories of the independent woman. Jane doesn’t just use her mind to think her way out of problems – one facet of her giftedness might be the self-consciousness of genius she remarked upon above, her heightened awareness of herself and the world around her, that ultimately tunes her in to the saving graces (and secret messages) of nature: the mother moon telling her to flee temptation, the moors carrying Rochester’s calls to her in her moment of need (298, 391). Perhaps Jane’s giftedness isolates her in one sense – from most of the rest of society – while it ultimately connects her to the things she finds most useful or sustaining – nature, herself, and Mr. Rochester.
Of course, this isn’t the only reading of Jane Eyre, and it’s not without problems – this account is obviously putting aside everything that’s problematic about this novel (and let’s be honest; there are a lot of problematic things), and putting aside everything that’s problematic about the assumption that someone who’s gifted is going to be more readily capable of taking a stand for independence and asserting autonomy (because we as readers know plenty of characters who are not gifted, but who still stand up for themselves and discover their true selves) – and we did discuss both of those things when the appropriate textual occasions arose in class. But bearing that in mind, the whole experience was an exciting, intriguing moment for my students, glancing in an old mirror and finding a reflection of someone who looked a little bit like them.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002.