The Brontes’ Leading Men

To avoid a very lengthy post, I decided to save a discussion of Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester for a second post.  Click for my first post on Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

After reading the two books, I was wondering what led both Bronte sisters to cast dark and brooding men as their heroes.  A friend told me that their father was rather dark and brooding too.  In fact, she told me that Heathcliff was based on their father–and for the Brontes’ sake, I sincerely hope not!

It wouldn’t be so bad if Mr. Rochester was based on their father.  A lot of the discussions I’ve had on Jane Eyre (and I’ve managed to have several!) have centered around whether or not Mr. Rochester is likable.  Jane’s likability is also an issue, but a liking for the book does seem to hinge on whether you consider Mr. Rochester a good romantic hero.

I come down on the side of yes.  Going into this, I expected to not like him because, after all–he has his first wife locked in a tower!  But I think I had a vague notion that he had driven her insane, which (unless there’s a lot going on Charlotte never told us) isn’t the case at all.  Considering the medical treatment of the time for the insane, I think locking her up in a tower is actually the most humane and merciful option.  Especially since, whatever Mrs. Rochester’s insanity is, it’s clearly a case of being a danger to herself and others.

So I don’t blame him for that.  Do I blame him for not telling Jane about the first wife, when he was planning to marry her?  Yes, definitely.  More on that in a bit.

And then of course he’s brooding and acerbic and unfriendly.  But he’s also had his life blighted by a marriage to an insane woman, who he hated prior to her insanity, and which society won’t let him out of.  That could give a person some issues.

When you come down to it, I believe that Mr. Rochester is basically a good guy, somewhat moody and not perfect, who got caught in a really, really difficult situation.  He immersed himself in unhealthy influences, and that comes out when he interacts with people.  I don’t believe that “the love of a good woman,” as the cliche goes, is going to save him–but I think getting him out of his situation and putting him around better, more positive people, will let the better person inside emerge.

Contrary to what the movies tell you, he’s also not very attractive–and I love that he’s so well-adjusted about it!  Near the end of the book, after he’s been beat up a bit (no details, trying not to give too much of a spoiler) he asks Jane if he’s very hideous.  And she says–“yes, but you always were.”  Which doesn’t seem to bother him at all!  I’m fascinated by the Phantom of the Opera’s issues with his appearance, but I also really enjoy a hero who doesn’t seem to mind being ugly.

As to that business of not telling Jane about the first wife, yeah, it was bad…but by the end of the book, Charlotte has punished him so thoroughly that I want to just forgive him and let him be happy.

And then there’s Heathcliff.  I believed there was a good man somewhere under Mr. Rochester’s brooding exterior.  I don’t believe that about Heathcliff.  For one thing, he’s even more caustic and unfriendly.  Mr. Rochester is generally just rather sarcastic and off-putting.  Heathcliff is out-and-out nasty and cruel.

I looked up “psychopathy,” and here’s what I found: “a mental disorder in which an individual manifests amoral and antisocial behavior, lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, extreme egocentricity.”  That’s Heathcliff.

I wanted to like the poor, trodden-upon gypsy boy–but he wasn’t even a nice kid.  And Heathcliff just got worse when he grew up.  He treats everyone around him horribly, and never exhibits the slightest sympathy or remorse.  All of his goals seem to be about exacting revenge and inflicting pain.

His most significant relationship is with Cathy, of course–but I wasn’t all that convinced that they loved each other either.  I believed that Mr. Rochester loved Jane, would treat her well, and that they’d be happy together.  Cathy and Heathcliff never exhibit pleasant things like kindness, tenderness, or self-sacrifice, even to each other.  I think they’re obsessed with each other–but I don’t think it’s anything as healthy or positive as love.

Another friend tells me that Heathcliff is apparently a romantic lead archetype, which is a terrifying prospect.  This is where women get into trouble, isn’t it?  They think they’ve got Mr. Rochester, and he turns out to be Heathcliff.  It’s not always so easy to tell them apart in real life.

I also read The Eyre Affair recently, about a world where you can actually go into books.  I’d quite enjoy going to dinner at Thornfield Hall with Jane and Mr. Rochester.  You couldn’t pay me to go to dinner at Wuthering Heights.

I’m glad I read both books, though.  I’m glad I know more about Jane Eyre than that there’s a first wife locked up somewhere, and more about Wuthering Heights than that it has a character named Heathcliff–which is about where my knowledge stood a few months ago.  Even if my opinion of Wuthering Heights didn’t turn out very favorable, it’s nice to have an opinion about it.  And Jane Eyre was lovely.

4 thoughts on “The Brontes’ Leading Men

  1. I REALLY enjoyed your review and I think that you brought up such interesting issues. If you’ve seen the BBC version of Jane Eyre, I believe that they cast Rochester as he should be, a physically average or even unattractive man who becomes more attractive as you begin to almost… trust… him (which is the only way I can describe it). In a way (SPOILER) I think that being in that fire and losing his eye sight helped him to not rely so much on women for his moods or ways of thinking. He’s a very dependent person. And you are so right about the way he treats his wife. It’s an immoral act but in the context of the time he lives in, it’s almost a god-send for her. Especially since she’s described as being violent, she would be treated awfully in a mental institution.

    I haven’t read Wuthering Heights and if I’m to be honest, I never intend to. I’m all for angsty, emotion driven books but Wuthering Heights seems to be so annoying. I’ve only ever met a very few selection of people who really LOVED it and to be honest, I wouldn’t really trust their book suggests lol so judgemental!

    But thanks for this, I loved reading it and you have very clear thoughts about the books. Thanks 😀

    1. Thanks for your very kind comment! I’m so glad you enjoyed my post. I enjoyed your analysis as well–I’ll have to think a bit about Rochester’s dependence! I do think he was doing what he could for his wife…there’s a bit where Mrs. Rochester’s brother tells Rochester to treat her with kindness. Rochester says something along the lines of, “yes, I’m doing the best I can, haven’t I always?” and I think it’s true. It’s an incredibly difficult situation.

      I don’t think you’re being judgmental about not trusting book suggestions–not everyone has the same tastes and it’s smart to know who’s likely to suggest books you’ll actually like!

  2. Diane

    Wonderful comparison of the two “romantic” heroes in the Bronte sisters’ books. I’m with you – if Heathcliff was based on their father, they had a tough time at home!

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