Is the new film of “Jane Eyre” Feminist?

via Ms. Magazine blog, where Melissa Kort recalls, “When I was in college and graduate school, we were just discovering what it meant to read a novel–even a novel by a woman–from a feminist point of view. Then came, among other groundbreaking critical works, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (1979). The madwoman in the title appears in Charlotte Bronte’s evergreen 1847 novel Jane Eyre, becoming for Gilbert and Gubar a symbolic depiction of Victorian women as either uber-repressed angels or unseemly, passionate monsters. Madwoman, in turn, generated an industry of critiques, thus widening further the focus of feminist criticism.”

I just watched the new film version of Jane Eyre by director Cary Fukunaga and starring Mia Wasikowska as Jane, Michael Fassbender as Rochester, and Jamie Bell as St. John Rivers (I recognized Wasikowska from last year’s Kids are Alright but it took a visit to Internet Movie Database to remind me where I’d seen Fassbender (Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglorious Basterds) and Bell (the title character from Billie Elliot — blimey has it been that long since that film came out?!)

Back to Jane Eyre — I have never read the book and had not seen previous film versions either.  I was worried that the film would replicate the anachronisms of the most recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (which I refused to see because, like Bridget Jones, I consider Colin Firth to the be the best Mr. Darcy ever!)  So, I enjoyed the film on its own merits.  My complaint is that there wasn’t much chemistry between this Jane and Rochester.

So, is this Jane Eyre feminist?  If one considers the historical period of the film — the 1840s – then absolutely the answer is yes.  Jane defies the gender role expectations of the time and insists on a full life on her own terms — e.g. she refuses to marry St. John even though that’s what women are supposed to do.  Unlike Kort, who felt that film left out too many details about “complex social forces that engender” the madwoman in the attic, I found the minimalist approach of this version quite appealing.  This made for a leaner storyline but also a movie with a reasonable viewing length of two hours.  That and Wasikowska’s subdued yet luminous performance might just draw in a new generation of young women. Besides, if you want to learn more about the madwoman, from her perspective no less, read  Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea.

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