Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The every-decade book

Some people reread their favorite books every year, but I do not.  As a general rule I feel about books the way I do about vacation destinations.  With all the wonderful places to see in the world (and books to read) why should I revisit the same place (or book) over and over, year after year?

People don't change much from year to year, but a lot of changes take place in a decade or in a series of decades.  In preparation for teaching in the fall I recently reread Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, a book I loathed the first time I read it.  Almost 30 years later, I found it to be much better and surprisingly, much funnier, the second time around.  It is no longer on my "Most Hated Books of All Time" list.  It has been 20 years since I read James Joyce's Ulysses, so perhaps in another ten I'll give that one another go.

There is one book that I have made a point to read every decade since I was 15-years-old:  Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.  It remains one of my all-time favorites, but with every decade, I take something new from the book.  The one thing that remains is my abiding adoration of Mr. Rochester, although this time around I'm having a bit of trouble with him.

When I was 15, I disliked the book immensely when I began reading it.  It was so.slow.  But then I got to the orchard scene, which is Chapter 23 (or thereabouts depending on your edition), where Mr. Rochester declares his true feelings, and at that point I couldn't read the book fast enough.  I fell in complete love with Mr. Rochester and considered the book a great romance.

In my twenties, I still loved Rochester, but I read with my eye on Jane's independence.  Her feminism, her strength, her resolve.  As a young woman finding my own way in life, I looked at Jane through that lens.

In my thirties, as a mother, I looked at Jane's childhood differently, and I looked at both her and Rochester's treatment of/relationship with Adele.

And now, at 40, I am finding myself less forgiving of Rochester's lies to Jane.  For the first time, I have seen what he says and does as desperation rather than ardent proofs of love.  I think he does love her, but I also see his need for control and how that hurts her so profoundly.  I understand why he does it, and I don't necessarily blame him for doing it, especially since he had no other options, but I see him as kind of emotionally abusive to her, which makes her decision to leave him even more powerful and indicative of her strength.

I am very excited to teach this novel to my high schoolers in the fall, although I have to say it feels WAY weird to be teaching to kids just as I was taught nearly 30 years ago.  Full circle, indeed.

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