Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Watched Plot, Continued - Reader, I m****ed h*m

Although I have not read Jane Eyre, I know, through cultural osmosis, I guess, the entire story, including the last line* and the genuine “the ghost is actually a man in drag”-style plot twist. I know more about it than about any other major novel I haven’t read, except, possibly, David Copperfield (from a stage version at the Steppenwolf in Chicago) and Les Miserables (from the Jean-Paul Belmondo movie, the one set during World War II).

Has Jane Eyre’s pleasure been spoiled for me – no, I reject spoiled, I know that - say, blemished, or even appreciably diminished? Does it matter? I have strong, strong doubts. Surely Charlotte Brontë is a good enough writer to direct my response to where she wants it. I want to note that Jane Eyre’s plot twist is the actual title** of one of the most read and assigned books of feminist criticism, so I cannot be entirely alone here.

Dorothy W left a comment yesterday pointing out that there's an entire class of novels that have been so fully absorbed into the culture that a clean first reading is almost impossible: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, The War of the Worlds, A Christmas Carol. Almost any famous fairy tale. Frankenstein has to be just about the worst, or best, case. How many first-time readers miss the actual story on the page in front of them while looking around for Igor and the pitchfork-wielding peasants and "Puttin' on the Ritz"?

Another example. The Hudson Review published, last fall, two first-rate excerpts from the Pevear and Volokhonsky War and Peace. One scene, one of the novel's half dozen greatest, involved the death of a major character. The assumption is that the magnificent details of Tolstoy's art override any objections. Still, they could have chosen a different scene.

I didn’t mind revealing that Little Nell dies at the end of The Old Curiosity Shop. For one thing, Oscar Wilde’s comment on her death may at this point be more famous than the novel itself. (A typical response to Wilde is probably "Wait, which novel has Little Nell?" Or "Who is Little Nell?").

Second, Nell’s death is not really what one would call a plot twist. Any attentive reader can see it coming from at least the halfway point of the book. Dickens in fact received a steady flow of letters begging him to let Nell live. These were not necessarily the most sophisticated readers, and they understood the foreshadowing easily enough.

Third, I don’t expect many of my readers to actually read the thing themselves, and those who do either aren’t reading for the story, which is not in and of itself worth the trouble. More on that tomorrow, maybe.

And here’s the thing – I was affected by Nell’s death anyway, in spite of everything. Almost physically affected, with a little emotional jolt. The final scene is a materpiece of pace and tension. Our taste for the sentimental may not be what it once was, but Dickens knew what he was doing. I know I won't have the same response on a second reading - I'll be poking around to see how he did it - but it was not the "what" that was important. It was the "how".

Who killed Roger Ackroyd? Who cares? That's another one I haven't read yet somehow know the twist. Still, I promise, I won't tell you. Unless I have a really good reason.

* Update: first line of last chapter, not last line. My excuse: "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance." Thanks to Imani.

** No, the title isn't Jane Eyre's Plot Twist. It's the plot twist of Jane Eyre. No, not The Plot Twist of Jane Eyre. Look, I'm trying not to give it away.


  1. I hope you don't think the last line is "Reader, I m****ed h*m". ;) One of the funniest things about such books is how a lot of the popular ideas distort some of the book's elements or are just plain wrong.

    Frankenstein is an excellent example. For years I thought it was a) the monster's name not the scientist's and b) that it was...kind of campy somehow. Instead I got such a magnificent, tragic, powerful tale. :o Shot right up into my favourites list.

    Wuthering Heights is another. Everyone always goes on and on about the moors but they actually don't get that much play. And for Jane Eyre people tend to focus on the romantic bits when religion plays as large (if not larger) a role in Jane's last and which explains Bronte's choice for the last lines, IMO.

    I haven't read Dr. Jekyll. I wonder what I'll think of it? After reading Danielle's review of a Jack London book I decided to try some of his works too. For whatever reason I had him type-casted as a kind of northern Robert Louis Stevenson adventure type but apparently his books are grimmer. (Note: I've never read a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. No doubt my impressions about him are off as well.)

  2. Not 'Reader, I mangled him'?

    How about: 'Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!'

    Just slightly different. So noted, amended, corrected, and fixed. Thanks a lot.

    Those old novels that have fallen into the "Adventure Books for Boys" category (London, Stevenson) are ripe for misunderstanding, aren't they, as are the "Romantic Books for Girls" like the Brontës.

  3. I totally agree with everything you've said so far, and I sit here at home reading these posts and nodding, BUT I didn't know little Nell was going to die. I know, I'm just that thick, but plot twists ALWAYS catch me off-guard. I'd read the first 3/4 of OCS, and then had to return it to the library. A year or so later, I bought it so I could finish it, and it's typical Dickensian coincidence and I'm all, Oh good, this man is going to catch up with Nell and her grandfather and they'll all live happily ever after but then HE'S TOO LATE AND SHE'S DEAD!! This was seriously one of the saddest moments in literary history for me.

    I totally agree that most classics, and even a lot of non-classics, are so embedded in our society that we can't help but know the end (Bruce Willis has been dead the whole movie!), but I try not to read too many reviews of books if I really really want to read them. I love that hope that maybe they won't die, maybe they won't split up, maybe everything will turn out ok. Knowing that either it does or it doesn't kind of kills that whole sensation.

  4. Imani -- read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! It's wonderful -- very dark and moody, very weird, and very psychological.

  5. Raych, if I understand you correctly, you did understand the threat. You just wanted - as many readers did - the happy ending. The shock wasn't the possibility of Nell's death, but that it actually happens - that one short, painful sentence. So not that thick!

    I was actually relieved that Nell wasn't murdered, which would have been too horrible. Several of Nell's dreams, and her hallucination in the waxworks, point that way.

    And speaking of horrible hallucinations, I strongly second the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde recommendation. 60 pages well spent, and full of surprises. Here's one: Hyde is actually smaller than Jekyll.

  6. I'm slightly embarrassed that I have read Jane Eyre (albeit fifteen years ago and never discussed it) and I had to look up both the line in question and the plot twist.
    Robinson Crusoe is another addition to the list of adventure novels that aren't. I doubt that having the expectation of something interesting happening ruined the book for me, I think its the triple repetition of what plot their is, but I'll admit it could have been much better if I weren't reading for adventure.

  7. So it turns out that there's a Mmmph-mmph in the Ack-ahh!

    Reader, I muffled him.

    Robinson Crusoe is a perfect example. Is there more than one real adventure-style scene on the island (the rescue of Friday?) Before and after, there's the idiotic business with the swimming lion, and the stupid stuff with the bear, but that's all best forgotten. Yet this is now an "Adventure Book for Boys".

  8. I know the grammar police are not out here in full force, but just in case my father ever wanders over here (and I have been editing students' works recently), I must point out that I do know the difference between "there" and "their" and "its" and "it's", I just didn't happen to put that knowledge to use in the previous comment.

  9. Not read Jane Eyre!

  10. All right, all right, I'm readin' Jane Eyre. It had better be good.

  11. How nice to see you have a boatload of old posts on Jane Eyre for me to catch up on, Mr. Amateur Reader (né Tom). The irony of my discovery of this post is that I just reread the novel after a bazillion years--in part because I couldn't remember whether I'd read the novel as a 12- or 13-year old, only read the novel in part or through a Classics Illustrated-like comic book condensation, or only knew the novel through the "cultural osmosis" of a long-forgotten movie adaptation decades ago. In any event, I have to admit that it was great to be reminded of what a satisfying novel this is. Looking forward to checking out your other Brontë posts sometime soon.

  12. I need to reread Jane Eyre. I am cooked up some original and crackpot ideas about the book that I need to write up, but first I need to go through the book, and Villette, too.

    Jane Eyre is nuts. I do not understand how most people read it the way they do.