Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: “Jane Eyre” (1943)

Happy Friday, Persephoneers! In the bleak chill of winter, there are times when I like to watch a film based on a classic novel. This week’s pick, “Jane Eyre,” based on Charlotte Bronte’s work, was made in 1943 and stars Orson Welles as Mr. Rochester and Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre. The film was directed by Robert Stevenson with a script written by John Houseman and Aldous Huxley. Other cast members include Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Reed, Elizabeth Taylor as Helen Burns, and Margaret O’Brien as Rochester’s ward Adele.

Young orphan Jane Eyre has lived with her aunt, Mrs. Reed of Gateshead Manor, for much of her young life. Mrs. Reed despises the girl and treats her particularly cruelly. Soon it comes to the point that Mrs. Reed has had enough of the whole situation, and she sends Jane to attend Lowood School, run by Reverand Brocklehurst. Upon arrival Jane is labeled a liar based on what her aunt has told Mr. Brocklehurst in front of the entire school, but one of the other students, Helen Burns, comforts Jane. The two soon become friends. It’s Jane who protests when Brocklehurst decides that Helen’s hair should be cut, and both girls are punished and made to walk in the schoolyard in the pouring rain, after which Helen dies, leaving Jane quite alone in the world.

Still from the 1943 Jane Eyre of Jane and Rochester
Jane and Rochester. Image via

Ten years later, Jane leaves Lowood and accepts a position as governess to Mr. Rochester’s ward, Adele, at Thornfield Hall. While on a walk on the moors at night, she startles Mr. Rochester’s horse. Consequently, the horse throws him from the saddle and Rochester is injured. Nonetheless, Jane and Mr. Rochester begin to tentatively cultivate a friendship, which soon blossoms into love, despite the strange laughter in the hallway in the middle of the night and Grace Poole’s odd behavior. Rochester boldly declares his love for Jane and asks her to marry him, and things go as planned until a man by the name of Mason arrives from the Caribbean islands with the horrible news that Mr. Rochester is already married and keeps his wife, who is very mentally ill, locked in the attic with Grace Poole as a sort of nurse for her. Heartbroken, Jane leaves Thornfield and Rochester behind and returns to Gateshead Manor after receiving news that her aunt is dying. After Aunt Reed’s death, Jane hears a voice calling out to her from out of nowhere, and in her heart of hearts she knows that Rochester has need of her, and so she hurries back to Thornfield only to find that it has burned to the ground. But Rochester is alive, though he was struck blind while trying to save his wife from the inferno. Jane and Rochester are reunited and begin their lives anew together.

Jane Eyre (1943) movie poster
Poster from the film. Image via

This version of “Jane Eyre” focuses more on the love story between Jane and Rochester and on the gothic elements of the novel. It completely ignores Jane wandering on the wild moors and her encounter with the Rivers family. Jane is shown as an unwanted orphan, completely alone and without a place in this world, until she arrives at Thornfield and meets Adele and Rochester. Welles’s Rochester isn’t so ominous and brooding. He is cynical about life in general, but he’s also a witty and urbane man – much like Welles himself – and he enjoys his conversations and exchanges with Jane.

Bronte’s problematic theme of the love of a good, pure-hearted woman redeeming the tormented Byronic hero is a big part of the film as well. Jane finally finds a home at Thornfield and a friend and lover in Rochester, but without him, she is lost, just as he is lost to the darkness of his soul without her. Even though he intentionally deceived her into a bigamous marriage and humiliated her, Jane still loves him. In his greatest moment of need, she’s able to sense his anguish, and that’s what drives her back to Thornfield. Rochester, who does some very dastardly things throughout the film, is redeemed by the one act of trying to save his wife from the fire at Thornfield and losing his eyesight in the process. When Jane returns, he can be whole again, and by the time their first child is born, his eyesight has completely returned. This is a direct reference to the Biblical story of Paul, a Roman who persecuted Christians and who was struck blind, yet whose eyesight was restored when he decided to renounce his old ways and dedicate the rest of his life to following Christianity and preaching about Jesus’s teachings. The fire is more or less Rochester’s come-to-Jesus moment. Jane was the light who would rescue him from the errors of his old ways and who would be at his side to help him live a good life.

So yeah, the love of a good woman can change any man, or so Bronte would like us to believe. When I first watched this film in high school, I was so in lurve with Mr. Rochester. But now that I’m older and know how the ideal of a man in the vein of a Byronic hero is the key ingredient to a bad romance, I’ll admit that it was Orson Welles himself that I liked. Which, again, only shows how lame the Byronic hero really is when everything is all said and done.


5 replies on “Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: “Jane Eyre” (1943)”

I would disagree about your idea of the fire being the come to jesus moment.

When we first meet Rochester in the book, he’s a man who has come to the realization that he’s a man who has done horrible things, desires to be better, but is utterly convinced that it is impossible for him to be so. While he desires redemption, he has given up hope that it is possible. I’m not sure how it is gone about in the film, but there are numerous references to him seeing himself as lost in the book. Additionally, the fire is not as great a come to jesus moment in the books as they are in movies that reduce the time on the moors and with the Rivers- we are talking well over 6 months time. During that time, he’s changed more because of his perspective change, and has reached the point where he’s no longer despicable but is instead lonely and in emotional pain.

It’s doubly unfortunate as we skip out on Jane’s time with the River’s, as it contains her refusal to return to him/resisting the desire to seek him until she reaches the point of her having an independent (or as independent as can be expected in her time) identity and sense of self. When she first met him, she was essentially fresh out of school and had little experience of the world. By the time they do finally wed at the end, she’s had time to mature and to become herself. Indeed, it is the concept of being subsumed into the work/identity of another being presented to her (Mr. River’s proposal and her anxieties around it- the work is a good thing, but she ruminates on how it would make her subject to whatever his fate or identity becomes rather than her own.) that precedes her “hearing” Mr. Rochester’s pain.

I think the problem lies in the treatment not the source material. The film treatments do tend to over emphasize the romance as opposed to treating it as catalyst, and in the process change the story from one where a young woman finds her own identity and a Man recognizing and (largely off screen, as the story is more Jane’s coming of age than anything) striving for the ability to redeem *himself* in both his own eyes and in the eyes of others, to one where a woman’s purpose is to reform a man. It irritates me every adaptation, I swear.

TL;DR- the books are a lot less fail than any of the adaptations, as the adaptations make it just a love story instead of an actual coming of age story.

I think the BBC series with Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson–which focuses more on Jane’s time with the Riverses than other interpretations–does a better job of showing how Jane changes and grows before returning to Thornfield than this adaptation. There’s a lot that’s skipped over, whereas in the book–like you mentioned–there is a lot that happens to change both of the characters, including Jane coming into an inheritance and thereby gaining financial independence and growing into an independent young woman herself.

Also I try to keep Wide Sargasso Sea out of my mind when watching any interpretations of Jane Eyre that came out before its publication. Rochester was a pretty nasty guy in that book and the moviers based on it.

Oh goodness, yes re: Wide Sargasso Sea. It is very difficult to manage that and a lot of the adaptations out there. I think that the Jane Eyre with Ruth Wilson is the one that came out paired with an adaptation of WSS? Or was that another one?

I Love the Ruth Wilson one. For one thing, you can actually see how Jane can be called plain. For another, I think that the way her personality is displayed is brilliant, and her affect throughout is more in line with what I expected. These are all things I find personally meaningful in the story. The only scene that I have a preference for another one is the scenes from her childhood, which this version essentially skips over.

If I could copy over the childhood scenes from the one where Anna Paquin plays young Jane, I’d be thrilled I think.

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