Mr. Rochester, is of course, the hero of Jane Eyre. Jack is the hero of the Nadia Stafford series (Exit Strategy and Made to Be Broken, about a female ex-cop who turned hit woman to help finance her nature lodge). These books feature women in love with Byronic heroes, and both have inspired many, many readers to swoon over these men. Why?
First, it’s helpful to take a look at what makes up the very popular trope of Byronic hero. [Cue up Dating Game music.] He is strong and attractive, yet flawed in ways most notably exemplified in the life and writings of Lord Byron. This hero (nowadays often a vampire) is moody, dark, cynical, independent, masterful, and has a mysterious past that gives him much pain. But he is also absolutely magnetic and sexually irresistible. He can be cruel, too, but who can blame him, given all the grief festering inside him? Not we, surely!
Furthermore, we know that only a very extraordinary woman [such as each of us secretly is] can get this guy to open up to her and let himself feel love. And by extraordinary, we don’t mean beautiful; on the contrary, she will not necessarily stand out in a crowd. (Those women already get their unfair share; we need to appeal to the rank and file here.) In fact, Ms. Eyre is the quintessential “plain jane.” This broadens the audience immensely; we may be just schlubby housewives, but we could very easily insert ourselves into these fantasies.
We women have the power to pull him out of the abyss in which he passes his days and long nights, with our comparative virtue as well as our faith in him and love for him in spite of his stern demeanor and dark past. The reward? We are needed by him, maybe more than we have ever been needed by anyone. And we earn his undying passion for us as well as his masterliness in the bedroom.
Look at what this fantasy says about the women who find it appealing (and I count myself among that number in spite of my efforts to intellectualize myself out of it):
1. We may want power and importance, but these desires pale besides the appeal of enticing otherwise recalcitrant men and then wallowing in the sexual submission to their uncontrollable desire [think of the very popular scene in “Gone With the Wind” of Rhett carrying Scarlett up to the bedroom, and her happiness the next morning after having sex forced on her].
2. Besides, then we not only realize the power of having broken through the man’s supposedly impenetrable barriers, but we also have power conferred upon us by being his woman (and the one who conquered him!);
3. We consider hidden pasts or mysteriousness with its hint of danger exciting and erotic rather than something to avoid;
4. We can provide redemption for this tortured man because women are selfless, caring, and compassionate. And in spite of our moral strength, we are understanding and forgiving of lapses in the men we love.
There’s a further benefit: you get occasional swooning moments such as this one delivered by Mr. Rochester to Jane – that is, if you can meet the qualifications:
“I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you – especially when you are near me, as now; it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame….”
But do you see that the string is tied to Jane’s little frame? This one word denotes so much: Jane is smaller than he (pretty essential to have that dominance thing symbolized by size); Jane is little in the sense of younger and “child-like” compared to a man of the world such as he (again, the dominance theme); and restated yet another way, Jane may be plain, but she is at least small and diminutive, which can help make Mr. Rochester feel protective and masterly.
Nadia is physically smaller than Jack as well, and also needs his protection. Although she is fierce by day, at night, she is beset by nightmares, and it is only when Jack takes her in his strong arms (optimally, with his shirt off, when she notices that he is “lean, hard, and sexy as hell”) and then fixes hot chocolate for her (she brings out the tender-hearted in him) that she is okay again.
Jack too has his own [modern] version of a string speech when he tells Nadia, “Whatever you decide? I’m here. Won’t tell you which way to go. Won’t let you walk off a cliff, either.”
And who doesn’t love all that? But is it a good thing? Where these ideas about what is erotic originate?
First of all, let’s face it: men have controlled publishing and even writing for years, and they have a vested interest in promulgating male privilege and sexual dominance.
Second, as feminist writers such as Elaine Showalter demonstrated many years ago, the so-called literary canon is androcentric, with a damaging effect on female readers. The “hero” has largely been defined by male writers. While Jane Eyre was written by a woman, and Jane shows an independence that was scandalizing for her day, Brontë herself, as a young woman, read Byron and considered him her idol. Thus what Brontë considered to be romantic and/or erotic was defined by her own exposure to male – particularly Bryonic – literature.
Critic Judith Fetterley argues that because of the overwhelming exposure to literature considered “classic” or “great” books written by men – in other words, just by becoming educated – the result is the immasculation of women by men; i.e., women imbibe a accept the male-defined system of values and even learn to agree with the male point of view.
Third, women have absorbed the inculcation that caring and connection are good traits for females to exhibit, and aggressiveness is a bad trait. Some contend this is a positive difference: it makes women “superior” to men. Others counter that women only think this way because society gives them few other choices and so they are trying to attach value to what in fact is not an option. Law Professor Duncan Kennedy maintains:
“If women are empathic, it is because they have to be alert to the moods of the dangerous men in their lives; if they are relational, it is because they need solidarity to deal with the constant reality or threat of violence. If they shun abstraction, it is because men control the textual universe of abstraction in ways that disempower and disadvantage them they try to enter it.”
In any event, it allows us to be nurturing to those “bad boys” we love so much.
As for what is “erotic,” a great deal of political and sociological theorization is devoted to its analysis, and the importance of male domination as a turn on for both men and women. I wrote about this in depth in my review of Hush, Hush, so suffice it to say here that American culture pervasively produces images of women portrayed as desirable and sexy who are not dressed in, e.g., clothing appropriate to doing manual labor. Rather, they are garbed in revealing clothing, sky-high stilettos, positions of submission, and “gender-appropriate” occupations. Men can’t resist them, and other women want to emulate them.
In fact, according to Peggy Orenstein in her new book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, by middle school, whether a girl thinks she is sufficiently thin, pretty and “hot” has become the single most important determinant of her self-esteem. How to look and be “sexy” dominates the stories in magazines for teens and young women, with many of the articles being written by women. Sexual gratification means pleasing a man, and “faking” orgasms has become a practiced art form. Who cares if you actually have any as long as he thinks you do? Sure, it’d be nice, but it’s not as important as pleasing the male.
As Andrea Dworkin noted, “the brilliance of [this] strategy of dominance is that it gets the woman to take the initiative in her own degradation…”
So what’s everyone’s conclusion? Is Jane Eyre as “feminist” as people want to believe? Or is it just the status quo with a belligerent face? Doth Jane protest too loudly?