Why Do We Read the Classics?

Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library

Why Do We Read the Classics?

Cover of Jayne Eyre bookWhy do we read literary classics? One answer to this question might be that we seek to read the books that are the sources for our current literary forms and traditions. We seek the original thing.

Take the example of the well-known novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It is considered to be one of the founding books in a long line of Victorian and post-Victorian novels of love. It has been the inspiration for a number of film treatments such as the recent Jane Eyre of Fukunaga and is a perennial favorite of teenage girls. 

Many incidents and the style of expression of the love novel have become well worn even to the point of humor. Many of these later love novels are known as romances and have become their own genre and an important part of the publishing industry. These bodice-ripping novels, as they are sometimes known, are so common that they are found in every kind of department store, often next to the detergent. Their plots are as stereotyped as their cover art.

Yet when you read the original in Jane Eyre, you find the poetic expression of a fiery spirit whose thoughts reach into the deepest spaces of the heart. The story is shaped by a highly symbolic imagination that transforms the Gothic horror novel into a new form. Every scene in the novel, from the torture of Jane as a rebellious young student to her combative debates with Rochester in his drawing room, glows in symbolic shapes. The dark chambers of the castle Thornfield are given a dramatic power through the use of psychologically telling imagery that heightens the significance of the elements of this love story.

It is the visual power of her depiction of these scenes through the use of effective Cover of a Harlequinn Romancesymbols that has drawn many filmmakers to retell Bronte’s story again and again. Many critics believe that the most recent retelling, the Jane Eyre directed by Fukunaga in 2011, achieves success by focusing particularly on depicting these dramatic moments in a visually striking way. These moments are outlined by powerful images of red firelight, storms, blasted trees that settle into the unconscious of the reader.

Using this imagery, you can read the story as one of a soul oppressed by the restrictive social forms of the time and restless to break out of the confines of social convention. Jane wants to become her true spiritual self, but that ultimately involves following the inner demands of true love that take hold of her in true Romantic fashion. There is no doubt that once you have had direct contact with such a choice spirit in the form of the author Bronte, you are never the same. The same spirit of demonic love that pervades this story tries to possess you just as it did poor Jane. A spark of the fairy spirit that inspired Bronte to draw this world with such poetry also takes hold of you.

After this any love story that just follows the standard pattern of love encounter will not do. In a sense you have been inoculated against the standard and the hackneyed when it comes to the literary expression of love. The racks of neatly produced romance paperbacks will not lure you. You have imbibed a higher standard that will stay with you and shape your taste in the future. This inner change seems to be part of what people call the timelessness of the classics.

You participate in a work of art that elevates you above ordinary ways of thinking and allows you to enter a higher realm. However, you have also entered a more real expression of thought and feeling that effectively outlines our inner longings and strivings. You discover yourself in these characters and in the voice of the narrator. It is a kind of divination or second sight that you discover in yourself.

Movie PosterWhat impresses me about Jane Eyre, having reread the book and seen the film treatment, is that romance, especially the elevated literary kind, does not just explore love in some limited sense. Instead, Jane Eyre explores the mystery of the human heart that longs for what it fears, rebels at limitations to its power, and seeks fulfillment in impossible dreams of impossible relationships.

The features of the Gothic novel as used by Charlotte Bronte are perfect for exploring the mystery and contradictions of our ways of loving. The character Jane Eyre admires Rochester yet fears him, endures humiliation and suffering yet still remains attached, refuses to stay with him to maintain her self-respect and seeks separation while still loving him in the depths of her heart. That longing for him will never leave her and calls out to her, drawing her back to Thornfield as a haunting memory.

It is only the circumstances of disaster, the fire at Thornfield, the death of his mad wife, and his maiming that makes marriage and true union finally possible. The strange and wild features of this story are set in a wild and desolate landscape of the heaths of Northern Britain–a picture that will remain in our collective consciousness. The array of brightly colored mass market paperback Romances are just colorful shadows shed from the bright light of this fire.