Mr. Rochester — a character from Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre — embodies many of the characteristics of a typical Byronic hero. Interestingly though, some consider him to be a more conventional hero. Even Charlotte Brontë’s own description of him would seem to reject this categorization of him, and some think that his own words and actions do as well. So, is Rochester a prototypical Byronic hero?
Charlotte Brontë’s description of Rochester could be used to argue both for and against his being a Byronic hero. In 1848, Charlotte Brontë wrote to W. S. Williams:
“Mr. Rochester has a thoughtful nature and a very feeling heart; he is neither selfish nor self-indulgent; he is ill-educated, misguided; errs, when he does err, through rashness and inexperience: he lives for a time as too many other men live, but being radically better than most men, he does not like that degraded life, and is never happy in it. He is taught the severe lessons of experience and has sense to learn wisdom from them. Years improve him; the effervescence of youth foamed away, what is really good in him still remains.”
This quote makes me wonder, has Charlotte Brontë read her own book? — for she does not know her own character. She may have intended that to be his character, but, if so, she failed to realize it. Arguments, based on this quote, for Rochester being a Byronic hero are the description of Rochester as “radically better than most men” (Byronic heros generally have some “larger than life” qualities — often their intelligence and/or emotions) and the intimation that he is introspective. On the other hand, she also describes him as being “ill-educated,” having “a thoughtful nature” and a “feeling heart”, and not being “selfish nor self-indulgent” — characteristics that are inconsistent with those of a Byronic hero — a typically sophisticated, arrogant, domineering type.
However, Rochester does not have “a thoughtful nature” and he is both selfish and self-indulgent to an extreme. To be thoughtful is to show “consideration for the needs of other people”, or to show “careful consideration or attention” — considerate, attentive.1 It can mean “absorbed in or involving thought” — pensive, reflective, contemplative, introspective.2 None of these latter, however, are in opposition to the Byronic character, and Rochester shows none of the former. He shows little consideration for other people, using them for his own ends (think of the way he treats Blanche Ingram), and treats them rudely (consider the way he treats Mrs. Fairfax, Adèle, anyone who crosses him — such as Briggs, and even Jane herself). He tries to justify his insolent manner to Jane by arguing that, because of his age and experience he has “a right to be a little masterful, abrupt, perhaps exacting” (Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Ch. XIV).
He is selfish (“lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure”3) and self-indulgent (“characterized by doing or tending to do exactly what one wants, esp. when this involves pleasure or idleness”4). Rochester’s life has been one of self-indulgence. This is especially shown by his promiscuous lifestyle (“I tried dissipation …. I tried the companionship of mistresses” — Ch. XXVII). He denies himself nothing that he wants, no matter whom it might hurt. “I have a right to get pleasure out of life:” he says, “and I will get it, cost what it may.” (Ch. XIV). He is egotistic, self-centered, self-absorbed, self-seeking, and inconsiderate.
As to being “ill-educated” — I do not know what Rochester’s education was exactly, though the book says that he married Bertha after he left college5 (Ch. XXVII), however, he is obviously portrayed as being more intelligent and intellectual than most of those around him — only Jane Eyre is shown to be his equal.
Finally, I do not consider “being radically better than most men” to be a Byronic trait, and Rochester certainly does not qualify as that, as he admits himself. “You would say, I should have been superior to circumstances; so I should—so I should; but you see I was not. When fate wronged me, I had not the wisdom to remain cool: I turned desperate; then I degenerated. Now, when any vicious simpleton excites my disgust by his paltry ribaldry, I cannot flatter myself that I am better than he: I am forced to confess that he and I are on a level.” (Ch. XIV). He adds, “I wish I had stood firm—God knows I do!” — but he didn’t, and is not better than “any vicious simpleton” — worse, indeed, for he is not a simpleton and had not that excuse. The fact that he feels remorse does not excuse his behaviour, nor does it show him to be better than most men, since most men feel guilt when doing wrong — or, at the least, they do afterwards.
I have heard an argument that Rochester rejects the Byronic hero status for himself, and that this shows that he is not such. For example:
“Is all the soot washed from my face?” he [Rochester] asked, turning it towards her [Blanche Ingram].
“Alas! yes: the more’s the pity! Nothing could be more becoming to your complexion than that ruffian’s rouge.”
“You would like a hero of the road then?”
“An English hero of the road would be the next best thing to an Italian bandit; and that could only be surpassed by a Levantine pirate.”
“Well, whatever I am, remember you are my wife; we were married an hour since, in the presence of all these witnesses.” (Jane Eyre, Ch. XVIII)
Blanche seems to be referring to a Byronic hero-like man as her ideal male. Since Rochester’s reply — “Well, whatever I am” — avoids a direct agreement with Blanche’s categorization of him, some argue that he is therefore not.
Besides his own words, his actions are also said to contradict the idea of his being a conventional Byronic hero (if a Byronic hero can be said to be conventional!). Examples of his more conventional behaviour are his legal marriage at the end of the book and his settling down to traditional wedded life. This is a possible argument against Rochester’s Byronic hero status — his inability to live alone, his “need” for human companionship (“I could not live alone” — Ch. XXVII), shown by his wild search for a companion, and then by his love for Jane and his desire for what he convinced himself would be a traditional marriage with her. I would argue that Rochester’s “need” for Jane does not negate his isolation — she is all he needs, or, rather, wants. He often speaks of sequestering himself away with her — as in his story to Adèle the morning after he proposes to Jane, where he tells her that he is going to take “mademoiselle [Jane] to the moon, and … mademoiselle shall live with me there, and only me.” (Ch. XXIV). “You are to share my solitude,” he tells Jane (Ch. XXVII, emphasis mine). And there is still the fact that he shuns society (except, by-the-bye, when he is seeking his “ideal of a woman”6 — and, even then, he considers it a “roving, lonely life”, Ch. XXVII), and is often abrupt and moody in it — though when he chooses, he can be “the life and soul of the party.” (Ch. XVIII).
On the other hand, examples of Rochester’s Byronic traits are tolerably frequent in Jane Eyre — his wandering, his promiscuity, his moodiness, his passionate attachment to Jane, his refusal to accept the legal and moral code of the society in which he lives, and his load of guilt.
Mrs. Fairfax speaks of Mr. Rochester as a wanderer, and he is. When she first speaks of him to Jane Eyre, she tells her, “He is rather peculiar, perhaps: he has travelled a great deal, and seen a great deal of the world, I should think.” (Ch. XI). After he separated from his wife, Rochester traveled throughout Europe having love affairs — showing both his roving tendencies and his promiscuity. “Ten years since, I flew through Europe half mad,” he tells Jane (Ch. XXIV). “I have battled through a varied experience with many men of many nations, and roamed over half the globe” (Ch. XIV). “I pursued wanderings as wild as those of the March-spirit. I sought the Continent, and went devious through all its lands.” (Ch. XXVII). He frequently and abruptly leaves Thornfield. Mrs. Fairfax tells Jane that, “though Mr. Rochester’s visits here are rare, they are always sudden and unexpected” (Ch. XI). This does not completely stop even when Jane comes to Thornfield. The morning after she saves Rochester from the fire, she finds that he has unexpectedly left. “A week passed, and no news arrived of Mr. Rochester: ten days, and still he did not come. Mrs. Fairfax said she should not be surprised if he were to go straight from the Leas [where he had gone] to London, and thence to the Continent, and not show his face again at Thornfield for a year to come; he had not unfrequently quitted it in a manner quite as abrupt and unexpected.” (Ch. XVII).
Rochester is not only a wanderer, but he is also cynical and world-weary — two more usual qualities of a Byronic hero. In his own words, he is “Heart-weary and soul-withered” (Ch. XX). He tells Jane, “Last January, rid of all mistresses—in a harsh, bitter frame of mind, the result of a useless, roving, lonely life—corroded with disappointment, sourly disposed against all men, and especially against all womankind (for I began to regard the notion of an intellectual, faithful, loving woman as a mere dream), recalled by business, I came back to England.” (Ch. XXVII). He admits to Jane that after he met her “for a long time, I treated you distantly, and sought your company rarely. I was an intellectual epicure, and wished to prolong the gratification of making this novel and piquant acquaintance: besides, I was for a while troubled with a haunting fear that if I handled the flower freely its bloom would fade—the sweet charm of freshness would leave it. I did not then know that it was no transitory blossom, but rather the radiant resemblance of one, cut in an indestructible gem.” (Ch. XXVII).
Mr. Rochester is moody. The first time he meets Jane in his own home, he treats her rudely, even though it was he himself who invited her to come to him. Jane narrates, “Mr. Rochester must have been aware of the entrance of Mrs. Fairfax and myself; but it appeared he was not in the mood to notice us, for he never lifted his head as we approached. …. ‘Let Miss Eyre be seated,’ said he: and there was something in the forced stiff bow, in the impatient yet formal tone, which seemed further to express, ‘What the deuce is it to me whether Miss Eyre be there or not? At this moment I am not disposed to accost her.'” (Ch. XIII). Sometimes he is kind to Jane, sometimes he is cold and haughty. “For several subsequent days I [Jane] saw little of Mr. Rochester. …. During this interval, even Adèle was seldom sent for to his presence, and all my acquaintance with him was confined to an occasional rencontre in the hall, on the stairs, or in the gallery, when he would sometimes pass me haughtily and coldly, just acknowledging my presence by a distant nod or a cool glance, and sometimes bow and smile with gentlemanlike affability. His changes of mood did not offend me, because I saw that I had nothing to do with their alternation; the ebb and flow depended on causes quite disconnected with me.” (Ch. XIV). Some of his moodiness is due to his troubled past. Jane remarks to Mrs. Fairfax that “he is very changeful and abrupt.”
“True: no doubt he may appear so to a stranger, but I am so accustomed to his manner, I never think of it; and then, if he has peculiarities of temper, allowance should be made.”
“Partly because it is his nature—and we can none of us help our nature; and partly because he has painful thoughts, no doubt, to harass him, and make his spirits unequal.”
“Family troubles, for one thing. …. He lost his elder brother a few years since. …. I believe there were some misunderstandings between them. Mr. Rowland Rochester was not quite just to Mr. Edward; and perhaps he prejudiced his father against him. The old gentleman was fond of money, and anxious to keep the family estate together. He did not like to diminish the property by division, and yet he was anxious that Mr. Edward should have wealth, too, to keep up the consequence of the name; and, soon after he was of age, some steps were taken that were not quite fair, and made a great deal of mischief. Old Mr. Rochester and Mr. Rowland combined to bring Mr. Edward into what he considered a painful position, for the sake of making his fortune: what the precise nature of that position was I never clearly knew, but his spirit could not brook what he had to suffer in it. He is not very forgiving: he broke with his family, and now for many years he has led an unsettled kind of life. I don’t think he has ever been resident at Thornfield for a fortnight together, since the death of his brother without a will left him master of the estate; and, indeed, no wonder he shuns the old place.” (Jane Eyre, Ch. XIII)
Mr. Rochester himself acknowledges that he has painful thoughts to attribute his moods to. “I desire you [Jane Eyre] to have the goodness to talk to me a little now, and divert my thoughts, which are galled with dwelling on one point—cankering as a rusty nail.” (Ch. XIV).
A Byronic hero is often passionate about a particular subject or person. Mr. Rochester is passionate about finding an ideal mate — he is passionate about Jane (“I can tell you whether I found any one I liked” — Ch. XXVII). “You have saved my life,” he tells her after she saves him from the fire, “I have a pleasure in owing you so immense a debt. …. Nothing else that has being would have been tolerable to me in the character of creditor for such an obligation: but you: it is different;—I feel your benefits no burden, Jane.” (Ch. XV). At one point he describes to Jane the sort of love which he has for her.
“If you were mad, do you think I should hate you? …. you are mistaken, and you know nothing about me, and nothing about the sort of love of which I am capable. Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own: in pain and sickness it would still be dear. Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still: if you raved, my arms should confine you, and not a strait waistcoat—your grasp, even in fury, would have a charm for me: if you flew at me as wildly as that woman [Rochester’s wife, Bertha] did this morning, I should receive you in an embrace, at least as fond as it would be restrictive. I should not shrink from you with disgust as I did from her: in your quiet moments you should have no watcher and no nurse but me; and I could hang over you with untiring tenderness, though you gave me no smile in return; and never weary of gazing into your eyes, though they had no longer a ray of recognition for me.” (Jane Eyre, Ch. XVII)
Rochester’s distaste for “social institutions and norms”7 is shown by his refusing to acknowledge himself as married to Bertha, and by his attempting to “marry” Jane. (These also qualify as Rochester’s version of the “guilty” or “dark” secret of past crime or “capital error” — Ch. XX — that Byronic heros carry.) “Bigamy is an ugly word!—I meant, however, to be a bigamist” (Ch. XXVI). “As to the new existence, it is all right: you [Jane] shall yet be my wife: I am not married. You shall be Mrs. Rochester—both virtually and nominally.” (Ch. XXVII). Because his wife was found to be mad, he could not legally divorce her, however, he resolved to separate from her, and considered himself as divorced. “I remembered I had once been her husband—that recollection was then, and is now, inexpressibly odious to me; moreover, I knew that while she lived I could never be the husband of another and better wife” (Ch. XXVII). Yet he determines to marry. “My fixed desire was to seek and find a good and intelligent woman, whom I could love”. “But you could not marry, sir,” Jane protests. Rochester replies, “I had determined and was convinced that I could and ought. It was not my original intention to deceive, as I have deceived you. I meant to tell my tale plainly, and make my proposals openly: and it appeared to me so absolutely rational that I should be considered free to love and be loved, I never doubted some woman might be found willing and able to understand my case and accept me, in spite of the curse with which I was burdened.” (Ch. XXVII).
For me, the evidence for Rochester being a Byronic hero overwhelmingly outweighs the evidence against, and I continue to consider him a very good example of the Byronic hero — a type, by-the-way (in case you hadn’t noticed!), that I do not generally admire.