While researching Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë for Did Charlotte Brontë Know Rochester?, I noticed something interesting. Three times is the phrase “I have a right” used, and every time it is used by Mr. Rochester. The first time is in a conversation with Jane Eyre in chapter XIV.
“Stubborn?” he said, “and annoyed. Ah! it is consistent. I put my request in an absurd, almost insolent form. Miss Eyre, I beg your pardon. The fact is, once for all, I don’t wish to treat you like an inferior: that is” (correcting himself), “I claim only such superiority as must result from twenty years’ difference in age and a century’s advance in experience. This is legitimate, et j’y tiens, as Adèle would say; and it is by virtue of this superiority, and this alone, that I desire you 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.”
He had deigned an explanation, almost an apology, and I did not feel insensible to his condescension, and would not seem so.
“I am willing to amuse you, if I can, sir—quite willing; but I cannot introduce a topic, because how do I know what will interest you? Ask me questions, and I will do my best to answer them.”
“Then, in the first place, do you agree with me that I have a right to be a little masterful, abrupt, perhaps exacting, sometimes, on the grounds I stated, namely, that I am old enough to be your father, and that I have battled through a varied experience with many men of many nations, and roamed over half the globe, while you have lived quietly with one set of people in one house?”
“Do as you please, sir.”
“That is no answer; or rather it is a very irritating, because a very evasive one. Reply clearly.”
“I don’t think, sir, you have a right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.”
“Humph! Promptly spoken. But I won’t allow that, seeing that it would never suit my case, as I have made an indifferent, not to say a bad, use of both advantages. Leaving superiority out of the question, then, you must still agree to receive my orders now and then, without being piqued or hurt by the tone of command. Will you?”
(Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Ch. XIV, emphasis mine)
Mr. Rochester considers that he has a right to be “masterful”, “abrupt”, “exacting”, “almost insolent” to those around him. He justifies this by claiming superiority — superiority of age and experience. As Jane Eyre points out to him, his claim to superiority on those grounds depends on the use he has made of his time and experience. Rochester insists however, that, leaving superiority out of the question, she “must still agree to receive [his] orders … without being piqued or hurt by the tone of command.”
That Rochester thinks he has this right is shown by his treatment of his housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, and his ward, Adèle Varens, as well as by how he treats Jane. On one occasion, Rochester requests that Jane and Adèle take tea with him. Mrs. Fairfax and Jane come, as he requested, and Jane relates how he received them.
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.
“Here is Miss Eyre, sir,” said Mrs. Fairfax, in her quiet way. He bowed, still not taking his eyes from the group of the dog and child.
“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)
The scene continues:
He [Rochester] went on as a statue would, that is, he neither spoke nor moved. Mrs. Fairfax seemed to think it necessary that some one should be amiable, and she began to talk. Kindly, as usual—and, as usual, rather trite—she condoled with him on the pressure of business he had had all day; on the annoyance it must have been to him with that painful sprain: then she commended his patience and perseverance in going through with it.
“Madam, I should like some tea,” was the sole rejoinder she got. (Ch. XIII)
Rochester finds Jane interesting, and calls her to him again. Adèle was already with him, and he tells Jane:
“Ah! well, come forward; be seated here.” He drew a chair near his own. “I am not fond of the prattle of children,” he continued; “for, old bachelor as I am, I have no pleasant associations connected with their lisp. It would be intolerable to me to pass a whole evening tête-à-tête with a brat. Don’t draw that chair farther off, Miss Eyre; sit down exactly where I placed it—if you please, that is. Confound these civilities! I continually forget them. Nor do I particularly affect simple-minded old ladies. By-the-bye, I must have mine in mind; it won’t do to neglect her; she is a Fairfax, or wed to one; and blood is said to be thicker than water.”
He rang, and despatched an invitation to Mrs. Fairfax, who soon arrived, knitting-basket in hand. (Ch. XIV)
He refers to Adèle as a “brat” and to Mrs. Fairfax as a “simple-minded old lady”, and he treats them accordingly. As for the way he treats Jane — “Confound these civilities!” His behaviour certainly shows that he believes that he has “a right” to treat others rudely and commandingly.
The second time he declares one of his “rights” is in the same conversation as the first.
“Dread remorse when you are tempted to err, Miss Eyre; remorse is the poison of life.”
“Repentance is said to be its cure, sir.”
“It is not its cure. Reformation may be its cure; and I could reform—I have strength yet for that—if—but where is the use of thinking of it, hampered, burdened, cursed as I am? Besides, since happiness is irrevocably denied me, I have a right to get pleasure out of life: and I will get it, cost what it may.”
“Then you will degenerate still more, sir.”
“Possibly: yet why should I, if I can get sweet, fresh pleasure? And I may get it as sweet and fresh as the wild honey the bee gathers on the moor.”
“It will sting—it will taste bitter, sir.”
“How do you know?—you never tried it. How very serious—how very solemn you look: and you are as ignorant of the matter as this cameo head” (taking one from the mantelpiece). “You have no right to preach to me, you neophyte, that have not passed the porch of life, and are absolutely unacquainted with its mysteries.”
(Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Ch. XIV, emphasis mine)
His second claim is that, as happiness is “denied” him, he has a right to get pleasure out of life, “cost what it may” (though Jane, as he observes, has “no right” to preach to him). Again, his behaviour portrays his belief in this “right”. He pretends to be unmarried, he goes through several mistresses because he doesn’t like living alone, he uses Blanche Ingram in an endeavor to make Jane jealous, he attempts to commit bigamy, &c., all in pursuit of pleasure, no matter what the cost to others — even those he professes to love (i.e. Jane).
Finally, he relates to Jane an incident from his earlier life with his insane wife.
“One night I had been awakened by her yells—(since the medical men had pronounced her mad, she had, of course, been shut up)—it was a fiery West Indian night; one of the description that frequently precede the hurricanes of those climates. Being unable to sleep in bed, I got up and opened the window. The air was like sulphur-steams—I could find no refreshment anywhere. Mosquitoes came buzzing in and hummed sullenly round the room; the sea, which I could hear from thence, rumbled dull like an earthquake—black clouds were casting up over it; the moon was setting in the waves, broad and red, like a hot cannon-ball—she threw her last bloody glance over a world quivering with the ferment of tempest. I was physically influenced by the atmosphere and scene, and my ears were filled with the curses the maniac still shrieked out; wherein she momentarily mingled my name with such a tone of demon-hate, with such language!—no professed harlot ever had a fouler vocabulary than she: though two rooms off, I heard every word—the thin partitions of the West India house opposing but slight obstruction to her wolfish cries.
“‘This life,’ said I at last, ‘is hell: this is the air—those are the sounds of the bottomless pit! I have a right to deliver myself from it if I can. The sufferings of this mortal state will leave me with the heavy flesh that now cumbers my soul. Of the fanatic’s burning eternity I have no fear: there is not a future state worse than this present one—let me break away, and go home to God!’
“I said this whilst I knelt down at, and unlocked a trunk which contained a brace of loaded pistols: I mean to shoot myself. I only entertained the intention for a moment; for, not being insane, the crisis of exquisite and unalloyed despair, which had originated the wish and design of self-destruction, was past in a second.
“A wind fresh from Europe blew over the ocean and rushed through the open casement: the storm broke, streamed, thundered, blazed, and the air grew pure. I then framed and fixed a resolution. While I walked under the dripping orange-trees of my wet garden, and amongst its drenched pomegranates and pine-apples, and while the refulgent dawn of the tropics kindled round me—I reasoned thus, Jane—and now listen; for it was true Wisdom that consoled me in that hour, and showed me the right path to follow.
“The sweet wind from Europe was still whispering in the refreshed leaves, and the Atlantic was thundering in glorious liberty; my heart, dried up and scorched for a long time, swelled to the tone, and filled with living blood—my being longed for renewal—my soul thirsted for a pure draught. I saw hope revive—and felt regeneration possible. From a flowery arch at the bottom of my garden I gazed over the sea—bluer than the sky: the old world was beyond; clear prospects opened thus:—
“‘Go,’ said Hope, ‘and live again in Europe: there it is not known what a sullied name you bear, nor what a filthy burden is bound to you. You may take the maniac with you to England; confine her with due attendance and precautions at Thornfield: then travel yourself to what clime you will, and form what new tie you like. That woman, who has so abused your long-suffering, so sullied your name, so outraged your honour, so blighted your youth, is not your wife, nor are you her husband. See that she is cared for as her condition demands, and you have done all that God and humanity require of you. Let her identity, her connection with yourself, be buried in oblivion: you are bound to impart them to no living being. Place her in safety and comfort: shelter her degradation with secrecy, and leave her.’
“I acted precisely on this suggestion.”
(Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Ch. XXVII, emphasis mine)
Here he claims a right to suicide — another instance of his belief in his “right” to do with his life as he pleases, regardless of how it affects others. This last, however, he decides not to do, but, rather, to pursue his “right” to pleasure instead. He goes to England, pretends to be unmarried, takes mistresses, and tries to marry Jane Eyre — without telling her that he is already legally married to another.
In the end of the story, however, Rochester is brought low. He was prevented from making Jane his mistress. He has been proud, strong, athletic, and masterful, but becomes maimed and blind, obliged to rely on others to lead him about. Finally, he is brought to penitence, and acknowledges his wrongdoing.
“Jane! you think me, I daresay, an irreligious dog: but my heart swells with gratitude to the beneficent God of this earth just now. He sees not as man sees, but far clearer: judges not as man judges, but far more wisely. I did wrong: I would have sullied my innocent flower—breathed guilt on its purity: the Omnipotent snatched it from me. I, in my stiff-necked rebellion, almost cursed the dispensation: instead of bending to the decree, I defied it. Divine justice pursued its course; disasters came thick on me: I was forced to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. His chastisements are mighty; and one smote me which has humbled me for ever. You know I was proud of my strength: but what is it now, when I must give it over to foreign guidance, as a child does its weakness? Of late, Jane—only—only of late—I began to see and acknowledge the hand of God in my doom. I began to experience remorse …” (Ch. XXXVII)
He is less certain of his “rights” now, less convinced of his “right” to pursue pleasure at whatever cost, of his “right” to treat others as he will, and do with his own life what he chooses. When he wishes now to marry Jane (he is now widowed and able to), he considers “I am no better than the old lightning-struck chestnut-tree in Thornfield orchard …. And what right would that ruin have to bid a budding woodbine cover its decay with freshness?” (Ch. XXXVII, emphasis mine). What right? No right, perhaps, but we are blessed with many things and given many mercies which we have no “right” to. It it not until Mr. Rochester acknowledges that he does not have these rights that he is granted that which he longs for.