Yet another reason to be glad there's a new version of Jane Eyre: a good excuse to pledge our allegiance. Because when it comes to the Bronte sisters, most people are either on Team Rochester or on Team Heathcliff.
On the surface, Rochester and Heathcliff have a lot in common: Both are dark, brooding men with secrets who do questionable things, both fall in love with women of a different social class.
But on closer examination, there is one big difference between the two men: Heathcliff, as far as I'm concerned, is a dick or a demon—take your pick.
I know there are women out there who will disagree with me, who think that Heathcliff and Cathy are soul mates, but Cathy picks conformity and safety in the form of Edgar Linton over the passionate, animalistic passion she feels for Heathcliff. Whatever! Heathcliff is not only verbally abusive to Edgar's sister Isabella, whom he marries after Cathy dies, but he also takes out his anger on a whole new generation, including his own son, at which point I was done with both Heathcliff and the book.
I don't mind my hero being tortured; I do mind him being sadistic. As far as I'm concerned, Cathy should have gotten the Victorian equivalent of a restraining order. Cathy and Heathcliff have this weird co-dependent thing going on that would make some psychiatrist rich. They can't be together, but they can't be apart, so they ruin other people’s lives in the process. Ick!
I used to think that my feelings about the book were colored by the fact that I saw the film version of Wuthering Heights with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier as a kid long before I read the book. The 1939 film is lushly romantic, and out of all the Heathcliff's I've seen (apart from maybe Ian McShane), Laurence Olivier looks like he could be that gypsy child grown up. The chemistry between him and Merle Oberon is tangible and the scene where he carries Cathy to the window when she is dying is heartbreaking.
And then I read the book and I felt gypped. The Heathcliff in the book was a sadistic asshole who tortures puppies. Yes, I said puppies. And no matter how many delicious actors play the role (Timothy Dalton, who's been both Rochester and Heathcliff on through Tom Hardy), or how many times I reread the book, my opinion never falters: Heathcliff is definitely not a hero.
Rochester, on the other hand, treats Jane Eyre like an equal; he's genuinely interested in what she has to say. And he's a single dad; despite not even knowing if Adele is his, he takes her in and hires a governess to teach her.
I'm not saying that he's perfect, there's the little matter of having a wife tucked up in the attic. Some people seem to have a problem with that, but hey, at least he didn't commit her to an insane asylum which would have been far worse. The insane were contained like animals at a zoo; asylums like Bedlam in London were tourist attractions. There was no real attempt at treatment. Nor did he arrange a little 'accident' for her. And yeah, okay, committing bigamy is not very heroic, but in his defense, he loved Jane and wanted to make her his wife. He knew enough about her character to know that she would never accept being his mistress. It all would have worked out if that wretched Richard Mason hadn't showed up and ruined everything.
When Jane leaves, Rochester lets her go; he doesn’t follow her and force her to change her mind. I read a review of the new film where the critic called Rochester creepy. Really, compared to the puppy torturer? Jane and Rochester are soul mates; you root for them to get together in the end. I’ve always felt that they actually have a chance to be happy together, whereas Heathcliff and Cathy would only have made each other miserable, in between the hot sex.
When it comes to a choice between a potential bigamist or puppy torturer, I’m Team Rochester all the way!
Speaking of Mr. Rochester, Focus Features' 2011 Jane Eyre is slowly rolling out in theaters across the country—once you've seen it, come share your thoughts at our review post, I Came, I Saw, I Swooned: Thoughts on Jane Eyre.
Elizabeth Kerri Mahon loves to write about Scandalous Women & the men that loved them. Visit her at scandalouswoman.blogspot.com.