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  • Teaching Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in a Survey of the Nineteenth-Century English Novel
  • Kathleen Conway (bio)

In teaching the nineteenth-century English novel, I have several goals. I want to engage my students in reading and enjoying a wonderful group of novels—novels that are "good reads." In addition, the course can help students to understand the genre by studying its development during a period of great growth. And finally, because novelists usually create a rich social context for the characters and events they describe, a look at the novels of any given period provides a window into the culture that produced them. To follow a prominent thread in the genre, we examine the novels as examples of the bildungsroman or novel of education.

Growing up or becoming educated for adulthood in society requires for most of us and for many of the heroes and heroines we find interesting in our reading a kind of give and take, a negotiation in which we must adapt somewhat to society's expectations while still holding on to our own best values. I ask my students to consider two questions at the start of the course: What does society expect of them as they enter adulthood? What do they need to achieve happiness and retain personal integrity? In their discussion of these factors, students agree that societal expectations and personal needs may not always be compatible.

We move from our own twenty-first-century responses to the question of self and society to a discussion of the confrontation between self and society as depicted in the nineteenth-century novel. Beginning with Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, we see the strengths and shortcomings of the society in which her heroine lives, in regard to class distinctions, the education of young people, the social customs and manners of the gentry, and the importance placed on marriage as the proper situation for women. Because Elizabeth Bennet is given little guidance or faulty guidance, she must educate herself, relying on her own reason and correcting her judgments as she goes. In the process, she reviews not only her own behavior but the cultural norms she has been handed, accepting most but critiquing, along with the narrator, those that would negate her deeply held values.

Charlotte and Emily Brontë take up the discussion of education for maturity they inherit from Austen and add to it, exploring new territory [End Page 447] in the self and using new methods to conduct that exploration. Of course, not everything they say is new. Charlotte, for example, has views similar to Austen's on the inadvisability of marrying where there is no affection and on the plight of women who are forced to support themselves as governesses in the homes of those beneath them in understanding. But both Charlotte and Emily Brontë include more overt and covert passion in their novels, although each employs her own method.

Our class discussions of Jane Eyre focus on Charlotte Brontë's efforts to add to the bildungsroman the element she felt it lacked: "What throbs fast and fully, though hidden, what the blood rushed through, what is the unseen seat of Life" (qtd. in Gordon 1994: 178). We discuss the first-person narration Brontë employs, trying to determine how the narrator's method of recording her younger self in the act of feeling and thinking about what she experiences adds to readers' understanding of her growth. Students examine Brontë's use of a kind of internal debate, called "allegorical fragmentation" by Barbara Hardy (1985: 104), a method that helps Brontë show passion and social norms in conflict within the individual. During one passage of the novel, for example, the narrator traces Jane's struggle to overcome her growing attraction to Mr. Rochester, whom she suspects will marry Blanche Ingram. Brontë stages an argument between two divisions of Jane, one that has seen signs of love in Mr. Rochester's eyes when he looks at her and one that understands that his upbringing has prepared him to marry someone of more social consequence and beauty than Jane possesses. Memory gives "evidence of the hopes, wishes, sentiments I had been cherishing since last night...


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pp. 447-451
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