Posted by: chloejonas | December 14, 2020

Jane Eyre: A Proposal

Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, released in 2011, is my favorite adaptation. It’s my comfort movie, the one that perfectly encapsulates the tone and mood of the novel, with its lingering shots of Haddon Hall, and the grey, endless moors. The proposal scene, in which Jane and Mr. Rochester, played by a rather turbulent Michael Fassbender and 21 year old Mia Wasikowska, finally confess, serves as the climax of the film. Undoubtedly one of the most famous scenes in the novel, the raw power of both Wasikowska and Fassbender’s acting chops are on display. Even still, because of Fukunaga and script writer Moira Buffini’s alterations to the original text, the scene feels differently from the one in the book. 

The film-proposal scene starts with a long shot of Jane crossing the bridge with Rochester trailing her, crossing the landscape from the right to the left, both of their figures swallowed by the mass of trees and shrubbery in the background. Part of the intense intimacy of this scene stems from the spare nature of its mixing: rushing water as Rochester hurries to catch up with Jane, birds chirping, just Wasikowska and Fassbender’s voices and the faint sounds of leaves rustling in the breeze.

Brontë on the other hand, sets the scene with: “the sweetest hour of the twenty-four:— ‘Day its fervid fires had wasted,’ and dew fell cool on a panting plain and scorched summit. Where the sun had gone down in simple state—pure of the pomp of clouds—spread a solemn purple, burning with the light of red jewel and furnace flame at one point” (251); the film manages to set the proposal right at golden hour. 

The chiaroscuro, or the contrast between shadow and light on the actors faces, too, lends the scene a form of visual drama. Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender balance the passion and repression almost perfectly. Both of their acting styles to portray Jane and Rochester respectively lean towards understatement, which ties in with the rest of the film and its gloomy shots of the moor, its restrictive, late- 1840s costuming and overall color palette of greys, browns, greens and blues. The proposal scene largely pares down some of Brontë’s wordier sentences. As they stroll across the Thornfield grounds, Jane seems distant, held tightly together in one of her rotation of pretty-but-practical grey dresses, her eyebrows scrunched and hands clasped together at her waist. Rochester on the other hand, runs to catch up with her, and can’t keep himself from prodding  at her stormy mood. “We’ve been good friends, haven’t we?” he interjects, bumping her shoulder. “Yes, sir.” she replies both tenderly and frostily, subtly reminding him of their status differential. It’s in these little moments that Buffini’s script shines; even when she cuts many of the other references to their employer-employee relationship, she keeps it tucked in her pocket for the right moment, the most crucial moment.

 Jane isn’t, for obvious reasons, particularly happy at this point in the scene, because she’s fully aware of her feelings for Rochester and fully cognizant that this is a turning point in their relationship. She can’t continue to hover in this liminal space of being his “pet,” to quote Mrs. Fairfax, and his employee. More importantly, she believes that her feelings are unrequited, and that Rochester is engaged to Blanche Ingram, played with a catty villainy by Imogen Poots. Rochester can’t keep his finger off the trigger, however, and begins monologuing. Below is the text from the novel; the bolded sections are what Buffini kept in-script, with the brackets containing words or phrases the team added in. Everything not-bolded was cut from the script. 

“Because,” he said, “I sometimes have a [strange] feeling with regard to you—especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string [in you] situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if [you were to leave] that boisterous Channel, and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you,—you’d forget me” (256).

Although Fassbender does a lovely job conveying his despair at the thought of Jane leaving, Wasikowska is once again the real star of the show. This is when her resolve finally breaks, and she loses her steely composure. The camera cuts from Jane in the foreground and Rochester lingering behind her to a shot over his shoulder as she turns to him, brilliantly letting the viewer into Jane’s mind. She’s teary, furious, grieving an event that hasn’t happened yet. Her jaw quivers as she spits out: 

[How?] I grieve to leave Thornfield: I love Thornfield:—I love it, because I have lived in it a full and delightful life [here],—momentarily at least. I have not been trampled on. I have not been petrified. I have not been buried with inferior minds, and excluded from every glimpse of communion with what is bright and energetic and high. I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence, with what I delight in,—with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind. I have known you, Mr. Rochester; and it strikes me with terror and anguish to feel I absolutely must be torn from you for ever. I see the necessity of departure; and it is like looking on the necessity of death” (257).

The drastic cuts to the original dialogue gives two effects: it shortens the scene, and it takes away some of Rochester’s more descriptive, flamboyant or enthusiastic flair. Similarly, some of Jane’s references to her attraction to Rochester’s mind have been removed; in the novel,  she says: “I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence; with what I delight in, — with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind” (256). She also references how at Thornfield she “[has] not been buried with inferior minds,” meaning that she feels intellectually stimulated at Thornfield with Rochester. What this drives home is the mental connection between Jane and Rochester, not only in that their conversations have created intimacy between them, but through their discussions they’ve been able to truly understand and open up to one another. This form of interaction, of course, serves as the basis for love. Conversely, the film does away with much of this diction, illustrating to the viewer that their mental connection, their intellectual similarities are not the foundation of their connection. So what’s left? 

What’s left, it seems, is Romanticism; yes, with a capital ‘R.’ While Buffini also does away with some of the language in Jane’s most well-known lines, she also keeps some of the most crucial language. Below is Jane’s arguably most famous monologue: 

“‘Do you think I can stay…  [And] become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?— [I] a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not [speaking]…  to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if [we] both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!

As we are!‘ repeated Mr. Rochester…” (257). 

Importantly, Jane moves in and out of Rochester’s space while she speaks, inching closer and closer to him, as she drives home her point. The blocking here gives tension to the scene, but that tension is absolutely necessary to get into Jane’s mindset and to nail the tone of the scene. When Rochester physically grabs her at:  “As we are!” a current of energy sparks between them, one that feels uncomfortable, because Wasikowska struggles to pull away. 

This choice as well mirrors the book, although through blocking as opposed to in-text. In the novel, Jane says: “Let me go!” and Mr. Rochester, fond of using de-humanizing epithets, calls her  “a wild frantic bird that is rendering its own plumage in its desperation” (257). Jane, still struggling to get away from this fully grown man who has entrapped her, says the following: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you” (258). Fukunaga and Buffini chose to cut many of the callbacks Rochester makes to birds, sprites and other non-human creatures to describe Jane throughout the film, and this instance is no exception. In this case, getting rid of “I am no bird…” for Jane’s line makes sense. 

Rochester’s proposal itself remains largely the same, with one key difference: the blatant removal of marriage as a financial institution. Rochester, in a slightly- terrifying move, shakes Jane, and says:

“[Then let] your will…  decide your destiny… I offer you my hand, my heart, and a share of all my possessions… I ask you to pass through life at my side—to be my second self, and best earthly companion” (258).

The removal of “and a share of all my possessions” displaces the very real historical context that marriage was also an exchange of finances, that marriage was a class or material endeavor as much as anything else. Rochester in the novel offers to financially equalize his current relationship with Jane through his proposal, because giving her a “share of his possessions” would mean that not only are they husband and wife under the law, but also that he no longer functions as her employer. Buffini and Fukunaga’s script, however, focuses only on the romantic, loving aspect of marriage, which, for Jane Eyre, in which money as a social, cultural and economic system carries a lot of weight and solves one of the core problems of the narrative, is a bizarre choice. 

This dynamic, of displacing the reality of marriage for something slightly fantastical, is highlighted most blatantly in the kiss scene.  For what it’s worth, this scene is incredibly awkward. Both beautifully shot and completely bizarre, it walks the tightrope between tonally perfect and uncomfortable to watch. As Rochester and Jane kiss, the camera pans around them at a distance, always keeping their combined figures in the middle of the shot, as the tree they’re standing under drapes across the composition, the sun haloing both of their heads. The sweeping orchestral score cues up alongside the breeze carrying through the scene.

The whole effect of the editing and the camerawork gives a Romantic, painterly impression. The scene, like in the novel, ends with a sudden, dramatic change in weather, a roll of thunder interrupts them, and they run back towards Thornfield. It’s also, unfortunately, never more clear than in this moment that the film team cast age-appropriate (to the novel) actors for the role; Rochester is in his early to mid thirties, and Jane is barely twenty. Wasikowska and Fassbender look their ages, which means that the scene feels awkward because of how imposing Rochester is, how he towers over Jane in what should be their happiest, most romantic moment. I have to wonder though, if all of this is the point. Is this whole scene, the proposal and the resulting kiss, displaced from reality because like Jane, we as audience members want to believe that this train-wreck of a situation could work out for her? This story is about power above all else– the difference in power between Jane and Rochester– but this moment is separated from the constant hints Brontë drops in the novel that something is horribly wrong, and that these people should not get married. Just like in the Romantic tradition, the storm represents not just something beautiful, but something terrifying, something dangerous, and in that way, the scene is perfect. We as audience members need to feel like something is slightly off in this scene, because it’s not perfectly happy, and it shouldn’t be. Not only is Jane giving up her independence to become the wife of someone who has power over her as an employer, but she has no idea what’s coming to her. As a viewer, one almost doesn’t want to break the spell. 

Reader, she did not marry him… yet. 

Note: Screenshots were taken from this link, which actually includes other scenes alongside the proposal. I’d recommend watching the full movie, though.  

Works Cited

“Chapter 23.” Jane Eyre, by Brontë, Charlotte. New American Library, 2008, pp. 251–261. 

“Jane Eyre.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 18 Mar. 2011, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1229822/?ref_=ttloc_loc_tt. 

Owen, Alison, et al. Jane Eyre. HBO Max , Focus Features, 2011.


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