(Spoiler alert! If you’ve never actually read Jane Eyre, this gives away big swathes of the plot. Your best course of action is to go read Jane Eyre as soon as possible, because it’s such a good book. It’s free online and probably at your library.)
Every fictional hero has his flaws. Without them, he would not resemble the complexities of a real human being – he would not feel so true to life. But Mr. Rochester’s flaws have almost seemed to eclipse him as a character, to the point where he has become a sort of standing joke. He is now the guy who kept his wife in the attic.
Of course that is not his only sin: he treated Jane unworthily from the start of their acquaintance, acting capriciously and then taking her into his confidence as an equal, which was not the case society-wise, then deceiving her into accepting his marriage proposal he could not decently offer. To many modern readers, Jane is far too quick to forgive such a catalogue of wrong-doing.
Personally, I think Rochester gets a bad rap these days. I’m biased of course, because I love Bronte’s novel to pieces, and have always liked Rochester from the first time I read the book. I wanted his redemption from the beginning of the novel, and am perhaps a little too inclined to give him grace. While I would never hope to justify all of his deeds to anyone, and in fact spend some time in The Hour of Fatality dwelling on his repentance of his past, (probably to the detriment of my mystery), I still think his critics are too harsh on him. Mostly, on account of the wife in the attic.
Rochester’s wife, locked in the attic room with a nurse for several years, is perhaps to be a pitied a little. But compared to the usual treatment of lunatics in those days, she doesn’t make out too badly. A typical asylum would have seen patients chained to the wall, and possibly whipped when their behavior was too outrageous. Bertha, by contrast, had a private room and a personal attendant. It would be a dreary life, for sure, but then, what might be the consequences if she had been allowed more freedom? Today, with the benefit of psychiatric drugs, we have a certain degree of control over the greater aberrations of mental illness. Many mental problems are diagnosed and controlled by medication. As far as treatment, there was opium – and not much else. Essentially, her condition was untreatable. For the sake of safety, locking Bertha up would have been regarded as a necessity. And as subsequent events in the novel show, she was certainly a dangerous individual, (perhaps perpetuating an ungenerous stereotype. But its within the realm of possibility that a woman with extreme mental illness might be dangerous, and at unpredictable times.)
Mr. Rochester’s most grievous sin, in the eyes of Bronte’s audience, would have been attempting polygamy. This seems largely ignored by many critics today, as marriage has come down somewhat in the world’s estimation. This is the only illegal act he is guilty of. Certainly his infidelity to his marriage vows are a pretty big blot as well. But I think its worth considering that he was in an essentially impossible position.
We only get Mr. Rochester’s view of his first marriage, but judging from that, his wife was most definitely unfaithful to her vows first. I have sometimes wondered why Rochester didn’t divorce his wife immediately, (he claims to have lived with her for four years, knowing full well what her behavior was), on the grounds of infidelity. Of course it wouldn’t have suited the story so well if he had done so, but after thinking about it, I remembered what a black mark it was at that time to get a divorce. It would have followed him all of his life – a divorced man. Even aside from the doctor’s diagnosis of his wife’s madness, making it impossible for him to obtain a divorce, he would have resisted such an option.
He was at that time in his early twenties, with all of his life ahead of him, and after four years of it, however, he had enough.
“In the eyes of the world, I was doubtless covered with grimy dishonour; but I resolved to be clean in my own sight—and to the last I repudiated the contamination of her crimes, and wrenched myself from connection with her mental defects. Still, society associated my name and person with hers; I yet saw her and heard her daily…”
He tried to live apart from her, but being free from the pretense of marriage, he would then have been forced to accept loneliness as his lot. Of course he explains in detail to Jane what choices he made as a result: a dissolute, immoral life that brought him no lasting rest.
Like the Prodigal Son, Rochester finds his way home, but not in the way he expects to. He attempts his own restoration by attempting to claim Jane’s innocence for himself, and by the end of the novel, he learns what Jane herself tried to teach him.
“Dread remorse when you are tempted to err, Miss Eyre; remorse is the poison of life.”
To which Jane wisely responded, “Repentance is said to be its cure.”