A discussion on Facebook with Sarah Zettel about Victorian literature led to a discussion of Jane Eyre, and I was reminded once again how the iconic character is the very first Mary Sue. This much-maligned cliche, usually found in fanfiction, is the name for the process by which the author puts herself in a story as both the love interest and the hero’s redeemer/healer. We usually mock the Mary Sue character and deride the author for it, because it’s evidence of wish fulfillment, and wish fulfillment is considered weakness. But Jane Eyre shows how what has become cliche was once a powerful, emotional, classical powerhouse.
What is a Mary Sue? In its simplest sense, a Mary Sue character is the best and purest character, who captivates and redeems the true hero of the story, oftentimes by healing him, to become the hero’s sidekick/love interest. Note: There are a lot of definitions of the Mary Sue, so rather than debate various sub-clauses and addenda, here we’re going to go with this simple definition.
So Bella Swan is a Mary Sue. That red-haired elf in The Hobbit II is a Mary Sue (she even heals Fili, or was it Kili?). Note that this is different from wish-fulfillment and strong characters in general who are very good at what they do. Buffy is not a Mary Sue. Sookie is not a Mary Sue. Despite the strong romances in these stories, these women are their own heroes — they do not exist for the purposes of the hero’s story.
Now let’s take a look at Jane Eyre, the character. As an orphan child, Jane is so perfectly persecuted by her cruel Aunt Reid and her dreadful cousins that it illustrates her strong character and passionate nature. When she is thrown into the red room as punishment, she survives the trial and comes through stronger. Even when Jane acknowledges her own wickedness, she’s the best at being wicked, just as she’s the best at being good.
Every time Jane is kicked while she is down, she just uses it to show how much better she is, in spite of, or because of, the evil, cruel, nasty, hypocritical people around her.
At Lowood School she doesn’t just survive, she thrives, becoming a teacher. She even gets a job the first time she applies for one. (I’m only partly joking, but you get the idea.)
When she meets Mr Rochester, he calls her an imp, an elf, and she heals him at their first meeting (she supports his weight so he can catch his horse after he falls off.) She captivates him with her very plainness, and guys, you all know that is the nature of a Mary Sue. That is the Adorable Flaw(TM) — we see it as the clumsy girl, the nerdy girl, the glasses-wearing girl, I can go on.
The persecution continues. Jane is an artist, a quite good artist, though untaught, and Rochester takes pains to provide critiques of her work although he reluctantly admires them. (Note: the descriptions of those drawings are absolutely gorgeous, and I often tried to recreate them. I am, though untutored, no artist, no Jane.) She revels in her plainness when she creates side-by-side portraits of herself and Blanche Ingram, her rival.
Jane is the valedictorian of noble suffering.
The hits keep coming, of course, and Saint John Rivers enters the picture. He is Jane’s self-righteous equivalent. He’s the man she should have married, and she will do it: Her immolation is not complete, and by golly, if it takes marriage to Saint John Rivers to complete it, Jane is going to do it.
Thankfully she doesn’t, because Rochester needs her tears to heal his blindness. Okay, that part comes from Rapunzel, but they do marry, and she does heal him, and redeem him.
And that is why Jane Eyre is the best Mary Sue ever and no other Mary Sues can compare. She is Jane. She does it better than anyone.
And here is the one reason — the most compelling reason — that Jane Eyre is NOT a Mary Sue.
This is Jane’s own story. Mr. Rochester just happens to be living in it. If there were no Mr. Rochester, there would still be Jane — outwardly proud, unyielding, and defiant, and inwardly emotionally tumultuous.
This, friends, is how you write a goddamn Mary Sue.