Thornfield Hall, Mr. Rochester's place.

Thornfield Hall, Mr. Rochester’s place.

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.

 

 

 


13 Comments

Chris Huston · July 18, 2014 at 9:46 pm

And Jane’s plainness is crucial to more thoroughly perfect Bronte’s ideal and her themes. It’s an element that has rarely, and never sufficiently, survived the book’s adaptations to film. Both she and Mr. Rochester almost always have been made startlingly too good-looking. The fact that such a liberty is understandable in trying to make this nuanced work a piece of broad entertainment makes it no less irksome or crucial a betrayal.

Especially in the last generation, we’ve seen “plain” and all its equivalents (“nerdy”, “geeky”, etc.) commandeered by society’s thirst for physical beauty. Calling a heroine “plain” is no longer off limits, but we never allow her to really look it.

Jane’s plainness is the reinforcement of proper ideals, the degradation of the “value” of outward appearances, of physical beauty. It isn’t the mere wish-fulfillment some might think — i.e. the plain girl wins the man — because the man she wins is not Timothy Dalton, and probably even harder on the eyes than George C. Scott. More than that, it’s not supposed to be about romantic love. The plainness isn’t an equivalent of our modern, desperate pseudo-axiom that everyone is beautiful. It’s the removing of physical beauty from a place of importance. Jane is not wish-fulfillment, but value-reinforcement. As, to varying degrees, are all of my favorite Victorian and Gothic novels (e.g. Great Expectations, Dracula, et al.) — which is why they are my favorite books, period.

Patrice Sarath · July 18, 2014 at 9:58 pm

” Jane is not wish-fulfillment, but value-reinforcement. ”

Yes! Absolutely.

Nissa Annakindt · July 19, 2014 at 11:51 am

This is not what most people mean when they use the ugly term ‘Mary Sue’. And I do believe that Jane Eyre is a much less Mary-Sue-like character when you look at her based on the values of her time. Jane Eyre was a rebellious child, and quite a strong-willed person. These characteristics make her fall short of the feminine ideal of her day, so she was not a too-perfect person to her first readers. It’s only today when we expect novel main characters to be prostitutes and serial killers that Jane Eyre seems too good to be true.

Patrice Sarath · July 19, 2014 at 12:12 pm

Your last sentence is baffling to me — I don’t know anyone who “expects main characters to be prostitutes and serial killers.”

Yes, the Mary Sue is an ugly term, and Charlotte Bronte not only created the first Mary Sue, she also created an iconic character with such power and force of life, she has lasted for more than a century and will continue to last as long as there are readers.

As I say at the end, this is how you do it.

Chris Huston · July 19, 2014 at 1:41 pm

It’s been a while since I’ve read the book, but although I would agree heartily with “strong-willed”, “rebellious” seems ultimately insupportable. There may be moments one can argue are rebellious, but on balance she is not, and even the actions one might call into question I think could be debatable.

Also, Patrice does cover both her bases in the original post, making a plea not only for Jane as a Mary Sue, but also an (or, rather, *the*) anti-Mary Sue.

The case, IMO, for her perfected Mary Sue-ness isn’t in her being the “too-perfect person” for her time or any other, but that she is an attempt to transcend time and grasp for timeless ideals and values. Being truly plain — not today’s kind of “plain” where pretty actresses are a little less made-up and wearing clunky glasses or whatever — Jane is set up to be something little girls and women don’t wish for. She is irrevocably set at odds with time’s or society’s ideals. And Bronte goes further by casting Jane’s love in harsh looks, not like the brooding, dangerous handsomeness of Heathcliff, but a veritable male version (and possibly even less appealing?) of Jane. Jane is *the* “ideal” Mary Sue by being *the* anti-Mary Sue, or rather the Mary Sue that *should* be instead of the one we may superficially want. In short, Patrice’s final comment is the point: *this* is how you do it.

Patrice Sarath · July 19, 2014 at 3:57 pm

There is such rich complexity in Jane Eyre. She is a rebellious child for sure, that I agree with. She refuses to be downtrodden by her aunt and her cousins, and that’s how she ends up in the red room, one of the most frightening passages in literature. The thing about Jane is that she acknowledges her sinful rebellion — she’s like Huck Finn in that regard. Huck knows he’s supposed to turn Jim in and he doesn’t, and he knows how bad he’s being by not doing it. A modern character would revel in her badness. Jane accepts her sinfulness. At the same time, she demands respect from others.

I don’t agree, by the way, with the generally accepted concept that Jane stands as an antithesis to the concept of Victorian womenhood. There are so many strong, powerful Victorian characters written by women, and there are so many strong Victorian women in history, that I seriously suggest that a thesis can be made that the concept of Victorian womanhood was never believed by actual Victorians.

Chris Huston · July 19, 2014 at 5:46 pm

Ooh! I’ll have to read it again, then! You make me wonder — though not quite convinced — that I’m misremembering her childhood. Perhaps, too, we are varying decisively in some nuance of “rebellious” that’s coloring our claims. (Or perhaps it’s just as simple as my foggy memory distorting my image of young Jane.) “Refused to be downtrodden” still doesn’t persuade me to an assessment beyond strong will to outright “sinful” rebellion.

Certainly, I would allow that, by nature, just by being a child, Jane is like any other and has rebellion inside her. I just don’t remember seeing it exhibited sinfully in her — mostly because she was never presented with an environment where she was rebelling against or turning away from “good”. Definitely curious to read it again, to see if I would come ’round to this idea or not.

I am, however, fully behind your assessment of the flaw in the modern concept of Victorian womanhood. This is one of the elements that make Victorian literature so appealing to me, and, by contrast, what makes Wuthering Heights quite UNappealing. In fairness to that work, though, I think *that* sister Bronte’s intent with the work is misinterpreted and misunderstood by most modern, casual readers, who egregiously and dangerously romanticize it. The irony is that it’s a harsh, brutal tale about what love is NOT.

Patrice Sarath · July 20, 2014 at 8:30 am

I think you should re-read, because you will really enjoy coming back to Jane. The movies have never done her justice, for exactly the reasons you mention.

Do you remember the character of Helen Burns, who has such a significant impact on Jane? Helen is the ideal Victorian female, even to the extent of dying – her death is the ultimate marker of the ideal. Contrast that to Jane-vibrant, unruly, untidy, demanding of respect and fighting for her right to have space in the world. Bronte is saying a lot here.

I love your take on Wuthering Heights, by the way. I don’t think anyone has ever acknowledge d that Emily Bronte meant it that way.

Chris Huston · July 20, 2014 at 5:28 pm

I do remember — and love — Helen. Very good point about her!

Will · March 6, 2015 at 10:26 am

Good article, but I have a minor nitpick.

I’m not sure that the absence of a male can arbitrarily rescue a character from Mary sue status.

I think if a character is a weakly written wish fulfillment character, they are a Mary Sue (or Marty stu) Making a character a lesbian, asexual, or simply neglecting to mention their sexuality or love interest, does not save the character from the Mary Sue stamp. (Observe the Mary Sues in the Scarpetta books for example)

The only things in my opinion which can ever save a character from being a Mary Sue, would be by having legitimate flaws which make you sometimes dislike the character. This is what rounds a character and makes them human. All the people you know and love, you have probably disliked or hated in some moment or another. A character that can make you feel this way is mostly well written, unless you hate them because they are perfect 😉

Patrice Sarath · March 6, 2015 at 10:43 am

Good points! I am not familiar with Kay Scarpetta’s characters so I can’t speak to that, but in general, Mary Sues are usually hampered by exactly that — they are the best, the fastest, the most, and all the superlatives. Hence my including Jane Eyre in the pantheon of Mary Sues. No one beats her at being the best, even when she is the worst.

Cat Kimbriel · December 22, 2015 at 9:42 pm

I am so glad to hear someone else say that about *Wuthering Heights.* I thought it was the most appalling “romance” ever, and no amount of powerful writing would ever undo that. Learn from it, but don’t call it a romance. Who are these people who don’t get that?

I think Jane rocks as the ultimate Mary Sue!

Patrice Sarath · December 22, 2015 at 10:37 pm

Who are these people who don’t get that?

They are teenagers!

Jane vs. Cathy — who would win in a fight? If I could draw I would create that graphic novel.

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