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Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

November 28, 2016

jane-eyre

Readers of classic literature can’t believe that a beloved novel like Jane Eyre has bad sentences in it, but it’s true.  To give author Charlotte Bronte some credit, she wrote a lot complex sentences that were actually easy to follow, and that was a rare skill in 19th century authors.  Mixed in with her concise sentences, though, are a few exceptions.  And when a Charlotte Bronte sentence goes bad, it goes into full disaster mode.

Just to be clear, a bad sentence is a sentence that would get students into trouble for writing it today.  I’m not talking punctuation rules.  I’m talking style rules and word choices that would upset the average English teacher or writing instructor.  Students are taught to follow a strict set of grammar and style rules, and they get punished when they deviate from those rules.  Therefore, it has to be frustrating to read a classic which breaks the same rules students are taught to follow.  For example:

 “Silence!” ejaculated a voice; (Chapter 5)

I could stop there. Maybe I should stop there.  After all, ejaculated is a problem word.  Maybe ejaculated was an okay word in the 1800s, but if I had written the word ejaculated when I was in school, I would have been sent to the office, no matter what the context was.  I could have held a copy of Jane Eyre and pointed out that I was simply trying a famous author’s writing style, but it wouldn’t have mattered.  I would have been given a failing grade.  I would have been sent to the office.  I would have gotten my mouth washed out with soap.

The other offense is using the word ejaculated as a substitute for said.  I’m not a purist who thinks “said” should never be replaced, but I think ejaculated is pushing the envelope a little bit, especially in today’s over-sensitive culture.

And to present a balanced look at the sentences in Jane Eyre, here is the complete ejaculated sentence:

“Silence!” ejaculated a voice; not that of Miss Miller, but one of the upper teachers, a little and dark personage, smartly dressed, but of somewhat morose aspect, who installed herself at the top of one table, while a more buxom lady presided at the other.

If you’re a student, try writing a similar sentence and see what happens to you.

As mentioned earlier, most of Bronte’s sentences are clear, even the long and complex sentences, but every once in a while, a sentence veers out of control.

Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting: as interesting as the tales Bessie sometimes narrated on winter evenings, when she chanced to be in good humour; and when having brought her ironing table to the nursery hearth, she allowed us to sit about it and while she got up Mrs. Reed’s lace frills , and crimped her nightcap borders, fed our eager attention with passages of love and adventure taken from old fairy tales  and older ballads ; or (as at a later period I discovered) from the pages of Pamela, and Henry, Earl of Moreland. (Chapter 1)

If the sentence had stopped after “…profoundly interesting,” I wouldn’t have gotten lost.  But between the tales that Bessie narrated and Mrs. Reed’s lace frills and ironing tables and nightcap borders and the pages of Pamela , and Henry, Earl of Moreland, I got lost, profoundly lost.  And once I figured everything out, I didn’t think it had been worth the effort.  The sentence would have been better off if it had just stopped at the colon.

Long sentences can get red-marked, but sometimes even short sentences can be tricky.

Mr. Rochester, it seems, by the surgeon’s orders, went to bed early that night, nor did he rise soon next morning. (Chapter 13 )

When I was a kid, tense consistency was a big deal.  If you wrote a story in past tense, you stayed in past tense.  There was to be no tense deviation within that story (unless you were writing a present-tense story with a flashback or vice-versa).  Here, Bronte has written a single sentence that violates the rules of tense consistency.  If I had written this sentence, my instructor would have suggested a change:

Mr. Rochester, it SEEMED, by the surgeon’s orders, went to bed early that night, nor did he rise soon next morning.

Maybe these criticisms seem picky and lame, but writing instructors have red-marked student papers for far less.  Teachers need to make sure students can write effectively, so I have no problem with red-marked papers, but students should also be aware that nobody’s writing is perfect or above criticism.  Every piece of writing can be criticized, even classic novels.

*****

The title Jane Eyre has always caused a problem for potential readers because nobody knows ahead of time who Jane Eyre was or why a book was written about her.  All a reader knows is that the main character is probably going to be Jane Eyre.  That’s usually how it works with book titles that are solely character names.   At least with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the reader knew there were going to be adventures.

Charlotte Bronte later wrote a novel with an even worse title, Shirley.  Because Shirley has no last name in the title, most readers have no idea who Shirley is until they read the book.  The title of Shirley is so bad that the movie Airplane even made fun of it.

Bronte left an unfinished novel named Emma, but readers can find Jane Austen’s Emma if they feel they must read a novel about somebody named Emma.  Reader’s who get confused at book titles that are character names might prefer Bronte’s  novel The Professor because the reader knows that the novel is probably about a professor.  Even though that title is better, the book itself probably has some bad sentences in it.

*****

If you think  ejaculated is a problem word for a school essay, you might enjoy reading my ebook.

7 Comments
  1. Well I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I remember reading ‘ejaculated’ once in an Anne of Green Gables novel when I was about eight, and I remember asking my father what it meant and him, being the embarrassed sort of of father, directed me to my mother and a dictionary. I still don’t understand why it is so taboo, some words can mean two things! It is also a relief to find that the long windy sentences in old classics were incorrect. They were such a chore, and so unnecessary! I thought Dickens did it because he was paid by the word, but now I am not so sure. And your correction of the Mr Rochester sentences DID make it more understandable, so there is that. 🙂

  2. You know what Pablo Picasso said: Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist. To break the rules you must first know them. Remember the movie Finding Forrester? How about Harry Potter as a book title 😉

  3. Jorge Jaramillo Villarruel permalink

    Funny! Although I don’t get too distracted at these word-choices, but that’s because I don’t “immerse” myself in the books I read. I read in an intellectual manner instead of an amotional one, it that makes sense. So, I laugh or get angry at the authors for their choice of words, but if the books is good I still like it, or still hate it if it’s bad.

  4. Words and their meanings change over time. Ejaculate is a particularly funny one. Interesting post.

  5. Arthur Conan Doyle had a few ‘ejaculations’ in his Sherlock Holmes stories. In fact I believe in one story someone ejaculates out of a window – tricky at the best of times.
    Love your ‘bad sentences in classic literature’ posts – all of us struggling to make language behave itself long enough so we can tell a decent story can take heart. Even the best sometimes fail miserably

    http://qi.com/infocloud/sherlock-holmes

  6. Josh permalink

    There are tens if not hundreds of classic novels with only the main character’s name as its title. Speaking of bad sentences, spending three paragraphs on making fun of a novel for being named after a character takes the biscuit. I’ve never heard of anyone confused by its title,
    and this would get you red-marked if I was in the business of grading blog posts.

    It was also pretty hard to find any examples here going ‘disaster mode’. Nor is ‘ejaculate’ a problematic word to use now.

  7. Now I’m glad I never read this novel. I’m still trying to figure out what this means: “crimped her nightcap borders.” I can’t even. Crimping was something done to hair in the 80s, not to a nightcap border. And what is that? Is that a glass of brandy in Juarez, Mexico? Is she folding brandy where the Wall is being built? I’m so confused. Clearly, this is Jane Err. And don’t get me started on that arrow above Bronte’s last letter. Pardon, it’s called a diaeresis. But betwixt you and me, it’s a diarrhea, Sis.

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