It is certainly uncanny the number of ways in which authors, producers, and directors alike will seek to increase their profits, but is it always foul play? The copy of Jane Eyre – or, as it turns out, the copies – present in UNC’s Wilson Library would entice you to think otherwise.
Jane Eyre was originally published in October of 1847, in three volumes, each appearing to end in a “cliff-hanger” of sorts. You might expect, coming across this format which is so unlike the structure of a novel in the modern-day, that this is merely a way to trick people into spending more money for three, separate, physical copies than they would for one and one, alone; however, I would suggest that, in fact, this structure very closely resembles the way we consume stories today, and the decision to split up a narrative into multiple parts — or to refrain from doing so — is directly correlated to the time period in which that narrative is consumed.
Jane Eyre, first and foremost, is a long story, containing many events; pieces of background; and intense, thorough, and important character development. It also fell quite perfectly into the literary landscape of the 19th century: sweeping romances riddled with personal, social, and emotional difficulties but who ultimately end up together through the depth and breadth of their love for one another. It is unsurprising, then, that Jane Eyre would grow to be widely purchased and widely proclaimed a “great classic novel,” among other lofty convictions.
The format of the 1847 edition of Jane Eyre is also unsurprising; it was the typical format in which women would purchase their novels. If your goal was to appeal to 19th century women, a three-volume-novel would be the best way to do it. It would be risky even for a story like Jane Eyre to break the shelves in a bold and un-bespoke single volume.
So, of course, it can be said that the decision to publish Jane Eyre in three volumes is highly unlike the decision to break the last Harry Potter movie into two parts; one might suggest that Harry Potter was broken into two parts because of corporate greed, and I wouldn’t correct you, but what if there was another plausible, cultural explanation?
We see from Jane Eyre that our expectations of how a narrative will be formatted can be a factor in whether or not we pay money for that narrative experience. When you sit down to watch a TV show, you don’t expect to watch a 2-hour episode, right? Of course not: 30 minutes to an hour is the usual, expected range. However, many people will happily sit down to watch a 2-hour “movie.” And why is that? Because we have different expectations as to the format of a movie and a TV show. And these expectations of the structure of a narrative lead us to feel a certain way about that experience.
The frustration some felt with the corporate decision to split the last Harry Potter movie is closely tied to the experience of sitting through a 2-hour episode; we feel irritated that our expectations of that format have been disrupted.
If Jane Eyre had been published as a one-volume-novel, it may have completely turned off some readers who would have otherwise enjoyed her story. And aren’t there readers in the modern day who prefer trilogies of three books, 300 pages each, and who would drop their jaws at the prospect of purchasing a 900-page novel?
And on that note, who in their right mind would pull up to the theater to watch a 4-hour-long movie?
Appealing to the expectations of your audience and to the different cultural dynamics in play makes money, honey. But it also makes sure your story makes it past the shelves in the first place.