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Jane Eyre, The Feminist Tract"
In 1837 critic Robert Southey wrote to Charlotte Bronte,
"Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it
ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties,
the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment
and a recreation," (Gaskell 102). This opinion was not held by
only one person, but by many. Indeed, it is this attitude, one
that debases women and their abilities, to which Charlotte Bronte
responds with Jane Eyre. The purpose of Jane Eyre, not only the
novel, but also the character herself as a cultural heroine, is
to transform a primeval society, one which devalues women and
their contributions, into a nobler order of civilization (Craig
57). The effectiveness of Bronte's argument is due to both her
motivation and approach. Bronte found her motivation from the
experiences she had undergone while living in the Victorian era.
Her approach in advocating social reform is to establish Jane as
a model for readers. Readers are meant to examine Jane's life,
especially the manner in which she handles problems or
confrontations in her relationships, and to follow her example in
their own lives. Just as we see Jane as a model of a woman
successful in asserting her self-worth, we are also given a
warning about the possible outcome of failure to realize self-
worth in Bertha Rochester. This facet will also be discussed
briefly. Bronte uses the motivation of personal experiences to
create the life of Jane Eyre in which we see the quest for social
betterment through her relationships.
Bronte herself experienced the social limitations of the
nineteenth century. At this time "respectable women had few
options in life beyond marriage, education of children, and
domestic service," (Magill 747). She ventured to explore her own
literary abilities and wrote Jane Eyre, a novel which "served to
articulate the new sense of self that in Bronte's time was still
emerging and developing against the background of a changing
social order," (Schact 423). This novel not only proved the
capability of Charlotte Bronte, but also, through Jane, gives
readers hope as they view a young heroine who has a strong
desire and struggles for independence, and who thinks for herself
in a society which did not encourage this. Because of the
prejudices against women, she felt that any opportunity for
literary success would be stifled by her gender. For this reason
the first editions of Jane Eyre were published under the pen name
"Currer Bell." As we realize the barriers Bronte faced and had
to overcome, we see her motivation for the development of the
character, Jane Eyre, and for the publication of the novel.
"Throughout the novel," Craig asserts, "Jane ascends new
'gradations of glory,' for in every relationship or
confrontation, Jane emerges as the superior individual," (Craig
61). These "gradations of glory" assert Jane's value as a woman
and virtually depict the worth of all women. Although these
triumphs are not always immediate, Jane is always the ultimate
Even as a child, Jane is faced with relationships which
attempt to extinguish her sense of self-worth. One of the first
relationships we are introduced to is that of Jane with her Aunt
Reed. Aunt Reed's custom of excluding and confining Jane
underscore the sense of inferiority that Jane must deal with from
childhood throughout the majority of her life. This exclusion is
seen on the opening page of the novel as her cousins, "the said
Eliza, John, and Georgiana were now clustered round their mama in
the drawing-room... Me she had dispensed from joining the group,"
Not only did she face adversity in the relationship she had
with her aunt, Jane also had to endure the unpunished cruelty of
her cousin John. Jane was "accustomed to John Reed's abuse," and
punished for defending herself once when John flung a book at
her, hitting her so hard she fell and cut her head. Jane
pitifully comments, "The cut bled, the pain was sharp; my terror
had passed its climax," (Bronte 13). Jane had to endure this
conflict for quite sometime, submitting, for she rarely resisted,
to the tyrannical relationship she had with both Mrs. Reed and
her "young master," John. (Bronte 14) Concerning her life with
the Reeds, Jane says, "I was a discord in Gateshead Hall; I was
like nobody there; I had nothing in harmony with Mrs. Reed or her
children, or her chosen vassalage," (Bronte 17).
However, Jane did not remain defeated permanently. Her
triumph over Aunt Reed comes after Mr. Brocklehurst has visited
Gateshead Hall. Aunt Reed had trodden severely on Jane by
telling the visitor of Jane's "bad character." (Bronte 38) At
this point Jane stands up for herself, asserting her self-worth,
and threatens to tell everyone of her aunt's treatment, declaring
that she is "bad" and "hard-hearted." (Bronte 39) The prospect
of a ruined reputation frightens Aunt Reed and Jane is sent to
school with "the first victory (she) had gained," (Bronte 39).
Jane's victory over John is not a deliberate vanquishing
confrontation, but rather a situation in which both he and Jane
get what they deserve. Throughout the novel imprisonment is
equated with inferiority while freedom is synonymous with
superiority. Although Jane suffered confinement as a child in
the red room, and thus was viewed as inferior, she ultimately
ends life happy and free. (Bronte 455) John, on the other hand,
spends his adult life in debt and in jail. He dies by his own
hand and leaves this world much the inferior of Jane.
Her monumental "gradations of glory" begin while Jane is at
Lowood. At times is was an "irksome struggle" for Jane as she
was forced to yield to the overbearing Mr. Brocklehurst, whose
philosophy was, "to render them...self-denying," (Bronte 62-65).
Mr. Brocklehurst singles Jane out from all the other students and
declares her an agent of the Evil One. He warns the other pupils
by saying, "...this girl, who might be one of God's own lambs, is
a little castaway...you must shun her example: if necessary,
avoid her company, exclude her from your sports and shut her out
from your converse," (Bronte 69). Again we see Jane facing
exclusion as she is declared a "castaway." In this same episode
we see an example of the confinement that was so customary at
Lowood, for Mr. Brocklehurst orders that Jane must stay standing
on a small stool for the remainder of the day. (Bronte 69)
Again we see Jane's unwillingness to deny herself, because
she knows that she does have value. Jane is does not remain
excluded, but finds genuine friendship in the respectable Miss
Temple and Helen Burns. Also, Jane availed herself fully of the
advantages offered to her and in time becomes the first girl of
her class. (Bronte 86). Her self-worth was affirmed when she
was "invested with the office of teacher," (Bronte 86). Jane was
no longer excluded or confined, and thus no longer considered
inferior. Mr. Brocklehurst, on the other hand, is no longer the
dictator of Lowood, but must abide by conditions set forth to him
by committee members. Therefore, he has been demoted, while Jane
has been elevated.
Her second gradation begins with the introduction of
Thornfield Hall and Mr. Edward Rochester into her life. This
gradation begins with Mr. Rochester's proposal which shows
another recognition of her worth. Before Mr. Rochester directly
proposes to Jane she delivers an impetuous speech which she has
been driven to by the "acute distress" caused by the prospect of
Mr. Rochester's marriage to Blanche Ingram. (Bronte 254) Jane
cries out with passion:
"Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you
think I am an automaton? -a machine without feelings? and
can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips,
and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you
think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am
soulless and heartless? You think wrong! -I have as much
soul as you, -and full as much heart! And if God had gifted
me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it
as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave
you. I am not talking to yo now through the medium of
custom, conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh: -it is
my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had
passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal,
-as we are!" (Bronte 255).
This is a crucial passage to the text, because it is here
that Jane asserts to her "only friend" and her only love that she
does have self worth. Even though she is not beautiful or
wealthy, this does not cancel the fact that she and Mr. Rochester
were created equally in the sight of God. She acknowledges that
this is not the tradition of the time and it is not
conventionally the place of a lady of this day to speak in this
way, yet she must say it, because she feels it with every part of
Jane goes further to imply that one's character, their inner
beauty, is what determines equality. She does this by pointing
out that the superficial marriage supposed to take place between
Miss Ingram and Mr. Rochester is a thing to be scorned. Because
a loveless marriage is the sign of a serious character flaw, Jane
feels that if Mr. Rochester does marry Miss Ingram, she will be
better than him. (Bronte 255)
When Rochester proposes, he declares, "I offer you my hand,
my heart, and a share of all my possessions," (Bronte 256). He
also asks her "to pass through life at (his) side- to be (his)
second self and best earthly companion," (Bronte 256). This
offer to be a joint heir with Mr. Rochester and to be his
companion is his obvious admission of equality to Jane. This
proposal is Jane's first "gradation of glory."
Soon after Jane ascends another gradation. On the day of
her wedding it is revealed that there is an "insuperable
impediment" to the wedding (Bronte 292). Jane learns that Mr.
Rochester has been deceiving her for the duration of their
relationship- he already has a wife. This is a moral ascension
which she rises to in two ways. First, she has risen morally over
her master in that "she has plotted no bigamy, she is no
deceiver," (Craig 61). Also Mr. Rochester entreats her to be his
mistress saying, "I shall keep to you as long as you and I live.
You shall go to a place I have in the south of France... Never
fear that I wish to lure you into error... Why do you shake your
head? Jane you must be reasonable." (Bronte 306) Yet even
though Jane loves him now more than ever, she must waken "out of
most glorious dreams and (find) them all void and vain," (Bronte
299) Jane sacrifices her love for Rochester reasoning, " The
more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am,
the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by
God." ( Bronte 319) Her respect for herself, again an assertion
of her self-worth, and for God prevents her from being with
Rochester, thus completing the second gradation.
The next gradation we see is the evasion of St. John Rivers'
proposal. St. John tells Jane, "God and nature intended you for
a missionary's wife." (Bronte 405). By saying this St. John has
defined Jane's role by declaring God's purpose for her life. Yet
Jane refuses him. "It is hardly conceivable that our heroine
should rise above his claim," (Craig 61). But she does, and in
so doing recognizes her self-worth and refuses to allow anyone,
whether it be man or woman, to delineate her position or function
Jane's decision is affirmed when she hears and responds to
the supernatural voice calling her name. Her final gradation is
at hand as she returns to Rochester and finds him a changed man,
physically and spiritually. Jane has returned as an heiress and
Mr. Rochester has lost much of the wealth he once had. At last
they seem equal because of this reversal of fortunes. However,
Jane still emerges as the superior figure because of Mr.
Rochester's physical handicaps which cause him to be led by Jane,
his "prop and guide," (Craig 62).
In Jane we have seen the model of a woman successful in
asserting her self-worth and emerging victoriously. Yet Bronte
gives us another model with Bertha Rochester, one which serves as
a warning. Bertha is the example of the utmost depreciation and
debasement of women. Again we see the idea of confinement as
synonymous with inferiority as Bertha is confined to a lifetime
in an attic, finding her only freedom in death. Therefore,
Bronte acknowledges that while some, like Jane, are successful,
others, like Bertha are condemned to a life of inferiority. She
has written this novel to challenge women not to allow society to
demean any more women as Bertha was demeaned.
Jane Eyre is an obvious feminine tract, an argument for the
social betterment of women. This argument is supported by the
fact that Jane is much like the author. Bronte, by writing and
publishing the novel Jane Eyre, asserts her own self-worth by
making literature a part of her life, even when discouragers such
as Southey advised against it. Just as Jane found success in the
realization of self-worth, so too does Bronte by attaining great
literary acclaim. The argument is also supported by examining
Jane's relationships and finding that in every confrontation,
Jane emerges as a superior and valuable individual. Bronte uses
Jane to serve as a prototype for all women, encouraging them to
realize their value. Jane is also set forth as an example to be
viewed by society in order that they might be transformed into a
nobler civilization that realizes the worth of women.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Penguin Group,1982
Craig, G. Armour. "The Unpoetic Compromise: On the Relationship
Between Private Vision and Social Order in the Nineteenth-
Century English Fiction." Nineteenth Century Literary
Criticism. Ed. L. Harris and E. Tennyson. Michigan: Gale
Research Co., 1985. 61-62
Gaskell, E. The Life of Charlotte Bronte. England: E.P. Dutton,
London, Bette. "The Pleasure of Submission: Jane Eyre and the
Production of the Text." "ELH." Spring 1991. 195-213
Schact, Paul. "Jane Eyre and the History of Self-Respect."
"Modern Language Quarterly." Dec 1991. 423-53
Sienkewicz, Anne W. "Jane Eyre An Autobiography."
Masterplots II. Ed. Frank Magill. California: Salem Press,
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Feminism has been a prominent and controversial topic in writings for the past two centuries. With novels such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or even William Shakespeare’s Macbeth the fascination over this subject by authors is evident. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre the main character, Jane Eyre, explores the depth at which women may act in society and finds her own boundaries in Victorian England. As well, along with the notions of feminism often follow the subjects of class distinctions and boundaries.
There is an ample amount of evidence to suggest that the tone of Jane Eyre is in fact a very feminist one and may well be thought as relevant to the women of today who feel they have been discriminated against because of there gender. At the beginning of the 19th century, little opportunity existed for women, and thus many of them felt uncomfortable when attempting to enter many parts of society. The absence of advanced educational opportunities for women and their alienation from almost all fields of work gave them little option in life: either become a house wife or a governess. Although today a tutor may be considered a fairly high class and intellectual job, in the Victorian era a governess was little more than a servant who was paid to share her scarce amount of knowledge in limited fields to a child. With little respect, security, or class one may certainly feel that an intelligent, passionate and opinionated young woman such as Jane Eyre should deserve and be capable of so much more. The insecurity of this position, being tossed around with complete disregard for her feelings or preferences, is only one of many grueling characteristics of this occupation. However for Jane to even emerge into society, becoming a governess seemed the only reasonable path for her.
The women of the Victorian Era can be regarded as the first group to do battle for the equality of the sexes. They lead all women to follow after them, and though their progression may not have been as vivid as the women of the 70’s, they did have an effect. Feminism was not outright spoken of in this time, rather passed through literature, such as this very novel. Stories and novels were the primary means in which to communicate information and ideas in that time. Without mass communication systems books were the few information carrying devices to cross borders, and encompass lands whenever people traveled. Though many agree that Jane Eyre is a feminist novel, there are some who argue that Charlotte Bronte’s only intention was to argue the social structure of the time. They argue that the use of a women was simply so Bronte could relate to the main character, not to prove any point in regards to equality of men and of women. However, those who do see the feminist tendency in this novel may back their point by citing Jane’s response to Rochester’s proposal in chapter 23 as one of the earlier breakthroughs towards feminism.
“Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automation?-a machine without feelings? and can you bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soul and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart … I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; — it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, — as we are!”
This quotation explicitly portray Bronte’s attempt to raise the issue of sexual equality. Jane is fighting for her individuality in this quote, and refuses to be reduced to some mere “machine”. She will not act in the manner that “custom” or “conventionalities” would deem her to act, but through her own free will. This is vividly a female’s attempt to break free of the mold that society has attempted to set her in. This is very comparable to William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in which a man of Jewish descent, Shylock, is trying to show to others how he is no different from them. He asks them whether or not a Jew will bleed when pricked, or whether or not they experience emotion, or have dimensions. Just as his famous speech is one for the equality of the races, this quote is one for the equality of the sexes. Jane proclaims to Rochester that she has “as much soul as [him]” and just “full as heart”. Showing that as a women she is no different from him, and thus should be treated no differently is evidently attempting the same effect as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. The end of this quotation explicitly states that when they both die they will stand at God’s feet “equal – as we are”.
Jane Eyre lived a hard life, filled with hatred and anger. However, her ability to overcome all of this shows her strength, a power that women such as Blanche Ingram or the other superficial women would not posses. Her ability to comfort the aunt who had once treated her terribly is more power than some people could ever hope to obtain. Though the death of her good friend Helen did effect Jane deeply, her maturation throughout the novel gives her the ability to cope with disaster more readily. When she found out that the man she loved was already married, she was able to control herself better than many men would ever be able to. When leaving Rochester the feelings of sadness, betrayal, and remorse were overwhelming and “the floods overflowed [her]”. However, she was still able to break free. Though her leaving could be interpreted in many ways: as an attempt to follow the moral pathways for once; perhaps as a religious enlightenment; or as a display of the power she has accumulated as a women and her ability to resist to power of others (something another women may not have been able to do).
Female power is still limited by emotion, as with all other aspects of human ability. Though it took strength to leave Rochester, it was not simply through this strength that she acted. We are able to see that in fact she felt terribly. She was thinking that “[her] hopes were all dead – struck with a subtle doom, such as, in one night, fell on all the firstborn in the land of Egypt. [She] looked on [her] cherished wishes, yesterday so blooming and glowing; They lay stark, chill, livid, corpses, they could never revive. [She] looked at [her] love: that feeling which was my master’s – which he had created; it shivered in my heart, like a suffering child in a cold cradle.” It is evident that Jane is left with a bitter feeling after this shocking incident. This may have been used to express that though the two sexes should be treated equally, their differences do exist. The emotional side of females is thoroughly shown in this quotation. Jane appears to have been almost completely taken away by these feelings, whereas Rochester not so much. Though this is left up to the reader to decide, as with many other aspects of this novel, it appears to me that Bronte is attempting to express the feminine side of Jane. This is one of the few times in the novel when we get such a close look at the female side of Jane, and thus allows us to reevaluate our gender specific thinking.
The novel Jane Eyre is one that can be interpreted in many different ways. No definite resolution is ever seen upon whether Bronte meant to judge to sexual placement of that time, however as in many other novels the analysis is left up to the reader and thus will vary from person to person. Though I may see this novel as one full of passages criticizing the gender specific fiber of that time, others may see it as simply an every day experiences of a governess who falls in love with a man who is already married.
Filed Under: Literature, Women