Feminist Ideals and the Women of "Jane Eyre"
An Essay on Jane Eyre
In the mid-nineteenth century, a woman would have carried the burden of "staying in her place." In other words, she was subject to the generally accepted standards and roles that society had placed upon her, which did not necessarily provide her with liberty, dignity or independence. Yet if Charlotte Bronte's character Jane Eyre had truly existed in that time period, she would have defied most of these cultural standards and proved herself a paradigm for aspiring feminists of her day. Jane's commitment to dignity, independence, freedom of choice, unwillingness to submit to a man's emotional power and willingness to speak her mind were fostered by some female characters in the novel. Yet these traits also contrast sharply with some of Bronte's other female characters Jane Eyre can be labeled as a feminist role model due to her relationships with men that defied the generally accepted roles of the nineteenth-century woman. This title is especially fitting when her life is compared and contrasted to other female characters in the novel.
In order to understand Jane's role as a feminist, a definition of this term must be established. The word "feminist" is defined as "one who advocates equal rights for women" ("Feminist" 1). Yet a "feminist" does not necessarily protest in the streets; any woman who wishes to be equal with men and expresses this viewpoint in word and action can be considered to possess ideals on which the feminist movement is based. Though women had been writing feminist texts since the late 18th century, an actual feminist movement did not form in Britain until the late 19th century under leaders such as Emily Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett ("Feminist" 1). Charlotte Bronte was publishing Jane Eyre just as First Wave Feminism was beginning to develop, with writers such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson and Emily Bronte proving their worth as writers and incorporating feminist ideals into their work (Steelye 12-13). Jane Eyre was one of many post-Civil War novels "aimed at young female readers in which an adolescent woman attempts to gain maturity and ascendency over the terms of her world" (Steelye 13).
Jane Eyre, of course, did not take to the streets with her feminist ideals, but she expressed her view of women's equality almost subconsciously, through word and deed. She lived in a "world that measured the likelihood of her success by the degree of her marriageability," which would have included her familial connections, economic status and beauty (Moglene 484). Yet, Jane does not allow her goals to rest solely upon marrying. True, Rochester's betrayal throws her into the depths of despair, but she tells St. John expressly that she could be perfectly happy as a simple teacher with her own school and a few pupils.
Two of Jane's actions are the most explicit in proving her role as a feminist. The first is her attitude toward Mr. Rochester's attempts to lavish her with jewels and expensive garments for her wedding. In fact, she says that "the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation" (Bronte 236). Her unwillingness to be objectified is the strongest indication that she does not define herself by two of the "marriageability" components previously discussed: economic status and beauty.
The second action is Jane's leaving of Mr. Rochester, which exhibits her courage. By this deed, she both defies the Victorian expectation of submitting to a man's will (i.e., acting as Rochester's mistress) and shows that she can break from the emotional power that Rochester wields over her. Though it is hard for her to leave, she nevertheless draws up the courage to leave a life of security, promise and love for the unknown, refusing to let this man maintain his grip on her heart. In addition, her refusal to become a mistress shows that she has maintained a certain dignity, refusing to give in to her physical and emotional desires that would be seen as uncouth by society.
Some may argue that Jane eventually "gives in" to her emotions when she returns to Mr. Rochester. This return, however, was not done in the spirit of surrender, but due to the realization that even if she returns to Rochester, his love will free her, not imprison her as will St. John's. Notably, she only returns after she has received a large inheritance from her uncle. Because she is now established as Mr. Rochester's social equal, her return is not out of neediness or greed. After all, she returns of her own free choice and because of her belief that she can "become a wife without sacrificing a grain of her Jane Eyre-ity" (Rich 474).
In fact, Jane's relationship with Mr. Rochester is a constant struggle for her to maintain her own individual identity (Eagleton 493-494). In other words, she plays the role of servant yet makes it perfectly clear to him that she does not consider herself below him in terms of spiritual qualities. She insists to him that she is more than her social status, saying, "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" (Bronte 222). When Mr. Rochester refers to her as his equal and likeness, it appears that Jane has made headway in asserting her equality with the master.
In some respects, Jane finds herself almost superior to Mr. Rochester morally, for Rochester's sin of keeping Bertha Mason a secret gives rise to questions about the quality of his character. Jane is comparatively moral, as evidence by her refusal to become nothing more than his mistress. Rochester's dilapidated state at the end of the novel not only displays the deterioration of his physical body, but perhaps is also a symbol of the weakening of his soul. Here it seems that he is now truly equal, or even less equal to Jane, who has developed her soul to its potential by finally discovering how to balance her independence with passion. After this journey of self-discovery, she can finally "rehumanise" him following his moral transgressions (Eagleton 493-496).
Jane also refuses to give in to a man's patriarchal attempts by refusing St. John's demand that she marry him for reasons with which she does not agree. After all, St. John admits he does not love her and then uses his religious views as an excuse to goad her into marrying him. In fact, he even attempts to make her feel guilty by saying that God would not be pleased with two people living together with "a divided allegiance: it must be entire" (Bronte 357). By making this claim, however, he seems to be implying that God would only be happy if St. John had full and complete ownership of Jane. Though Jane is tempted, she does not give in because she realizes that in order to please him, "I felt daily more and more that I must disown half my nature, stifle my faculties, wrest my tastes from their original bent, force myself to the adoption of pursuits for which I had no natural vocation... it racked me hourly to aspire to the standard he uplifted" (Bronte 326). In other words, it pained her to realize that her marriage might be based on a lifestyle for which she had no desire and a partnership void of true love.
This desire for independence has been apparent since Jane's early childhood experiences at Gateshead where she is subject to the cruelty of Aunt Reed. This woman shows the young girl no love and wishes to have ultimate authority over her mind and spirit, similar to St. John's intentions. Her punishment of locking Jane in the Red Room nurtures a central characteristic in the young girl: the desire to survive with dignity. Jane declares to Aunt Reed that this "violent" action is an injustice and that she cannot live in this unloving environment. At the end of her discourse, she feels her soul begin "to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt... as if an invisible bond had burst and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty" (Bronte 31). This is the beginning of a spirit that Jane carries forward into her future relationships with men, beginning with the detestable Mr. Brocklehurst. For example, she displays courageous defiance to Mr. Brocklehurst in answer to his question about where evil children are sent after death (Bronte 27). This scene, especially when put into context of the later part of the novel, emphasizes her willpower to stand up to a man. The cruel master of Lowood School is another example of a man in Jane's life who attempts to rule completely over women, as exemplified by his attempts to force the girls into subordination and simple living.
This fortitude and mental strength begins with Mr. Brocklehurst but is further nurtured through more interpersonal interactions at Lowood School. At this institution is a woman whose feminist attitude influences Jane's thinking and who teaches the young girl that kindness and love exists in her world. Miss Temple has an independent spirit that has allowed her to accomplish a certain level of open-minded intellect. She is a successful teacher, forward thinking, unmarried and ambitious. She stands up to the authoritative male figure Mr. Brocklehurst, certainly an unexpected action of any woman in her position. As Jane's first positive female role model, Miss Temple encourages the spirit of independence and dignity in Jane.
This dignity was also strongly influenced by her childhood friend Helen Burns. Helen faces her struggles with a dignity that is based more upon her Christian views than anything feminist, but dignity nonetheless. Even on her deathbed, she places her dire fate in the hands of God, in whom she has so much faith (Bronte 71). Though Jane struggles to understand this at first, she soon incorporates this dignity into her being. In addition, this experience was one of Jane's first opportunities to formulate her own, independent opinion of a highly complex topic: religion. She was introduced by Helen to a religion based on complete trust and faith, one based on hypocrisy and subordination by Mr. Brocklehurst and yet another based on ambition by St. John. She takes all of these examples into consideration but does not go to any of those extremes. She simply uses religion as a guide to ask God for help when in dire situations, such as the interruption of her wedding or when she is wandering the moors. She has the ability to form her own opinion of religion, just as she forms an opinion of social classes when, as previously discussed, she implores Mr. Rochester to look beyond her servitude and into the affairs of her heart.
Diana and Mary Rivers inspire Jane to further this personal intellect. In fact, Diana urges Jane not to go to India, which may indicate she has the same opinion on independence as Jane. Diana and Mary, while not as passionate and forceful as Jane in their ideas, nevertheless embody the same "feminist" characteristic Jane: a desire for intellect. Jane aspires to their level of intelligence, saying, "They were both more accomplished and better read than I was; but with eagerness I followed in the path of knowledge they had trodden before me" (Bronte 308).
While Jane is often inspired by women who share her views, two women contrast sharply with Jane, which emphasizes both her free-thinking tendencies and her role as a woman unconstrained by societal demands. Blanch Ingram and Bessie are two female characters in the novel who have given in to those demands. Blanche Ingram is probably the best example of a woman who does not fall under the category of "feminist," due to her misplaced self-worth. Blanche is not deeply in love with Rochester, yet she wishes to marry him because of his wealth. As Jane attests, Blanche "cannot truly like him, or not like him with true affection. If she did, she need not coin her smiles so lavishly, flash her glances so unremittingly, manufacture airs so elaborate, graces so multitudinous" (Bronte 164). These actions, along with her fancy garments and constant obsession with her appearance, show that Blanche places her self-worth on two components of "marriageability": her physical beauty and the social status that she has the potential to obtain. This stands in sharp contrast to Jane, who prides herself on being independent from a man and not defining herself by the riches Mr. Rochester offers her.
Jane also contrasts, but in a different way, with her former maid Bessie Lee. Jane has the ability to finish her schooling and the opportunity to marry outside of her social class despite the challenge. Bessie marries Robert Leaven, a coachman who would be considered in the same social class, and is therefore confined to that class through the end of the novel. Though Bessie is happily married, her marriage contrasts with Jane's, which will "lift" Jane into a new social class and therefore a new life.
If feminists challenge the norm, then Jane Eyre can definitely be defined as one. Her defiance of authority, or at least, those who try to wield authority over her, is proof of this assertion. Mr. Brocklehurst, Mr. Rochester and St. John each drew from her a certain defiance that portrayed her as nothing less than resilient and passionate. The fact that Jane refuses to give part of her nature to the will of any of these men shows that she does not consider herself below them, but wishes to maintain a dignified, independent self, free from their demands and desires. In addition, she is able to form her own opinions about religion and social standards as a result of (or in spite of) these men as well as other women in the novel. Her relationships to the other female characters are the strongest indications of Jane's strength, fortitude and insistence on breaking from societal standards of the day. Some women inspire her independent spirit while other contrast sharply with Jane's free-spirited attitude. Though Jane does not announce to the world that she is trying to begin any type of feminist movement, her actions and decisions nevertheless could set a model for any forward-thinking woman in the mid-nineteenth century. St. John's opinion that her "words are such as ought not to be used: violent, unfeminine, and untrue" (Bronte 363) seem to be Bronte's hint that indeed, Jane's actions were not typical of a woman in that era.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc, New York: 1987.
Eagleton, Terry. "Jane Eyre's Power Struggles." Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of Bronte. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble Books, 1975. Rpt. in Bronte 491-496.
"Feminist." Oxford English Dictionary, 2008. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press. Canisius College Library. 10 April 2009. <http://0-dictionary.oed.com.cando.canisius.edu/cgi/entry/50083533?query_type=word&queryword=feminist&first=1&max_to_show=10&single=1sort_type=alpha>.
Moglen, Helen. "The Creation of a Feminist Myth." Charlotte Bronte: The Self Conceived. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, n.d. Rpt. in Bronte 484-491.
Rich, Adrienne. "Jane Eyre: The Temptations of a Motherless Woman." On Lies, Secrets, and Silences. Selected Prose, 1966-78. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979. Rpt. in Bronte 462-475.
Seelye, John. Jane Eyre's American Daughters: From The Wide Wide World to Anne of Green Gables, A Study of Marginalized Maidens and What They Mean. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005.