Jane Eyre the Child: Breaking the Rules
One major concern of Victorian literature is the question of gender identity, the nature and the role of men and women. Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre was controversial at the time of its publication in the mid-nineteenth century for its portrayal of a woman struggling against forces that would limit her autonomy. The novel’s portrayal of a woman seeking her independence challenged Victorian society’s conception of femininity and women’s role in society.
Certain preconceived notions existed in Victorian England that governed how women (and even young girls) should behave: that they be pleasant in their words and appearance, be mindful of their social position, and obey their betters without signs of defiance. Even as a child at Gateshead Hall and Lowood School, Jane Eyre deviates from and rebels against these rules, facing the grim consequences: alienation, punishment, and even threats of God’s wrath. These stifling forces that Jane faces as a child shape her identity as a woman later in the novel.
One really cannot care for such a little toad as that
Young Jane learns that she as a girl is expected to look agreeable and speak pleasantly. In fact, one of the reasons she is shunned by her aunt and cousins at Gateshead is because of her unhappy countenance and manner. Mrs. Reed keeps Jane from the rest of the family, saying:
“She regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance; but that until she…could discover by her own observation that I was endeavouring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and child-like disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner—something lighter, franker, more natural, as it were—she really must exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy little children.” (Brontë 1)
Thus, Jane is alienated and rejected partly because of the way she looks. Even the fact that she is plain-featured works against her at Gateshead. Abbot, one of the servants, says that “if she were a nice, pretty child, one might compassionate her forlornness; but one really cannot care for such a little toad as that” (Brontë 20). While Jane has no control over her features, she often speaks defiantly, and Mrs. Reed finds “something truly forbidding in a child taking up her elders in that manner” (Brontë 1).
Besides being a girl, Jane has the double burden of being an orphan dependent. Another challenge for young women is for them to know their place, both as a woman and in the social hierarchy. Jane has a dubious position in the household—she is not accepted as part of the family, nor is she a servant. As Abbot puts it, Jane is less than a servant, because she does nothing for her keep. John Reed, Jane’s bullying cousin, asserts that “‘you are a dependent, mamma says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen’s children like us’” (Brontë 4).
Jane refuses to stand his abuse, the physical exertion of his illegitimate power over her as her “master.” Instinctively, she flies at him physically and verbally, comparing him to a slave-driver and Roman emperors. However, her resistance is not merely instinctual—“Roman emperor and rebel slave are intellectual terms, and Jane is perfectly able to grasp the injustice of her punishment for defending herself” (Pell 401). Mrs. Reed and the servants are horrified not just because Jane acted violently, but also because she attacked one of her betters.
Therefore, she faces punishment (another consequence of deviating from the accepted notions of femininity). As a child, Jane is unjustly punished both at Gateshead and at Lowood—locked in the oppressive red room, then forced to stand on a stool and be disdained by her peers. Both punishments are unjust; in one case she acts in self-defense, in the other she is falsely branded a liar. As Mrs. Reed shuts Jane in the red room she says: “This violence is all most repulsive….It is only on condition of perfect submission and stillness that I shall liberate you” (Brontë 12). Here Mrs. Reed makes very clear just what she expects of Jane: to obey her unquestioningly and act perfectly submissive. Nancy Pell argues that:
The conditions on which the adults in Jane’s world would have approved of her are drawn in terms of such extravagant prejudices or demands for subjection that the author leads us to give our sympathy and encouragement to the child who resists and defies them. (402)
Jane is also expected to be completely submissive at Lowood, where a girl can be “trained in conformity to her position and prospects” (Brontë 29). At this charity school Jane faces an institution’s systematic stripping away of girls’ individuality and willfulness. She describes how “eighty girls sat motionless and erect; a quaint assemblage they appeared, all with plain locks combed from their faces, not a curl visible…. [The uniform] suited them ill, and gave an air of oddity even to the prettiest” (Brontë 41). The young women are ranged in rows, “marshalled and marched” like cattle. Any resistance is dealt with swiftly and strictly. Lowood “exposes and corrects the woman’s irregular traits: the marks of the child, the criminal, the ill, and insane” (London 200).
Different religious perspectives
Religious characters appear in the novel, some of them offering Jane an unforgiving idea of divine retribution for wicked girls. As Jane is taken to the red room, Abbot says: “‘God will punish her: He might strike her dead in the midst of her tantrums, and then where would she go?’”(Brontë 7). Mr. Brocklehurst tells Jane exactly where she will go if she dies, threatening her with a lake burning with fire and brimstone. According to the menacing reverend, there is “no sight so sad as that of a naughty child…especially a naughty little girl” (Brontë 26). He equates naughty children with the wicked sinners who burn in hell. Mr. Brocklehurst “personifies the religious aspect of self-suppression and constraint that Jane will meet again in Helen Burns and St. John Rivers” (Pell 402). His extreme evangelism is echoed later in St. John Rivers, who also threatens Jane with God’s wrath for not bending to his will.
Bette London points out that Jane Eyre “stands as a primer for rebellion and ‘ungodly discontent’—rebellion figured in the spectacle of feminine misconduct” (198). Because Jane does not behave the way society expects young girls in her position to behave, it must follow that God does not approve of her actions either.
However, Jane ultimately rejects this harsh view of God, instead taking to heart Helen Burns’ message of God’s mercy and forgiveness. With her creed, Helen can
“so clearly distinguish between the criminal and his crime; I can so sincerely forgive the first while I abhor the last: with this creed, revenge never worries my heart, degradation never too deeply disgusts me, injustice never crushes me too low: I live in calm, looking to the end.” (Brontë 53)
But while Helen passively accepts the privations and injustices brought at Lowood, to the point that she almost welcomes her death of consumption, Jane lives by her own advice: to keep in good health and not die. Her simple and childlike reply to Mr. Brocklehurst “may be taken as a rubric for the rest of the novel. Jane is candidly committed to her own survival” (Pell 403).
Jane does not follow the rules set for girls in Victorian England, rules that called for self-suppression and passive compliance. Instead, Jane strives to take care of herself as she becomes an adult, rejecting a marriage that would deprive her of self-respect and another proposal that would deny her love (and in fact kill her). Thus, she reasserts her passionate dedication to her own welfare when she tells Rochester, “I care for myself” (Brontë 314).
The stifling and restricting forces Jane finds in characters like Mrs. Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst are meant to “produce the docile body approved for Victorian womanhood, a body organized for social use: to serve, to suffer, to sacrifice, to (silently) obey” (London 199). During her childhood at Gateshead and Lowood, Jane learns these preconceived notions of femininity and what consequences she faces for rebelling against them. Ultimately, Jane Eyre must become her own advocate as she matures into an independent woman, sure of her self-worth and her place in society.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1847.
London, Bette. "The Pleasures of Submission: Jane Eyre and the Production of the Text." ELH 58 (1991): 195-213. JSTOR. Web. 8 Dec. 2006.
Pell, Nancy. "Resistance, Rebellion, and Marriage: the Economics of Jane Eyre." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 31 (1977): 397-420. JSTOR. Web. 8 Dec. 2006.