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Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was one of the most influential books of the nineteenth century. Published in 1847 under the pseudonym Currer Bell, the novel received phenomenal critical acclaim, causing a ‘sensation’ among Victorian readers. Most notable was the insight Brontë provided into the soul of her protagonist; her visceral examination of human emotion which influenced the modern English novel and the concept of the ‘self’. More generally, the novel is famous for the romance between the smouldering, Byronic Mr Rochester and the innocent, moralistic Jane, who share an explosive and agonising passion, a relationship that has set the blueprint for many a fictional couple ever since.
However, the development of feminist criticism in the mid to late 20th century brought the book under new scrutiny, with a groundbreaking study by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar highlighting the text’s ‘rebellious feminism’. They saw Jane as a woman fighting against the social constraints of her era, refusing to comply with contemporary expectations of her gender, asserting that ‘women feel as men feel’. Jane is eloquent and forthright, curious and heroic: she survives mistreatment at the hand of her relatives, fights through starvation and poverty and even saves Mr Rochester from being burnt to death. But does that make her a feminist? Yes, Jane asserts her independence by refusing to marry Rochester when she discovers (spoiler!) that he keeps his wife locked up in the attic. But she does not then go on to a life of study or political activism, but comes home, forgives him and spends the rest of her days nursing him. This can be a bitter pill to swallow for us modern, feminist readers, who would like nothing more than for Jane to raise the banner for women’s rights in Westminster. Nonetheless, if Brontë does not give us the conclusion we desire, we should not ignore the encouraging assertions of female feeling made throughout the novel, proving that Jane does still have something to contribute to the conversation about equality.
One of the key characteristics that marks Jane Eyre as a feminist is her seemingly irrepressible spirit. Brontë was revolutionary in providing a fictional character such depth of thought, and even more so for putting it in the mind of a woman. Jane’s preoccupations are not limited to frocks, marriage and sewing, as would have been expected by Victorian readers, but also morality, faith and injustice. Speaking of female ambition, she asserts that ‘it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures [ie.men] to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings.’ It is this spirit and sense of self-awareness that push her to seek a life away from Lowood, because she knows that ‘the real world was wide’ and she wants ‘to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils’. She knows what is expected of her as a woman, but she cannot help wanting more and is determined to act upon her desires. Not because she has a political point to prove, but because to do otherwise would be unfaithful to her inner self.
Jane subverts traditional ideas of femininity further by speaking some of these controversial feelings aloud, especially when facing injustice. Even as a child she refuses to accept mistreatment, and will not relent, despite punishment. She refuses to turn the other cheek when provoked: ‘When we are struck at without a reason we must strike back again very hard’ and is adamant that she does not deserve to suffer on behalf of her class or gender: ‘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 as much heart!” These “unfeminine” protestations alarm those around her, for they ‘had not imagined that a woman would dare to speak so to a man’. Because of this, she is presumed to be out of her depth. Men and women are constantly telling her that she must calm down, that she is confused or over-excited, that she must have a glass of water and pacify herself. Jane is frustrated by this patronising behaviour, and strongly asserts her independent thought and mind: ‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.’
This strength and self-assertion mark Jane out as an unconventional heroine and feminist. Despite her stature and status, Jane is intelligent and aware of the attempts of others to wrest her into positions to which she is unsuited. She insists on being true to herself and her morals, rejecting the roles carved out for her by men. She will not become Rochester’s ideal bride, despite her passion for him, and refuses the jewels and fripperies he offers her, claiming that it would be unnatural, and would make her something she is not: ‘an ape in a harlequin’s jacket- a jay in borrowed plumes’. Nor will she consent to be his mistress once she has learnt of the existence of his wife, for, as Rochester said himself, ‘hiring a mistress is the next worst thing to buying a slave.’ She values herself too highly to be subordinated in such a way. She similarly rejects Rivers’ pressure to become his wife as a missionary, knowing that she would be ‘forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low, to compel it to burn inwardly and never utter a cry, though the imprisoned flame consumed vital after vital.’ She knows that accompanying Rivers to India would destroy her and has the courage to reject him, despite the considerable power that he wields, which she claims ‘took away my liberty of mind’.
In refusing these predetermined roles, Jane chooses to carve out her own destiny, which is perhaps the strongest feminist assertion of the novel. She decides that she should find a new position after Lowood, asking no one for advice or support. She chooses to seek a new life away from Rochester, despite having no money or connections and ultimately chooses to return. This sense of agency is emphasised further once she discovers her inheritance, which allows her to live upon her own terms: ‘Independence would be glorious’. Free from the limitations of poverty, she is no longer dependant on anyone, neither Rochester nor Rivers, permitting her to act according to her own will: ‘It was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play and in force.’ She decides to return to Rochester not because she is caving in to her female emotions, but because she is independent and can live her life as she pleases.
Despite her recent reputation as a champion of women’s rights, there is plenty of material in the novel that would suggest that Jane Eyre is not what modern readers would call a feminist. One critic has gone so far as to say that ‘there is not a hint in the book of any desire for political, legal, educational, or even intellectual equality between the sexes.’ Indeed, Jane shows no particular inclination towards achieving a prosperous career, announcing that she is ‘not ambitious’. She has no great passion for teaching and does not seem to find joy in offering her female pupils the chance of a better life, referring to them as ‘hopelessly dull...heavy, gaping rustics.’ On the discovery of her inheritance, Jane is more than happy to give up her school and work; she is delighted to have the opportunity to enjoy a life of domesticity relishing in tasks such as baking, decorating and cleaning. This seems quite a contrast from the young woman desperate to see more of the world and seek new experiences, and seems to contradict her speech on the ramparts of Thornfield, lamenting the lack of opportunities for women beyond the home. It is as though the arrival of money gave her the opportunity to enjoy the life of boredom for which she secretly yearned. This may seem disappointing, and perhaps the modern reader is likely to agree with Rivers, who asks ‘What aim, what purpose, what ambition in life have you now?’ and hopes that ‘when the first flush of vivacity is over, you will look a little higher than domestic endearments and household joys.’
There seems to be little feminism also in the relationship between Jane and Rochester. He uses possessive, violent language when speaking to her: ‘I must have you as my own, entirely my own...when I have seized you‘ which she does not challenge, for all of her teasing. Her decision to leave Thornfield seems less to do with his questionable behaviour and more to do with her own shame: ‘I should fear even to cross his path now: my view must be hateful to him.’ Rather than blaming him (‘I will not say that he betrayed me’) she in fact blames herself; ‘how blind had been my eyes! How weak my conduct!’ She does not express any sense of anger at his lies, or moral indignation, admitting, almost guiltily: ‘Reader, I forgave him at that moment and on the spot.’ Although she insists on leaving Thornfield, she does not challenge Rochester on his behaviour and still refers to him as ‘my dear master’ upon departing. Furthermore, despite asserting her independence at Moor House and claiming that she will never marry, she still returns to her beloved. She does not express a particular plan to the reader (is she planning to agree to be his mistress after all? Is she happy to ignore Bertha’s existence and Rochester’s lies?) and seems driven there only by a desire to be with him. Upon her arrival, Rochester refers to her as ever before, as a child, plaything or animal ‘my fairy...my skylark’ and sits her on his lap. With Bertha helpfully removed from the picture, there seems to be no obstacle in Jane becoming a loving, devoted wife.
Although Jane tells Rochester ‘I am my own mistress now’, it is hard to see her decision to marry him as a sign of feminine independence, especially given the fact that, upon saying ‘I do’ all of her money would legally belong to him. Earlier in the novel, Jane firmly informs Rochester that she is ‘no angel’, subverting the Victorian concept of the Angel in the house in which it is the wife’s job, as a model of piety and humility, to guide her husband on the path to moral virtue. However, this is ultimately the role Jane assumes when she goes to Ferndean. As a result of Rochester’s disfigurement and blindness, Jane must literally lead him through life with her ‘soft ministry’, serving both ‘for his prop and his guide.’ Rather than widening her horizons, committing to Rochester limits them, causing her to live out her days as a carer, the most stereotypical female role, in almost total isolation. She does not seek the excitement of the wider world but a life that revolves entirely around her husband. It seems that wild Jane, with the bold, adventurous spirit, has finally been tamed by a jealous, patriarchal man.
Despite her boldness of spirit and insistence on speaking her mind, Jane’s acceptance of the traditional Victorian role of a wife can make it difficult to present her as a feminist trailblazer. Her fierce assertions of independence all seem to melt away at the thought of a life without Rochester, for she does not want to live without him. However, we should be considerate of the context within which she and Brontë were operating, and the existence of restrictions no longer faced by modern women. Further education was barred to women in Victorian England, as were most professions. While teaching at Lowood, Jane dreams of a life of freedom and excitement, but she accepts that it is simply beyond her means. She desires liberty, but knows it will not be possible, and that ‘a new servitude’ is all that she can hope for. She may not be what we’d call a feminist, but she’s certainly pragmatic. Given her circumstances and the accepted behaviour for women at the time, her ability to speak her mind in front of Rochester and inform him of his faults should be seen in themselves a victory for women.
While it may be true that she makes no obvious cry for women’s political or economic rights, Jane does believe in equality. She is only able to return to Rochester once she has become financially independent, so that she no longer feels like the subject of pity or charity. Simultaneously, Rochester’s blindness means that he is now dependent on her: putting them on a more equal footing. But to Jane, emotional equality is even more important, and she is pushed to return to Rochester by the realisation of what life with Rivers would be like. She would be forced to ‘disown half my nature, stifle half my faculties’ in a cold, loveless marriage, in which she would be valued as a fellow labourer, not a twin soul. In contrast, the emotional connection between herself and Rochester can be in no doubt: Rochester refers to her as ‘my better self’ and believes that they are connected, soul to soul. Jane believes they should be together because she has ‘something in my brain and heart, in my blood and nerves, that assimilates me mentally to him.’ She does not refer to any specific gender role in their relationship, because she and Rochester are equals in love: ‘I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am.’
Jane Eyre can be a frustrating character for modern readers because, despite all her strong words against oppression on the grounds of her sex and status, she ultimately agrees to a conventional conclusion. She gives up her career and independence and returns to Rochester as a housewife and mother. Her behaviour may cause us to question why Brontë gave Jane a free spirit, if she ultimately does exactly what is expected. But what is most important to acknowledge is that, by giving Jane such independence and eloquence of thought, Brontë allows us to see and understand Jane’s choices. We may not agree with her decisions, but we cannot and should not judge her for making them. Jane decides on her fate: no one does it for her. She chooses to leave Thornfield, chooses to give up teaching, chooses not to become a missionary and chooses to marry Rochester. No one forces her to act and she refuses to bend to the selfish, harmful will of others. This is her one of her greatest strengths, and earns her the title of heroine. Feminism empowers women to have the freedom to choose their own destiny, and Jane does just that.