Portrayals of Prostitution in Jane Eyre
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Bronte paints many parallels between the characters in the novel and the trade of prostitution. One of the main characters that Bronte attributes poverty to is the character of Jane. Jane’s poverty is intrinsically important to the plot of the novel because Bronte uses Jane’s poverty to allow the reader to picture Jane as a virtuous woman, such as when Jane flees from Thornfield to escape the entrapment of Rochester. The reader is urged to feel sympathy for Jane as she adheres to her strict, virtuous moral codes and does not allow herself to succumb to temptation. Jane exhibits her desperate situation when she has fled from Thornfield and is struggling to sustain herself. Jane states, "Once more I took off my handkerchief-once more I thought of the cakes of bread in the little shop. Oh, but for a crust! For but one mouthful to allay the pang of famine!" (Bronte, ch.28; 323). The language used in the passage shows that Jane is in a state of desperation and she still does not resort to prostitution, even though in many respects she does not have another choice. Jane is at a point in her life where she must do something to sustain her life, but Jane never even contemplates prostitution as an option to enable her to obtain money or food. In Victorian society Jane’s poverty and subsequent life would have rendered her a prime candidate for taking up the trade of prostitution. The description given by Vicinus of the woman most vulnerable to fall victim to the trade of prostitution is similar to Jane’s life. Jane is a domestic servant in her roles as a governess at Lowood and Thornfield and she has no familial ties.
One of the dominant distinctions of a Victorian prostitute was her dress or "love of finery." When the love of finery is introduced Bronte veers off the course of identifying Jane with the likeness of a prostitute. The Victorian prostitute is associated with the love of fine dresses, like that of the upper-class society. The prostitute's dress denoted her as a disgraceful and immoral character because she wore the type of dress that was not associated with her class. Valverde states, "…What was or was not finery depended upon the socioeconomic status of the wearer" (Valverde 169).
The love of finery is relentlessly associated with the Victorian prostitute, but Jane portrays an image of plainness in the attire that she wears.
Jane portrays this image when Rochester takes her to Millcote to buy her some dresses. Jane says,
The hour spent at Millcote was a somewhat harassing one to me. Mr. Rochester obliged me to go to a certain silk warehouse: there I was ordered to choose half a dozen dresses. I hated the business, I begged to defer it: no - it should be gone through with now. By dint of entreaties expressed in energetic whispers, I reduced the half-dozen to two: these, however, he vowed he would select himself. With anxiety I watched his eye rove over the gray stores: he fixed on a rich silk of the most brilliant amethyst dye, and a superb pink satin. I told him in a new series of whispers, that he might as well buy me a gold gown and a silver bonnet at once: I should certainly never venture to wear his choice. With infinite difficulty, for he was as stubborn as a stone, I persuaded him to make an exchange in favour of a sober black and a pearl-gray silk. (ch.24; 266)
Jane does not display a "love of finery." Jane portrays a woman that is simplistic and plain in the way that she dresses. So in this aspect Jane does not resemble the portrait of the prostitute.
The love of finery is more significantly related to the character of Celine who is portrayed as a sexual predator in the novel. Celine lives a luxurious lifestyle. Celine is described to the reader when Rochester flashes back to his encounter of the betrayal of Celine taking up with another man while Rochester pays for all of the luxuries of her life. Rochester states, "The couple were thus revealed to me clearly: both removed their cloaks, and there was ‘the Varens’ shining in satin and jewels, - my gifts of course…" (ch.15; 149). Rochester portrays Celine as a figure that is extravagant in what she wears. She does not seem to give away any of the luxuries that Rochester provides for her. Celine lives happily with all of the luxuries that are provided for her by Rochester, whereas Jane is content to walk to town rather than have a carriage provided. Jane denies many of the other luxuries that Rochester wants to give her, such as the dresses and jewelry that he wants to buy her.
Bertha is also a character that is portrayed as a sexual heathen. Rochester states, "Bertha Mason, - the true daughter of an infamous mother, - dragged me through all the hideous and degrading agonies which must attend a man bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste" (ch.27; 302). Bertha is portrayed as a prostitute figure in the way that she acts rather than the way that she dresses. Amanda Anderson states, "Most of Victorian studies acknowledge the fluidity of the term ‘fallen woman’, its application to a range of feminine identities: prostitutes, unmarried women who engage in sexual relations with men, victims of seduction, adulteresses, as well as variously delinquent lower-class women" (Anderson 2). Bertha falls into the category of "unmarried women who engage in sexual relations with men" (Anderson 2). Not only does Rochester state that Bertha is unchaste but he also insinuates that there were sexual relations between the two before they were married. When Rochester is talking about the mistake that he made when he married Bertha he says, "With less sin I might have -…" (ch.27; 301). Rochester insinuates that if he had not committed the sin of sex before marriage he would not have been tied to marrying Bertha.
Bronte portrays Blanche as a prostitute when she describes her as a character that is dressed in a revealing way for the time period that she lives in. In the instance when Rochester and his guests are playing charades, Blanches attire is described in detail. Jane described Blanche as "…attired in oriental fashion: a crimson scarf tied sash-like round the waist; an embroidered handkerchief knotted about her temples; her beautifully-moulded arms bare…" (ch.18; 186). The description of Blanches bare arms portrays Blanche in a sexual manner. Blanche is not only described in a sexual manner, but she is also portrayed as a prostitute in her actions toward Rochester. Blanche is trying to solicit the affections of Rochester to gain a husband who will be able to support her and the prostitutes are trying to attain the affections of the men so that they can make extra money to support themselves and perhaps their families. The Ingram family is described as needing to marry their daughters to a man that has his own fortune because their they do not have any fortune of their own. The connection between Blanche and Rochester seems ideal because Rochester will then gain the connections of the Ingram name while Blanche will gain a husband that has enough money to sustain her upper-class lifestyle.
Bronte uses stereotypes that specifically refer to prostitution when she talks about Bertha, Celine, and Blanche as living unchaste and immoral lifestyles, which is why the reader feels sympathy for Rochester. Consequently many readers may read the novel Jane Eyre and believe that Bronte is following the moral values of the Victorian time period, by creating a character that is susceptible to the trade of prostitution but perseveres with her moral integrity to receive all that is justly hers, while degrading the immoral choices of dress and conduct of her counterparts which lead to their fall. Jane fears becoming the characters of these women because they are just landmarks in the life of Rochester and Jane does not want him to feel the same way about her in a couple of years. After Rochester is trying to persuade Jane to marry him despite his marriage to Bertha, Jane states, "…If I were so far to forget myself and all the teaching that had ever been instilled into me, as–under any pretext–with any justification–through any temptation–to become the successor of these poor girls, he would one day regard me with the same feeling which now in his mind desecrated their memory" (ch.27; 307-308). Jane knows that if she gives into Rochester she will be another unchaste mistress that he will tell stories about to the woman who will replace her.
Bronte, however, does not seem to be sticking to other Victorian moral values, such as the feminism that is portrayed throughout the novel. In a moment that is viewed from a feminist perspective, Jane says, "Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex" (ch.12; 116-117). Through Jane’s declaration in the passage, Bronte is deviating from the view that women should be content with their position in life. Feminism has not emerged to the front of issues being confronted in the Victorian period, but Bronte is making the bold statement before it becomes a political concern. This break from the traditional views of the Victorian society should make the reader wonder if Bronte’s actual intentions were to depict the ideal moral standard of the period or if she was using the trade of prostitution to challenge the status quo of the social classes of the time period.
Many people in the Victorian society believed that prostitution was an immoral act that affected lower class women and was never associated with the women of high social standing. Green states, "…the prostitute as a woman not ‘owned’ by any one man: all of these have been threats to the bourgeois social order precisely because they throw into doubt the gender codes on which that order is built" (Green 9). Green is stating that a man did not own prostitutes which is why many people in the Victorian era were frightened by the trade of prostitution Bronte consistently portrays the women of higher social standing with a tone of contempt. When Bronte discusses Jane’s stay at the Reed’s she constantly uses images of cold and darkness and slave imagery to allow the reader to feel the same hatred towards the family that Jane feels. Bessie reminds Jane, "You ought to be aware, Miss, that you are under obligations to Mrs. Reed: she keeps you: if she were to turn you off, you would have to go to the poorhouse" (ch.2; 25).
Bronte then goes on to portray the high-class women, Celine, Bertha, and Blanche, with the descriptions of evil and immoral people by using imagery of being unchaste and thus relating their characters to prostitutes who were also considered immoral beings. When Jane describes seeing Bertha she says, "Fearful and ghastly to me–oh, sir, I never saw a face like it! It was a discoloured face–it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the role of the red eyes and the fearful black inflation of the lineaments!" (ch.25; 281). The references that are made about Bertha are used with this evil and beastly imagery. Bronte uses these descriptions of evil and sexually deviant behavior to display the ill features of the upper-class society. Despite the significant connotations that Jane would have held in common with the stereotype of the Victorian prostitute, she is not depicted with this immoral trade while her upper-class counterparts are related and described with features relating to the immoral trade. This leads the reader to understand that Bronte is using prostitution as a mode to destroy the stereotypes of the social classes of the time period.
Anderson, Amanda. Tainted Souls and Painted Faces. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996.
Green, Brian. "A Particular Class of Women: Class Struggles on the Prostitute Body, 1830-1900." Organdi Quarterly 2 (2001). February 2003.
Valverde, Mariana. "The Love of Finery: Fashion and The Fallen Woman in Nineteenth-Century Social Discourse" Victorian Studies 32 (1989): 169-88.
Vicinus, Martha., ed. Suffer and Be Still. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1973.