Feminism in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre

Feminism in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre

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Feminism in Jane Eyre

 
    Feminism has been a prominent and controversial topic in writings

for some time.  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

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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.

 

Works Cited and Consulted

Brontë, C. Jane Eyre. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1992.

Campbell, S. Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre. London: Penguin Books, 1988.

Gregor, I. The Brontë's: A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc, Englewood Cliffs, 1970.

 
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