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Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is a coming of age novel in which we are exposed to the protagonist Jane and her struggles, hardships and successes. We follow her through her personal journey as she develops and matures into a young lady. Bronte’s novel can be viewed as a Bildungsroman in which we follow Jane on her path to self-discovery and womanhood. During this essay I will be discussing how Bronte highlights the patriarchal values of Victorian society and how they impact and shape Jane as a woman.
Jane’s first encounter with patriarchy is with her cousin, John Reed. He insults her saying “you are dependant, mamma says; you have no money; your father left you none”. Here, Bronte is trying to convey the status of women in Victorian society. Land was seen as an indication of wealth and social status and 19th Century inheritance laws made it that if no male heirs were able to inherit, a family line could end if a female heir remained unmarried. Jane being the only child of her parents and too young to marry, indicates that any land her father owned was passed to someone outside of the family. John’s recall of the wealth she does not possess reminds Jane that as a woman she is entitled to nothing. After her encounter with John, Miss Abbot tells Jane “And you ought not to think yourself on an equality with the Misses Reed and Master Reed”, further reminding her of her status. As a child, Jane fights the oppressive forces within Gateshead. After John hurls a book at her, Jane retaliates, she narrates “my terror had passed its climax; other feelings succeeded”, she continues, “you are like a slave-driver – you are like the Roman emperors”. Referring to John being “like” an “emperor” illustrates the status of men in comparison to women. It reflects male domination, men had power over everything, including women. Jane’s retaliation is a form of her exerting her independence. Bertens writes, “Female independence gets a strongly negative connotation, whilst helplessness and renouncing all ambition and desire are presented as endearing and admirable”. Bronte allows Jane to be punished for her individuality as it is deviating away from the expectations of a young lady’s desirable behaviour. These punishments are repeated throughout the novel where Jane has caused a disturbance in some way and this continues until she conforms and accepts her place as a woman in Victorian society.
Bronte reveals the harshness of Christian values and how they reinforce patriarchy in society. During Jane’s time at Lowood, Brocklehurst, the headmaster, acts as the epitome of religious hypocrisy and severity. Upon first meeting him, Brocklehurst is portrayed as a callous and insensitive man. After Jane admits she is not interested in the book of Psalms, Brocklehurst reprimands her and declares, “That proves you have a wicked heart; and you must pray to God to change it- to give you a new clean one to take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh”. Brocklehurst uses religion as a justification for causing suffering and humiliation of Jane and the girls at Lowood. Bronte demonstrations how the influence of Christian morality leads to male domination in society and the problems she viewed with the 19th century Evangelical movement. Heather Glen, in Charlotte Bronte: The Imagination in History, sees “the discipline institutionalised at Lowood School, with its surveillance, its regimentation, its punishments and privations” as “a hostile but realistic portrayal of the ethos of evangelism”. Brocklehurst’s tyranny reigns over all aspects of the pupil’s lives, it is most recognisable when he orders Julia Severn’s hair to be cut. He says, “Miss Temple, that girl’s hair must be cut off entirely” and uses Christianity to justify his orders, saying “these girls to be the children of Grace”. Brocklehurst exerts his power to the highest degree and shows that men had absolute power over the lives of their female counterparts.
Arriving at Lowood, Jane reads “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” On a stone tablet on the wall of the institute. Bronte is showing how Christianity is incorporated in education to help reinforce patriarchy. Days at Lowood consisted of Bible reading and church attendance, female education was limited, restricting them from academically succeeding and only being able to achieve social mobility through marriage. The detailed description of Lowood’s academics adds to the realism of the novel as in 19th century Victorian England the education of women was prepare them for this role of ‘Angel in the House’. Rather than attracting a husband through their domestic abilities, middle-class girls were coached in what were known as ‘accomplishments’. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley lists the skills mandatory for any young lady who considers herself ‘accomplished’. She narrates, “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages… and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions.” The listed attributes were what was expected of a desirable young woman. By imposing fear of marginalisation and punishment in the afterlife, women conformed passively to societal expectations and ironically upheld their own oppression.
During her time at Lowood, Jane meets Helen Burns. Bronte uses Helen as an embodiment of female acceptance of society’s values. During one of their first conversations Jane says, “But I feel this, Helen: I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it is deserved.’ Here Jane is presented as a social revolutionist. We see revolutionary views within young Jane which slowly change into acceptance over time. Helen acts as a catalyst in this process of change. Helen responds to Jane saying, ‘Read the New Testament, and observe what Christ says, and how he acts; make his word your rule, and his conduct your example.’ She continues, ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you and despitefully use you.” Helen’s Christian approach helps change Jane from a rash, angry young girl to a level-headed young woman.
Feminist literary theorists such as Sandra Gilbert, view Bertha as Jane’s “own secret self”. Parallels between Bertha and Jane can be made throughout the novel, Jane’s imprisonment in the red room correlates with Bertha’s incarceration in the attic and both are outsiders in Victorian society. Bertha can be viewed as Jane’s internal resentment to male domination she has faced throughout her life. Following Rochester’s manipulation of Jane by dressing up as a gypsy, Bertha attacks Richard Mason, when Rochester reveals information about his past, Bertha attempts to burn him in his bed and when Jane is anxious about her marriage, Bertha tears her veil. Bertha’s violent acts are repercussions of Jane’s fears toward male domination. Bertha represents the internal “immoral and dangerous seductress” of Jane, her dark side she must conceal due to the negative connotations of female independence and freedom in Victorian society. Bronte’s gothic and beastly depiction of Bertha reveals the hidden, disturbing ‘otherness’ of married women within the domestic sphere. Bertha’s death signifies the death of Jane’s free will and individual self in order to fit into society and fulfil the expectations of marriage.
Bertha is also a victim of oppression at the hands of Rochester. Rochester’s lack of sympathy is representative of general attitudes towards mental illness in the 19th century. Bronte’s feelings toward these general attitudes are revealed when Jane says to Rochester, “Sir, you are inexorable for that unfortunate lady: you speak of her with hate – with vindictive antipathy. It is cruel- she cannot help being mad.” Charlotte Bronte, along with her family, were interested in bodily and psychological processes. The book Modern Domestic Medicine was owned by the Bronte family and heavily annotated by their father, and we see the implications of the medical literature arise in the physical depiction of Bertha and her madness, adding to the realism of the novel.
Jane’s imprisonment in the red room is where she begins her journey of self-characterisation as an independent woman. She is internally struggling to find her true self throughout the novel and the red room represents the privations she must face and defeat in order to establish and maintain her own identity. Gilbert and Gubar view the red room as a symbol which “represents her vision of the society in which she is trapped”. The emphasis of red in this passage shows the immense amount of danger Jane will face for trying to become a free-thinking individual in a society that thrives off of subordinating women.
Feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter argues “when Rochester and Jane finally marry, they have become equals”. Jane’s marriage to Rochester is not a subscription to the intuition of marriage set by Victorian standards that diminishes and stunts women but instead the continuation of Jane’s self-development. Rochester can be viewed as Jane’s male alter-ego, and hence why Jane chooses to marry him over St. John Rivers. St. John is equal to Jane in terms of their social class and with their family ties he is conceivably a more suitable, and realistic partner for Jane. However, it is his ideologies and beliefs which he upholds that make Jane reject him. Choosing St. John as a husband would be Jane internalizing the passion and individuality she has been expected and repress throughout her life. Rochester is Jane’s igniting fire. During their first formal meeting, Rochester’s insight to Jane’s artwork shows an acceptance of Jane as an individual and creates a safe space for her to be able to express herself freely. Jane’s marriage depicts Bronte’s belief that a man and woman should be able to enter a union without a power dynamic and mutually co-exist with love and respect. However, her marriage to Rochester is not a realistic ending. The immense social class gap between Jane and Rochester would make it highly unlikely for them to marry in 19th century Victorian society.
Charlotte Bronte was progressive in her beliefs. In a time when women were considered nothing more than social adornments and bearers of offspring, Bronte bravely reveals society through her writing. Jane Eyre exposes the oppression of women; consequently, accumulating to the realism of the novel. However, to consider or refer to Bronte as a feminist writer would be a misconception. Bronte shows no desire to change the established political, educational, or social status between the sexes. The text ironically “celebrates the very ideology which it is set out to expose” as argued by Jina Politi. Feminist literary critics would therefore not claim Jane Eyre to be a feminist novel as it does not set out to change the upstanding patriarchal values of Victorian society but it does act as an exposure of the negative impacts these values have on women.