Feminism in Jane Eyre

Feminism in Jane Eyre
Jay Sheldon
Feminism has been a prominent and controversial topic in writings for
the past two centuries. With novels such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,
or even William Shakespeare’s Macbeth the fascination over this subject by
authors is evident. 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.

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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 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.
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