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. 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.