In Bronte’s time, the Victorian era, class system still played a huge role in society. People of a certain class would often look down on people from another class. Class was something you were born into. It was almost impossible to shift from one class to another. In the novel Jane Eyre, Bronte presents a very revolutionary character in that aspect. Charlotte Bronte is critical about the class system and tries to show that through Jane Eyre.
Jane Eyre is not influenced by the social class system, because she shifts between several classes, has a strong character which enables her to ignore the traditions of the class system, and she does not judge others on their class, but rather on their character. Jane is not fixed to one class, but instead shifts between several classes. During her childhood, she is raised within the wealthy Reed’s family (Bronte 1). However, she is not considered as family, because she is an orphan.
She is born into the working class and for that reason she is ill-treated by the Reed’s family (Godfrey 853). This becomes clear when John Reed addresses Jane: “you are a dependant, mamma says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not live with gentlemen’s children like us” (Bronte 7). She still remains in this class position when she attends Lowood school, which is a school for orphans. At the age of eighteen, she becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, and her position changes.
Since she earns her money by teaching a pupil, her position moves upwards somewhere between the working class and the middle class (Godfrey 857). In the rich Mr Rochester she meets her future husband, but when she discovers that he is married to another woman she runs off (Bronte 379). With almost nothing, she has to beg for food which brings her position to the lower class (Bronte 431). When her uncle dies, she inherits a large amount of money, which enables her to climb up to the middle class (Bronte 500).
Knowing that Mr Rochester’s wife died, she is now able to marry him since their positions are equal. Jane Eyre does not judge others on their class, but rather on their character. As is mentioned before, Jane does not belong to one particular class, but shifts between the two extremes of the class system. In the beginning Jane does not feel comfortable around superior people. This might have been a result of her childhood during which she was ill-treated. However, she quickly learns to evaluate people on their character instead of their class status.
First we see how Jane feels drawn to Bessie, the maid, who is the only one during her hard childhood who cares about her: “She had a capricious and hasty temper, … , still such as she was, I preferred her to any one else at Gateshead Hall” (Bronte 41). Later on we see how she establishes a close relationship with Helen Burns, who is a friend at Lowood, and also with Miss Temple, the head teacher. These examples are people from the lower or working classes. We also see that Jane criticizes Mr Brocklehurst, who belongs to a higher class, because of his wrong and hypocrite behaviour.
He tells the girls at Lowood: “my mission is to mortify in these girls the lusts of the flesh, to teach them to clothe themselves with shamefacedness and sobriety, not with braided hair and costly apparel” (Bronte 86). Yet, his own wife and daughters are dressed luxurious. The most important example is of course Mr Rochester. Jane Eyre often reflects on his character, but never really on his class: “I believed he was naturally a man of better tendencies, higher principles, and purer tastes than such as circumstances had developed, education instilled, or destiny encouraged” (Bronte 193).
Her love for him is based on his character and not on his class. Jane has a strong character which enables her to ignore the traditions of the social class system. In the Victorian era, women were still considered inferior to men. At a certain point during her stay at Thornfield Hall, she expresses her opinion about this: “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as man feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do” (Bronte 146).
This shows that Jane has a different view from the traditional one, namely that she thinks that women are equal to men. At a later stage in her life, when she inherits twenty thousand pounds from her uncle, she also reacts different from the traditional standards. She wants to divide the money equally with her nephew and cousins (Bronte 505). However, St John calls this “contrary to all custom” (Bronte 507), because normally someone from a lower class would keep the money for himself.
So Bronte shows that she has a critical view on the social class system by presenting Jane’s revolutionary character, and letting her break through the traditions of the class system. She is not influenced by the social class system, because instead of being fixed to one class, Jane changes from one class to the other. She starts out as a working class girl being raised in a middle class environment, and shifts back and forth until she finally ends in the middle class. She also evaluates people on their character instead of their class, and her strong personality enables her to ignore the standards of the social class.