Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte boasts a multitude of themes such as gothic, romance, fantasy, social class, religion, morality and the supernatural. However, first and foremost it is a novel of growth and development within a restricted social order. It follows the protagonist, Jane’s ‘coming of age’ story in a chronological order from Gateshead to Lowood to Thornfield and Moor House to Ferndean. At each place Jane begins a new emotional phase. All the elements described here sum up to Jane Eyre as a Bildungsroman.
I will outline in my essay what makes Jane a female Bildungsroman, along with her prolonged, arduous and successful journey to adulthood and maturity which become evident in her position in society by the end of the novel. Bildungsroman follows a person through their life, displaying their successes and failures, their struggle between personal desires and society’s norms. The protagonist overcomes these trails and is independent at the end. It allows the readers to witness the innocence and morality of a young character, and choices he/she makes to fit in the world.
It starts with an emotional loss, which sends the protagonist on his/her journey, and a protagonist who is also socially confined, often poor, sensitive and looking for answers and experiences. By the end of the novel, the same protagonist is mature, happy and financially well off often by the way of an inheritance. “The Bildung narrative in Victorian novels thus traces the growth to mature consciousness of an individual who, without parents, though sometimes with inadequate foster parents (sisters, uncles, cousins), develops a powerful internal life that is imaginatively well beyond the constraining realities of actual life” (Levine 82-83).
All these elements can be traced in Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre is a plain heroine, but her physical appearance isn’t the only unusual thing about her. She is the emotional equal of any man. She is intensely ardent and zealous, has a deep need for excitement and adventure, and even for a career that is of consequence in the overall hierarchy of human accomplishment. For these reasons, Jane is a strong willed and determined woman who strives to be in control of her destiny.
According to George Levine, Jane Eyre is someone who “resists the conventions of female behavior, resists oppression, and ends entirely in control, even of the man whom she loves” (26). In the first chapter of Jane Eyre, Jane suffers emotional, verbal, psychological, and physical abuse at the hands of her averse family. Jane displays a need for equality despite her low status early on when she is attacked by her cousin John Reed as she is minding her own business. She retaliates and stands up for herself, but only receives worse punishment for her actions. True to its name, Gateshead is the ‘head’ of her problems at such a young age.
Despite the constant reminders of her low birth, Jane doesn’t waver in her belief that she is not inferior to her wealthy and hostile family. Although she searches for a place she can call home, Jane learns quickly enough, that Gateshead is not it. Gateshead portrays the beginning of Jane’s psychological development, which remains an unpleasant reminder for her in her adulthood. For her age at the time Jane is pretty bold in expressing her views to her aunt before she is sent away to school at Lowood. “I am glad you are no relation of mine. I will never call you aunt as long as I live.
I will never come to see you when I am grown up; and if anyone asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty [.. ] You think I have no feelings, or that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so: and you have no pity” (Bronte 38). Even at ten years of age Jane refuses to be a victim and suffer in silence and resents the fact that she has been made out to be a deceitful child by her aunt. With this outburst Jane breaks off any ties to her aunt. She demonstrates a sense of justice and her desire to be loved.
However she is already mature enough to know that her aunt is the last person who will love her. Jane liberates herself from her family with this speech, while proclaiming her authority over her domineering aunt, and at once feels free. Once Jane is sent away to school at Lowood, she is excited to escape a home where she has been so unhappy. What Jane does not know yet, is that Lowood is a shady institution with harsh living conditions, a short supply food and inapt clothing. Furthermore, it is run by Mr. Brocklehurst who thinks poor girls, such as the ones at his school are undeserving of kindness or generosity. My plan in bringing up these girls is not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying” (Bronte 69). Here she begins the next phase of her journey. She learns of love and forgiveness through her friend Helen Burns. She also learns French, drawing and music among other things. She makes friends for the first time in her life in the form of Helen Burns and Miss Temple. She also forms an opinion about religion at Lowood through Helen Burns, who practices the religious doctrine of endurance and loving your enemies.
Jane does not agree with this resigned and docile attitude towards injustice. Additionally she also considers Mr. Brocklehurst a religious hypocrite who while depriving the orphans at his school of basic necessities, furnishes an extravagant and luxurious lifestyle for his own family. Neither Helen’s nor Mr. Brocklehurst’s religious views satisfy Jane. She vilifies Brocklehurst’s fake displays of religious piety and does not understand Helen’s meekness, as Helen’s passivity contrasts with Jane’s sense of equality, fairness, self-respect and susceptibility to injustice.
According to Jane, “When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard […] so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again” (Bronte 63). Her years at Lowood are ultimately a triumph for her as they prepare her for a life as an independent woman and a future governess. Moreover, it is here that Jane also realizes that in spite of her talents, education and self-assurance, the society still views her as a burden, just because she is poor. “Like her fellows, Jane has no external supports – church, state, family, or the class structure – on which she can rely.
The Bronte hero must make his own destiny” (Momberger 354). Jane spends six years as a pupil and two years as a teacher at Lowood and eventually comes to find the place tranquil. Even so, she is desperate for change, longs to see more of the world and yearns for liberty. Hence she takes her chances as a governess to a rich man’s ward at Thornfield Hall. Thornfield represents the third phase of Jane’s life. Here she begins her vocation as a governess. This is also where the principle events of the story occur.
Thornfield has the most profound effect on Jane, as it is here she meets and falls in love with her employer Mr. Rochester. The setting at Thornfield is vastly different from Gateshead and Lowood, simply because it is more symbolic and personal, as for the first time Jane’s emotions and feelings are connected to a man, who is connected to Thornfield. Here she finds the most happiness and the hardest trials of her life. The following quote accentuates Jane’s craving for equality in love and marriage, despite of class. 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! ” (Bronte 289). She is undoubtedly striving to establish self-identity and self-respect. She realizes that Rochester may view her poverty as an obstacle, however she refuses to let that define her as a person. Overcoming the obstacle of her social status she finds herself at the receiving end of Rochester’s love and affection.
However, during the engagement period she refuses to be putty in his hands. She insists on maintaining her independence and freedom which she has fought so long and hard for. By doing so, she is meeting Rochester as his equal. “Jane’s clarity about equality and inequality between herself and Rochester has several aspects […]. Rochester claims advantage over Jane, however, on the basis on his wider experience of the world: Jane disagrees, reminding him primly that “you claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience”.
Although Jane does not realize it, her remark touches the heart of the matter” (Pell 408). Moreover she also objects to him buying her expensive clothes and jewels, as she is afraid she may lose her identity and distinctiveness, and become another Blanche Ingram or his ex-mistress Celine Varens to him. “Do you remember what you said of Celine Varens? Of the diamonds, the cashmeres you gave her? I will not be your English Celine Varens. I will continue to act as Adele’s governess; by that I shall earn my own board and lodging, and thirty pounds a year besides.
I shall furnish my own wardrobe out of that money” (Bronte 308). She loves Rochester very much, but does not allow him to dress her up like a doll and take away from her uniqueness or to allow him to mold her into his vision of her. Jane makes it a point that her personality shall determine her social standing rather than her fiance’s wealth and name. By refusing to accept his gifts, she maintains her independence and uses this opportunity to confirm that she loves Rochester for the right reasons. Readers are given another look into Jane’s morality when she finds out that her future husband already has a wife.
Instead of accepting his offer to live with him regardless, she gives self-respect priority and makes the difficult decision to leave Thornfield and the man who she has come to idolize and manages to make a good life for herself. The next phase of Jane’s life begins at Moor House. As she makes a new home for herself among Diana, Mary and St. John who took her in. She realizes that she can accomplish a balance between society and autonomy. As she develops a fresh sense of rapport and belonging, she comes to terms with the fact that she can give and receive love without being romantically involved.
It is here she discovers that she is an heiress and that her friends are really her relatives. She also resumes teaching poor children. By all appearances she is happy, yet when St. John proposes to her, she turns him down because he does not love her, nor she him. By doing so she remains true to herself and is able to avoid yet another threat to her independence. Having escaped an almost loveless marriage to St. John, she now treasures what Rochester offered her all the more and realizes the significance of following her head as well as her heart.
She goes back to him and marries him, because now she does not feel like she will be beholden to her husband. “She must have the advantages of both love and freedom, sex and survival, security and independence. And in marrying the maimed Rochester […] she manages to get them both” (Momberger 368). When Jane left Gateshead, she simply longed for freedom. As the story progresses she longs for love and approval as well. She grows from a lonely child into an expressive woman with friends. Jane struggled to be viewed as more than what her social class and looks would allow her.
She believed that no one deserved to be treated unfairly based on their social rank. Even though Jane endures situations that work against her, she gradually rises from a lowly and poor orphan into an independent woman earning her living as a governess and teacher, and later to a wealthy woman through inheritance. She refused to settle for any man’s love on terms which would compromises her beliefs. Although she believes in God, she is agnostic of organized religion. She is a strong, compelling woman, with a deep sense of pride.
And she is able to achieve all this along with the etiquettes and education of upper gentry while she is still poor and powerless. Some readers may be disappointed when headstrong Jane ends up as a conventional wife and mother. How can this be? Is Jane really a mature woman at the end of the book or she is still the ten year child trapped at Gateshead? One will have to read her coming of age story and judge for themselves, but the way I see it, she does not sacrifice her independence by marrying Rochester, as it is she who after leaving him, seeks him out again and informs us, “Reader, I married him! ” (Bronte 518).