In this essay, I will examine how Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, attempts to break free from the literary confines of representing women as nothing more than stereotypical Victorian angels or ostracized madwomen. First, I will discuss how the patriarchal literary scene of the nineteenth century, created an immense struggle for female writers and their fictional counterparts to discover their own identity. In doing so, I will show how Jane Eyre attempts to look beyond the male images of a submissive Victorian angel and the Madwoman through her pursuit of equality and independence.
Furthermore, I will discuss how Jane’s juxtaposition of passion and restraint conveys a more realistic and complex portrayal of womanhood. By analysing the portrayal of Jane Eyre, I hope to show how she reflects Bronte’s own resentment towards society’s attempts to dehumanize women through the two most harmful female figures depicted in literary history.
To begin, it is necessary to note how the nineteenth-century patriarchal literary depiction of femininity categorizes women into two distinct stereotypical images: the ‘angel’, who abides by the societal expectations of her gender, and the ‘monster’, who seeks to escape social customs through her inherent madness.
As a result, these images rigidly confined women, both real and fictional, to the prescribed roles of wife and mother, or the fallen whore and the madwoman. Of course, the ideal feminine behaviour that male authors strived to capture in their writing as far back as the seventeenth century, was the “Angel in the House”[footnoteRef:1], or the “Proper Lady”[footnoteRef:2].
Whilst most female writers found themselves comfortable in the role of the domestic angel, others such as Charlotte Bronte, attempted to reveal their revolutionary ability to challenge the stereotypical images of the angel and monster by portraying the raw complexities of womanhood. This term stems from Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem “The Angel in the House” in which he describes his charming, passive, angelic wife examines the presence of the most “prominent figure” in patriarchal culture and writing, known as the “Proper Lady”, as well as the difficulties in distinguishing her from the “real women who lived in her shadow”.
From analysing the anxieties these images inflicted upon the minds of young women writers, it is easy to contemplate the affect it has on literature. As patriarchal literature sought to depict the most ideal version of femininity in angelic form, writer Virginia Woolf considers the ‘Angel in the House’, to be the most harmful image male authors have ever enforced upon the minds of literary women. She notes how “the truth about human relations, morality, sex…all these questions, according to the Angel in the House, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by women [instead] they must charm…conciliate”.[footnoteRef:3] Alongside Woolf’s essays, another breakthrough feminist book published in the last decade entitled, The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, also examines how generations of women writers were confined to make their literary female characters represent either the submissive angel or the uncontrollable monster a struggle they too identified as stemming from male writers tendencies to portray subordinate and flat female characters. They also point to Virginia Woolf’s essays on female writing[footnoteRef:4] by encouraging women writers to strive for individualism in their fiction and to go beyond the reductionist patriarchal perspective of women by killing the aesthetics they have been assigned to.
Thus, there can be seen a revolution in regards to nineteenth-century literature as women sought to free themselves from the literary conventions that affected their minds. As Gilbert and Gubar note, “despite the obstacles presented by those twin images of angel and monster,…and the anxieties of authorship from which women have suffered, generations of texts have been possible for female writers”[footnoteRef:5]. By the end of the eighteenth century, women were not only writing, but they were creating literary works in which patriarchal images and conventions were radically re-invented. Bronte even told her sisters when debating the depiction of Victorian heroines, that “I will show you a heroine as plain and as small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours”. She clearly succeeds, as Wang Guofu comments in his Literary Theory of Feminism that “Jane Eyre embodies a new conception of women as heroines of vital strength and passionate feelings”, despite her plain, fragile appearance [footnoteRef:8]. In her attempts at escaping from the male dominated text, Charlotte Bronte utilizes the female pen in order to construct a parody of the Victorian Angel and the Madwoman through her heroine, Jane. In doing so, Bronte subverts a common male tradition through the complex duality that lies in her portrayal of Jane, as she exposes how the supposed angel is actually permeated by the realities of womanhood through her orphanhood and confinement, as well as her passion, rage and madness. As Rochester himself says of Jane, “never was anything at once so frail and so indomitable…consider the resolute wild free thing…defying me…Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it, the savage, beautiful creature”. Note this passage reveals the perceived duplicity of womanhood as he is fascinated with Jane’s character but still desires to place her in a metaphorical cage in order to control her passion- “it is you spirit-with will and energy, and virtue and purity- that I want”.
However, many readers tend to think of Jane Eyre as a domesticated gothic portrayal of the Victorian Angel the archetypal story of a romantic encounter between the brooding male and a fragile female. However, this assumption neglects Bronte’s strategic attempt to subvert expectations of Jane being nothing more than a quiet, demure lady. In fact, Jane could not be further from the description of Victorian Angel since her character shocked Victorian audiences through her refusal to submit to her social destiny specifically, her rejection of Rochester’s proposal. Even the conservative Victorian critic, Lady Eastlake, suggested that the rumoured female author of this book “had long forfeited the society of her own sex”. In addition to the protagonist’s rejection of conventional femininity, Lady Eastlake notes how its rebellious nature can be compared to the working class demands to vote through her desire to actively challenge perceptions of female submissiveness and subordination: “Jane Eyre’s unsettled views as to how women should act and behave, suggests in Lady Eastlake’s eyes, an almost overthrowing of social order”.
Moreover, Jane is ostracized from society at the very beginning of the novel as a monstrous figure, as the Reed family confine her to the red room because she does not behave like a submissive, angelic child. After attacking ‘Master’ John Reed because he cruelly torments her by hitting her with a book, Mrs Reed accuses Jane of “talk to her once like something mad or like a fiend”. In fact, when Jane looks in the mirror at the reflection of the “half fairy, half imp” figure, it suggests the beginning of this combination of the dehumanising images of monster and angel associated with her character, something that is later indicated by her resemblance with Bertha. However, the young orphan Jane chooses to embrace her unruly behaviour and challenge her defined existence and the conventional order of things by reading and painting. As Jane takes refuge in the window seat by reading one of her uncles books, titled History of British Birds, Carla Peterson notes how Jane’s reading represents a “subversive rebellion against male authority… her creative imagination fuels her desire to transform the male authored “vignettes” of science” into a need for self-expression. Additionally, her unexpected rebellious nature is realised by Rochester, who initially considers her behaviour and gendered education at Lowood to be a part of the “established” norm. However, she surprises him with her artistic abilities, as her paintings exceed his expectations to the point where he expresses his perplexity saying, “the drawings are, for a school-girl, peculiar”, and questioning her masterful technique, “what meaning is that in their solemn depth?”. Chih-Ping Chen also notes how Jane defies male authority through her rejection of the imposed images of angel and monstrosity “by embracing [her] unruly energy in her artistic imagination, creating her own spaces in which she can be a host to herself… an escape from the subjecting male power and gaze”.
Furthermore, Professor Sally Shuttleworth explores how Charlotte Bronte challenges nineteenth-century perceptions of appropriate female behaviour by referencing Jane’s “passionate plea for women to be allowed to use their talents, and not to be confined to the home”. This is exemplified through Jane’s radical feminist request that women should be allowed to embrace their own creativity and feelings by striving for equality of the sexes.
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel they need to exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do they suffer from too rigid a restraint …it is narrow-minded to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stocking.
Most importantly, in defining her character’s rebellious and feminist nature, is her meeting with Bertha, an encounter not with her opposite, but with a symbol of her own “hunger, rebellion and rage” at her patriarchal confinement. Whilst many view Bertha as Jane’s polar opposite, Gilbert and Gubar see her as Jane’s “truest and darkest double”. For all the practices of patriarchal submission she learned at Lowood from angelic figures, including Helen Burns and Miss Temple, when Jane arrives at Thornfield she realises that she only “appeared a disciplined, and subdued character”. Upon meeting Bertha, Jane now sees herself in the image of a rebellious woman, noting how she always “felt like any other rebel slave…I resolved to go to all lengths”. Referring back to John Reed’s classification of orphan Jane as a “bad animal”, we can see how she is considered by many readers to be a ‘madwoman’ through her connection with Bertha, the “wild animal”. Not only does Bertha compare with Jane in terms of imagery, but she also acts out Jane’s unspoken desires through tearing her wedding veil in half and putting the wedding off. Critic Susan Meyer persuasively argues how Bertha’s oppression and inferiority are fused in images surrounding deviant womanhood with Jane. Bertha’s presence informs Jane of her dynamic of dominance and how she must resist submitting to patriarchal customs, including her upcoming marriage to Rochester. Through Jane’s identification with Bertha, Meyer notes how Bertha’s character is emblematic of Jane’s own passionate rebellion against male dominance and the dualistic nature of womanhood.
A such, Jane refuses to accept both Rochester’s and St. John Rivers’ proposals on the basis that they would be imprisoning marriages for her. Critic Nancy Pell notes that Jane’s rejection of these proposals is part of a deep-rooted feminist critique of societal expectations as “Jane rejects being hired as a mistress or bought as a slave…she resolves to keep in good health and not die”. After departing Thornfield, Jane reviews her choices in life, wondering “whether it is better . . . to be a slave in a fool’s paradise at Marseilles…or to be a village schoolmistress, free and honest?”. Ultimately she realises that to be St John’s wife, she would be “at his side always restrained…forced to keep the fire of her nature continually low…through the imprisoned flame” , as he wishes to imprison the “resolute wild free thing” that comprises her very being. By refusing his proposal, however, John considers her to be “violent”and “unfeminine”, images which resemble the treatment of independent women during this period by male authorities who considered them more mentally unstable than feminist. However, with Rochester’s proposal, Jane delivers a passionate speech to him in which she conveys her feminist message. Ignoring the traditional customs that dictate her image as a woman, Jane wants Rochester to recognize her not as an uncontrollable madwoman, or a submissive angel, but as a human being with her own individual passions and feelings: “I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom…it is my spirit that addresses your spirit… and we stand at God’s feet, equal-as we are!”.
Consequently, many critics debate whether Bronte’s rebellious protagonist compromises her mission for independence through her withdrawal into marriage and motherhood with Rochester. However, I think critics should look towards Vanden Bossche’s proposal which argues how instead of evaluating whether Jane Eyre upholds or undermines the ideology of the Victorian angel or the madwoman, “we should look for the ways in which it produces new social identities” . Jane’s attainment of her own social and economic power and identification of her own femininity, influenced by women like Bertha and Helen Burns, justifies her classification as both a feminist and a wife. In fact, when Jane marries Rochester and has a child, she does so on her own terms as a financially and emotionally independent woman. Moreover, Jane resists the stereotypical roles advocated by the male writer as she speaks out against the submissive Victorian angel who “mak[es] puddings and knitting stockings”. Instead, she presents her tale to the reader as “quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling”, by embracing the creative and romantic passions associated with Bertha. Thus, Jane’s ability to challenge the societal customs of male-dominated marriages, homes and creative areas, grants the novel its own identity of being a feminist tract as Jane chooses to search for equality and independence throughout her life.
In conclusion, Charlotte Bronte does not limit her characterisation of Jane to the restrictive nineteenth-century literary contrast of defining woman as either monstrous or angelic. Of course, Jane Eyre possesses some of the qualities prescribed to the angel figure, for at times she is submissive, and controlled during her time at Lowood and her initial interactions with Rochester. Yet, at other times, Jane’s behaviour demonstrates much of the same rebellious madness that characterises the figure of Bertha, through her multiple outbursts, her artistic creativity, and her independent courage to leave Rochester and St. John Rivers in favour of bettering herself. Thus, the similarities between Jane and Bertha suggest not only that neither character identifies as fully angel or monster, but how they also represent Bronte’s desire to break free from the passivity to male norms that dictate nineteenth-century literature.
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