Jane Eyre, The Feminist Tract In 1837 critic Robert Southey wrote to Charlotte Bronte, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation,” (Gaskell 102).
This opinion was not held by only one person, but by many. Indeed, it is this attitude, one that debases women and their abilities, to which Charlotte Bronte responds with Jane Eyre. The purpose of Jane Eyre, not only the novel, but also the character herself as a cultural heroine, is to transform a primeval society, one which devalues women and their contributions, into a nobler order of civilization (Craig 57). The effectiveness of Bronte’s argument is due to both her motivation and approach.
Bronte found her motivation from the experiences she had undergone while living in the Victorian era. Her approach in advocating social reform is to establish Jane as a model for readers. Readers are meant to examine Jane’s life, especially the manner in which she handles problems or confrontations in her relationships, and to follow her example in their own lives. Just as we see Jane as a model of a woman successful in asserting her self-worth, we are also given a warning about the possible outcome of failure to realize self- worth in Bertha Rochester.
This facet will also be discussed briefly. Bronte uses the motivation of personal experiences to create the life of Jane Eyre in which we see the quest for social betterment through her relationships. Bronte herself experienced the social limitations of the nineteenth century. At this time “respectable women had few options in life beyond marriage, education of children, and domestic service,” (Magill 747). She ventured to explore her own literary abilities and wrote Jane Eyre, a novel which “served to articulate the new sense of self that in Bronte’s time was still emerging and developing against the background of a changing social order,” (Schact 423). This novel not only proved the capability of Charlotte Bronte, but also, through Jane, gives readers hope as they view a young heroine who has a strong desire and struggles for independence, and who thinks for herself in a society which did not encourage this. Because of the prejudices against women, she felt that any opportunity for literary success would be stifled by her gender. For this reason the first editions of Jane Eyre were published under the pen name “Currer Bell.” As we realize the barriers Bronte faced and had to overcome, we see her motivation for the development of the character, Jane Eyre, and for the publication of the novel. “Throughout the novel,” Craig asserts, “Jane ascends new ‘gradations of glory,’ for in every relationship or confrontation, Jane emerges as the superior individual,” (Craig 61). These “gradations of glory” assert Jane’s value as a woman and virtually depict the worth of all women. Although these triumphs are not always immediate, Jane is always the ultimate victor. Even as a child, Jane is faced with relationships which attempt to extinguish her sense of self-worth. One of the first relationships we are introduced to is that of Jane with her Aunt Reed. Aunt Reed’s custom of excluding and confining Jane underscore the sense of inferiority that Jane must deal with from childhood throughout the majority of her life. This exclusion is seen on the opening page of the novel as her cousins, “the said Eliza, John, and Georgiana were now clustered round their mama in the drawing-room… Me she had dispensed from joining the group,” (Bronte 9). Not only did she face adversity in the relationship she had with her aunt, Jane also had to endure the unpunished cruelty of her cousin John. Jane was “accustomed to John Reed’s abuse,” and punished for defending herself once when John flung a book at her, hitting her so hard she fell and cut her head. Jane pitifully comments, “The cut bled, the pain was sharp; my terror had passed its climax,” (Bronte 13). Jane had to endure this conflict for quite sometime, submitting, for she rarely resisted, to the tyrannical relationship she had with both Mrs. Reed and her “young master,” John. (Bronte 14) Concerning her life with the Reeds, Jane says, “I was a discord in Gateshead Hall; I was like nobody there; I had nothing in harmony with Mrs. Reed or her children, or her chosen vassalage,” (Bronte 17). However, Jane did not remain defeated permanently. Her triumph over Aunt Reed comes after Mr. Brocklehurst has visited Gateshead Hall. Aunt Reed had trodden severely on Jane by telling the visitor of Jane’s “bad character.” (Bronte 38) At this point Jane stands up for herself, asserting her self-worth, and threatens to tell everyone of her aunt’s treatment, declaring that she is “bad” and “hard-hearted.” (Bronte 39) The prospect of a ruined reputation frightens Aunt Reed and Jane is sent to school with “the first victory (she) had gained,” (Bronte 39). Jane’s victory over John is not a deliberate vanquishing confrontation, but rather a situation in which both he and Jane get what they deserve. Throughout the novel imprisonment is equated with inferiority while freedom is synonymous with superiority. Although Jane suffered confinement as a child in the red room, and thus was viewed as inferior, she ultimately ends life happy and free. (Bronte 455) John, on the other hand, spends his adult life in debt and in jail. He dies by his own hand and leaves this world much the inferior of Jane. Her monumental “gradations of glory” begin while Jane is at Lowood. At times is was an “irksome struggle” for Jane as she was forced to yield to the overbearing Mr. Brocklehurst, whose philosophy was, “to render them…self-denying,” (Bronte 62-65). Mr. Brocklehurst singles Jane out from all the other students and declares her an agent of the Evil One. He warns the other pupils by saying, “…this girl, who might be one of God’s own lambs, is a little castaway…you must shun her example: if necessary, avoid her company, exclude her from your sports and shut her out from your converse,” (Bronte 69). Again we see Jane facing exclusion as she is declared a “castaway.” In this same episode we see an example of the confinement that was so customary at Lowood, for Mr. Brocklehurst orders that Jane must stay standing on a small stool for the remainder of the day. (Bronte 69) Again we see Jane’s unwillingness to deny herself, because she knows that she does have value. Jane is does not remain excluded, but finds genuine friendship in the respectable Miss Temple and Helen Burns. Also, Jane availed herself fully of the advantages offered to her and in time becomes the first girl of her class. (Bronte 86). Her self-worth was affirmed when she was “invested with the office of teacher,” (Bronte 86). Jane was no longer excluded or confined, and thus no longer considered inferior. Mr. Brocklehurst, on the other hand, is no longer the dictator of Lowood, but must abide by conditions set forth to him by committee members. Therefore, he has been demoted, while Jane has been elevated. Her second gradation begins with the introduction of Thornfield Hall and Mr. Edward Rochester into her life. This gradation begins with Mr. Rochester’s proposal which shows another recognition of her worth. Before Mr. Rochester directly proposes to Jane she delivers an impetuous speech which she has been driven to by the “acute distress” caused by the prospect of Mr. Rochester’s marriage to Blanche Ingram. (Bronte 254) Jane cries out with passion: “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton? -a machine without feelings? and can 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 soulless and heartless? You think wrong! -I have as much soul as you, -and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to yo now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, or 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 255). This is a crucial passage to the text, because it is here that Jane asserts to her “only friend” and her only love that she does have self worth. Even though she is not beautiful or wealthy, this does not cancel the fact that she and Mr. Rochester were created equally in the sight of God. She acknowledges that this is not the tradition of the time and it is not conventionally the place of a lady of this day to speak in this way, yet she must say it, because she feels it with every part of her. Jane goes further to imply that one’s character, their inner beauty, is what determines equality. She does this by pointing out that the superficial marriage supposed to take place between Miss Ingram and Mr. Rochester is a thing to be scorned. Because a loveless marriage is the sign of a serious character flaw, Jane feels that if Mr. Rochester does marry Miss Ingram, she will be better than him. (Bronte 255) When Rochester proposes, he declares, “I offer you my hand, my heart, and a share of all my possessions,” (Bronte 256). He also asks her “to pass through life at (his) side- to be (his) second self and best earthly companion,” (Bronte 256). This offer to be a joint heir with Mr. Rochester and to be his companion is his obvious admission of equality to Jane. This proposal is Jane’s first “gradation of glory.” Soon after Jane ascends another gradation. On the day of her wedding it is revealed that there is an “insuperable impediment” to the wedding (Bronte 292). Jane learns that Mr. Rochester has been deceiving her for the duration of their relationship- he already has a wife. This is a moral ascension which she rises to in two ways. First, she has risen morally over her master in that “she has plotted no bigamy, she is no deceiver,” (Craig 61). Also Mr. Rochester entreats her to be his mistress saying, “I shall keep to you as long as you and I live. You shall go to a place I have in the south of France… Never fear that I wish to lure you into error… Why do you shake your head? Jane you must be reasonable.” (Bronte 306) Yet even though Jane loves him now more than ever, she must waken “out of most glorious dreams and (find) them all void and vain,” (Bronte 299) Jane sacrifices her love for Rochester reasoning, ” The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God.” ( Bronte 319) Her respect for herself, again an assertion of her self-worth, and for God prevents her from being with Rochester, thus completing the second gradation. The next gradation we see is the evasion of St. John Rivers’ proposal. St. John tells Jane, “God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife.” (Bronte 405). By saying this St. John has defined Jane’s role by declaring God’s purpose for her life. Yet Jane refuses him. “It is hardly conceivable that our heroine should rise above his claim,” (Craig 61). But she does, and in so doing recognizes her self-worth and refuses to allow anyone, whether it be man or woman, to delineate her position or function in life. Jane’s decision is affirmed when she hears and responds to the supernatural voice calling her name. Her final gradation is at hand as she returns to Rochester and finds him a changed man, physically and spiritually. Jane has returned as an heiress and Mr. Rochester has lost much of the wealth he once had. At last they seem equal because of this reversal of fortunes. However, Jane still emerges as the superior figure because of Mr. Rochester’s physical handicaps which cause him to be led by Jane, his “prop and guide,” (Craig 62). In Jane we have seen the model of a woman successful in asserting her self-worth and emerging victoriously. Yet Bronte gives us another model with Bertha Rochester, one which serves as a warning. Bertha is the example of the utmost depreciation and debasement of women. Again we see the idea of confinement as synonymous with inferiority as Bertha is confined to a lifetime in an attic, finding her only freedom in death. Therefore, Bronte acknowledges that while some, like Jane, are successful, others, like Bertha are condemned to a life of inferiority. She has written this novel to challenge women not to allow society to demean any more women as Bertha was demeaned. Jane Eyre is an obvious feminine tract, an argument for the social betterment of women. This argument is supported by the fact that Jane is much like the author. Bronte, by writing and publishing the novel Jane Eyre, asserts her own self-worth by making literature a part of her life, even when discouragers such as Southey advised against it. Just as Jane found success in the realization of self-worth, so too does Bronte by attaining great literary acclaim. The argument is also supported by examining Jane’s relationships and finding that in every confrontation, Jane emerges as a superior and valuable individual. Bronte uses Jane to serve as a prototype for all women, encouraging them to realize their value. Jane is also set forth as an example to be viewed by society in order that they might be transformed into a nobler civilization that realizes the worth of women. Bibliography Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Penguin Group,1982 Craig, G. Armour. “The Unpoetic Compromise: On the Relationship Between Private Vision and Social Order in the Nineteenth- Century English Fiction.” Nineteenth Century Literary Criticism. Ed. L. Harris and E. Tennyson. Michigan: Gale Research Co., 1985. 61-62 Gaskell, E. The Life of Charlotte Bronte. England: E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1975 London, Bette. “The Pleasure of Submission: Jane Eyre and the Production of the Text.” “ELH.” Spring 1991. 195-213 Schact, Paul. “Jane Eyre and the History of Self-Respect.” “Modern Language Quarterly.” Dec 1991. 423-53 Sienkewicz, Anne W. “Jane Eyre An Autobiography.” Masterplots II. Ed. Frank Magill. California: Salem Press, 1991. 745-748