Feminism in Jane Erye
Feminism is a very contradictory theme throughout literary history. It does not have to be seen as a complete rebellion against men, but can simply represent intelligence and self-worth in a female. This philosophy is shown in many of the works of Charlotte Bronte. She uses independence as a “keynote in her thinking about her own life and the life of all unmarried women” (Ewbank 157). One such work is Jane Erye. In this novel Charlotte Bronte personifies her philosophy through the main character of Jane. As Jane matures from child to woman her strength of character is what makes her memorable. Through her endurance, moral convictions, and intense emotional capacity Jane is shown as the epidemy of feminism.
Jane’s strength to endure harsh circumstances is shown throughout the novel. The novel “arrests attention in its opening chapters by disclosing an individual character enmeshed in, yet independent of, unusual circumstances” (Tillotson 28). Under the care of her aunt, Jane must endure a loveless childhood. She is always seen as an outsider looking in. Jane’s strength is shown by her lack of self-pity. Although she is like a terrified cornered animal she fights back with intellectual and imaginative resourcefulness (Tillotson 28-29). “There is no emotional indulgence in Jane’s childhood sufferings” (Craik 77). This behavior is continued with her stay at Lowood school. Here she continues to be neglected and ignored. Only through her friendship of Miss Temple and Helen Burns is she shown hope. The school section shows “the mind of the child that was going to grow into Jane Erye, the woman. Every incident and every character has a bearing on the growth of Jane into a woman of passion and absolute moral integrity”
As Jane enters a new phase of her life, at Thornfield, her endurance is once again tested. Her relationship with Mr. Rochester causes emotional conflict from its beginning. Mr. Rochester persists in making physical and emotional barbs at Jane while awakening all her hidden desires. This contradiction causes Jane great emotional turmoil. The culmination of this conflict is the wedding scene. Upon finding out her love’s betrayal, Jane is left in emotional chaos. “After the tumult that follows the interrupted wedding, Jane is finally left alone to think and to receive in her consciousness the full impact of the blow” (Ewbank 182). She assesses her situation and comes to the conclusion that she must leave.
Another characteristic presented by Jane is her moral conviction. This strength begins to come forth with her relationship with Mr. Rochester. Mr. Rochester awakens all of Jane’s greatest desires. She sees her attraction to him as a dilemma that must be avoided. “Jane, who cares passionately for Mr. Rochester, preserves her detachment from him” (Craik 73). The emotions between Mr. Rochester and Jane become so intense that “by the time this marriage is reached it has come to represent the resolution of moral and emotional conflicts” (Craik 72). Those conflicts become even more profound with the wedding’s interruption. At this point Jane realizes that her love has no hope. She said, “The whole consciousness of my life lorn, my love lost, my hope quenched, my faith death-struck, swayed full and mighty above me in one sullen mass” (p.301). She longs to stay but knows it cannot be. “Jane expresses the tension between her desire to be Rochester’s and her moral knowledge that she must leave him” (Ewbank 183). The reader must begin to “perceive as one Jane’s agony and its emotional and spiritual implications” (Ewbank 185). In the end Mr. Rochester pressures Jane to become his mistress. “The intensity of pressure which he puts on her is matched, not by fear or revulsion of the popular heroine, but by a responsiveness which she barely masters” (Heilman 35). But Mr. Rochester lets her go because he “too, recognizes that without her soul and spirit she is not worth having” (Ewbank194).
A contrasting moral dilemma is shown in Jane’s relationship with St. John. He pressures her to enter into a loveless marriage. “Jane is deliberately made to draw attention to the parallelism between this temptation and the earlier one, between, as it were, an attempted physical rape and a more grievous attempted spiritual rape” (Ewbank 196). St. John seeks to bind her to him through spiritual manipulation and restriction. Where Mr. Rochester appreciated her independence, St. John seeks to control it. Only a lone call in the night saves her from this fate. “As she breaks away from St. John, Jane sees her position as one of regained will power, and thus regained identity” (Ewbank 196-197).
Jane’s intense emotional capacity also shows feminism. She can feel as deeply as any other and yet she is not weak. She has a self-control few possess. She does not display her pain for others but holds it within for protection. She was taught this self-defense mechanism from childhood. She learned from Mrs. Reed’s rejection to hide her pain from those who would take advantage of it, but this does not mean she does not feel. “Above all, in these early chapters there is gradually disengaged form the generic impression of a child robbed of its birthright the individual figure of a heart hungering for affection” (Craik 30-31). This continued at Lowood school. “Lowood opens inauspiciously, with still harsher physical discomfort-not merely piercingly actual but symbolic of a loveless order of things” (Craik 31). Both these environments set up the basic emotional beliefs in a young Jane’s mind.
Even through the continual abuse of her childhood, Jane always possessed a great capacity for love. This is shown with her forgiveness of Mrs. Reed, her acceptance of Adele, and finally in her all-encompassing love for Mr. Rochester. Even after her childhood rejection Jane did not grow bitter. She gave her forgiveness freely and set her past at rest. As she worked at Thornfield she began to see Adele as her own daughter. At the end of the novel she insisted Adele be brought back because she was a part of the family. Jane gave love wherever it was wanted. She was kind in spirit and generous in heart despite her upbringing. Although she loved many, none could compare to her love for Mr. Rochester. She loved him completely and life without him was agony. “When she has run away from Rochester, her heart becomes ‘impotent as a bird’ which, ‘with both wings broken…still quivered its shattered pinions in vain attempts to seek him” (Ewbank 184). Only once she has returned can the pain ease and her heart seek peace.
The theme of feminism plays a very significant part in the novel Jane Erye. Jane’s strength of character allowed her to persevere through harsh circumstances and a loveless existence. Her endurance, conviction to faith, and strong emotional capacity gains her respect as one of the truly great characters of English literature. She accepted the little life gave her and never lost hope. She was thankful for what she received and used her strength to better her situation. She fought to maintain her identity and stay true to her moral convictions as life threw countless obstacles in her path. Yet, no matter how overwhelming her plight, Jane treated the world with open affection that wins the heart of any reader. There is no one more deserving of a happy ending than Jane is. Jane should be an inspiration to all women that they may endeavor to use their own strength and judgement to lead them through life’s most fearful turns.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Erye. New York: First Signet Classic Printing, 1960.
Craik, W.A. The Bronte Novels. London: New Feather Lane,1968.
Ewbank, Inga-Stina. Their Proper Sphere. Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1966.
Heilman, Robert B. From Jane Austin to Joseph Conrad. 1958. Critics on Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Ed. Judith O’Neill. Miami: UP of Miami, 1968. 32-35.
Tillotson, Kathleen. Novels of the Eighteen Forties. 1958. Critics on Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Ed. Judith O’Neill. Miami: UP of Miami, 1968. 25-31.
Word Count: 1256