The ambiguous role of social class in ‘Jane Eyre' plays a vital part in determining the conflict of the protagonist's story. Analyse and discuss the importance of the social class structure in the five settings in Jane's life and what opinions they provoke from both Jane and the other characters. Consider further what the novel expresses about the class system and poverty in England.
‘Jane Eyre' is an authentic captivation of the Victorian era and the social standings of its time. The novel has an undeniable appreciation for the role of women and recognises the importance of a woman's quest to find her true identity. The plot of the novel is based upon the form of a Bildungsroman, in which the story reveals the narrative path of the protagonist's life from child maturation to their development in adulthood. This chronological structure focuses on the emotions and experiences of the character which helps create and sculpt their personality in the novel. In the novel, there are five vital stages in the development of Jane's maturity into a woman. It is from these experiences, that Jane is able to find her true identity and therefore retrospectively narrate the novel.
Charlotte Bronte first published the novel under the decoy name of “Currer Bell”, in order to conceal her true identity from the public and critics. In the Victorian era, as women were considered to be the inferior sex, the idea of a woman being a published author let alone the writer of such a controversial novel, would have been considered a social outrage. Victorian women were considered to be one whom dedicated her life solely to the home, her family and most importantly her husband. She obeyed both her earthly master as well as her heavenly and understood her place in the sexual hierarchy. Charlotte Bronte, however; created Jane Eyre as an unorthodox manifest against the society of her time.
‘Jane Eyre' is a critique of the importance of the strict social class hierarchy in Victorian England. The novel highlights the significance of class consciousness and the subjectiveness one particular class may face at the hands of the dogmatic elites. The derogative attitudes regarding social class first occur when Jane suffers horrible mistreatment from John Reed. He violently torments Jane and constantly reminds her that she is an orphan and a dependent of the Reed family, forcing into her mind that to be without a class is to be without worth. He inflicts fear into Jane and reminds her that he is her superior;
“You have no business to take our books; you are a dependent, mamma says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen's children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mamma's expense. Now, I'll teach you to rummage my book-shelves: for they are mine; all the house belongs to me, or will do in a few years.”
This quote expresses John's power and authority over Jane as he abruptly informs her that she is beneath him in social class and uses this fact as his justification to ostracise her. Jane rejects her birthright as an orphan and uses this as her ammunition to be treated as an equal.
Lowood Institution is a regimented environment in place to suppress any unconformity from young women. Jane, however, sees this as her chance for a new beginning in a place where she won't be judged by material worth. Unfortunately, in the beginning this is not the case as Jane suffers oppression from Mr Brocklehurst; a vicious and deceitful man who gains at the misery of the orphaned children. Oppression is a key theme in the novel and is closely linked to class structure as the other characters in the novel use this to victimise Jane and inflict power over her. When Mr Brocklehurst publicly humiliates Jane in front of the whole school, Bronte is expressing the unfair dominance of the upper classes. She uses opposing language to describe Mrs Reed in relation to Jane to highlight the social ideology that is created by a class system. Mr Brocklehurst uses positive connotations to portray Mrs Reed with compliments such as “charitable, kindness” merely because she is upper class and contrasts this by posing Jane, who is of lower class as “dreadful, bad.” Jane then has to fight against any negativity about herself because of her class and force people to accept her for her personal attributes. The education Jane receives that Lowood helps to enhance her social class mobility as she gains the same educational knowledge and mannerisms that is associated with the aristocrats. This highlights the importance of the social boundaries that are constructed in society and how insignificant they are as they are no reflection of a person abilities or potential.
Bronte's portrayal of governesses is one of the most important positions when exploring the theme of social class. Life in 19th century Britain was controlled by social class and hierarchy and people very rarely moved from the class in which they were born. As Jane was an orphaned child yet then received a high standard of education to become a governess, she holds no definitive social status and is therefore “in between” classes. She has an ambiguous social standing as she both lives and converses with all classes of people, from the working class servants to the upper class aristocrats. Jane is therefore a cause for extreme tension as she holds the sophistication of the upper classes yet she has a lower class background. Governesses of this time were expected to uphold a high standard of aristocrat ‘culture'; however they were often still very poorly treated by their employers.
Bronte has created Jane Eyre's character with social mobility in order to help develop an extensive network in the novel, therefore allowing the story more flexibility to unfold. Bronte challenge's the restrictions of the social class system in England and creates problematic situations and events in the novel to highlight the social pressures of conformity inflicted during this time. She is cleverly pushing the boundaries created both for women and the lower classes by creating a character that stereotypically is in opposition to the norm. Jane, however, does not break every social rule as she refuses to marry Mr Rochester when she finds out the truth about his marriage. Despite the fact that his marriage to Bertha is indeed loveless, Jane is adamant that she will not expose herself to such demoralisation and takes pride in herself for recognising that even throughout the eyes of love, this act would make her a social outcast. This dedication to her personal morals emphasises Jane's self empowerment that she will not give in to the pressures of marriage for social status and wealth.
Jane begins to question her own class and self worth when she is introduced to Blanche Ingram, the antithesis of herself. Blanche is everything Jane is not; wealthy and beautiful. Jane soon realises the harsh truth and gains a clear perspective on the reality that her social class is holding her back from what she really wants in life; Mr Rochester.
“That a greater fool than Jane Eyre had never breathed the breath of life: that a more fantastic idiot had never surfeited herself on sweet lies, and swallowed poison as if it were nectar.”
In this self realisation, Jane Eyre refers to herself in the third person, expressing self pity and loathe. By using words such as “fool, idiot”, Jane is mocking herself for believing that she could ever be good enough for Mr Rochester. How could she, a woman of low class and no status, be worthy enough to engage with a man of such high stature and worth? By acting as an outside observer on her own acts, Jane is very harsh and critical on herself. Jane is a woman who has always regarded herself as a well valued, commendable member of society and takes high pride in who she is. However after this episode, Jane's confidence has taken a dramatic knock and she seems to now regard both herself and the other characters on terms of class and status.
After Jane flees from Thornfield Hall; homeless, penniless and hungry, she takes upon a journey to find independence and clarity in her life. In a strange town, miles away from what she has become accustomed too, Jane comes face to face with true poverty. She is now with no class, no possessions, no worth and no status. The only benefit Jane can offer is that she is willing to work.
“I remembered that strangers who arrive at a place where they have no friends, and who want employment, sometimes apply to a clergyman for introduction and aid. It is the clergyman's function to help - at least with advice - those who wished to help themselves.”
Here, Jane stripped of everything, finds faith and courage to pursue for the hope of a new beginning. She can give her commitment and her promise to be thankful of any helping hand. However, Jane's apprehension is reiterated when she is met at the door of her only prospect, by Hannah; the maid at the Marsh End residence. Hannah, a servant who herself is not of such a high class, makes the same presumptions about Jane that she has suffered from her whole life, that she is a meaningless orphan.
“Distrust, the very feeling I dreaded, appeared in Hannah's face…This was the climax. A pang of exquisite suffering - a throe of true despair - rent and heaved my heart…. I wept in utter anguish. Alas, this isolation - this banishment from my kind!”
In this declaration, Jane affirms how Hannah literally views her as worthless. This overwhelming sense of emotion at this point in the novel portrays Jane's exhaustion and annoyance at being judged and ostracised due to her social class. Referring to “the climax” notifies the reader that this is the peak of despair and that Jane will soon overcome the problem. It is at the Marsh End residence that Jane gains the independence and self freedom that she has been seeking as she discovers both that she has living relatives and also that she is wealthy. She becomes free from the strict social hierarchical barriers that the English class system brings and now that Jane is rich, she has the class status to match her sophisticated attitude and education. When Jane shares her wealth with the Rivers family, it indicates that Jane has not been seeking wealth and fortune but seeking independence and freedom. The inheritance Jane has received does not provide her with the chance for materialistic possessions but the right and acceptance in society to live as an independent woman as she does not have to depend on anyone or anything. It is from a young age and throughout the whole novel that Jane has been searching for this rightful passage into the social class system.
Jane's decision to return to Mr Rochester; resulting in her settlement at Ferndean, comes from a maturity that she has developed from broadening her knowledge of society. Before this, she was completely at beckon to Mr Rochester and although she may have been his intellectual equal, she was certainly not his social. She had nothing to provide or offer to a relationship of such high stature but now that she is independent and wealthy, she is able to stand confidently and freely by his side, despite the judgements of society. On her return, Jane discovers the misfortune that has happened to Mr Rochester; that he has been blinded and physically impaired by a dreadful fire that blazed through Thornfield Hall. This is a significant moment in the novel as the gender roles have been reversed and Jane is now the stronger sex. The female role has become the dominant character and the male has become both dependant and powerless. Here, Bronte has contrasted the gender relations in the Victorian era as a critique against the repression that women suffered at the hands of men. She has almost ‘castrated' Mr Rochester of his masculinity as a symbol of female independence and liberation. It is only now that Mr Rochester has lost a vital part of himself and that Jane has now found freedom, that they can truly be equal in a relationship and their characters be balanced. Chapter thirty-seven of the novel provides a conclusion to many dilemmas that have been left unresolved. It provides clarity to the themes of love, status and identity and restores the amity in Jane's life which then provides her with freedom from the conventions and restraints of society.
W.H Auden was respected as one of the most renowned writers of the 20th Century, with his work being noted as stylish and technical. Themes in his work relate to love, politics and the unique relationship between human beings and the natural world. Auden was both controversial and influential in his work which gained him his reputation as a left-wing political poet. The ethical and political influences in Auden's poetry relate closely to the work of Bronte in Jane Eyre. Writing approximately one hundred years after Bronte, Auden is able to contextualise the social influences portrayed in ‘Jane Eyre' and emphasise them through poetry.
‘Musee des Beaux Arts' is a poem that seeks for an explanation into how people react to tragedy and hardships that they may suffer through their lives. The poem is written in a free verse form, liberated of meter, regular rhythm or a rhyme scheme. The varying line lengths and irregular rhyming pattern in this poem gently create a relaxed, colloquial feeling, being more prosaic than poetic. The careless argument that the tone of the poem suggests, is inconsistent with the topic of discussion that the poem embarks on, the human position and its apparent lack of sympathy and interest to anguish. The poem should really be suggesting that if anything, not all is easy and straightforward. The seeming lack of structure in the free verse is intentionally developed to clarify the poem's meaning.
Auden's ‘September 1, 1939' is an stream of blame and objection over the world's political state of affairs, as well as a personal manifestation of the speaker. The narrator also recalls of the importance of a significant event in history and moves from a description of historical failures to a possible transformations for the future. Auden is not criticising the history of imperialism and invasion, his narrative is more plea worthy and comes from a man who is desperate to change a society filled with oppression against people who are deemed “unworthy” and not in keeping with the social norm. This is a reflection of the suffering of Jane Eyre in the novel due to her social class. She too calls for a change in the society in which she lives and pleas for all to be equal regardless of class, gender or religion. Like Bronte, Auden suffered the risk of oppression from his peers for such a controversial piece of work; this however did not stop him publishing it.
‘September 1, 1939' is formulated of nine, eleven lined stanzas with no regular rhyme scheme. This equal layout could represent the normality and acceptance the narrator in the poem is seeking in life yet the irregularity of the rhyme scheme portrays the world in which he lives now and the emotions he feels. The third and fourth stanzas of the poem are a criticism of a democratically industrialised man and the speaker adjudicates the ruling class ands its power to be able to twist reality and the truth.
In many ways, in a vast and modern society, we are quite simply faceless numbers without names, not individual identities with emotions and dreams. ‘The Unknown Citizen' is a cynical portrayal of a society which is dehumanised by conformity and cold lifeless labelling. Auden, being a modernist, was aware of the dangers of conformity and while it seems as though the unknown citizen is praised for having these qualities, Auden ridicules the man for what he has become. The man is completely defined by a label, not by his qualities nor even his name. He is the ideal of conformity in a society that must abide by the rules in order for there to remain structure. The poem immediately opens to the reader with a formal, flat tone. The uneven line structure contributes to the overall meaning, enhancing its irony as it reads more like a formal report than a poem. Auden's use of rhyme helps exaggerate the unsecure feeling the poem gives the reader. His comments on human nature and mankind's struggle to relate to society, closely link to the meaning Bronte is trying to portray in ‘Jane Eyre'; that it is basic human instinct to want to belong. The problem is however; where does the belonging end and the denial against losing yourself begin.
Charlotte Bronte faced many issues during the period in which she wrote and published ‘Jane Eyre' as she suffered oppression for her gender and her controversial thoughts against the social class system in England. Perhaps just like Bronte, Auden felt during the time in which he wrote this poem, that he had to rebel against a society that did not accept him. This poem enabled him to express his true identity and speak out against conformity, breaking free from society's expectations, allowing him to live his life how he pleased.
‘Jane Eyre' is still widely read and highly controversial even in a modern day society. Bronte captures a contemporary aspect in the novel, by embracing the reader into the story. She cleverly does this by having Jane address the reader, ‘Reader I married him....' at significant points in the novel to draw their focus back in. With this, each time the reader engages in the novel they are instantly draw back into the action, therefore making it more relevant and in the present as if happening at that very moment. This helps capture the true essence of the novel and highlights the key important issues that run throughout. All the issues that Bronte is discussing are relevant to a modern day audience and this has helped keep the classic presence of ‘Jane Eyre'.
Willy Russell's ‘Blood Brothers' is an acknowledgement of the importance of class structure in a society that is suffering from the hardships of class divide and social oppression. With the study of identity and the relationships between the characters, the audience is able to experience the truth about the social class system and how it can begin even in childhood and adolescence. In ‘Blood Brothers,' the theme of social class is portrayed as a struggling fight between two families from completely different backgrounds. The plot of the story is revealed as the two main characters called Mickey and Edward form a close connection as friends and what they call ‘Blood Brothers'. These class boundaries that as children, the boys do not see due to their ignorance and naivety are the unfortunate factors that bring the men in later life to their fatal end. The play is an exploration of how the truth of adulthood can ultimately decide the fate of two people who were destined to share the same path.
The visual understanding of the play is the best portrayal in which to fully appreciate the importance's that are not apparent in the book. For example, the use of costume on stage highlights the social differences between the characters and automatically forces the audience to make assumptions about the validity of the characters personalities. The accents of the characters can also be brought to life and highlight the importance of class. The Lyons family speak with a traditional well-spoken middle class accent whereas the Johnstone family share a broad regional accent, carrying connotations of lower class and petty crime. Russell has not created this difference to show his own discriminative views towards those of lower social status, instead he has made focus of this point to draw attention into the relevant hardships at which these lower classes were suffering at this time. He is in critique of the conservative Thatcher government who created many problems for the lower working classes and the City of Liverpool, thus consequently leading the infamous Toxteth riots in the 1980's.
The context of all three literary pieces is both significant to the period in which they were written and also to other decades. Whereas Jane Eyre is an exploration of social class and gender relations in the Victorian era, W.H Auden's war time poetry of the 1930's shows his political and social moral issues with society and Willy Russell's Blood Brothers is a portrayal of the 1980's recession and reality of modern day economics. The different forms of literary reflect the social problems of each generation and also highlight the importance of the hierarchical social class system in England. Each piece can be interrelated and applied to any generation or era that is reading it.
The discussion of the class system in England is a complex term and has been in use since the late eighteenth century. There have been many different descriptions of the class system in England and it is more differently distinctive in any given historical period, therefore creating the British Society. Different social class systems have always been distinguished by many factors, focusing mainly on inequalities such as power, authority, wealth, working conditions and culture.
Auden, W.H, Poems selected by John Fuller, 2009, Faber and Faber Ltd. London.
Bronte, C, Jane Eyre, 1994, Penguin Popular Classics, London.
Russell, W, Blood Brothers, 2001, Methuen Publishing Ltd. London.
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