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Charlotte Bronte was born at Thornton, Yorkshire, in 1816, the third child of Patrick Bronte and Maria Branwell. Mrs Bronte died in 1821 and Charlotte, her four sisters, Maria, Elizabeth, Emily and Anne, and her brother Branwell were left under the care of their aunt, Elizabeth Branwell. In 1824 Charlotte went to a school for daughters of the clergy with Maria, Elizabeth and Emily. Maria and Elizabeth died in the same years and Charlotte attributed their deaths to the ill management of the school. Her experiences there are fictionalised in the Lowood section of Jane Eyre. From 1831 to 1832, Charlotte was at Miss Wooler’s school at Roehead, where she returned as a teacher in 1835, remaining there for three years. She wrote three other novels, Shirley (1849), Villette (1853) and The Professor (1857). She was then married to her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, but unfortunately died in 1854.(Berg 4)
Jane Eyre, her first published novel, has been called “feminine” because of the romanticism and deeply felt emotions of the heroine-narrator. The story is mainly about a girl, who refuses to be placed in the traditional female position, who disagrees with her superiors, who stands up for her rights, who ventures creative thoughts. However more importantly, Bronte sets Jane as the narrator to comment on the role of women in the society and the greater constraint experienced by them. The “feminine” emotions are often found in Jane Eyre herself as well as in Rochester, which suggests that they possess these enduring human qualities of these emotions. (Waller) In Jane Eyre, Bronte chooses the exact point of view to suit her subject – the first-person narration. The story is told entirely through the eyes of Jane Eyre. This technique enables Bronte to bring certain events to the reader with an intensity that involves the audience in the passions, feelings, and thoughts of the heroine. (McFadden-Geber 1095)
Throughout the novel Jane Eyre, Jane is used as a representation of a modern woman from today. Jane does many things which women of her time do not do. She starts reading and writing as a little girl. This is an ability that most women at the time may not possess throughout their entire lives. The biggest reason why Jane is a modern woman is because she takes matters into her own hands. She is in complete control of her life and destiny, whereas most women of that time were completely dependent on their husbands for everything. Jane Eyre represents Charlotte Bronte s idea of a modern woman because she can read, write, and she is independent.
Jane starts reading and writing as a little girl in the Reeds house. Jane “begged Bessie to fetch Gulliver’s Travels from the library”, which Jane “perused with delight.” (28) An example that shows Jane can write is when she writes an advertisement that states she is a governess who is in need of a job at Thornfield. With earliest day, I was up: I had my advertisement written, enclosed, and directed before the bell rang to rouse the schoolâ€¦nearer to my own age. (89)
Finally, Charlotte Bronte shows that Jane represents a modern woman because she is independent. Unlike other women, she does not depend on a man to provide shelter and food for her because she is a modern day working woman. In the Victorian periods, it is almost impossible to find a working woman like Jane who survives on her own in a male dominated society. In Thornfield, after Jane discovers that Rochester has a wife, she reminds herself that she is an independent, modern woman and that she does not have to stay. Therefore, she refuses to become Rochester’s mistress and leaves Thornfield. “I were so far to forget myself and all the teaching that had ever been instilled, into me, as under any pretext, with any justification, through any temptation to become the successor of these poor girls, he would one day regard me with the same feeling which now in his mind desecrated their memory. I did not give utterance to this conviction: it was not enough to feel it.” (350) Jane does not like to follow the orthodox way of doing things. She chooses to live her life her way, not the way women of her time traditionally do for she “will not yield to Rochester’s passion.” (355) More importantly, she follows her own path and does not let Victorian traditions stop her from being a modern woman. Through out the novel, Jane is being both the protagonist and the hero and is involved in a familiar Romantic dualism – the opposition between feeling and judgement, or, can also expressed, between passion and reason. (Chase 53)
During the eighteenth century, the Victorians have placed great faith in bodily appearance. To the Victorians, a face and figure can reveal the inner thoughts and emotions of the individual as reliable as clothing indicates a person’ occupation. Therefore, a hero or heroine’s beauty is known as the most important aspect of his or her character among Victorian novels. (Gaskell 107)
In the novel, Jane Eyre appears to be “so little, so pale’ with features so irregular and so marked.” (351) Unlike her sisters’ works, Charlotte Bronte deliberately creates an anti-heroine like figure, Jane Eyre and has told her sisters that they were morally wrong in making their heroines beautiful. (Chase 52) However, they reply that it is impossible to make a heroine interesting on any other terms. Her answer is ‘ a heroin as plain and as small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours.” (Gaskell 236)
In Jane Eyre, Bronte rejects the ideal Victorian beauty and forms questions in readers mind asking, “why was Jane’s plainness so extraordinary?” (Gaskell 89) Things that are considered most attractive are Jane’s “Quakerish” black frocks and her hair, which is “combed behind ears” in its simplicity. Jane is a character whose interior self actually surpasses the exterior in beauty. With a typical Victorian obsession for physical appearance, Jane gives many descriptions of herself. She is often painful aware of the deficiencies of her physical appearance in the earliest chapters of her autobiography, saying that she is “the strange little figure there . . . with a white face and arms specking the gloomâ€¦” (21) The importance of female beauty is nicely summed up by Miss Abbot, a servant at Gateshead, “If she were a nice, pretty child, one might compassionate her forlornness; but one really cannot care for such a little toad as that (34).” As an adult, Jane is somewhat resigned to her plainness but she is still inspired by the ideal Victorian beauty by saying, “I ever wished to look as well as I could, and to please as much as my want of beauty would permit. I sometimes regretted that I was not handsomer: I sometimes wished to have rosy cheeks, a straight nose, and a small cherry mouth: I desired to be tall, stately, and finely developed in figure; I felt it a misfortune that I was so little, so pale, and had features so irregular and marked.” (11)
Rochester’s lover, Blanche Ingram on the other hand, is completely opposite of Jane. Despite her charming looks, Blanche is the “Man-destroying woman; frequently and quite naturally presented as handsome, but their beauty has a peculiar quality . . . although they usually exhibit astounding beauty, it is really abrupt masculinity that characterises these conventional types.” (195) Although Ingram has outward charms, she is not “good natured,” in fact she is rather shallow and even greedy. (Massey) Like Blanche Ingram, Berth Mason competes and contrasts with Jane physically. Although Jane knows her only as a mad, frightening beast, Bertha is considered quite a beauty in her youth. “She is the boast of Spanish Town for her beauty” (343) and she has a “tall, dark, and majestic” figure. During that time, Bertha’s beauty has blinded the young and na ve, Rochester. He is fooled by both Bertha’s and Ingram’s attractive appearances. Therefore, it is no wonder Rochester is drawn to his small, plain, simple governess.
The constant importance of Jane’s plainness is evidenced in Rochester’s unromantic marriage proposal. (Mason) “You – poor and obscure, and small and plain as you are – I entreat you to accept me as a husband.” (286) Then, he wants the world to think Jane as beautiful as he does, which is impossible. Jane refuses to think the same by saying, “No, no sir! Think of other subjects, and speak of other things, and in another strain. Don’t address me as if I were a beauty; I am your plain Quakerish governess.” (291) However, Rochester forces his own opinion upon her by saying “You are a beauty in my eyes; and a beauty just after the desire of my heart – delicate and aerial. I will make the world acknowledge you a beauty too. I will attire my Jane in satin and lace, and she shall have roses in her hair; and I will cover the head I love best with a priceless veil.” (291)
Rochester’s blindness is the ultimate symbol of the unimportance of physical beauty. (Massey) His blindness allows Jane and him to attain an almost neoplatonic relationship, based on something far greater than outward beauty. Jane is a “plain beauty” and Rochester is the similarly oxymoronic “noble savage”. (Mason) Their relationship will surely be a long one because it is not based on external appearances that will eventually fade. “True beauty is in the eye of the gazer,” is the moral of Bronte’s tale. She is very successful in making an “interesting” plain heroine because of her lack of beauty, not despite it.
The constant use of fire imagery and many of the metaphors use in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre express two things which could not be expressed openly in the Victorian Period – passion and sexuality. (Sng) Bronte’s writing is dictated by the morals of her society, but her ideas are not. However, Bronte knows that if she is going to write about these two things directly, her book will probably be rejected. Therefore, Bronte creates Jane. The psychology of passion has become one of the novel’s most dominant themes. Passion has become centrally focused on self-control, female sexuality, and Bertha’s insanity through use of fire imagery. The use of fire imagery brings reader to the contradictions that Victorian women want to fulfil their passionate needs but at the same time have to keep a sense of self-control. (Sng) In the novel, Jane keeps these feelings and passions strictly deep inside, not wanting to give in to the fire she feels inside. Bronte then creates fire and uses these fire imageries to illustrate the way in which Jane deals this struggle. Jane also demonstrates the way in which she internalised her feelings of opposing ideas and the dealing of loss of self-control. (Koh)
As a child, Jane becomes the symbol that Victorian society grows to fear. She has not only been the passionate child but has also become the frenzied woman. In the Victorian psychology, Jane is seen as a girl, who contains sexuality and passion. After Jane is locked up in the red room, her view on the environment totally changes. With its deadly and bloody connotations, its Freudian wealth of secret compartments, wardrobes, drawers, and jewel chest, the red-room has strong associations with the adult female body. (Showalter 69) Mrs. Reed is a widow, who imprisons Jane with ostracism at Gateshead, where Jane is forbidden to eat, play, or socialize with other members of the family. The obsession with the ‘animal’ appetites and manifestations of the body, and the extreme revulsion from female sexuality are also articulated through one of the submerged literary allusions in the text to Gulliver’s Travels. (Showalter 70) This book has been one of Jane’s favourites but after her experience in the red-room it becomes an ominous and portentous fable. Gulliver seems no longer a clever adventurer but “a most desolate wanderer in most dread and dangerous regions.” (29) The scene in the red-room unmistakably echoes the “flagellation ceremonies of Victorian pornography.” (Showalter 71) Although Jane constantly reveals her passion later in the novel, her ability to handle these problems has grown slightly.
Women at the time are not allowed to let their sexual passions known to anyone, which is similar to Jane’s summary of how she feels in her society when she states, “A tale my imagination created . . . quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling, that I desired and had not had in my actual existence.” (125) Jane explains that she felt all of these elements inside her but they are not a part of her reality, or in other words, are not allowed to be shown in the society. Women at that time hold back many of their feelings because society’s views and morals are pushing them to do so. (Lian) The main problem with this solution is that the women will after many years of doing so, explode into chaos releasing the built up emotions they are hiding. Jane seems to fall into this pattern. She is accused of hiding her emotions and passions, which are evidenced through her interaction with Rochester and Aunt Reed. An example of concealing passions inside her is demonstrated when Aunt Reed at Gateshead asks Jane, “how for nine years you could be patient and quiescent under any treatment, and in the tenth break out all fire and violence.” (269) Jane falls into the category of the entanglement of self-control and the prisoner of her own passion, similar to other women in the Victorian society.
After Jane discovers that she has become Rochester’s mistress, she locks herself alone in her bedroom for days. The lockup of herself symbolises the locking up of her soul and passion inside herself. Rochester is expecting “hot rain of tears” from Jane after she is made known to the truth and he “wanted them to be shed on his breast.” (336) However, a “white cheeked and faded eyed” Jane appears in front of him without “a trace of tears.” (336) Throughout the novel, Rochester has his unique ways to bring out passions and love hidden inside Jane by questioning her in ways like, “You don’t love me, then?” Consequently, Jane immediately reveals her love but still mentally torturing herself by coldly saying, “I do love you (241).” While Rochester brings Jane to reveal the passions inside her, St. John forces Jane to keep her self-control and destroys her ability to express her sexuality. In Jane’s words, “whereas I am hot, and fire dissolves ice” (428) is when she realises how mismatched they are and that he is not able to bring out her sexuality as a lover. This is a good example of the Victorian views, where the society wants women to obey rules by hiding their feelings. Therefore, many women are tortured by the passions and sexuality, which they felt, but were unable to express.
Oppositely, Bertha is unable to hide her sexuality and is led to her destruction by jumping to death, while Thornfeild burns to the ground. She shows the potential dangers of allowing only passion to rule uncontrolled and is used to represent unleashed, untamed passion, without any reason or control. (Koh) Bertha’s bed-burning scene is contrasted to Jane’s sexual desires, which cannot be let out. Readers can constantly connect Bertha’s outbursts with Jane’s insistence on self-control. During the bed-burning scene, Bronte uses several passionate expressions to expose Jane’s inhibited sexuality. (Koh) When Jane enters Rochester’s bedroom, “Tongues of flames darted round the bed: the curtains were on fire. In the midst of blaze and vapour, Mr. Rochester lay stretched motionless, in deep sleep.” (168) This enables the development of tension and passion in Jane’s character. As Rochester lay enveloped in “tongues of flames,” Jane goes to his side and tries to wake him. Jane now becomes the aggressor in this act of passion. After this doesn’t work Jane fills a water-jug and extinguishes the flames. Jane has relieved Rochester’s sexual desires by putting out his fire, using her water-jug, which broke during this event. Jane says, “the breakage of the pitcher I had flung from my hand when I had emptied it . . . roused Mr. Rochester at last,” (168) letting her have the role of aggressor and her sexuality be aroused. (Koh) Jane and Bertha are shown to have many parallels in the novel. Jane’s fires and Bertha’s blood, the red room and the attic, and Jane being referred to as a “mad,” the way that Bertha acts throughout the novel. (Chase 62) The way that Jane is able to hide her feelings of passion deep inside is the whole reason that Bertha is assumed to be insane by not being able to do this within herself. The ideas of self-control and the lacks of it are the reasons for the comparisons of Jane and Bertha.
There are basically three types of femininity presided over the literary imagination of the 19th century: first, the diabolic outcast, and the destructive, fatal demon woman. Secondly, the domestic “angel of the house”, the saintly, self-sacrificing frail vessel, and thirdly a particular version of Mary Magdalene, as the penitent and redeemed sexually vain and dangerous woman, the fallen woman. (Bronfen 197) Charlotte Bronte has divided the Victorian female psyche into its extreme components of tamed and untamed, which externalizes two characters – Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason. Charlotte Bronte describes Jane’s character and personality as a passionate, heroic and innocent individual. However, through the novel Jane learns how to control her feelings, her wild and passionate nature. From an innocent child, she grows into a person, who wish to become appreciated and loved by people.
Although Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason are both oppressed by the British patriarchal system, the two women differ greatly in the ways that they accept and cope with the reality of their place in society. (Waller) Jane Eyre follows the rules. Although she initially fights against what she believes to be unfair restrictions at Gateshead, she soon discovers that rebellion carries a high price. Therefore she soon learns to modify her behaviour to conform to socially accepted standards. Bertha Mason, on the other hand, never conform to society’s restrictions on women’s behaviour and so she blindly breaks all of the rules. Therefore, Jane is successful in securing her desired place in society because she ultimately learns the value of conforming to the rules and operating within the context of their established structures, whereas Bertha does not conform and therefore does not survive.
As an adult, Jane is a “plain governess”, (291) whereas Bertha is a big woman who “snatched and growled like some strange wild animal but it was covered with clothing.” (328) Jane is an orphan who lived in a charity school. Bertha on the other hand is the spoiled daughter of a wealthy West India merchant. Jane is modest and virginal and Bertha is “a nature who is the most gross, impure and depraved.” (345) Both of them have no choice but to live within the setting of the male-dominated society. In different ways, Jane and Bertha each attempt to function within society acceptable standards while still maintaining a sense of individuality. (Waller) Consequently, both women are judged and punished severely when they do not conform to society’s expectations.
Jane is bound to “powerful or economically viable men” like Uncle Reed, Rochester and St. John Rivers several times in the novel. Although it may seem that these attachments are necessary for Jane’s welfare, in reality they are signs of oppression. (Waller) At Gateshead, she is taken in as an orphan by her uncle. After he dies, Jane remains with his family but is unloved and unwanted. To make matters worse, she is resented by her wealthy relations, who usually enforce unjust rules that Jane has little choice but to obey. Jane’s rebellion brings about neither justice nor understanding, but only more harsh treatment and loneliness. She is eventually made known to the importance of conforming to social norms and by the time she becomes a teacher at Lowood, Jane no longer needs to be externally controlled by society. (Waller)
However, even after she learns the value of conformity, Jane continues to experience the oppression of patriarchy. When she obtains her position as governess at Thornfield, she initially enjoys relative liberty. She is earning more money than she did at Lowood and having Mrs. Fairfax as a companion. Rochester frees Jane from the traditional class conventionalities because he relates to her as a relative social equal. (Waller) However, Jane’s comfortable life at Thornfield begins to change. As Rochester’s feelings for her increase, his efforts in manipulating and controlling her also raises. However, Rochester’s efforts to dominate Jane have become less effective as the amount of force he employs increases. Rochester’s most intense attempt to control Jane is shown in his insistence that she runs away with him to the south of France, making her realise that he is leaving her no choice but to escape from him. Eventually, Jane senses that if she stays at Thornfield, Rochester will continue to press her to enter a sexual relationship with him, something she cannot accept. (Waller) Because she loves him so, Jane fears that Rochester may succeed in wearing away her determination in leaving Thornfield. Opposing and refusing his request, Jane leaves Thornfield in a panic following her own principle. This scene demonstrates that Jane would rather give up her chance for happiness than do anything that would yield her conformity to social custom. She is convinced that maintaining a strict adherence to the rules will, in the end, help her to achieve what she want, even if that turns out to be simply social acceptance and love desires. Eventually, Jane’s conformance to social rules has become the defining element of her adult self. (Waller) She knows her position in the society, and although she may not always be comfortable with it, she internally controls her own behaviour and conforms to society’s rules throughout the rest of her life. (Waller) Later in the novel, Bertha dies and Jane has finally married Rochester. As a result, Jane has now successfully established social acceptance and maintained her own self-respect. In the end, it is her conformity to the society standards that makes it possible for her to achieve her most cherished desires and goals, like being a legitimate wife of Edward Rochester and the mother of their children. (Waller)
Unlike Jane, Bertha Mason is interested in neither social acceptance nor self-respect. According to Rochester’s narrative, Bertha’s childhood experiences, which are very different from Jane’s, have not prepared her to operate within the framework of patriarchal society. Bertha is not taught in her childhood that non-compliance to social rules carries ultimate redemption and punishment, and consequently, she never learns the value of conforming to the expectations of others. As a child, Bertha is brought up in an atmosphere of wealth and extravagance, and is delighted in the luxuries provided by her wealthy family. Bertha’s father wants to marry her daughter off as quickly as possible. Rochester’s father and brother are also eager to arrange the match to provide wealth for him without having to divide the family estate.
Rochester is “ignorant, raw, and inexperienced” and is “dazzled” by the beautiful Bertha, who is admired by “All the men in her circle.” (343) However, after their hasty marriage, Rochester realises that he “‘never lovedâ€¦never esteemedâ€¦nor even knew her” and that he was not sure of the existence of one virtue in her natureâ€¦neither modesty nor benevolence, nor candour, nor refinement in her mind or manners.” (344) He finds her nature is “totally alien” to him with “her cast of mind common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher, expanded to anything larger.” (344) It is clear that Bertha has neither intention nor desire to operate within the structure of traditional marriage or conform to the expectations of her husband or society. Therefore, Rochester considers Bertha’s lusty sexual appetite as an inappropriate and devilish act, even within the framework of marriage. (Waller) As a result, Rochester locks his wife in the attic at Thornfield for he thinks that she is “safely lodged in that third-story room, of whose secret inner cabinet she has now for ten years made a wild beast’s den-a goblin’s cell.” (348) As a member of the patriarchy, Rochester has the unquestionable power and authority to judge and punish Bertha. He is giving Bertha a life sentence of imprisonment for her aggressive sexuality and refusal to conform to patriarchal expectations.
However, Rochester’s description of Bertha and her behaviour are very different from Jane’s initial impression. It seems that Bertha, before her marriage with Rochester, is an enchanting lady, who is able to function within a polite society. However, after her marriage with Rochester, he starts to control Bertha’s behaviour by imposing patriarchal expectations and restrictions but Bertha does not comply, and rebels even further against her husband’s dictatorship. Rochester is humiliated and so he avoids her completely. Rochester’s increasing strength in confining Bertha leads her to the ultimately passage for escape, which also destroys Thornfield Hall. Even in death, Bertha refuses to be controlled by her husband. (Waller)
Jane Eyre may seem like a fairy tale with a happy ending but by looking closely, one will find that it truly reveals the oppressed and non-oppressed thoughts of Charlotte Bronte through the use of words, sentences and characters. All these add to the strong and fascinating character of Jane and certainly proved the phrase “no conformity, no survival.”
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