Class was something you are born into during the Victorian era, which made people think they were in position to look down on others from different classes. Jane Eyre is a novel that explores a society based on social and economic success. Jane shifts from lower to middle, to upper class throughout the novel, and is judged by other characters for her class status, the same way she judges them. She views these social classes that society has constructed for us as a tool to determining character and is constantly yearning for a way out of the class which was forced in. Her manners and education reflect a person in the upper-class but is still stuck in the working-class. Jane associates poverty with degradation, and her time at Gateshead with the Reeds has caused Jane to develop a bias toward the upscale class that continues to guide her decisions throughout the novel. At the end, she manages to climb up the social ladder because of her inheritance and without Mr. Rochester’s support and help, proving her worth. Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Brontë, depicts Jane’s shift in her perspective of social class due to her experiences at Gateshead, and her relationship with Rochester. She goes from valuing wealth over character to judging others based on their personality rather than their riches.
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John Reed uses his social status to look down on Jane because he is taught that poor people do not have the same rights as wealthy people, and Mrs.Reed’s lady’s-maid, Miss Abbott gives Jane a little pep talk about where her ¨place¨ in society is. These encounters that Jane has develops her understanding of the importance of social class in society during that era. “You have no business to take our books; you are a dependant, mama says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen’s like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mamma’s expense.” (Brontë 5) John Reed judges Jane because she comes from a poor family. Jane is an orphan with no money, she lives with the rich Reed family but they treat her as less than human. Jane develops an understanding that poor people are less than human they don’t have good clothes or food and they beg on the streets. She learns that poor people are “dependent” and they can’t read the same books as rich people because they are lower in the social class rank. This quotes also shows John’s power over Jane because she’s beneath him in the social class. He uses the differences in social class between them as an act of justification for ostracizing her. Another person in Gateshead that had a huge impact in Jane’s development of her understanding of social class was Miss Abbot, she gives Jane a bit of advice to stay in her own lane. “And you ought not to think of yourself on an equality with the Misses Reed and Master Reed, because missis kindly allows you to be brought up with them. They will have a great deal of money and you will have none; it is your place to be humble, and to try to make yourself agreeable to them.” Miss Abbott gives Jane a short speech about Jane’s status and where she belongs. She reminds her that she is not equal to the rest of the Reed family because they are rich and she will never have any money. She also tells her that it is her duty to “be humble” because she is poor. Despite growing up in an upper-class home, she is treated and is viewed as a member of the lower-class by the Reed family. This teaches Jane an important lesson about where she belongs in these socially constructed classes, which motivates her to do better in life to be as “equal” as the Reeds.
Jane is taught about the limitations of being poor, which leads her to believing that being poor is worse than staying with the wealthy, abusive, neglectful Reed family. “I could not see how poor people had the means of being kind; and then to learn to speak like them, to adopt their manners, to be uneducated, to grow up like one of the poor women I saw sometimes nursing their children or washing their clothes at the cottage doors of the village of Gateshead: no, I was not heroic enough to purchase liberty at the price of caste.” (Bronte 20). This shows how the Reeds effected Jane’s understanding of being poor. She receives another chance at a better life without the Reeds but she turns the proposal down because it would mean she would have to live with poor people. Living with the Reeds teaches Jane that poor people are inconsiderate, “unkind”, and “uneducated”. During the Victorian era, women wouldn’t normally take care of their children and wash their clothes, they had servants, so when Jane sees a poor women taking care of her children, she believes that living like her is worse than living with an abusive family. “Poverty looks grim to grown people; still more so to children: they have not much idea of industrious, working, respectable poverty; they think of the world only as connected with ragged clothes, scanty food, fireless grates, rude manners, and debasing vices: poverty for me was synonymous with degradation.” (Bronte 43). Jane refuses to live with loving but poor relatives. At Gateshead, the Reed’s have taught her that “poverty” is always accompanied with wickedness and unpleasantness. She associates poverty with “ragged clothes, scanty food… and rude manners”, she also associates poverty with shame and loss of self respect and dignity because of what the people at Gateshead have taught her about poverty. However, she learns to evaluate people based on their characters instead of their social status.
Charlotte Brontë makes a great job of capturing the challenges Jane has to face coming from a middle-lower class. At Thornfield Jane’s desire to climb the social ladder becomes more prominent by getting closer to Rochester, in spite of the fact that they come from two different social classes, although they begin with a rough start . She says “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?” “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.” (Bronte 272). Jane stands up for herself against Rochester, indicating that if she was rich and beautiful, it would be harder for him to leave her. Jane used to think of poor people as uneducated and cruel until she became one herself. This quote also explains the life of a women in the 18th century, life was hard without connections and a lack of money. When Jane meets Blanche Ingram who was Rochester’s soon to be finance, she begins to doubt her own social class and self-worth. Blanche is everything Jane dreamed on becoming, wealthy and beautiful, this makes Jane realize the harsh reality that her social class is stopping her from marrying Mr.Rochester. “The less I felt justified in judging and blaming either him or Miss Ingram, for acting in conformity to ideas and principles instilled into them, doubtless, from their childhood. All their class held these principles; I supposed, then, they had reasons for holding them such as I could not fathom.” (Bronte 240 ) This quote shows the development of Jane’s identity through her opinions on social class. She tells herself to stop blaming Mr.Rochester and Miss Ingram because they conform to society’s expectations of the higher social class that they’ve been taught growing up. This quote is significant because it shows Jane’s view on social class, it reveals that Jane understands that society’s rules for the higher class is to marry from the same class, she believes these principles are ingrained on the upper class from birth. Although she doesn’t comprehend why they hold them, she understands that these principles have been set by society and knows the consequences that come along with not following these socially constructed rules. Jane’s mother came from a wealthy family but married a poor man and was abandoned by her family, this is an example of the effect of not following society’s social standards.
Jane develops her understanding of social class throughout her journey in Gateshead and Thornfield. She soon starts judging people based on their character and not by how much money they have. At Gateshead Jane believed that living in poverty is a standard of life that is savage like, poverty as a synonym for degradation. When she moved to Thornfield, coming from a lower-middle class she began to understand that judging someone based on their wealth rather than their personality is dishonorable. She also beings to understand the reality of social class, and the effect it has on people’s lives, and all the social rules people have to conform to since birth. Social class in the 18th century was made up of lower, middle, and upper class inwhich Charlotte Brontë implements on the characters in the novel. Jane challenges these social structures build by society thorugh gender, wealth, and education. Jane shifts from these social classes throughout the novel, which has taught her to value a person’s character more than their class or status and money.
- Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York, Bantam Classic, 2003.
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