How Jane Eyre and the works of Robert Browning subvert gender stereotypes

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Robert Browning’s poems Porphyria’s Lover and My Last Duchess, are works written in the Victorian period in which traditional gender stereotypes are both subverted and reaffirmed. As the works progress, a pattern of initial subversion followed by eventual domination and conformity is discovered. It is thus made clear to the reader that Victorian women could find ways of being that went against the patriarchal society in which they lived, but that ultimately they were still subject to male oppression.

In the Victorian period, women and men were not considered equal – a concept which can be difficult to envision for the modern reader. Women did not have the franchise, classed amongst convicts and lunatics in the legal system, and it was believed that a woman’s purpose was merely to bear children: “Female energy expended in reproduction was not available for psychic and intellectual growth” (Conway, 1972, p.140). Although the works of some female writers were being published, such as that of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, women were seldom celebrated unless they were of elite standing. Regardless of social standing, women were seen and treated as second-class citizens who should be subservient to men (Booth, 2006). They were expected to be polite and docile creatures, taking a passive role in their own lives by allowing their husbands to make household decisions. Furthermore, female sexuality was heavily oppressed as Christian belief was of high importance: women were to be beautiful and chaste. Gender stereotypes were therefore a prominent part of Victorian society that dictated every aspect of a woman’s life.

In Jane Eyre, the character of Jane is introduced to the reader as an outcast child, and is thus immediately set apart from the other characters. As her aunt describes: “… I don’t like cavillers or questioners … there is something truly forbidding in a child taking up her elders …”. The upfront manner in which Jane speaks to her elders, and later to Mr. Rochester and St. John, was shocking in the Victorian era due to the expectations that women were to be quiet and respectful at all times. Jane herself recognises this when in conversation with St. John, when she says: “He had not imagined that a woman would dare to speak so to a man. For me, I felt at home in this sort of discourse.” Furthermore, Jane speaks openly to the reader on traditional gender roles, stating:

‘It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it … Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel …’

This manner of speaking immediately sets Jane apart from the other women in the novel, coupled with the fact that Jane does not ‘pair’ with any other female: the reader is continually presented with women who are coupled with another, such as Jane’s cousins Eliza and Georgiana Reed, and Diana and Mary Rivers. Therefore, Jane is set apart from other women both in the novel, and in Victorian society.

Gender stereotypes are further subverted in the novel through the relationship between Jane and Mr. Rochester. When the two meet for the first time, she effectively ‘rescues’ him, challenging the traditional male-driven monomyth. As their first encounter is seen to be subverting gender stereotypes, the reader sees that the relationship which follows will not conform entirely to traditional romantic conventions. Mr. Rochester is also repeatedly described by Jane as being distinctly average in terms of physical appearance, not “handsome [and] heroic-looking”, whilst Jane herself is often described as “plain” where female heroes were – and to this day, still are – generally presented as beautiful. During their engagement, Jane declines Mr. Rochester’s gift of jewels, saying that: “Jewels for Jane Eyre sounds unnatural and strange” and later states that she has made an idol of her future husband, which was a sinful and controversial remark at the time. Furthermore, on the eve of her wedding day, Jane indirectly describes the institution of marriage as something constraining:

‘There was no putting off the day that advanced – the bridal day … there were my trunks, packed, locked, corded … Mr. Rochester had himself written the direction, “Mrs. Rochester …” on each: I could not persuade myself to affix them … Mrs. Rochester! She did not exist … and I would wait to be assured she had come into the world alive before I assigned to her all that property.”

Here, it is clear that Jane shows some reluctant to marry Mr. Rochester as she would be under his control, and her “property” would be his. Bronte’s use of constraining words and Jane’s recognition that Mr. Rochester wrote out her name cards as opposed to letting her do this herself emphasises this doubt in her mind. The fact that Jane chooses to leave Mr. Rochester is in direct contradiction to traditional gender stereotypes as women were expected to marry, and a wealthy husband was considered to be the most desirable prospect for a young Victorian woman – a concept furthered when Jane becomes wealthy in her own right. Finally, nearing the end of the novel Jane tells Mr. Rochester outright that marriage is of no importance to her. So, it can be concluded that Jane’s relationship with Mr. Rochester subverts the gender stereotypes of the Victorian era.

Despite the challenges presented to traditional gender roles in Jane Eyre, however, it must be noted that Jane is being controlled in some way by Mr. Rochester throughout the novel. Jane says that Mr. Rochester ‘sends for’ her when he wishes to see her, for example, suggesting that she had not the authority to seek him in turn. In the end Jane does conform to the expectations of patriarchal society by returning to Mr. Rochester, marrying him, and indeed caring for him. Although it could be argued that Jane having to care for her now blind husband is subverting gender stereotypes, as men were traditionally to be the head of the household whilst women were domestic caregivers, Jane is clearly taking on both roles. She subverts gender stereotypes, but reaffirms them at the same time by taking on her patriarchally-intended role as a wife.

Gender stereotypes are also explored in the poetry of Robert Browning. In Porphyria’s Lover, Porphyria’s actions are described:

‘She put my arm about her waist,

And made her smooth white shoulder bare,

And all her yellow hair displaced,

And, stooping, made my cheek lie there …’ (Browning, 1836, ll.16-9)

This active role that Porphyria takes directly subverts traditional gender stereotypes as women were to be dictated by men. Porphyria is in a position of power, being a beautiful woman with a man waiting for her “with heart fit to break” (Browning, 1836, l.5). Her lover is therefore vulnerable despite being the male party, describing himself as “so pale for love of her, and all in vain” (Browning, 1836, ll.28-9). Additionally, the speaker describes Porphyria as having left an event to be with him, which could suggest that she is having an extra-marital affair and lends a sense of erotic fantasy to the poem. Once again, the gender stereotype of a chaste, faithful, Christian woman is subverted. However, gender roles are reaffirmed when the male speaker takes on the active role and strangles Porphyria with her own hair, under the impression that to kill her would be to preserve her youthful beauty and loving feelings towards him forever; she would forever belong to him. This is illustrated when the speaker states:

‘I propped her head up as before,

Only this time my shoulder bore

Her head, which droops upon it still …’ (Browning, 1836, ll.49-51)

Furthermore, the speaker’s description of Porphyria as “mine, mine, fair … Perfectly pure and good” echoes the idea that women were objects to be admired (Browning, 1836, ll.36-7). This reversal of roles reaffirms gender stereotypes as the male regains control of the female, conforming once again to the patriarchal Victorian society.

In Browning’s My Last Duchess, female sexuality is again presented as the speaker describes his previous wife as ‘smiling’ at other men:

‘… Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,

Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without

Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together.’ (Browning, 1842, ll.43-6)

Here, it is suggested either that the woman was unfaithful to her husband, or that the speaker was merely suspicious of this, and that he thus had her killed. Again, the reader sees this regaining of control over the female by the male, alongside the concept of women as an object of beauty. The Duchess survives only in her portrait “painted on the wall” – she has effectively been turned into a work of art that will constantly conform to gender stereotypes as it is unable to do anything else (Browning, 1842, l.1).

This pattern of women initially subverting gender stereotypes, but ultimately being controlled by men, is indicative of the patriarchal society which prevailed during the Victorian era, as all of the decisions about a woman’s life were made by men: a woman could not police or govern, so even the most important aspects of her life were at a man’s discretion. Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of the man as the “One” and the woman as the “Other” relates well here, as the concept of male and female selfhood is such that a woman “‘… cannot think of herself without a man.'” (de Beauvoir, n.d., p.xvi) So, the pattern of male domination and submissive female gender roles that recurs in each of these texts mirrors life as a woman in the Victorian period.

It can therefore be said that Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and My Last Duchess and Porphyria’s Lover by Robert Browning are works which subvert gender stereotypes to some degree. Bronte presents the reader with Jane, an upfront and honest young woman who runs away from the man she loves to live independently and yet resolves to marry him at the end of the novel. Moreover, Browning writes of both a young woman so beautiful that her lover strangles her to preserve her youth and love for him, and a duchess killed by order of her husband when he suspects that she is interested in other men. This clear pattern suggests to the reader that in the Victorian period it was difficult for a woman to subvert gender stereotypes for an extended period of time, as the concept of a patriarchal society in which women were submissive and men dominant was so ingrained into the minds of those alive at the time. In all of these works, the male eventually owns and controls the female. The works therefore subvert gender stereotypes, but ultimately conform to them.

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