How the novel Jane Eyre explores and criticises social hierarchy and gender relations in the Victorian Age
Charlotte Bronte published ‘Jane Eyre: An Autobiography’ in 1847 under the pseudonym ‘Currer Bell’. The novel’s narrative is in first-person form, through the perspective of Jane, the title character. The success of this work lies behind the way in which it addresses, and often defies several social norms of that age. It is to some extent, autobiographical in reality and not just in name. Parallels can be drawn between the lives and careers of Bronte and Eyre.
Also, the strong and forceful way in which Jane opines about people and situations makes it clear to the reader that the author has placed Jane in that particular circumstance, in order toexpress her own thoughts about a past experience. The novel follows the pattern of a bildungsroman, which weaves the plot around the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist (in this case, Jane). This allows the author to address different stages of social and gender discrimination, and the way they influence Jane’s mind.
However, the narrative is not representative of the protagonist’s intellect at the given point. Rather, it is written in retrospect by Jane, who adds her own analytical comments in narrative interstices, often in justification of her past actions or in a sarcastic wording of popular opinion in those times. Walter Allen says,” Charlotte Bronte is to be judged as romantic writers, whether poets or novelists, always must be, by the intensity with which she expresses her response to life and experience.
Her response is total and uninhibited. Other critics have also often commented upon the fiercely emotional character of Jane, and the astonishing juxtaposition of such a person against completely unsavoury circumstances. From the very start, Jane is expected to behave like a plain, quiet and uncomplaining girl, who would not expect much from life. Bessie makes her acutely aware of class barriers and social inferiority at a young age, always commenting upon Jane’s lack of physical beauty and drilling into her the idea that being an orphan, her future prospects would not be bright if she did not behave in a humble and deferential manner to her disdainful cousins.
One would notice that in Jane’s interaction with all kinds of people, good and evil are often clearly demarcated, and the benevolent kind always bond with Jane, John Rivers being a special case. The ‘nasty’ characters like Mrs. Reed and her family treat Jane in an almost inhuman way, as we readily believe, moved quickly by the narrator speaking through the voice of a little girl. Unsurprisingly, they all come to a sorry end, and it almost appears as if it happened as a result of their behaviour towards Jane, and not the mistakes they themselves made as adults.
This fabric of ‘god’s vengeance’ is subtly woven into the background workings of the novel. The first stereotype that Bronte attacks is that of physical beauty as a prerequisite, almost a substitute for intellectual capacity in a woman, and she continues to hammer that point throughout the novel. This is one gender stereotype that still lurks in society’s subconscious, even today. But Bronte vehemently draws sharp and debilitating sketches of women of high status and striking beauty, dismissing their qualities as superficial in comparison to Jane.
This is done most notably with Blanche Ingram, Jane’s nemesis as it were, and to some extent with the Reed children. At the very beginning we are fed an image of Jane as a bright, studious child, sitting and reading books while the Reed daughters spend their time frolicking. Similarly, Blanche is a talented woman, but her haughty and insensitive attitude towards Jane makes her a villain in the eyes of the narrator. Consequently, her actions are portrayed in a sour tone. She makes blasphemous and vulgar comments about Jane’s occupation as a governess, “half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi”.
However, Blanche’s superfluous elitism is directed at every person in her surroundings. It is Blanche’s popularity and the envy she draws from her observers that Bronte points out here. It so happens that Mr. Rochester is the only one who remains unimpressed, (even though Blanche is most courteous towards him) perhaps due to his own unusual frankness. Bronti?? ‘s exploration of the complicated social position of governesses is perhaps the novel’s most important treatment of the theme of social hierarchy. Jane is a figure of ambiguous class standing and, consequently, a source of extreme tension for the characters around her.
Jane’s manners, sophistication, and education are those of an aristocrat, because Victorian governesses, who tutored children in etiquette as well as academics, were expected to possess the “culture” of the aristocracy. Yet, as paid employees, they were more or less treated as servants; thus, Jane remains penniless and powerless while at Thornfield. Jane’s understanding of the double standard crystallizes when she becomes aware of her feelings for Rochester; she is his intellectual, but not his social, equal. Jane herself speaks out against class prejudice at certain moments in the book.
For example, in Chapter 23 she chastises Rochester: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! -I have as much soul as you-and full as much heart! 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. ” Jane is at first overcome by Rochester’s passionate confession of his love for her, but later when she finds out that he is in fact already married to a mad woman, she leaves immediately, broken and hopeless.
After wandering alone, nearly at the brink of death, she is miraculously saved by the Rivers family. The author introduces mother-figures several times in the novel as Jane’s comforters and role models. They are all strong, independent and caring women. Diana and Mary Rivers are two of these figures, and probably the most influential after Miss Temple. The independent and equal social standing of the Rivers’ sisters with their brother is an exemplary case of feminism by Bronte, and a direct reproach to the Victorian hierarchy. The chief male characters in the book are repressive towards women.
As such, the greater part of Jane’s indignation and anger seem directed against gender inequality and oppression. She has to continuously battle against this social element in different forms, right from her childhood in the shape of Mr. Brocklehurst’s ghastly spiritual understanding, to the time of her residence with the Rivers’, when St. John Rivers attempts to force his zest formissionary work upon her. St. John wanted Jane to marry him and go to India, not because he loved her, but because he thought she would make a good missionary partner.
However Jane rejects St. John Rivers. She also does not acceptBrocklehurst’s hypocritical views about how orphan children needed to submit to a harsh life, because they were being punished for their past sins. Jane articulates her idea of feminism thus, “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do….. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.
“Mr. Rochester is perhaps the only man who seeks to keep Jane to himself out of love and not chauvinism ormistaken idealism. Even though Rochester’s demands of Jane are lustful and immoral, in light of his marriage to Bertha, one cannot help but sympathise with him and his cruel fate. The storyline, or rather Bronte, delivers a final blow to Rochester in the form of his accident and consequent blindness. Then, in the distinct manner of evening the scales, Jane goes back to him after a supernatural calling, this time as his equal (or somewhat superior considering Rochester’s handicap, in the view of some critics).
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