Through her presentation of Jane, how does Charlotte Bronte challenge conventional ideas of her time
Charlotte Bronte, through the character of Jane Eyre, challenges the conventional ideas of the Victorian era, specifically in the areas of family life, education and relationships. Victorians adhered to the vision of a very rigorous family structure, which had no room for any individuality or distinctiveness. The traditional family view was that children were supposed to obey their parents and act prudently. They should be ‘seen but not heard. ‘ Jane, however, is a rebellious child with a passionate disposition who cannot tolerate this notion and often refuses to accept her punishments.
Mrs Reed does not bring up Jane the way she brings up her own spoilt children. She makes it very clear that she is doing her niece a favour as she is forced by the circumstances to keep her in her household. She treats her like a maid, and Jane is often punished; most of the times because she expresses her own opinion. For example: ‘I am not deceitful; if I were, I should say I loved you, but I declare I do not love you’ – page 43 Mrs Reed constantly tries to suppress any uniqueness Jane possesses and forces her to treat her cousins like royalty due to her ‘low’ rank.
In these cases, Bessie tries to advise young Jane. An example is below: You ought not to think yourself on an equality with the misses Reed…. it is your place to be humble, and try to make yourself agreeable to them’ – page 9 Jane is continually contradicting her aunt’s ethos by answering back to her family. Her aunt expects her to defer to her, and Jane does not, which annoys her and sparks off an authority issue. Charlotte Bronte believes in equality between family members, which was very ahead of her time, in contrast to the idea that a child was always expected to respect an adult without questioning.
The same principle applied to the dogma of education. It was normal for teachers to beat the children at school if they misbehaved, got something wrong, or even had dirty fingernails. A good example is found on page 69: “You dirty, disagreeable girl! You have never cleaned your nails this morning! ” Most teachers in the book are strict and do not encourage the children to flourish. Mr Brocklehurst acts like a dictator towards his pupils. He is extremely strict and domineering, believing that: ‘A pupil at Lowood should be trained in conformity to her position and prospects’ – page 41
He also seems to enjoy bullying Jane and humiliating her just as she is learning to fit in with the other girls. In the Victorian era, children were treated using punishment and strict orders at school. They believed this to be normal, and child abuse, such as caning was thought acceptable and was used to teach a child of their wrongs even if it inflicted unnecessary suffering. Jane meets Helen Burns at the school, who accepts the punishments that she is given without showing any temper unlike Jane, who feels that she needs to confront her teachers when they are unfair.
After meeting Helen Burns, Jane’s attitude changes slightly and she becomes a bit more mature and temperate. Helen Burns is Bronte’s way of presenting the typical Victorian model student; clever and inquisitive but conscious of the limitations inflicted on her in relation to her position. However, through the character of Miss Temple, Charlotte Bronte delivers her own unconventional views. Miss Temple is very modern compared to the rigid Victorian view of a teacher, and encourages her pupils to thrive. She is full of goodness and is pained if she has to be severe with anyone.
A good example is of how Helen describes her in the quotation below: ‘She sees my errors and tells me of them gently; and, if I do anything worthy of praise, she gives me my meed liberally’ – page 72 + 73 Through Charlotte Bronte’s character, Miss Temple, she shows her own views on school life and indicates that school should have been more liberal than what it was. This idea was very futuristic for her, as it is the one we use now, over 150 years later. Another one of her perceptions which was very ahead for her time was her outlook on relationships.
It was normal for women in the Victorian time to be like Blanche Ingram. Miss Ingram is wealthy, beautiful and self-confident but very superficial. Her only interest in life is to find a rich husband of similar status but does not necessarily seek love which was of no importance, as Jane shares her thoughts with us: “I saw he was going to marry her, for family, perhaps political reasons; because her rank and connexions suited him. I felt he had not given her his love. ” – page 259 On the other hand, Jane is the complete opposite; being intellectual, ordinary in looks and of a lesser rank.
She feels excluded when Mr Rochester has his social dinners, and she keeps comparing herself to Miss Ingram, which she knows she has no right to be. Mrs Fairfax reinforces this view in the following quote: “Gentlemen in his station are not accustomed to marry their governesses” – Page 373 But Jane enjoys her ‘talks’ with Mr Rochester forgetting that he is her employer and that she is nothing more than a household servant. Finally she marries him regardless of his age, his recently acquired disability, social position and wealth and also accomplishes to find love.
Mr Rochester and Jane find happiness by complimenting each others flaws and imperfections. Jane Eyre is a very powerful novel of its time and one must see it beyond a romance between two people of different social status. One must see it as an avant-garde piece of work written by a woman at the beginning of the Victorian era, when women were considered inferior to men. Jane Eyre is a masterpiece in its own right; it can even be considered a feministic manuscript. Charlotte Bronte’s heroine succeeds to challenge conventionality to its peak.
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