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How feminist is the text of jane eyre

Charlotte Brontë created a piece of literary revolutionary work in a world where women were marginalised in a society dominated by men. Powerfully written, she commands a dominating, liberating woman’s voice and using it as her strength we can relate to Jane’s struggles and explore the twists and turns of her turbulent world. Sophie Franklin writes that the ‘Woman Question’ was a major issue of the 19th Century. It centred around the social position of women and until the Married Woman’s Property Act in 1882, women were invisible in legal terms (2016, p.141). The 1840’s was an era of division between men and women, social classes, political, ecclesiastical and economic values. The power of the novel at this time was paramount as authors looked to society to influence and define characters to reflect the ‘Victorian values’ on which society was based. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (Wordsworth Classics, 1999) is an autobiography of self-discovery and search for identity (Dennis, 2000, pp.16″,18). The purpose of this essay is to examine to what extent that Jane Eyre can be read as a feminist text, by also comparing it to Coventry Patmore’s, ‘The Angel in the House’ (Patmore, 1885).

Queen Victoria was described as ‘the mother of the nation’ and she embodied the role of the domestic goddess, to her husband the patriarch of the household (Abrams, 2001). This role, inspired by the love of his wife is described in Coventry Patmore’s poem, ‘The Angel in the House’ which portrays her as a perfect example of the dutiful Victorian wife. Joan Hoffman in She Loves with Love that cannot Tire, comments that the poem refers, ‘to any woman of the period who embodied the ideal – the selflessly devoted and submissive wife and mother’. She continues that the ‘Angel in the House’ is an important figure and, ‘She is the linchpin of marriage […] and considered the model bourgeois domestic circumstance of the nineteenth century’. From a female perspective, the social roles were clearly defined with a distinction between male dominance and female submission where the wife was in no way equal to her husband (Hoffman, 2007, pp.264″,265). Hoffman comments that, Virginia Woolf (1942) describes ‘The Angel in the House’ as ‘intensely sympathetic […] Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty […] In those days – the last of Queen Victoria – every house had its Angel’ (2007, p.268). The woman although superior and greatly respected in her own domain is silenced from the world, completely at the mercy of her husband. Jane Eyre’s character, although restricted within the parameters of conventional Victorian society should not be labelled with this ideal of Victorian womanhood and angel-image (Cunningham, 1978, p.79). Bernard Paris, believes however that Jane is not feminist hero, afraid to pursue her ideas and lives her life according to rule and boundaries (1997, p.156).

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Gail Cunningham believes that the popularity of this Bildungsroman is that, ‘woman can succeed in womanly terms simply because of her intrinsic value, ‘I will be myself’ says Jane and that self is devoid of all the outward advantages usually judged necessary for success’. Jane Eyre overcomes obstacles in her life even though she is ‘poor, friendless and above all plain’ (1978, p.41). Karen Chase (1984) in Heather Glen’s book, suggests, Brontë was keen to create a protagonist, ‘plain’ yet ‘interesting’ to develop a character where ‘clearly interest lies elsewhere than on the surface of the body’ (Glen, 1997, p.53). Bragg et al. (2015) suggest Brontë’s writing was shaped from her reading of Samuel Richardson’s novels such as Pamela and Clarissa, that tell stories of rich powerful men who take advantage of young beautiful women which was socially accepted at the time. The key to the power of this novel is the social elevation of the governess to a position of standing and wealth which ultimately, she creates herself. The intensity of the first-person voice takes us on a compelling journey of establishing her identity and confirming her self-belief. Brontë successfully uses the technique of pathetic fallacy, images and symbols mirrored in the thrills of the gothic, gloomy dark houses and isolated landscapes to create a personal connection (Abrams, p.241″,242).

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In Heather Glen’s book, Jane Eyre, Elisabeth Bronfen’s (1992) Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic essay, suggests that there are three types of women that feature in the literary world of the nineteenth century. ‘Firstly, the diabolic outcast [..] fatal demon woman, the domestic ‘angel in the house’, the saintly self-sacrificing frail vessel, and thirdly [..] a sexually vain and dangerous woman (Glen, 1997, p.196). Elaine Showalter writes that Jane Eyre is a formula of two of these characters, ‘a deadly combat between the Angel in the House and the demon woman, the devil in the flesh, {…} externalized as Helen Burns and Bertha Mason’. She believes that her road to complete female identity relies on the destruction of these ‘polar personalities’ to make way for her ‘development of the central consciousness, for the integration of spirt and body’. She believes, that Helen is the ‘Angel of Lowood, the perfect victim and the representation of the female spirit […] she is pious, intellectual […] resigned to the abuse of her body, and inevitably, consumptive’. Helen Burns, ‘with the aspect of an angel’, encourages Jane to forgive and manage her passions, though she is far too spirited (Showalter, 1982, pp.113″,118). Elaine Showalter states that Charlotte Brontë’s writing is intense and symbolic. She discusses the power of the Gothic in Jane Eyre, the ‘mad wife locked up in the attic symbolizes the passionate and sexual side of Jane’s personality, an alter ego that her upbringing, her religion, and her society have commanded her to incarcerate’ (Showalter, 1982, p.28). According to Pauline Nestor she shares a similar view with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar who suggest that the heroine has – ‘a depth of passion and anger’ (1992, p.61). This is evident in the novel when Jane displays such a ‘picture of passion’, and acts like a ‘mad cat’ (pp.–)(1992, p.7) drawing parallels with the fiery nature of Bertha Mason. Bertha is described as a dark demonised gothic figure, ‘an Indian Messalina’, a ‘pigmy’, a ‘vampire’ whereas Jane is pure and pale. Rochester aspires to emulate Jane as his ‘better self’, his ‘good angel’. As Bernard Paris comments in his essay Imagined Human Beings, ‘Rochester perceives Bertha and Jane as embodiments of his despised and idealized selves’ (1997, p.156).

Sophie Franklin, in Charlotte Brontë Revisited believes that, ‘Jane Eyre is a feminist, or at least, a proto feminist’, however this is not evident in the dehumanisation of Bertha. She comments that, Ngozi Adichie’s states that the definition of a feminist is ‘a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes’. On every level Bertha Mason is not considered Rochester’s equal and is cruelly banished away from society (2016, p.154). The references to race is a controlling metaphor mirrored through colonial connotations in the novel. Bragg et al. (2015) believe that Jane fears what is lurking in Rochester’s mysterious dark past and aware of what Bertha’s colonial ties represents, she strives hard to remain true to her English principles. This does not negate Jane’s proto-feminist view as it unfair to blame her for Rochester’s actions (Franklin, 2016, p.155). As a reader we are not encouraged to sympathise with the character of Bertha Mason, however in Jean Rhys’ novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1997), Bertha is finally given a voice and defined as a woman with a history, a name and mind of her own. Responding to the aspect of racism in the novel, Pauline Nestor comments that Gayatri Spivak and Penny Boumelha have both suggested that feminist accounts of this novel are race-blind (1992, p.63). Patricia Ingram, comments that Terry Eagleton who in his essay, Myths of Power (1998) has argued that the text is centred on the women in the novel who were a ‘cruelly opposed group’ and his Marxist view was that they were discriminated against by their role of governess as a socially degrading role (2003, p.8). He comments that in the Brontë sisters, ‘one can detect their own individual crisis of identity of a whole social order […] the wretchedness, desire, repression, punitive discipline and spiritual hunger which mark the Brontës fiction […] also speak of a whole society in traumatic transition’ (Eagleton, 2005, p.127). Though Sophie Franklin suggests, that Brontë, ‘had little desire to address social issues in her writing’, she felt it managed to undermine a literary work (2016, p.134).

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Pauline Nestor comments, ‘the plight of orphan Jane, also suggests emphatically an array of constrictions faced by women of the period, ‘Doubly powerless as a girl child and orphan’, Jane Eyre who is insecure and vulnerable, is subject to bullying by John Reed and her cruel Aunt which results in her being punished and sent to the symbolic ‘red-room’. Her release, ‘is only on condition of perfect submission and stillness that I shall liberate you’, this is the feeling of all women at the time to ‘suffer and be still’ (1992, pp.53″,54). Though Jane, is not passive and thrives on opposition, she berates her Aunt in a way not typical of the time: –

‘Speak I must: I had been trodden on severely, and must turn: but how? What strength had I to dart retaliation at my antagonist? […] ‘I am not deceitful: if I were, I should say I loved you; but I dislike you the worst of anybody’ […] (p.29).

At Lowood she occupies a world of ‘duty and order’, of rules and systems as an inmate of its walls. There she meets Mr Brocklehurst; a hypocritical monster who calls her a ‘liar’ and encourages the girls to shun her. Jane triumphs in these situations of cruelty through her spirit and self-worth (Nestor, 1992, p.41).

Jane’s first meeting of Rochester is a fairy-tale of mystery and myth. Though, the novel does not instantly hand the patriarchal grasp of power to Rochester leaving Jane submissive and vulnerable. He maybe the ultimate powerhouse, the employer, the Byronic man commanding a masculine sphere of power and influence however we experience a combative struggle of equality throughout. Pauline Nestor, comments that ‘she makes constant play of his shifting dynamic of mastery and submission’ (1992, p.55″,56). Although, she addresses him as ‘master’ and obeys him promptly, he admits that she has a hold over him: – ‘I never met your likeness. Jane you please me and you master me – you seem to submit, and I like the sense of pliancy you impart’ (p.229).

This view is shared by feminist critics Gilbert and Gubar who recognise that encounters during the novel ‘develop their equality in more complex ways’. Patricia Ingram’s book, The Brontës, features Gilbert and Gubar’s essay, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). They believe that Rochester needs her ‘strength and parity’ when she rescues him from his burning bed and help to dress the wounds inflicted to Richard Mason by ‘Grace Poole’. They claim that Jane and Rochester’s ‘mutual sense of equality’ is made clear when Rochester disguised as a gypsy to entertains the ‘young ladies’, although he cannot deceive Jane- she is his equal (Ingram, 2003, p.55). Although, when Rochester torments her with the prospect of marriage to Blanche, he underestimates her passion, when she says:

Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings […] 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! […] It is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet equal – as we are’ (p.223).

This confrontation establishes her equality within the power of this speech, affirming her superiority and her connection to God. As Sophie Franklin states, in this memorable phrase, ‘it is here, in this declaration of self, in which Jane Eyre’s basic humanity lies’, defining her moral conduct (2016, p.158): I am no bird and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will (p.223).

Susan Meyer comments that after their engagement, the economic inequality is poignant when he lavishes jewels and valuable gifts on her which ‘makes her feel like a degraded slave’ (Glen, 1997, p.106). She was not willing to be his slave and as Sophie Franklin suggests this ‘resistance against female submissiveness was provocative and daring. Charlotte was placing a woman’s needs at the centre of her novel and this included her sexuality’ (2016, p.156). This is evident when she makes a passionate declaration for women to use their talents and not to be confined to the home: –

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‘It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity; they must have action […] Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot […] Women feel as men feel, they need exercise for their faculties […] they suffer from too rigid a restraint […] and it is narrow-minded to […] to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings […] 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’ (p.95).

The novel is also deeply religious and pivotal in deciding Jane’s fate and fortune. This is clear when Rochester pleads with her to be his mistress, and she says: –

‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself’. I will keep the law given by God, sanctioned by man’ (p.280).

Pagan elements feature throughout the novel and following the aborted marriage, she once again looks for guidance by listening to nature and the voice of God, Daughter flee temptation, Mother I will (p.282). Rae et al. (2018) agree that Jane considers human experiences in deeply religious ways through the powerful movement of Evangelicalism. The authority of God acts as her moral goalpost and supports Jane in her spiritual journey to rebel against her social confines and array of restrictions by appealing to a higher realm of power. She is also sensible to realise that her relationship with Rochester’s foil, St. John would be fatally destructive, when she says, ‘If I were to marry you, you would kill me. You are killing me now’ (p.365). On her return to Thornfield, after Rochester’s call to her, Pauline Nestor suggests the equality is matched to some degree, she is financially secure, and he is physically vulnerable (p.). The wording of the concluding chapter is significant, ‘Reader, I married him’ (p.) suggests that it is on her terms.

To conclude, the intensity and passion of this novel, can be read predominately as a feminist text reflecting Jane Eyre’s identity as a feminist ‘role model’ of self-worth, independence, justice and equality for women. In an article by Phillip Howard, a review of Patricia Beer’s book, Reader I Married Him, he comments that novelists such as Charlotte Brontë lived in a society ‘rooted in apparently unshakable belief in the superiority of the male. But at least [..] by their lives or their books or both, they did manage to shake it a little’ (The Times, 1980). According to Pauline Nestor, Charlotte Brontë lived through a feminist movement, ‘women became politicised […] through movements ranging from Chartism […] to reform of marriage laws and expanded opportunities for women’s education and employment’ (p.8). Feminists, such as Showalter, Gilbert and Gubar view Jane Eyre as a pilgrimage to the discovery of her identity and wholeness and her ‘courage to go forth’ is the quality we most associate with female heroism’ (Nestor, pp.43″,74″,75). Jane Eyre is a highly complex dimensional novel where other themes feature strongly such as social issues, religion, education, and racism which add weight to this Bildungsroman. As Gail Cunningham suggests, ‘the old stereotypes of the female character, with the strict moral divisions into which Charlotte Brontë had defined as ‘angel’ or ‘fiend’ were gone forever and were gradually being replaced by the ‘New Woman’ of the 1890’s (Cunningham, 1978, p.156). The Victorian novel paved the way for heroines to refuse to confirm to the demands of the patriarchal society and restricting confines of the beatific figure of the ‘Angel in the House’.

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