An Equal Partnership: Jane’s Journey to Equality and Rejection of Socially Acceptable Marriage
Throughout Victorian England, women were viewed as mere objects of beauty. Expected to marry in submissive relationships and spend their lives solely focused on domestic matters, many women perished under these conditions. In fact, Bronte’s own confinement under her strict father, and eventually her loveless marriage led her to to an early death at the young age of 39.(Cody, “Charlotte Bronte: A Brief Biography”) Bronte’s suffering indicates her belief that women deserve and more importantly, need to marry in equal partnerships for their own well being. Charlotte Bronte exposes the confined role women played in nineteenth century England, and its devastating effects on women through the bildungsroman Jane Eyre. Through the oppression of the protagonist Jane Eyre, Bronte reveals the submissive relationships women had to enter. Although Jane is repeatedly confined by the Victorian ideals of a perfect woman, she strives for acceptance as an able partner, and eventually emerges as a strong, independent, and financially secure women. Throughout her journey from Lowood to finally equality, Jane is repeatedly oppressed, confined, and expected to succumb to male dominance. Rochester’s lavish treatment of Jane further demonstrates the misogynistic society of Victorian England. In addition, Bertha Mason and Blanche Ingram provide insight to the mental and physical repercussions of feminine confinement; respectively, insanity and shallowness. In the end, Jane’s ability to rise above social norms, and marry as an equal partner indicate Bronte’s belief that all women possess the capability to reject the socially accepted constraints placed upon them, and achieve equality.
Victorian England was a time of relative peace, growth,and prosperity for England. Similarly, it was also a period of change for women, as the role of women in society was questioned by both women and men. A key factor that encouraged this “new role” for women was industrialization. (Purvis, Women's History: Britain, 1850-1945: An Introduction) This opened up new job opportunities for lower class women, yet also resulted in better education for upper class women. In turn, they too were provided with new opportunities outside the traditional home. Naturally, with this growth in education and new ideas circulating in Britain, women began to demand more political, social, and economic rights. Another factor that played a significant role in the “question” of women's role in society was Queen Victoria herself, a strong monarch yet clearly a devoted, hands on mother.(painting, The Illustrated London News. 28 August 1852) She combined two terms that seemed opposite at the time: work and motherhood. With new thoughts so prominent in England, society began to reevaluate women’s place in society. Consequently, new feminist works emerged, challenging the “meek, submissive mother,” and encouraging a greater sense of freedom. Still, traditional thinkers encouraged the “inherent” role of women as simply domestic mothers. In conclusion, Bronte wrote at a time of various conceptions concerning women’s role in society. Her desire to expose the submissive lifestyles women were forced to enter into, emerged as one of the most highly regarded Victorian texts: Jane Eyre.
The first stage in Jane's struggle to overcome patriarchal domination occurs at Gateshead and Lowood. While Jane read quietly, her cousin John began to harass her. He cruely reminded Jane of her inferior status, and precarious situation at the Reed household. John then proceeded to throw a book at Jane, who simply responded by calling him a “murderer.” Yet, Jane was the one who was blamed for the fight, punished, and sent starving into a creepy, old room. Although Jane responded peacefully, and her cousin not only initiated, but physically fought, Jane was punished. This clear discrepancy between treatment of different genders suggests the reality that women had to pay for men’s mistakes. Moreover, women were held to different standards. Ultimately, John faced no punishment for his violence, whereas Jane was the one who perished.
After finally leaving the Reed household, Jane finds herself oppressed, bullied, and harassed at Lowood by a hypocritical, cruel, Mr. Brocklehurst who essentially steals from hundreds of poor girls to provide for his own lavish lifestyle. Not only does he harass the young girls, ostracize them repeatedly, and claim they are all sinners destined for Hell, but he steals from them. Early on, his family pays a visit to the school, dressed in lavish clothes, with their hair ornately curled.
..they were splendidly attired in velvet, silk, and furs. The two younger... had grey beaver hats... under the brim of this graceful head-dress fell a profusion of light tresses, elaborately curled; the elder lady...wore a false front of French curls. (Bronte, page 65)
At the same time, Mr.Brocklehurst lectures the girls on how they must not sin: their hair must not be curled, their dress must be kept simple, and their behavior completely modest. The hypocritical Brocklehurst not only further exemplifies the ridiculous, biased society of Victorian England, but acts as a dominant male force in Jane’s own life. His treatment is only the beginning of Jane’s journey to achieve equality.
During this very same instance, Jane accidently drops her slate and is punished. She is forced to stand, starving, on a stool for an entire day. Even more so ridiculous, Jane is labeled as an evil liar:” ..you must shun her..avoid her company...you must watch her: keep your eyes on her movements...scrutinise her actions, punish her body to save her soul... this girl..worse than many a little heathen who says its prayers to Brahma and kneels before Juggernaut--this girl is--a liar! (Bronte, pg 67) Although Jane has not done anything wrong, she is abused, and labeled a liar for simply dropping a slate and being slightly rebellious. As a result, Jane is in constant conflict with oppressors. Essentially, this oppression early on, only foreshadows the submissiveness Jane will be forced to endure. Annette Chang, a professor at Brown University, wrote about Jane’s confinement in her essay Christian Service and Female Servitude in Jane Eyre: “ Jane suffocates under the responsibilities of her servitude and perceives that society...obstructs her unlimited possibilities and path towards heroism.” (Christian Service and Female Servitude in Jane Eyre) Throughout her life, Jane will face social constraints that will limit and confine her endlessly.
Jane’s next stage in her quest for social equality takes her to Thornfield. Here, Rochester will reflect a stereotypical male perspective. He will value his own amusement over Jane’s emotions. After Jane returns from her visit to Gateshead, Rochester flirts with Jane, yet makes repeated references to his upcoming nuptials: ...If I dared, I'd touch you...you elf!..Absent from me a whole month, and forgetting me quite, I'll be sworn!...You must see the carriage, Jane, and tell me if you don't think it will suit Mrs. Rochester exactly... (Bronte, pg 262) For the next two weeks, Rochester makes no mention of Blanche, and no visits to Ingram Park. This ambiguity on Rochester's part, was not only inconsiderate to Jane, but it exposed how little he valued women. Moreover, Rochester's mixed signals indicated his complete disregard for marriage, although he knows that for Jane, and Blanche, marriage is all they have to promise a future. Without Rochester, Jane loses almost everything. She has no home but Thornfield, no family to run to, and no income besides her position as Adele’s governess. Although Rochester clearly understands this, he makes Jane live for weeks with the fear that she could be kicked out, as soon as he marries Blanche. Evidently, Rochester has little regard for Jane’s mental health, nor Blanche’s, and values his amusement in making Jane suffer, over either women. Professor Melani of Brooklyn College, supports this view:
...Rochester goes on to discuss his marriage to Blanche Ingram. Why does he encourage Jane's belief that he is marrying Blanche?...Is he causing her pain?..Is Rochester being cruel? Is he toying with her? Whose needs is he p lacing first, his or hers? ..Is he enjoying her pain?... Jane has no place to live except Thornfield..no income except what she earns as Adele's governess.(“Jane Eyre Chapter 22-26”)
Ultimately, Rochester has control over Jane’s future, a power he abuses. By not clearly stating his intentions, and rather, “toying” with Jane, Rochester makes it clear that he views himself as dominant over Jane. Although he claims to love her, his love is clouded by his view of women as inferior. A a result, Rochester clearly believes that women are not capable of the same emotional process as men.
Jane’s oppression at Thornfield further continues with Rochester's’ repeated misunderstanding of women as a whole, as he sexualizes and stereotypes Jane. As soon as she accepts his proposal. he begins to spoil her with lavish gifts:
...Mr.Rochester obliged me to go to a certain silk warehouse, I was ordered to choose half-a-dozen dresses... he fixed on a rich silk of the most brilliant amethyst dye, and a superb pink satin... and then a jewellers shop...”(Bronte, pg 288)
This lavish treatment not only indicates Rochester’s sexist understanding of marriage, but shows that Rochester has no real understanding of what Jane wants from the marriage. Although he has known her for quite some time, and clearly seen Jane’s disregard for luxurious purchases, Rochester ignores her wishes when he buys her these gifts. Clearly forgetting the Jane he knows, Rochester resorts to marriage as he knows it to be, an unequal partnership. By buying her gifts, Rochester forces Jane into a disproportionate relationship. Upon acceptance of the gifts, she will have to “pay” him back by being completely submissive. Furthermore, this lavish treatment also sexualizes Jane. Rochester seems to assume that because she is a female, she has to love silks and jewels. While he will provide her with luxury, she will be always ready to commit sexually to him. Kate Washington of the University of Michigan supports this idea in her essay:Rochester's Mistresses: Marriage, Sex, and Economic Exchange in Jane Eyre: "The conviction that financial independence is an important marker of women's personal and subjective autonomy is evident when Rochester takes Jane shopping. Jane is disturbed by both Rochester's selection of gaudy clothing and his proprietary attitude toward her…" (Rochester's Mistresses: Marriage, Sex, and Economic Exchange)
Ultimately, Jane and Rochester do no not get married, and only will once Jane is able to support herself financially, and marry Rochester in an equal partnership. Jane refuses to marry Rocester in a relationship that is based on an exchange of goods, an economic partnership, rather than one based on love. Essentially, Jane avoids succumbing to the Victorian stereotype of marriage by separating marriage from economics. Rochester's lavish treatment of Jane, and the failure of this treatment indicates Bronte’s belief that Victorian marriage was not a happy, secure marriage unless there was a fundamental differentiation of economics and love.
Unfortunately, Jane’s confinement continues during the next stage in her life: her time with the Rivers. Here, she will be expected to completely sacrifice her entire life for a man's wants. Less than a year after her arrival at the Moor House, Jane's cousin St.John, an aspiring missionary asks for her hand in marriage: "Jane, come with me to India: come as my helpmeet and fellow-labourer." Accepting his proposal requires that Jane move to India, learn Hindostanee, and spend the entirety of her life helping St.John reach his goals. Although Jane refuses, and makes it apparent that this is not what she desires,St.John implores that she must marry him: “A missionary's wife you must — shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you — not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign's service." (Bronte, pg 437) Although it may seem as if St.John’s desire for Jane to marry him is of a moral, religious nature, it actually stems from the same roots as Rochester’s beliefs. While Rochester views marriage as an economic and physical partnership, St.John’s understanding of marriage is that a women needs to follow a “given duty.” Yet, he fails to realize, or perhaps care, that in order to be with him, he requires she must sacrifice everything. His understanding of women as tools to men’s desires is precisely the same as Rochester's. Both men require that Jane give up her freedom to be with them. Whether it be submissiveness and economic dependence, or complete sacrifice in India, Jane is deprived of freedom and equality. Throughout her life, Jane has been confined and stripped of the rights she deserves.
Charlotte Bronte also offers insight into the effects of this feminine confinement on women through the insanity and shallowness of Bertha Mason and Blanche Ingram, respectively. Bertha Mason’s family plunged her into a marriage she should not have been in. This resulted in Bertha's issues progressing to the point of becoming essentially an animal. Although Blanche Ingram’s shallowness is different from Mason’s insanity, both women are prominent examples of the repressuions of the sexist Victorain society. Joan Z. Anderson, of Saint Patrick’s High School, supports this view: “Brontë's narrative ultimately functions as a warning against female rage which the author communicates through the racially inscribed character of Bertha Mason.”(Angry Angels:Repression, Containment, and Deviance in Bronte’s Jane Eyre) Essentially, Bronte’s novel serve as a warning that confining women, and forcing them into submissive relationships results in mentally unhealthy women.
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre took Victorian England by storm. Hailed as not only a brilliant work of literature, but more importantly, as a stand against the misogynist society Bronte lived under. Although it may initially seem like a quintessential feminist novel, Jane Eyre is actually a far cry from this label. Instead, the bildungsroman forces readers to evaluate the confinement women were forced to live with. Bronte exposes the submissive role women played, and offers two effects of this oppression on women-insanity and shallowness. Rather than challenging the idea that women should be domestic wives, as many feminists had done, Bronte instead suggested that they should marry in an equal relationship. Ultimately, it was this fundamental idea of a married women, yet a women in love, and in an equal partnership that shook England by its very foundations. Unlike some feminist works, Bronte did not necessarily deny the traditional role women played, instead she offered a realistic opportunity of equality. For this, Charlotte Bronte gave hope to thousands of young women that they should, and more importantly, could be treated equally.