In the twenty-first century, most people consider marriage a union of two people who love each other; that is, it has become less common to marry for the partner’s wealth, because we have the freedom to marry whomever we want, rich or poor. However, in Victorian era England, “marriages of convenience—of finance rather than romance—were common” (Washington) and it was the custom only men and women in the same social class would marry. A women’s only way to secure herself financially was to marry a man of an equal or higher social and economic status, or be subjected to a life as a governess, a teacher of ambiguous social status. In Victorian era marriages, women were expected to perform domestic duties, such as sewing or childcare, to be submissive, and to obey their husbands. Through the character of Jane Eyre, Brontë is able to offer an alternative type of marriage so uncommon at the time: a marriage of two self-proclaimed intellectual equals who love each other. In this way we can also see clear character parallels between Jane and Charlotte. Both characters believed women should possess self-respect and only accept marriage proposals from men they deemed their equals. In order for Brontë to demonstrate her belief that an equal and romantic marriage is possible in Victorian Society, Jane had to leave Rochester after their failed wedding attempt so both persons could further find themselves, and in turn become more equal to each other, on both economic and emotional terms.
One of Charlotte Brontë’s strongest belief was that women, just the same as men, “could not live without self-respect.”(Lowes) Brontë even turned down several marriage proposals, which were opportunities to be relieved of having to be a governess to earn a living (something Brontë disliked immensely), simply because she did not respect the men or find them her equal (History staff). Jane Eyre clearly exhibits these same independent and self-respecting ideals as seen in the famous quote during the post-failed-wedding-attempt scene, “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” (Brontë, 365) Any reader familiar with Brontë’s character would know the wedding attempt between Jane and Rochester was doomed to fail, because even though Jane and Rochester may be equals of intellect in social isolation, there is still too much inequality between them. Throughout their engagement, Brontë drops some not-so-subtle hints that Jane and Rochester aren’t exactly in sync. For example, the use of the garden where Rochester proposes to symbolize the Garden of Eden uses a biblical story, well known by readers in the Victorian Era, to foreshadow the challenge Jane must face: whether or not to leave Rochester.
Brontë begins the proposal scene with imagery of the garden, even going so far as to blatantly call it “Eden-like.”(286) In social isolation, as Adam and Eve would have been, Jane and Rochester are able to “behave as equals”(Magnuson, 3) However, once Jane accepts Rochester’s proposal, it’s as if she has taken a bite out of the apple from the tree of knowledge. In the biblical story, once Eve takes a bite of the apple, “God decrees Adam shall rule over her”(Magnuson), and so Adam and Eve are no longer equals. The same can be said for Jane and Rochester. Rochester tries to shower Jane with jewels and new dresses, and Jane declares, “the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation.”(281) It becomes impossible for Jane to hold onto her independence in the face of Rochester's wealth.
Unlike the typical Victorian romance novel, Rochester is not the gentleman “hero” readers would expect him to be; in other words, the ideal Victorian gentleman would be endowed with “honor, loyalty, intelligence, moral uprightness.”(Hesse) Besides intelligence, these are qualities Rochester has in limited supply. As his foil, Jane possesses personal and religious morals which enhance her ability to persevere and to be resilient. Although they may be intellectual equals, Jane is far more mature in her moral standards than Rochester is, which is one of the reasons why Jane made the decision to leave him after she found out Rochester already has a wife. Upon learning Rochester had deceived her, Jane’s first instinct is “from his presence I must go: that I perceived well.”(Brontë 341) Many times Jane says to herself she cannot leave Thornfield, but just as many times she resolves that she “could do it, and foretold that I [Jane] should do it.”(343) As for Rochester, he feels deep remorse for his actions, but assumes Jane would accompany him to “Ferndean Manor”(349) without pausing to ask Jane how she feels about this proposed arrangement. Rochester goes on with his selfish demands for Jane to consider how he will be lonely and depressed, to which Jane responds, “‘I no more assign this fate to you than I grasp at it for myself.’”(364) This last conversation shared between Rochester and Jane before Jane departs from Thornfield demonstrates how Jane has the willpower to resist the temptation to live as Rochester’s mistress, while Rochester cannot sympathize or attempt to understand Jane’s feelings or point of view.
When Brontë sent Jane and Rochester on their separate ways, it was meant to be a strategic move to show how both characters must be “reborn” into people who are equal on every level. Jane learns she has a family, works as a school teacher, and gains financial independence with the help of her uncle’s inheritance. For the first time, Jane can say she is fully independent from all superiors. Rochester, on the other hand, goes through a physical ordeal, leaving him blind, missing a hand, and without Thornfield, bringing him down to Jane’s equal on the social ladder. Now it is Jane who is the “hero”, for when she returns to Rochester, she takes care of him when he can no longer take care of himself. Brontë succeeds in demonstrating her belief to the reader that relationships only work if both parties are equal to each other and love each other.
The belief men and women could be equal in Victorian society was quite a progressive opinion, although the way Brontë believed men and women could be equal was not entirely feminist. Even though Jane gained financial independence from her uncle’s inheritance, once married to Rochester, all of Jane’s money will legally become Rochester’s property. Brontë provides the reader with an uplifting and fulfilling conclusion to Jane Eyre, but it’s not necessarily a realistic one, as Jane never mentions how marrying Rochester essentially voids her of her economic independence. Jane returning to Rochester to assume the role of wife also plays into the pre-existing notion that a woman's place in life is to be a wife and mother. However, Jane is quite lucky to live as Rochester’s wife, as he sees her as his equal (allowing Jane to maintain a degree of independence), rather than live in a loveless marriage with no independence, a practice so common at the time. Without analyzing the legal specifics, Jane Eyre provides readers with a heroine role model, one who respects herself and values her morals and independence while being part of a loving and passionate relationship with a man whom she deems her equal and vise versa.