Feminism in Jane Eyre

As I was reading, the lack of a strong and constant male figure, until of course Rochester comes in, piqued my interested and it made me wonder, is this novel giving the woman the starring role in the Victorian era? Men seemingly governed the world back in the setting of this novel but it seems that as more and more of the narrative unfolds, that is turning out not to be the case. For example, when John Reed comes in and abuses Jane, nothing can be said, because one, he a man, and two, he’s the head of the house now that his father has passed. And we can see that when Mr. Brockhurst comes into the Lowood School and the entire school stops and obeys what he says. It would seem that his word is law. Miss Temple, however, goes to defy his word, because she finds it to be wrong. When Jane drops the book and the attention is drawn to her, causing her to be brought up to the center of the room, Miss Temple immediately diminishes the punishment that Mr. Brockhurst was demanding. She also helps to rid Jane of the accusations put on by Mr. Brockhurst, again, defying his side and using her own wit and judgment to assess if Jane was guilty of poor character and being a deceitful child. In a world that is ruled by men, the women are truly going against the grain and it seems to have no fault yet.

 

When Jane gets to Thornfield Hall there is a lack of a male head figure, again. And while Mr. Rochester is the head of the home, he isn’t present for a long while and Jane mistakes Mrs. Fairfax as the head of the house. This thought was interesting, because Jane truly believed that she was the head, and that a woman could have the power and right to run a house without a man there. There is a sense of equality between men and woman that, I feel, that Jane believes that there should be, but there isn’t. One quote that I was very much intrigued by was:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as me feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. 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 (93).

In doing my research for this topic, there was an article that I found interesting, which was really just more of a quote, on victorianweb. The writer, George P. Landow, quotes another writer, R. B. Martin, in whether he thinks that Jane Eyre is a feminist text or not.

The novel is frequently cited as the earliest major feminist novel, although there is not a hint in the book of any desire for political, legal, educational, or even intellectual equality between the sexes. Miss Bronte asks only for the simple — or is it the most complex? — recognition that the same heart and the same spirit animate both men and women, and that love is the pairing of equals in these spheres. . . . The famous plea that women ought not to be confined ‘to making pudding and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags’ [Chap. 12] is not propaganda for equal employment but for a recognition of woman’s emotional nature. The condemnation of women to a place apart results in the creation of empty, capricious women like Blanche Ingram, who tyrannize over men whenever possible, indulge in dreams of Corsair lovers, and can communicate only in the Byronic language of outdated romantic fiction. Only equals like Jane and Rochester dare to speak truth couched in language of unadorned directness.

Now, I know that feminism is a concept that was formed after the publication of this novel, but do the same principles apply that we can call this a feminist text? Or is this narrative still run by the hierarchy of gender roles that was present in the Victorian age?

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5 thoughts on “Feminism in Jane Eyre

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  2. alixg

    Responding to Professor Tougaw’s comment upon your post, I think the novel is a more broad call for equality/ engages in the conversation of feminism. You mention how there aren’t any strong male figures; interestingly, the males that we do indeed see are questioned by Jane. For example, both when she gets to Lowood and to Thornfield she questions the nature of both Mr. Brocklehurst and Mr. Rochester. She doesn’t perform any act outright of defiance towards the males in charge, but rather she opens up the topic for conversation, much like I think Bronte is doing.
    Also, you quote, “Only equals like Jane and Rochester dare to speak truth couched in language of unadorned directness” and that goes back to what Zunshine was saying about characters who are going to fall in love having the ability to occupy mental states that others cannot. A perfect example of this is on page 104 when Jane is talking to Mr. Rochester for the first time. Mrs. Fairfax can’t follow along, only understanding what they’re talking about at points where Jane makes a point of outright noting that here Mrs. Fairfax grasped what they were saying. Jane and Mr. Rochester, individuals who will indeed fall in love, are exhibiting Zunshine’s claim.

    Alix Greenberger

  3. Angela

    I feel that that novel is a successful attempt to inform the reader of the social roles of women during the Victorian Era coupled with educating the potential for change. Bronte shows that although women are dependent on men for financial and social needs, a woman such as Jane can symbolize a shift in this concept. On the subject of marriage, Bronte demonstrates that although Blanche appears to be interested in marrying Mr. Rochester for the values taught to girls during that time, Jane represents the image of a woman who is strong, independent and may marry a man based on true love. In my opinion, this novel continues the debate on gender roles and equality for women. Angela

  4. Jason Tougaw

    Do you think the quotation you cite from the novel supports or contradicts Martin’s claim that the novel is a “plea” for “recognition of woman’s emotional nature” rather than a more broad ranging call for equality?

    People tend to think of feminism as a twentieth-century phenomenon, but Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication for the Rights of Woman in 1792, and questions about gender equality and inequality were debated throughout the century. Do you think Brontë’s novel is a contribution to these debates?

  5. davidginsberg

    I feel that this post and the previous post, Corrupt Institution, cover similar areas and speak of a rebellion of sorts from Charlotte Bronte.

    Although the men in the book (Mr. Rochester, Mr. Brocklehurst) have the most power, they are not portrayed all that well. I think that this subversion is Bronte’s way of endorsing feminism. Mr. Brocklehurst is a heartless, cheap, uncaring tyrant. Mr. Rochester isn’t nearly as bad but is clearly hiding something. I feel he’s depicted as someone unable to be fully trusted. John Reed tortured Jane as a youth and later goes on to become a low-life.

    The wisest, most sympathetic characters in the book, meanwhile, are women. Jane Eyre, Miss Temple, Helen Burns, and Bessie are much easier to feel for and side with. I’m sure the people over at VictorianWeb know much more than I do on the subject but I disagree with them on the point of feminism. I think that this was Charlotte Bronte’s way of placing women on an equal playing field with men.

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