Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: The Maturation Of A Girl Into A Woman

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Middle class women were brought up to “be pure and innocent, tender and sexually undemanding, submissive and obedient” to fit the glorified “angel in the House” (Thackeray’s The Angel in the House). Women were not expected to express opinions of their own outside a very limited range of subjects, and certainly not be on a quest for own identity and aim to become independent such as the protagonist in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. To some critics it was inappropriate for a female writer to write such a passionate novel and to have some knowledge of sexuality. Charlotte Brontë wrote in the preface of the second edition “Conventionality is not morality” to defend her novel against the critics. The character Jane Eyre can be seen as an unconventional female of the time, she is passionate and with a strong urge to fight injustice. Passion and a hot temper in a woman were not appropriate at the time and had to be repressed. The novel can be seen as a journey of Jane finding her true self. Jane fights convention by resisting the male dominance, on her quest for identity and independence she remains true to herself by putting herself first and caring for her own wellbeing, even though she is longing for love and kinship.

The feminist literary criticism sprung from the “women’s movement‟ of the 60s and has evolved into different versions. There are some ideas that are common among the different versions such as that the oppression of women is a fact of life. From the start, the movement looked at how women were portrayed in literature. The “women’s movement‟ has always been crucially concerned with books and literature, so feminist criticism should not be seen as an off-shoot or spin-off from feminist criticism which is remote from the ultimate aims of the movement, but as one of the most practical ways of influencing everyday conduct and attitudes. (Barry 116-17). The images of women in literature model the way we see women and it is important to recognize and to question these images since they provide role models and indicate what are “acceptable versions of the feminine” (Barry 117).

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Jane is hassled and beleaguered by her cousin John Reed, when she resists his abuse she is punished. Jane is constantly harried by her older cousin, he considers the house and all in it belongs to him because he is the male in the house. John Reed controls his mother who favours him. Charlotte Brontë’s brother Bramwell was given special attention and he was the pride and hope of the Brontë family. The author’s envy of her brother Bramwell’s male dominance could be projected in the resistance Jane displays against John Reed. Until Jane is knocked down by a book thrown at her by John Reed she has tried to hide and endure his abuse but the anger and fear causes her to finally stand up to him verbally calling him “a murderer”, “a slave-driver” and comparing him to “the Roman emperors”. When he then attacks her physically and she tries to defend herself she is blamed for the whole incident. She is accused of “flying at Master John” displaying “such a picture of passion” and “she’s like a mad cat”. Jane’s act of defending herself from further physical injury is considered unacceptable conduct for a girl who should know her place in the social order and repress passionate feelings such as anger. “Unjust, unjust” are Jane’s words regarding the sentence of imprisonment in the Red Room without a fair hearing and without having the opportunity to defend herself. How she is punished while he walks free can be seen as a display of the unequal treatment and status of men and women as well as the unequal society at the time.

In the Red Room Jane changes overnight from a child to a more mature person. The incarceration in the Red Room can be construed as a “passage into the cataleptic”. When Jane looks into the mirror she sees herself looking like “a real spirit” which makes her think of one of the characters, “tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp”, in Bessie’s ghost stories. Jane realizes that she is considered different and identified as the “the other” by the household at Gateshead Hall, similar to the lonely characters of the moor in Bessie’s stories. “All John Reed’s violent tyrannies, all his sisters‟ proud indifference, all his mother’s aversion, all the servants‟ partiality, turned up in my disturbed mind like a deposit in a turbid well”. Jane realizes that it does not matter how hard she tries to do right and fulfil her duties, she will not be accepted by the Reed household. She is “termed naughty and tiresome, sullen and sneaking, from morning to noon and from noon to midnight”. Jane is trapped and imprisoned and cannot escape the confinements of the members and servants of the Reed household’s view of her or of the room. Her confinement can symbolize the way the women of the Victorian time were trapped in the home and mtheir behaviour was restricted by the society. Jane, like most women of her time, has no place to run; other options to escape are to die of starvation or through madness. She has only herself to trust; a frightening conclusion for a ten-year-old girl, which causes her to mature overnight. Jane has faced her fears of superstition and of being completely alone and trapped. Moreover, she faces her anger and rage, the inner demons of her unconscious. After the night in the Red Room Jane grows stronger and is less afraid to defend herself and to speak for herself. The madness Jane experienced in the Red Room as a child re-emerges at Thornfield through Bertha Mason; the estranged mad wife, locked in the attic by Rochester can be regarded as the demon-woman.

Bertha is argued to be Jane’s alter-ego, the unconscious, the repressed mad, raving angry part of Jane which she has learned to repress during her years at Lowood by Miss Temple. Bertha is the obstacle to Jane’s happiness because she does not only represent Jane’s repressed rage; Bertha is also the impediment to Jane and Rochester being able to marry. To free Jane, the demon-woman must die, which happens after Jane has left Thornfield and found her good relatives and sense of stability and belonging and identity she has long wished and searched for. Mr. Brocklehurst is the second male character Jane stands up to. Mr. Brocklehurst appears to Jane as “a black pillar […] a sable clad shape standing erect on the rug: the grim face at the top was like a carved mask, placed above the shaft by way of capital”. He rules over Lowood Institution; a school for girls funded by donations. Mr. Brocklehurst uses his power to oppress the girls and teachers at the school, to teach them to know their place in society and repress their individuality and identity. He uses religion as a tool to oppress; threatening that the naughty girls will “burn in hell”. When Jane, who is considered a naughty girl according to Mrs. Reed, is asked how to avoid ending up in hell she answers him: “I must keep in good health and not die”. This quote suggests that Jane has a strong sense of self. She is not willing to completely change herself to fit into the way of the patriarchal society and realizes that her best option to avoid hell is to stay alive. While many of the other girls at Lowood Institution become sick and die, Jane remains strong and lives.

Jane’s character is somewhat juxtaposed by that of Helen Burns, a character who later becomes a close friend of Jane’s, even though the two possess extremely parallel identities. She is portrayed as a quite pitiable character, she never stands up for herself and she sees it her duty to endure the injustices in life, finding solace in her faith. Jane likes Helen but she does not understand how she endures the punishment she receives from some of teachers without defending herself, thus struggles to empathise with her. “And if I were in your place I should dislike her; I should resist her. If she struck me with that rod, I should get it from her hand; I should break it under her nose”. Jane is rebellious and her rage wants out when she sees injustice such as when Helen is struck for not washing her hands because the water was frozen. Helen teaches Jane to come to terms with the past and to not dwell on injustices of the past, to be happier in the present. In a sense Helen is like a mother figure for Jane because she comforts her, counsels her, feeds her and embraces her. Nevertheless, Helen is not a possible role model for Jane due to her way of self-surrendering and her longing for death and heaven. Helen is portrayed as an-angel-in-house; one extreme image of female identity. “A woman writer must examine, assimilate and transcend the extreme images of “angel” and “monster” which male authors have generated for them” and the author must kill both since they kill the female creativity. Helen’s death could symbolise the death of the “angel” to free Jane from surrendering to the identity of the angel-in-the-house and the male dream of the ideal woman. Further, it could symbolise the unconscious of the author’s wish to free herself from the ideal of the angel-in-the-house.

Jane stays true to herself during her quest for identity and independence. The frightening night in the Red Room causes her grow up overnight and having experienced true fear she is no longer afraid to stand up for herself against the patriarchal society. Miss Temple teaches her to repress her rage. Through the death of Helen and Bertha, Jane is freed from the male ideal of female identity; the angel-in-the- house and the demon. Jane’s quest for identity and independence comes together at Marsh End. She finds her good relatives at Marsh and overcomes the injustices by the bad relatives at Gateshead. Jane finds a stable ground and overcomes the rage repressed in her unconscious. In order to free herself in the patriarchal society Jane meets and overcomes: oppression by the Reed family and Mr. Brocklehurst, starvation at Lowood and during her wandering before reaching Marsh End, madness in the Red Room and at Thornfield and coldness by being lonely and by the way St. John treated her. Even though she longs for love she does not let Rochester or St. John exploit her and in the end she finds the equal relationship she longed for.

Bibliography

  1. BRONTE ̈, C. (1999). Jane Eyre. Peterborough, Ont, Broadview Press.
  2. BARRY, P. (2009). Beginning theory: an introduction to literary and cultural theory. Manchester, UK, Manchester University Press.
  3. FRIEDAN, B. (2001). The feminine mystique. New York, Norton.
  4. PATMORE, C. (1887). The angel in the house. London, Cassell and Co.
  5. http://rate.org.ro/blog2.php/1/a-feminist-approach-to-jane Feminist Approach to Jane Eyre Accessed 12/12/16
  6. http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/novel_19c/thackeray/angel.html William Makepeace
  7. Thackeray: The Angel in the House Accessed 25/04/17
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Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: The Maturation Of A Girl Into A Woman. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/charlotte-brontes-jane-eyre-the-maturation-of-a-girl-into-a-woman/
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