The Victorian period was known for its strictly defined values and highly regulated culture. Charlotte Bronte’s biographically-styled narrative uses the novel form and characterisation of Jane Eyre to critique these intense values. This process compelled individuals to reassess their perspectives of the Victorian era and adjust their views on society. Bronte is challenging these realities from Jane Eyre’s earliest days which are fraught with tragedy. Charlotte Bronte explores Victorian behaviours and values throughout the novel and uses the protagonist to explore them. Jane Eyre faces moral battles regarding the way she should act; Charlotte Bronte utilises this and explores the contrasting behaviours of femineity Vs. rebellion, to portray the passion of inhibiting self-control. She then adds a comparison between passion Vs. self-control, to demonstrate effective ways to approach disadvantages. Finally, Bronte considers the stereotypes attached to the views that those of the upper class had on ‘lower class’ citizens.
Charlotte Bronte was diagnosed with the spirit of rebellion, but still demonstrated traits of femininity and explores her views on this matter via the characterisation of Jane Eyre. Many critics believed that Jane was only classified as a “feminist” character because she had something to rebel against. Gilbert and Gubar states that “…women in Jane’s world, acting as agents for men, maybe the keepers of other women. But both keepers and prisoners are bound by the same chains.’ It is not society on a whole that Jane is rebelling against, it is Rochester’s other love interest. Jane’s “rebellious feminism” cannot exist without Bertha’s submission. Within the novel, there are two overarching tensions portrayed, which is best expressed through the character foils of Jane and Bertha. On one side we have nature and madness, represented by Bertha, and on the other, we have nurture and reason, represented by Jane. Although these characters somewhat parallel; having some similarities, their ways of rebelling contrast. Janes third evolution at Thornfield it becomes evident with how much she has changed and the level of respect she has for everyone. She utilises her words, using them to stand up for herself as seen in her statement of “Mr Rochester I will not be yours”. This rebellion of leaving an important figure in her life, who loves her, and describes her as “…my good angel…” and being brave enough to leave their “holy connection”, shows a challenge to the traditional marriage in the Victorian epoch, this is further accentuated with Janes dialogue and the reversal of the marriage vows “Jane do you mean to go to one way in the world, and to let me go the other?” “I do.” Her short abrupt response clearly allows for no misinterpretation and shows her subtle rebellion.
At its core, Jane Eyre is built around Romantic concepts in the Victorian era and relies on binaries. Throughout the novel passion and self-control has been explored, Charlotte Bronte achieves this through the comparison of jane and bertha. Jane is chaste, self-denying; she represses her emotions and denies her sexual desires. In this way, Jane is the representation of reason. Yet, it is only because she has been forced into this mould through her abuse at Gateshead, which occurred as punishment for her passionate outbreaks “wicked and cruel boy!” “I resisted all the way” and her education at Lowood that she is able to embody the Victorian ideal of a “proper” woman. Contradicting to Jane, Bertha acts on her passions and on her degenerative sexual desires. In this way, Bertha is the representation of madness. Jane experienced this first hand when she met bertha face to face: “What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal.” Jane, however “stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell, looking collectedly at the gambols of a demon.’ Charlotte Bronte uses this strong juxtaposition to critique the Victorian values of the movement from silence to speech. She portrays aspects of herself within these two women: Jane being calm and collected showing growth and self-reflection whilst bertha seems to become an alter ego. Bertha was rejected by a man who was supposed to love her; which parallels to Charlotte Bronte’s life who fell in love with an unattainable man.
Throughout Jane Eyre, the protagonist Jane occupies an ambiguous class position. She travels the entire spectrum of class status from homeless vagabond to upper-class married woman. He status does not progressively incline or decline, but rather oscillates between the two ends of the social scale. Jane’s flexible class status allows her to evaluate other characters on their actions and personalities rather than on their economic status and physical appearance. She forms deep relationships with members of the other classes and holds animosity towards individuals that others might respect based on their achievements in life but who did not act appropriately to Jane. When jane has accepted her new job position of being a mistress at a school, she shows acceptance of those in a different class “Some of them are unmannered, rough, intractable, as well as ignorant; but others have a wish to learn and evince a disposition that pleases me.” This demonstrates how she views all the children as one social class and instead evaluates them on behaviors. This mindset is developed through her life journey of her mistreatment in her early childhood from John and her cousins from the higher end of the social blade and being exposed to the kindness of humans who she later discovered was her family gave her perspective on the generosity of people. This is further accentuated between Janes relationship with Mr Rochester ‘I don’t think, sir, you have a right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have—your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.’ Jane through the use of dialogue establishes that the qualities that makes him worth more to her is he has more experience and time in the world. The fact he is of higher class to her has no impact on whether he is allowed to instruct her.
Charlotte Bronte effectively critics the behaviour and values of the 18th century. The release of Jane Eyre shaped and revaluated the mindset of citizens and allowed more freedom regarding the expression of emotions, ways of self-control and breaking the intense class system. This is important as at the time this novel who was composed by a female author challenged these stereotypes through Jane Eyre and her relationship with all the characters. The novel acted as a catalyst to propel behaviour and values into the modern epoch.