Although the term “feminist” has only recently come in to use, universally, Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, has been acknowledged as a ‘feminist novel’ since published. The character of Jane Eyre is looked up to by many, due to her strong nature and ability to bounce back from the mental and physical abuse afflicted by her aunt and teacher from a young age. Despite the hardships she faces, Jane Eyre seems to come back stronger than ever, even risking her life to save Rochester from an almost fatal fire. Her refusal to initially marry Rochester, after the discovery of his mentally unstable wife, Bertha, shows her asserting her independence as well as keeping her self-respect intact. But does this make her a feminist? Nowadays, feminism is defined as ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes’ and although Jane may rebel against social norms and the stereotype of women, she plays no part in publicly addressing her concerns. At some parts of the novel, she arguably seems inferior to Rochester, particularly at the end, when she is helping him recover.
Jane Eyre differs from typical fictional characters at the time, in that her “preoccupations are not limited to frocks, marriage and sewing, as would have been expected by Victorian readers, but also morality, faith and injustice” (Rahim, 2018). Her character contains a depth that is lacked by other female fictional characters at the time, as this was only a characteristic linked to men. The ability to think further than materialistic things was only accredited to men, at the time, therefore the fact that it was held by Eyre, may be linked to her role as a feminist. Throughout the novel, Jane struggles to achieve what is wanted of her as a women, due to her desire for more: she wants ‘to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils’, she wants to experience danger first hand, and protect herself, instead of being protected by men who treat her like a fragile china doll. This would then explain the danger she puts herself in by saving Rochester from the fire, where there is a role reversal, when instead of the man saving the woman, it’s the woman saving the man. This role reversal could suggest Jane’s unconscious attempt to make herself and Rochester equals instead of her being the inferior one, fulfilling the minimum expectations of feminism.
Despite the fact that the “ability to make conscious lifestyle choices for herself is inarguably feminist… she fails to fully liberate herself from an oppressive, marriage-obsessed culture” (The Adroit Journal, 2019). After the heavy revelation that Rochester is in fact already married and the wedding is called off, Jane isolates herself “and was a cold, solitary girl again”, suggesting that she could only be happy with a man at her side. The fact that Jane can’t be happy independently goes against many ideas that feminism promotes, and possibly undermines the freedom she has worked for. At the end of the novel, Jane receives her ‘happily ever after’ when she marries Rochester, nurses him in his weakened state and has a child with him. But the fact that Jane only derives happiness and feels of use when Rochester loses his eyesight and hand, sits uncomfortably with me, because she can only be his equal when he is weak.
As well as that, it can be argued that Jane’s role as a feminist is centred on her opposition with Bertha. Throughout the novel, Jane’s feminist acts are mainly her rebelling against Rochester’s first wife, Bertha. It is not society she is rebelling against, therefore Jane wouldn’t fit the image of a contemporary feminist “advocating women’s rights”. Bertha’s sole purpose in the novel is to give Jane something to rebel against, making Jane the heroine of the novel. Ultimately, without Bertha constantly giving her hurdles to overcome, Jane would just take the role of the typical Victorian submissive wife, as she does at the end of the novel when nursing Rochester back to good health. Jane is only able to have a sense of agency and freedom earlier in the novel because Bertha has none. In a sense the character of Bertha, if developed more by Bronte, could’ve been more powerful than Jane, mainly because of the fact that Bertha faces numerous more hardships than Jane, with her creole heritage and non-Christian background. All of this, alongside her insanity, makes it harder for her to be autonomous and assert her independence, which she is only able to do when taking her whole life. Arguably, Jane’s pursuit for independence is easier because she is of a more privileged background than bertha, as a white Christian woman in the Victorian era. Jane is only seen as this feminist hero because Bronte chooses to develop her “saviour complex… than bertha’s redemption arch” (the Odyssey, 2017), Bronte could’ve made bertha the heroine of the novel but instead uses bertha to pave way for Jane to become the novel’s heroine. Jane can only be considered a feminist earlier in the novel because of bertha’s powerlessness. In hindsight, Jane is too flawed to be perceived as a feminist in this day and age, mainly because she is constantly defining her purpose in terms of an Other. Throughout Jane’s feminist streak this ‘Other’ happens to be bertha, but after bertha’s death jane is forced by society to give up all of her freedom, and take over the role of the submissive wife left by bertha, thus lacking the characteristics of a contemporary feminist.
In conclusion to this, “Jane Eyre, although once considered a major feminist by many, is too flawed to be a true feminist in this day and age”. At the face of the novel, it would be easy to call Jane a feminist. This is due to the fact that she goes against the stereotype of woman at the time and has a depth that most women at the time seem to lack. She is able to protect herself and those around her, even though this is generally the role of the man. However, if you begin to look at the novel in depth, the flaws in Jane’s role as a feminist start to show. She is only ever really able to find happiness once in the company of a man, and she is only ever truly equal to a man when he is in a weakened state. As well as that, her supposed feminism earlier in the novel is only possible because she is given something to rebel against. This is seen when she is no longer given a reason to rebel, therefore submitting like a typically passive Victorian woman. She is never really independent, as everything she does is centred on someone else, normally either Bertha or Rochester. Due to this Bronte’s character, Jane Eyre is too flawed to be a true feminist in this day and age.