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Social Class and Equality in Jane Eyre

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Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Brontë, is classified as a “bildungsroman,” meaning it is a novel that traces the development of the main character from a young child to adulthood. After being orphaned as an infant, Jane struggled to find acceptance from the family members that raised her. Her status as an orphaned, impoverished woman slates her at the bottom of the social ladder in Victorian England, which allows for her enrolment in Lowood school. During Jane’s time there, the school is under the direction of Mr. Brocklehurst, who is a large contributor to the negativity surrounding it. His direction is tyrannical, consistently treating his students poorly and without care for their basic needs, including proper meals, and a nurturing environment. Additionally, the descriptors of the school are almost exclusively negative. The physical aspects of Lowood are often described with negative connotations. The novel goes as far as to have the poor weather conditions upon Jane’s arrival foreshadows unpleasantness in her years to come at school. Lowood, while a crucial place to Jane’s development, represents harmful societal norms, and perpetuates, anti-feministic ideals, reflected through the treatment of students by the faculty and descriptions of the school itself.

Lowood is a school for the impoverished and orphaned girls of Victorian England, with its faculty expecting extreme conformity to the harsh rules set in place by its headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst. These rules prevent the ladies of Lowood from expressing their individuality through appearance and personality. Mr. Brocklehurst has unrealistic expectations of the students, as made evident by his discussion with Miss Temple about Julia Severn’s curled hair when he says,

Naturally! Yes, but we are not to conform to nature: I wish these girls to be the children of Grace: and why that abundance? I have again and again intimated that I desire the hair to be arranged closely, modestly, plainly. Miss Temple, that girl’s hair must be cut off entirely […] (95).

Julia Severn’s hair is naturally curly, but this is not a sufficient excuse for Mr. Brocklehurst. He wants the women to look and act one specific way. This expectation of complete and extreme conformity strips women of their individuality, and furthermore, any representation of individuality is shunned and reprimanded by Mr. Brocklehurst and some members of his staff. The use of Christianity to rationalize his harsh treatment is further exemplified when he says,

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I have a Master to serve whose kingdom is not of this world: my mission is to mortify in these girls the lusts of the flesh; to teach them to clothe themselves with shame-facedness and sobriety, not with braided hair and costly apparel; and each of the young persons before us has a string of hair twisted in plaits which vanity itself might have woven: these, I repeat, must be cut off; think of the time wasted, of—

Mr. Brocklehurst was here interrupted: three other visitors, ladies, now entered the room. They ought to have come a little sooner to have heard his lecture on dress, for they were splendidly attired in velvet, silk, and furs (96).

Mr. Brocklehurst’s idea that women should dress themselves with “shame-facedness and sobriety” reflects the notion that women are inferior and should be ashamed of their gender, and perpetuates anti-feministic ideals. As well, he uses Christian doctrine to justify his abuse, seeing himself as godly, and expects to be treated as such. To disobey Mr. Brocklehurst is seen as the equivalent of disobeying God. His hypocrisy is highlighted upon the arrival of his wife and daughters who are extravagantly dressed, which also shows a large bias towards the rich. Mr. Brocklehurst exemplifies misogyny, and treats the impoverished girls at his school as if they were dolls that he can control any way he chooses, further facilitating anti-feminist ideals.

Lowood is associated with negative emotions and environments, as made clear by descriptions of the events that take place at the school, as well as the school itself. Upon Jane’s arrival to Lowood, the weather is immediately reflective of negativity, as “rain, wind, and darkness filled the air” (Brontë 63). This weather foreshadows unpleasantness between Jane and a number of her superiors, as well as the general experience of her first day at Lowood. Her descriptions of Lowood school are almost exclusively negative, as exemplified on her first morning in the refectory, which is described as a “great, low-ceiled, gloomy room; [with] two basins of something hot… [sending] an odour far from inviting” (68). Most students were unable to eat due to the “nauseous mess” (69) and “in most cases the effort was soon relinquished” (69). In this case, Lowood failed to provide its students with a basic requirement for survival, calling its dignity as a residence into question. The lack of something so basic as an edible meal shows that students at Lowood are often perceived as less than equal to society due to their impoverished status and female gender, and that in and of itself contributes to the inequality of women in the novel. In addition, not only is the abuse dehumanizing, but it is implied that the students should be grateful for the social mobility that Lowood appears to provide them.

Throughout Jane’s time at Lowood school as a student, she is exposed to ridicule, abuse, and improper living conditions. All of these are by the hand of Mr. Brocklehurst, who uses Christian doctrine to rationalize his behaviour and expects to be treated with the utmost respect, while offering none to his students and faculty. He encourages the unfair treatment of the impoverished female students of Lowood, and in doing so, he facilitates inequality and harmful societal norms regarding social class. As well, the descriptors of Lowood and what it offers in terms of residency and classes are almost completely negative, with rooms being referred to as gloomy, or food being inedible. Almost all the teachers, with the exception of Miss Temple, expect the students to conform to Mr. Brocklehurst’s expectations of appearance and behaviour, further facilitating a harmful environment. Despite a large portion of Jane’s character development occurring at Lowood school, while under the direction of Mr. Brocklehurst, it proved to be an institution that supported inequality for women, specifically those who were impoverished. The reinforcement of harmful societal norms, poor living conditions, and the overall mistreatment of underprivileged women negatively represented Lowood as an educational institution.

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Social Class and Equality in Jane Eyre. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved August 14, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/social-class-and-equality-in-jane-eyre/
“Social Class and Equality in Jane Eyre.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/social-class-and-equality-in-jane-eyre/
Social Class and Equality in Jane Eyre. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/social-class-and-equality-in-jane-eyre/> [Accessed 14 Aug. 2022].
Social Class and Equality in Jane Eyre [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2022 Aug 14]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/social-class-and-equality-in-jane-eyre/
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