In the novel Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte gives her audience a detailed account of the significance of social class hierarchy and class consciousness during the nineteenth century in Victoria England as well as the impact they played specifically in the life of the main character Jane Eyre a lost soul, searching to find her true identity. Using the form of a Bildungsroman, Bronte allows the reader to witness the experiences and emotions of Jane from childhood to adulthood. This paper will examine the subjective judgment Jane had to endure at the hands of various class relations.
Born of a poor clergyman and outcast middle-class mother both of whom became infected with typhus fever and died, Jane became an orphan at a very early age. Taken in by her mother’s wealthy brother Mr. Reed at Gateshead Hall, life was fine until he became ill. At the beginning of the novel, we are made aware that Jane’s uncle has required a promise from his wealthy wife and children that Jane continue to live with them upon his death. Although the promise is kept, Jane is treated poorly both physically and mentally. Here we see the beginnings of a struggle between class relations. Mrs. Reed treats Jane as inferior to her children and herself because of Jane’s birthright and also because Mrs. Reed despises Jane. It is made very clear in the wealthy Reed household that there is a huge disparity between the class of the wealthy Reeds and the poor middle-class Jane. Son John Reed’s abuse to Jane is belittling and disrespectful. “You have no business to take our books: you are a dependent, mama says you have no money… all the house belongs to me or will do in a few years” (Brontë 76). John Reed’s insults also speaks to the sexual hierarchy during the Victorian Age. Men are supreme; women inferior. John will eventually take all. Mrs. Reed has also informed Jane that she is different from her own children in many ways and therefore will be treated differently. The punishment for this unknown behaviour to Jane is that she will be distanced from her cousins until she is deemed normal. “Society has standards for even its youngest members, and one must comply or be cast out” (Shapiro). Despite even maid Bessie’s warning to Jane concerning her position at Gateshead Hall, Jane has already sorted things out herself with respect to the social class hierarchy and her place somewhere in between. She reflects, “I had nothing to say to these words: they were not new to me: my very first recollections of existence included hints of the same kind” (Brontë 70).
Jane’s conversation with Mr. Lloyd (Mrs. Reed’s apothecary) regarding her unhappiness in staying at Gateshead Hall gives the reader a clear and precise view of how the poor were conceived in the Victorian Era by the middle and upper classes. Even as a child, Jane did not want to grow up in poverty. When Mr. Lloyd questioned Jane about the possibility of living with low poor relations, she reflected. “…poverty looks grim to grown people; still more so to children: they have not much ideas of industrious, working, respectable poverty… Poverty for me was synonymous with degradation” (Brontë 82).
Although not even sure what a school was for when suggested by Mr. Lloyd, Jane agreed to go. She would attend Lowood Institution, a charity-school for the poor and orphaned where girls like herself, were deprived and abused. With an education though, Jane believed it would serve as a stepping stone to move her up from poverty so she may find a means to search for her independence. School did in fact enable Jane to become a teacher.
While at Lowood, Jane was in no way going to stand for the abuse of the lower class. When her friend Helen Burns was whipped by the cruel teacher Mrs. Scatcherd, Jane felt obliged to speak her opinion. Jane believed that those who punish others unjustly, should be resisted “If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked would have it all their own way: they…When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard” (Brontë 119). Here the significance of class relations is exemplified. We see the cruelty of the upper class in the nineteenth century in allowing child abuse in charitable institutions because these children are poor and neglected by society. Mr. Brocklehurst the treasurer and manager of the school was himself guilty. It was not until the devastation of Lowood as a result of typhus fever and the number of children killed did the public take an interest in the horrifying conditions in the school. As a result, a new establishment was erected by the wealthy, with more pleasing conditions. Jane truly believed that the poor could be respected if they were given a chance.
After having the means of an excellent education according to Jane and teaching for two years, she began to yearn for a new servitude and soon found herself as a governess at Thornfield Hall. At Thornfield Hall, the author gives us some indication of the significance of class relations. Upon her arrival to Thornfield, Jane was surprised that she was greeted as a visitor. “I little expected such a reception; I anticipated only coldness and stiffness: this is not like what I have heard of the treatment of governesses…” (Brontë 163). The beginning of the nineteenth century was suffering economically, middle-class “ladies” were soon put to work. Humiliated by the chance that perhaps they would be considered equal to working -class girls, they became teachers or governesses. By the mid-nineteenth century not only did the wealthy continue to hire governesses but the wealthy middle -class joined in as well. Where then did the governesses fit in the social hierarchy? “Life was full of social and emotional tensions for the governesses since…perhaps she’d consider herself superior” (Hughes).
Thornfield Hall seemed to lack the dismal affect that Jane had encountered at Gateshead Hall. There was no bragging of wealth or sense of entitlement as was displayed by the Reed family at Gateshead. Jane felt equal, no longer impoverished. The people here seemed all decent. She spoke French with Sophie and actually enjoyed the company of Adele her student who was also a dependent like herself. The establishment was not boisterous as Gateshead Hall had once been. That important element of condescension to the wealthy, which Bronte despised, was not evident. Jane did not feel inferior nor superior in her class relation to most people of Thornfield Hall.
After being governess for a few months, Jane began to feel discontent. She began to think about women in England and their social status and role as a wife, being expected to stay at home and serve their husbands as well as bring up and educate their children. Bronte finds this unreasonable to ask of women. “Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women… necessary for sex” (Brontë 178). This is not what Jane chooses to have in her life. She wishes to continue to find where she belongs emotionally as well as in class relations. To live like this in any class relation would be intolerable for Jane so she thought.
Class relations became most significant to Jane as she became more in love with Mr. Rochester, a gentleman of the upper wealthy class. She thinks she begins to understand the reasoning why Mr. Rochester would perhaps want to marry Blanche Ingram, a woman of his status instead of herself.
Charlotte Bronte’s description of the Ingrams is a very good example of how the lower and middle classes of people viewed the upper wealthy class from the outside looking in, in all their perfection and wealth. “But the three most distinguished…were the Dowager Lady Ingram and her daughters, Blanche and Mary. They were all…with a truly imperial dignity” (Brontë 249). Jane rather speaks about how the wealthy are really perceived from the inside looking out. She does not view these women by their outward appearance but rather how they appeared to her on the inside- that being of poor mind, not truthful or tender. The wealthy appeared to have no redeeming qualities according to those not in their circle.
The barriers between the classes continued in the novel as Mrs. Ingram makes a rude comment about detestable and rude governesses spoken within Jane’s hearing range, and then continues to torment Jane. “Tant pis!” said her ladyship… and in hers I see all the faults of her class” (Brontë 255). Bronte’s character gives us a clear indication of the significance of class relations. The rich deplore the middle working class and as do they.
Although throughout the novel there is much mention of Jane’s desire not to live a life of poverty, she maintains that class relations are of no significance to her but rather it is her independence and self-respect that will be the deciding factors as to where she will belong. Charlotte Bronte explains this to her audience through the use of a fortune teller predicting Jane’s future.
Another issue that was of great significance and deeply frowned upon with respect to class relations was the uniting of two people whereby one party was below the others’ station. Bronte speaks to this at the beginning of the novel with reference to Jane’s parents and again it is brought to the audience’s attention when Mrs. Fairfax responds to Jane’s announcement that she is to wed Mr. Rochester. Mrs. Fairfax warns that status and wealth are advisable in a marriage and also that wealthy men seldom if ever marry their governesses.
Mr. Rochester a man of wealth and dignity confesses to the downfall of his own marriage to a woman that was not of the same status as he was. He further describes his feelings towards mistresses forgetting of course that Jane herself would become a mistress as long as his mad wife was alive. “Hiring a mistress is the next best thing to buying a slave: both are…and to live with inferiors is degrading” (Brontë 402-403). These words confirm for Jane Eyre the danger of being involved with someone out of one’s station. She infers that his description of mistresses includes herself. As a result of her status beneath Mr. Rochester, she believes he would soon begin to resent her. Bearing that in mind, Jane flees. “Jane Eyre repeatedly shifts positions within class discourse, not in order to move towards a final class identity but in response to economic…circumstances” (Bossche).
Finding a new home at Moor House, Jane finally feels she has found where she belongs. With sisters Diana and Mary both governesses and even missionary brother St. John who is difficult and challenging, Jane finds pleasures in being able to relate to these people on her level. They are of equal status and complement one another nicely. It is St. John who best describes who Jane has become after enduring various class relations through her life. It was always poverty she feared. Jane has managed to escape that life.
Jane is proud she has overcome poverty through determination and independence. Yet poverty once again haunts her when asked to teach the daughters of farmers at a poor school. Nevertheless, Jane obliged. She realized that it is important to bring respect and dignity to others in order that they too may have an opportunity to perhaps climb the hierarchy ladder of social status through education.
In the end of the novel, Jane’s receiving a large sum of money sealed her fate in becoming a wealthy independent woman. Her new wealth had freed her from her social status and allowed her to step up and become who she really wanted to be, an independent, educated woman in the social class system. She is confident now to marry Mr. Rochester.
By having allowed her character Jane Eyre to mingle with the lower, middle and upper classes throughout the novel while maintaining her honesty and integrity, Charlotte Bronte has demonstrated the subjective judgment her protagonist had to endure at the hands of social classes, but has also confirmed that people are not confined to social boundaries. Jane Eyre was not afraid to challenge the prejudices and subjective judgment of the Victorian Age against women and the poor.
- Brontë, Charlotte, 1816-1855. Jane Eyre. Peterborough, Ont. :Broadview Press, 1999. Print.
- Shapiro, Arnold. “In Defense of Jane Eyre.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 8, no. 4, 1968, pp. 681–698. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/449473.
- Hughes, Kathryn. “Discovering Literature: Romantic and Victorians.” The Figure of the Governess, 15 May 2014.
- Bossche, Chris R. Vanden. “What Did ‘Jane Eyre’ Do? Ideology, Agency, Class and the
- Novel.” Narrative, vol. 13, no. 1, 2005, pp. 46–66. JSTOR,