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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is widely considered one of the earliest novels rooted in feminist principles. The character of Jane is undeniably independent in the ways she strives for equality and navigates the male-dominated society of 19th century Britain. Nevertheless, her coming-of-age story is centered around an oppressive social structure dominated by men and marriage, and Jane scarcely makes a decision independent of the patriarchal influences. While her actions were undoubtedly seen as more radical in mid-19th-century, it is nevertheless impossible to read “Jane Eyre” as a truly feminist novel in the 21st century.
This lack of legitimate feminist agenda can be seen most obviously through Jane’s relationship with Mr. Rochester. Upon developing a friendship, and later romance, with him, Jane becomes “so happy, so gratified… with this new interest added to life, that [she] ceased to pine after kindred: [her] thin crescent-destiny seemed to enlarge; the blanks of existence were filled up; [her] bodily health improved; [she] gathered flesh and strength.” However, there is a clear imbalance of power between the two, which blocks her from gaining the autonomy she desires through this relationship. This is made clear by the ways that they address each other: “master and “little girl, respectively, and by his direct questioning of her: “do you agree with me that I have a right to be a little masterful?”. Despite Mr. Rochester’s possessive and controlling attitude, Jane accepts a marriage proposal. When his past with Bertha Mason is revealed and their wedding is called off, Jane, who had previously been an “ardent. The expectant woman” becomes a “cold, solitary girl again; her life was pale; her prospects were desolate”. Mr. Rochester had added color to her life that she became reliant on. However, instead of criticizing him for misleading her, she goes on to blame herself: “I should fear even to cross his path now: my view must be hateful to him. Oh, how blind my eyes had been! How weak is my conduct!”. Furthermore, once they speak of the conflict, she admits that she “forgave him at the moment and on the spot”. Jane holds Mr. Rochester to no high standards as a partner and has a tendency to justify his immoral actions by finding fault in herself, both of which are clear signs of her submission to the oppressive system of patriarchal marriage displayed throughout the novel.
Though some may consider Jane’s refusal to move to France and marry Mr. Rochester and India to marry St. John to be acts of radical female empowerment, the aftermath of these decisions invalidates that viewpoint. After rejecting immoral and loveless marriages, Jane’s move to Ferndean for Mr. Rochester represents the end of her lifelong search for freedom and stability. On the surface, it seems as though they are equals in a loving and fulfilling relationship based on mutual respect. However, one must consider that it is only after Mr. Rochester loses his eyesight and, in turn, his self-sufficiency and ability to master her, that she becomes somewhat of his equal. While Mr. Rochester acknowledges that Jane is making an immense sacrifice by devoting her life to being “his vision... his right hand”, she contests that “to be [his] wife is, for [her], to be as happy [she] I can be on earth”. Instead of providing her with new experiences and opportunities, marriage limits her to the role of a caregiver, therefore conforming to feminine stereotypes perfectly. Just as Jane spent most of her early life in very insular spaces, such as Lowood and Thornfield, the secluded nature of Ferndean limits her entire world to that of her husband.
The novel ends with the couples’ marriage, just as many romance novels of the era do, signaling that her journey of independence and freedom is completed once she is in a lifelong partnership. From beginning to end, Jane Eyre’s complex and changing relationship with Mr. Rochester serves as evidence that she is unable to resist strong patriarchal influences, and therefore cannot legitimately be seen as a feminist heroine.
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