Jane Eyre as an Independent Woman in 19th Century

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Words: 1814 |

Pages: 4|

10 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 1814|Pages: 4|10 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Imagine a girl growing up around the turn of the nineteenth century. An orphan, she has no family or friends, no wealth or position. Misunderstood and mistreated by the relatives she does have, she is sent away to a school where the cycle of cruelty continues. All alone in the world, she seems doomed to a life of failure. What's a girl to do? Does she stand passively by and accept her fate, as the common belief of the times would have it? Or does she stand up for her rights and fight for the life of success she deserves? If the girl is Charlotte Bronte's heroine Jane Eyre, she takes the latter route. Although this may have shocked readers of the time, Jane's actions would open the door for a new interpretation of women.

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Jane Eyre showed that it was possible for a woman in the nineteenth century to achieve independence and success on her own, no matter what odds were against her. The following paper will examine the stereotype of women that Jane and her creator, Bronte, sought to disprove, explore the obstacles that Jane encounters in her struggle, and show how she is able to overcome them to attain the life she has always dreamed of having.

During the 1800's, the time period in which Jane Eyre was written and the setting of the novel, women were stereotyped as being "submissive, dependent, beautiful, but ignorant" (Harris 42). They were seen only as trophies, meant to cling to the arms of men, but never meant to develop a mind of their own or to venture out on their own. This stereotype proved difficult for women to be taken seriously. Dissatisfied with this interpretation of her sex, Bronte attempted to change it by creating a heroine who possessed the antithesis of these traits. Indeed, Jane may be a plain woman, but she is an intelligent one; she is also self-confident, strong-willed, and morally conscious (Harris 42). She not only trusts in her ability to make decisions, but also in her freedom to do so. Such traits will be necessary to guide her in her journey to self-fulfillment.

The first obstacle that Jane comes across is her own background. Usually, one can count on family or position to get ahead in life; Jane has neither. Since infancy, she has not only worn the label of orphan, but also that of lower-class: her mother had been disinherited from the family fortune upon marriage to Jane's father, a poor clergymen. Jane also faces discouragement in the not one, but two environments in which she is raised. At Gateshead, she is despised by her Aunt Reed and her cousins John, Eliza, and Georgiana. They never let her forget her lack of wealth or position, or their abundance of both. They see her as nothing more than a servant, and treat her as such (Eagleton 41). At Lowood school, Jane finds the ultimate "monument to the destruction of the most basic human unit, the family"(Blom 87). Stationed with other girls like herself, under the watchful and unforgiving eye of Rev. Brocklehurst, she is further made aware of all that she lacks. Perhaps the most important of these is love. Jane's cries for love are mistaken by both Aunt Reed and Rev. Brocklehurst as outbursts of evil.

A constant obstacle that appears throughout Jane's life is oppression. Women of the time often had to deal with oppression because of the stereotype imposed upon them; it is no different with Jane. Whenever she tries to speak up for herself and her needs, she is always met with some form of resistance. It starts with Aunt Reed and Rev. Brocklehurst, who interpret her as being willfully disobedient. It continues with St. John Rivers, who sees her as being selfish and unworthy of God. Even Edward Rochester, the love of her life, finds fault with Jane's need to express herself; it's the one thing that keeps her from being totally possessed by him. Ironically, it may have been Bronte's decision to tell the story in the first-person point of view that most accentuates the constancy of this obstacle in Jane's life. This technique allowed Bronte to tell her heroine's story with an intensity that drew the reader into Jane's thoughts, feelings, and passions, an openness which Jane has often been deprived of in her own life (McFadden-Gerber 3290).

The most prominent obstacle Jane faces is male power. The four men that Jane must contend with throughout the book are symbolic of the sources of male power over women. There is John Reed, Jane's tormentor at Gateshead, who represents physical force and patriarchal family. There is also Rev. Brocklehurst, Jane's tormentor at Lowood; he signifies the social structures of class, education, and religion. Rochester represents attraction, and St. John moral and spiritual authority (Mitchell 302). The former two try to take advantage of Jane's seeming defenselessness as a child; the latter two try to take advantage of her seeming defenselessness as a woman.

Jane is able to overcome her background chiefly by two means: distance and chance. In leaving for Lowood, she escapes Gateshead and all its disorder; in leaving for Thornfield, she escapes Lowood and its disorder. Jane's later return to Gateshead is a victory in that it not only shows how well she has succeeded on her own, without the Reeds, but it also reveals that as she once needed them, they now need her (Eagleton 39). As for her state of poverty, Jane triumphs over that merely by chance. It is while staying with St. John and his sisters at Whitcross that she is made aware of her relation to them, and the great inheritance from their uncle that they now all share. This is Jane's first step in attaining the wealth and family that has been denied her for so long.

The next obstacle to fall is oppression. Before Jane is sent away to Lowood, she tells Aunt Reed that it is she, not Jane, who is willfully disobedient: "People think you are a good woman, but you are bad, bad-hearted. You are deceitful!" It is with this statement that Jane first feels her soul begin to "expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph" she has ever felt (Bronte 30). It is this feeling which drives her in the confrontations she has with Rev. Brocklehurst, Rochester, and St. John concerning their hold over her, and it is one which she resolves never to lose. Armed with this feeling, Jane makes full use of her privileges as narrator. She freely comments on the "role of women in society and the greater constraint imposed upon them", and tells how she is able to overcome both (McFadden-Gerber 3290).

Jane's triumph over male power is her biggest one of all. Her first victory is in overcoming her tormentors. She surpasses John Reed by succeeding in the one area where she had been expected to fail: life. It is Jane, whom he had assumed of being powerless and frail, who ends up outliving him. Jane wins her struggle with Rev. Brocklehurst by refusing to live the rest of her life at Lowood under his orders. Her departure from Lowood is symbolic of leaving her old life behind for a new one.

Leaving Lowood also brings Jane to her hardest challenge. Throughout her life, Jane has always been looking for the one thing, more than wealth or position, that has always seemed to evade her - love. As an adult, she finds it in two men: Rochester and St. John. She realizes that although both men have different views of her and different reasons for wanting to marry her, they share the same motive: ultimately, to "destroy her selfhood" (Blom 99). Rochester's love for Jane is not only spiritual, but passionate. Although she feels the same way about him, she refuses to be his mistress. "It would not be wicked to love me," Rochester protests. Jane stands her ground: "It would be to obey you" (Bronte 301). On the other hand, St. John's love for her is "merely spiritual"; for Jane, this will not do. Her refusal of him for such a reason is considered shocking at a time when women were "imagined as merely inhabiting bodies meant to bear children and being, in other respects, tasteless and without appetite" (Oates 7). By rejecting both men, Jane puts her needs before anyone else's (Blom 100). After achieving independence by finding a family in the Riverses and wealth in her inheritance, Jane is now free to return to Rochester to complete her triumph. Following the fire at Thornfield, she finds him not as powerful as he once was; this works well for her, because she is more powerful than she once was. Rochester welcomes Jane back with open arms, realizing that he will never possess her the way he once wanted to, but that she, in fact, will end up possessing him. Their subsequent marriage not only ends the many conflicts involved, but also fulfills every woman's wish of achieving both independence and love (Mitchell 302).

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Jane Eyre proved to the world of the 1800's that the idea of a woman beating the odds to become independent and successful on her own was not as far-fetched as it may have seemed. Jane goes against the expected type by "refusing subservience, disagreeing with her superiors, standing up for her rights, and venturing creative thoughts" (McFadden-Gerber 3290). With such determination, she is able to emerge victorious over all that has threatened to stand in her way. She is not only successful in terms of wealth and position, but more importantly, in terms of family and love. These two needs which have evaded Jane for so long are finally hers; adding to her victory is her ability to enjoy both without losing her hard-won independence. As Jane was a role model for women in the nineteenth century, she is also a role model for women today. Her legacy lives on in the belief that as long as there are hopes and dreams, nothing is impossible.

Works Cited

  1. Blom, Margaret. Charlotte Bronte. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.
  2. Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
  3. Eagleton, Terry. " Jane Eyre: A Marxist Study." Modern Critical Interpretations: Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987: 29-46.
  4. "Jane Eyre." Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism. Vol. 3. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1982: 42-3.
  5. McFadden-Gerber, Margaret. "Critical Evaluation." Masterplots. Rev. 2nd edition. Vol. 6. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1996: 3290-4.
  6. Mitchell, Sally. "Jane Eyre." Critical Survey of Long Fiction. Vol. 3. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1983: 297-302.
  7. Oates, Joyce Carol. Introduction. Jane Eyre. By Charlotte Bronte. New York: Bantam Books, 1987: 5-14.
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Jane Eyre as an Independent Woman in 19th Century. (2018, May 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from
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