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“There was an unspeakable charm in being told what to do, and having everything decided for her”
–George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
The feminist literary critics, Gilbert and Gubar, claim, in their famous essay on Jane Eyre in The Madwoman in the Attic, that Jane tries different modes of escape from the imprisoning patriarchal Victorian society that is the setting of the novel. “Escape through flight, escape through starvation… [and] escape through madness,” (Dialogue 341) are the three they outline. In the traumatizing red room scene, Jane tries all of them, and then, as the novel progresses, each is given an entire section. She uses flight to escape from Gateshead, starvation to escape Lowood, and madness (via Bertha, Gilbert and Gubar argue) to escape from Thornfield Hall. But where is Jane aiming to go when she escapes? Gilbert and Gubar don’t quite answer this, they say she is simply escaping from “the strictures of a hierarchal society” (Dialogue 369). They claim that Charlotte Bronte could not “adequately describe a society so drastically altered that the matured Jane and Rochester could really live in it” (Dialogue 370). This conclusion defines Jane as an ultimately negative heroine. That is, she is not trying to get to something, she is just trying to get away.
Until the end of the novel, it is true that Jane herself does define her existence in terms of negatives. At Gateshead, her aunt, cousins, and the household servants, call her a “rat” (15), a “bad animal” (17), and a “mad cat” (18). By verbally degrading her, the child Jane does partially succumb to the labels. The narrator Jane admits that she “didn’t very well know what I did with my hands” (17). Much as an animal simply behaves without thinking, so does she. She plays the role cast onto her and then rebels against it. In leaving Gateshead, she is essentially asserting that she is not an animal, despite what they all say.
However, at Lowood, the boarding school to which she is sent, Mr. Brocklehurst, the school’s primary owner, tries to pull her back down into the position of an animal when he visits and publically humiliates her. “This girl,” he says, “might be one of God’s own lambs” but instead carries on as an “alien” (78). Thus, at least, he gives her a choice. Knowing already that she is not an animal, and having already succumbed to and dismissed that lowly guise, Mr. Brocklehurst’s words propel Jane into trying the other option. Even her good Christian friend, Sarah Burns, dismisses the possibility for Jane to be human by saying that “you [Jane] think too much of the love of human beings… besides the race of men, there is an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits” (81). Likewise, when Jane has the pleasant experience of tea with Miss Temple, she describes them as having “feasted on nectar and ambrosia” (85). Again, the positive suggestion, though not explicit, from Miss Temple is along the lines of the supernatural and unearthly. Jane must be either an animal or supernatural, according to the few authority figures in her narrow life, and because she knows empirically that the first is horrid, and because both Sarah and Miss Temple reccommend the latter, while the unkind Mr. Brocklehurst reccommends the former, she opts for the supernatural route.
In this state Jane arrives at her new place of “servitude,” Thornfield Hall. Appropriately, she falls in love with a man who incessently calls her by a variety of spritey names. From the first time they meet outside, Jane, he thinks, is a creature with powers to “bewitch” his horse and make him fall off it. Later he furnishes her with the nicknames “elf,” “shade,” “dream,” “fairy,” “mermaid,” “angel,” and other such fantastical presences. Much as the people of Gateshead placed her beneath the level of human, Rochester elevates her to a position equally distant, but above or parrallel to human. He does the same to himself at one point, saying that Jane must think him an “ogre” or a “ghoul” (303). This furthers the message he is already sending her that she is not human because it says that the man she is in love with isn’t either. In two consecutive love scenes between Jane and Rochester, Jane realizes and asserts that being above or next to human is also not what she wants. “I am no bird” (284), she says in the first, thereby dismissing yet again her initial state. Then, a scene later, she says, “I am not an angel… and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself” (292). Within a few pages she has realized and moved past two of the roles that have secured her since the begining. But, it is not yet time for her to assume her humanity. As the book has three volumes, so she too has three experiments before finding herself.
Therefore she continues on from her assertion that she is not an angel to say, “I had rather be a thing than an angel” (292). Simultaneously, she has already been turning her lover into a thing. She admits that before their marriage plans went sour she already “could not, in those days, see God for his creature: of whom I had made an idol” (307). Likewise, she says that in the church he was “like quarried marble” and unable to “recognize in me [Jane] a human being” (324). As soon as the break occurs, she too becomes a thing, saying that she “mechanically” took off her wedding dress (330). A bit earlier, Jane poses the question, “Do you [Rochester] think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings?” Although they are supposed to be rhetorical (self-evidently answered, ‘of course not’), in a way, she answers the questions in the affirmative herself when she leaves him. She would rather be a thing than an angel because a thing is closer to what a human is, as humans are God’s “things.” The last line of her time at Thornfield is marked by the line, “never may you [her reader], like me,… be the instrument of evil to what you wholly love” (361, emphasis added).
In this inanimate state of mind, Jane goes to Marsh End where she meets St. John. He is completely cold as God’s evangelical instrument, giving “marble kisses” such as Jane did not think possible to give (444). In the same vein, he “was in reality,” she says, not “flesh, but marble; his eye was a cold, bright, blue gem; his tounge, a speaking instrument — nothing more” (457). At first, Jane falls into him and his way of acting to a large degree. But, when he finally tries to pull her all the way in by having her marry him, go with him to India, and force her to give up the other half of her nature, as she says, she again escapes. She will not abandon her ultimate desire to be human. She sees that when St. John asks her to marry him that he “prizes me as a soldier would a good weapon” (450) and alternately as a “useful tool” (463). By becoming a thing, Jane moves closer to her ultimate goal of becoming human because humans are God’s tools, but it is not complete, because in being only God’s tool she would have to exorcise her more passionate emotions, which are also an aspect of her human nature. Accordingly, Jane leaves St. John in search of Rochester, who she hopes will be able to, at this point, help her to progress.
She is right in looking for it in him, and Jane’s final transformation into her human self happens with Rochester, where they assist each other into self-realization, like Beauty and the Beast. When Jane first sees Rochester, she imagines he is a “wild beast or bird… an eagle” (479), then she sees him as a “sightless Samson” (479), after this, she watches him turn “mechanically” (481), and finally, she goes in and undertakes to “rehumanize” him (484). In this short space, Rochester passes symbolically through all the stages Jane herself went through, emerging human in Jane’s presence. Mary and Rochester initially take Jane to be what she used to be in their presence, supernatural: Mary looks at Jane as if she were a “ghost” (480) and Rochester immediately calls her a “dream” and a “fairy” (485). But Rochester soon dismisses this and looks to the present. He gives her the opportunity to say what she truly is for the first time, just as Jane takes it upon herself to humanize him, he takes it upon himself to humanize her. “You are altogether a human being, Jane?” he asks, and she replies, “I conscientiously believe so” (486). What is so uplifting about the ending is that Jane finally realizes the positive assertion she has been trying to make throughout, that “I am a free human being” (284), and have it be acknowleged by another. Gilbert and Guber would like to say that the emotional and psychological significance of their union is in that it is at last “equal” (Dialogue 369), but that doesn’t describe why there is a necessity for their assertions of one another’s humanness for their reunion to be complete.
Jane chooses at last to live in the secluded Ferndean not because, as Gilbert and Gubar say, she must escape from the existing patriarchal society, and so she settles for the fern-filled lack of society, but rather because most humans do not act according to their true, natural humanity, and Jane only wants to be around that which is true in her maturity. She aims to be human all along because that is what she is. No further explanation is needed. Nature necessarily acts according to how it is. Ferndean particularly is an unaffected place, there are “no flowers,” and “no garden beds.” Jane also revels in the company of those who are true humans, namely, the maimed Rochester, the faithful servants, and her two cousins, Diana and Mary, who she visits regularly. The last words of the novel are written by her rejected suitor, St. John, and, though he chose the path of “thing” in his life, he illicits from Jane “human tears” (502), and thereby she holds respect for him in helping her to be true.
At the same time, Jane has been hurt by those who are not true in her formative years, and these are the types she will be able to avoid in her anti-social lifestyle. Her aunt and “benefactress,” Mrs. Reed lied to Jane about the existence and social standing of her other relatives (specifically — Jane’s Uncle John). Similarly, Mr. Brocklehurst lectures Lowood’s students about the Christian need to “mortify the flesh” while his own family dresses “splendidly… in velvet, silk and furs” (78). These same models, both duplicitous in their own rights, turn around and call Jane a “liar.” She fully shows the reader that she is not by surrounding herself only with truth when she finally settles down. But, it is not that she is just defining herself as what they said she wasn’t here. Here, she is taking hold of what she is. It happens to be the opposite of what Brocklehurst and Reed called her, but that only further demonstrates their own abilities to lie. In the colnclusion of the novel Jane doesn’t say she “isn’t a liar” because she is clinging to what she is. Unlike her fits of earlier (at Gateshead where she screams that she’s not a slave all the way up to the red room, at Thornfield when speaking to Rochester, and says she’s not a bird or an angel, and at Marsh End where she exclaims repeatedly that she will not marry St. John), at Ferndean she refrains from such negative claims. It stands out that for once she is not entangled cornered into a fit of denying.
Unfortunately, the non-human parts Jane plays are assumed by other characters in the novel who then disappear with them, usefully allowing Jane to move on to being human. It’s important that they do this so we, the readers, can see what could have become of Jane if she didn’t persist in her quest to be human. Bertha, Rochester’s insane first wife, assumes the animal role. “What it [Bertha] was,” says Jane of her first meeting with the woman, “whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell” (327). Bertha conveniently disposes of this aspect of Jane by “springing” off the roof of the burning Thornfield Hall and killing herself. Needless to say, Bertha’s jump is connected with the very word “spring” to Jane’s animal-like behavior in the red room in her early childhood (“my impulse was to rise [from the stool] like a spring,” she writes(19)). The unmaimed, though psychologically tainted, early Rochester takes the supernatural part off Jane by “walking just like a ghost around the grounds and in the orchard” (475) after Jane leaves him but before the fire cleanses him. Finally, St. John carries the ‘God’s instrument’ way of living to India, and he, along with it, die there.
Jane Eyre certainly makes many “escapes” in attempting to align herself with her innate humanity. But, escape is not an end in itself as Gilbert and Gubar imply, that is too negative a formulation of the cathartic completion of this book. Instead, Jane stops allowing herself to be cast into unnatural roles and becomes what she is — a human, who is positively “free,” as she herself defines humans, from those artificial categories.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London, Penguin Books Ltd.: 1996. (Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Michael Mason).
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane’s Progress from The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press: 1979. pp. 336-371.
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