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Throughout Jane Eyre, the themes of love and marriage are presented in contrasting ways. In the Lowood education system, Brocklehurst preaches the evangelically tainted message of ‘mortify[ing]… the lusts of the flesh’ in preparation for the majority of the girls having professions as governesses, in which they would be expected to restrain their passions. However, as the narrative develops and Jane encounters Rochester, many of the ideals of the usual Victorian mantras are challenged.
Towards the start of Jane’s time at Thornfiled, she reproaches herself for her infatuation with Rochester and compares herself to Blanche Ingram. In context of the time, Jane, as a governess, would have been placed in an awkward social position, as governesses were considered to be members neither of the upper classes nor of the serving lower classes. Therefore, their role was ill defined as members of the female working class, placing them on the fringes of society. This view is reflected in Jane’s depiction of her own appearance as a ‘dependent and a novice’, showing her to be without freedom and unworldly in comparison to Rochester, who is a ‘man of the world’. This juxtaposition of descriptions sets Jane apart from Rochester due to her inexperience and lack of financial wealth. Also, this extract supports the views of Vaughon, who says that ‘Jane Eyre epitomises the spirit of a passionate heroine, desperately trying to reconcile her desire for love and acceptance with the religious and social doctrines of the Victorian era.’ Jane states that ‘it is madness in all women to let a secret love kindle’, which in relation to narrative style becomes a universal social comment that women should suppress their passionate emotions. The verb ‘kindle’ also has connotations of destruction in relation to fire, which indicates that passion and love are in themselves destructive to women. This metaphor is extended in that passion will ‘devour the life that feeds it’, drawing from the semantic field of appetite to imply that love as a force is deadly, which relates back to Brocklehurst’s teachings as found at Lowood. In fact, around the time the novel was written, Sarah Stricken Ellis stated that it was a woman’s ‘high and holy duty to look after the minor morals of life’, therefore expressing the concept that it is a woman’s duty to restrain passion and base desires, as men do not have the capacity to do so. This view is reflected in Jane’s metaphorical, artistic image of portraiture – ‘Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor and plain.’ – which becomes emblematic of the contrast between Jane and Blanche, who is described a ‘an accomplished lady of rank.’ Here, Jane degrades her own status through the use of harsh adjectives as a method of repressing her own feelings and using sense to dictate her emotions. In this regard, the novel’s presentation of marriage is conventional, as this implies that Blanche is better suited to Rochester because of the financial and physical differences between Blanche and Jane.
On the other hand, as the relationship between Jane and Rochester begins to progress, Jane Eyre does begin to challenge some conventions (particularly those of religious origins) which present a boundary between Jane and Rochester. During the conversation preceding Rochester’s first marriage proposal, Woolf’s view that ‘we are conscious of a woman’s presence – of someone resenting the treatment of her sex and pleading for its rights’ is expressed through Jane’s language. Bronte continues her motif of bird imagery in Jane’s metaphor ‘I am no bird; no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will’. This assertion of her independence over her ‘master’ would have been considered highly unorthodox in the context of Victorian society. Rochester, as the ‘giver and protector’, socially has power and authority over his employees; however, Jane chooses to place her integrity over her temptation in the search for her ‘liberty’. She continues to challenge these perceptions through questioning both Rochester’s, and by extension society’s, perceptions of the lower classes: ‘Do you think I am an automation? – a machine without feelings?’. Here, it is suggested that the upper classes perceive the lower classes as unemotional, mechanical beings, yet Jane indicates a need for equality of understanding, the absence of which presents a barrier in their relationship. From a religious perspective, Bronte also challenges the Victorian norm of accepting that God dictates social standing, a view which is expressed in hymns of the time such as Alexander’s ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’ – ‘God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate’. Jane states however that if she and Rochester ‘stood at Gods feet, equal – as we are!’, then their ‘spirits’ would recognise each other. Contrary to Alexander’s view, Jane not only suggests that it is possible for a man and woman to be equal, but also that those from different social standings may achieve equality. Therefore, the extract itself may be seen to support Woolf’s view due to Jane’s ‘retort’ against the Victorian mantra.
In another section of the novel, however, during Jane and Rochester’s engagement, Jane is taken dress shopping in Milcote by Rochester so that she will have appropriate clothes for her station as his wife. But, Jane expresses discomfort with Rochester’s desire to make her conform to social conventions of appearance due to her financial inequality and social standing. This view may be exposed through the use of syntax in Jane’s depiction of Rochester – ‘my master and lover’s eye.’ The placing of ‘master’ before ‘lover’ here may be an indication as to Jane’s mindset: i.e. Rochester is Jane’s master before anything else. It may also be argued that the term ‘master’ is ambiguous, connoting both employer and controlling partner, doubling degrading Jane’s status. Jane expresses emotions of ‘annoyance and degradation’ regarding her financial dependency, illustrating her inner conflict over conforming to a woman’s role within Victorian Society as a housewife figure, while wishing for her own ‘liberty’. This may be due to the context of the time, as under the Pre-‘Married Women’s Property Act’ 1870, a woman’s property could only remain her own so long as she remained unmarried. This meant that all of her property, wages, inheritance and money belonged to the husband, which may offer a reason for Jane’s want of independence. Worrall’s statement ‘Jane “refused to subscribe to the Victorian mantra”’ supports this concept, as does Jane’s use of simile in this extract. She states that she is ‘sitting like a Second Danae’, making a classical allusion in reference to a maiden who was seduced by the king of the Gods in Greek mythology. In this story, Jove appears to Danae as a shower of gold while she is imprisoned, which may become a metaphor for the materialistic struggle between Jane and Rochester. However, despite Jane’s comparison to an imprisoned female, her own emotions contradict this image as she is in fact rebelling against her inferiority.
Overall, Bronte explores the themes of love and marriage through both conventional and unconventional settings. While Jane initially subscribes to Victorian mantra regarding both her gender and social status in marriage through the repression of her base desires, once the engagement between Jane and Rochester takes place Bronte begins to lift the lid on the taboo subject concerning a woman’s rights within a relationship. It may also be argued that, with the conclusion ‘reader, I married him’, Jane eventually subscribes to the societal expectations of her. Nonetheless, because Jane is the subject of the sentence with the pronoun ‘I’, Jane may be seen to gain her independence in her marriage.
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