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Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre features the eponymous woman reflecting on her childhood and adolescence through the mature view of a young adult. Adding another dimension to her character, however, is the fact that Jane’s own thoughts and feelings about life are not congruent with the gender expectations of her time period. Gender roles in Victorian society are shown as one sees them even in today’s society: by way of lifestyle options and by interpersonal relationships. In a society so rigidly ranked by sex, Jane’s perspective as an independent-thinking young woman serves as Brontë’s protest of this system.
In Brontë’s contemporary society, most women were bound to the household; Jane notes the injustice of this expectation. For example, Blanche Ingram and Jane’s cousin Georgiana Reed, both wealthy women, spend their lives preoccupied with finding a husband just as or more well-endowed. Once they achieve this end, they are doomed to a life of, as Jane complains, “making puddings and knitting stockings, […] playing on the piano and embroidering bags,” (104) and sitting silently as their husbands discuss far livelier topics, like politics, as seen at Mr Rochester’s dinner parties. Jane contests this double standard; in a loaded paragraph in the beginning of chapter 12, she insists that women “feel as men feel,” and should have just as much liberty to pursue their interests and use their talents. Throughout the novel, Jane feels trapped by numerous social institutions, and the expectations she lists embody the ways in which gender roles forge such a cage for her.
From an incredibly young age, Jane herself, like many others of her time, had a subordinate role imposed upon her on the basis of her girlhood. In her first years, her cousin John Reed ceaselessly belittled her; then, at her first meeting with Mr Brocklehurst, he remarks that there is “no sight as sad as that of a naughty child, especially a naughty little girl.” (31) In saying this, Mr Brocklehurst shows his bias against girls and women, and, because he serves as a representation of organized religion, therefore that bias in the Church. Mr Brocklehurst’s misguided intentions for the girls at Lowood further show this institutionalized disregard for girls and women in the world of religion. Girls at Lowood are forced into levels of modesty otherwise practically unseen outside of nunneries, wearing shapeless, covering clothing, and even having their hair cut off if it is deemed distracting or even lewd.
Jane’s cousin St. John, also a man of faith, shows another side to misogyny in the era. He holds a closer relationship to the women in his life than Mr Brocklehurst does, living with his sisters and bringing Jane into the family when she appears in a time of need. Furthermore, the people of the household work together with each attending to their equal, if differing, tasks. However, a hidden bias remains. When Jane refuses to marry him, St. John turns against her, resorting to the personal attack that her words are “violent, unfeminine, and untrue.” The mere fact that St. John should think himself enough of an authority over Jane to force her to marry him lends him his purpose as a misogynist character; indeed, this experience is Jane’s second experience with a coerced marriage, and by far the more forced of the two. Furthermore, St. John’s resort to an attack on Jane’s femininity shows that a not insignificant part of his momentary resentment of Jane is based in misogyny.
Even Jane’s love, Mr Rochester, at times degrades her on the basis of her womanhood. At their first meeting, he talks down to her, knowing nothing about her other than that she is a woman and a governess. Moreover, Mr Rochester and Jane are, from the beginning of their relationship, unevenly situated in society, and their interactions reflect this inequality. Mr Rochester consistently overlooks Jane’s perspective and desires – for example, when he insists on giving Jane jewels despite her opposition to the concept. Furthermore, he approves of Mr Brocklehurst’s methods of running Lowood Institute, showing that he is by no means unspoiled by the institutionalized gender expectations of the era. Jane is also far more open and honest with Mr Rochester than vice versa. He compels her to tell him all her feelings, and she complies, but he does not reciprocate; rather, he expresses his emotions convolutedly and incrementally, up until the point when he suddenly proposes to her. He lies to her about planning to marry Blanche even after wooing Jane, in an attempt to make her jealous. Instead of directly confronting Blanche and Jane about his feelings, he creates a complex scheme in which he presents himself as a fortune teller in order to disguisedly tell Blanche the unlikelihood of their marriage. The fact that he reveals his identity to Jane shows a level of trust between the two; however, if Mr Rochester’s relationship with Blanche is representative of the norm for forced marriages of the Victorian era — and if his relationship with Jane is radically equal for the era — then these relationships provide a way for Brontë to protest the contemporary culture of unequal arranged marriages.
However, Jane herself is not a total revolutionary. Through watchful instruction from her teachers during her teenage years at Lowood Institute, she learns to be less openly oppositional to the status quo. In this way, she matures from an indignant child lashing out at her bullying aunt and cousin into an outwardly complacent governess and teacher. And of course, at the end of the novel, she does marry Mr Rochester, in keeping with the contemporary expectation of women to achieve domesticity and to strive to marry above themselves. She still, nevertheless, retains her independent spirit, and is by no means untroubled by the expectations placed upon her based on her womanhood. While most women in Jane’s position would marry Mr Rochester eagerly, Jane is hesitant to do so, feeling that a marriage with a relationship such as theirs would infringe upon her own personal liberties. As she tells the “fortune teller,” she has the ability to be independent, and “[needs] not sell [her] soul to buy bliss.”(191) Indeed, Jane refuses to compromise her own values and desires with the expectations placed upon her. And while she does indeed marry Mr Rochester, this is done only when they are at relatively equal statuses. Jane complains to Mr Rochester about the confines of gender roles before he proposes to her. He not only approves of her thoughts on the matter, then, but also continues to refer to her as an equal after his proposal.
Jane Eyre does not completely reject or embrace Victorian gender roles; rather, she finds a life with which she is comfortable, which happens to fall between the two. She does not allow herself to be forced into a position because of her gender, but she also does not refuse to perform activities simply on account of them fulfilling stereotypes.This attitude, though, serves as a critique of society which was relatively radical for Brontë’s time. Jane is practically alone in resisting gender expectations, but her ideas provide a powerful opposition to the status quo which opened the eyes of many to the injustice of Victorian gender roles.
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