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To What Extent Jane Eyre Can Be Read as a Feminist Text

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Words: 2581 |

Pages: 6|

13 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Words: 2581|Pages: 6|13 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

In this essay, I shall endeavor to explore the theory that Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847) was not written under the intent of being received as a feminist text. During the Victorian epoch when the text was written, the role of the woman was considered, at best suitable only for the sphere of domiciliary (Hughes, 2014). However, after the publication of his poem ‘The angel in the house’ (1854) Patmore’s poem coined the phrase to be adopted therein by any woman of the house deemed to be of utmost devotion and purity. Charlotte Brontë without unequivocal doubt renounced the society that refused to accept her for the exact woman that she was, the belief is that Brontë cleverly contradicted society through her writings and that her biographical portrait of the character Jane Eyre is ultimately the opposite to how Patmore portrayed his wife and her moralities. Patmore describes his wife as an angel in saying ‘Love’s perfect blossom only blows where noble manners veil defect, angels may be familiar’ (p.140). Despite Brontë initially publishing this text in 1847 under the pseudonym ‘Currer Bell’ in a masculine tone to disguise her femininity, the argument that shall be presented is not that this was executed in a feminist manner, but that of a person fearing retribution and mockery. 

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Firstly, this essay shall endeavor to look at the history within the period, and contrast this with the definition of feminism and indeed why it is not believed that Brontë wrote this novel with a feminist view. During the Victorian era of 1837-1901 feminism began to emerge as a potent political force, with a change of views and charitable missions beginning, the Victorian female consensus changed. Females started to believe that no longer should they be sheltered from the public sphere. 19th and 20th-century literature were developing, in addition to society in regard the position of women, respecting to equality to men, or more precisely how Martin Luther claimed in the book (Luther’s table talk, 1832) the following: “Women should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children. A woman is, or at least should be, a friendly, courteous, and a merry companion in life, the honor, and ornament of the house, and inclined to tenderness, for thereunto are they chiefly created, to bear children, and to be the pleasure, joy, and solace of their husbands,” The word feminism derives from the French word feminisme, according to Cambridge dictionary online the definition of feminism is the belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power, and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way or the set of activities intended to achieve this state. The feminist movement refers to the campaigns for reform surrounding issues such as voting rights, equal pay and reproductive rights. In response to Brontë’s novel, Elizabeth Rigby’s review of the novel is scathing, advising in the periodical quarterly review (1848) Rigby attacks the morality of the novel, strongly disapproving of the novel and the way in which Jane Eyre is presented, ‘It is a very remarkable book: we have no remembrance of another combining such genuine power with such horrid taste’. 

Jane Eyre is widely considered to be one of the first feminist novels, the belief is though, that within the context of Victorian England, Jane Eyre could be considered feminist, but only to an extent. Coventry Patmore’s depiction of what he deemed the perfect Victorian woman was made clear in his poem written to adorn his wife Emily, (originally published in 1854, revised through 1862). Who he deemed to be a perfect woman or an angel of the house, within this title the expectations of the woman are that she is devoted, that she is sympathetic, pious and above all-pure. The following excerpt gives an insight into how the ideal male to female relationship is presented: Man must be pleased; but him to please Is woman's pleasure; down the gulf Of his condoled necessities She casts her best, she flings herself. How often flings for nought, and yokes Her heart to an icicle or whim, Whose each impatient word provokes Another, not from her, but him; While she, too gentle even to force His penitence by kind replies, Waits by, expecting his remorse, With pardon in her pitying eyes[...] She leans and weeps against his breast, And seems to think the sin was hers; Or any eye to see her charms, At any time, she's still his wife, Dearly devoted to his arms; She loves with love that cannot tire; And when, ah woe, she loves alone, Through passionate duty love springs higher, As grass grows taller round a stone. However, Carol Christ writes that ‘The angel in the house is not a very good poem, yet it is culturally significant for its definition of the sexual ideal’. Though society has grown enough in the past couple hundred of years, what may have seemed incredibly feminist in the nineteenth century is contradictory to twenty-first-century feminism. Jane’s actions are deeply rooted in her moral beliefs, and the ability to make conscious lifestyle choices for herself is inarguably feminist, however, she fails to fully liberate herself from an oppressive, marriage-obsessed culture. The argument that Jane’s character is not that of a feminist comes clear On her wedding day, when at the altar about to marry her love Jane discovered that Rochester is already married to Bertha and Brontë writes that Jane, ‘who had been an ardent, expectant woman — almost a bride, was a cold, solitary girl again: her life was pale; her prospects were desolate’ (Brontë, 2006, p.341). If Brontë intended within her writings for Jane to be received as a feminist character, this statement presented portrays Jane in the opposite intent. It is common knowledge that for the 19th-century woman marriage was likely to be the most profound and far-reaching institution that would affect her path in life, women who did enter wedlock, however, in doing so abdicated any form of freedom in political and financial matters. 

The conflict of gender is a theme that threads throughout Jane Eyre, Jane is vulnerable to the patriarchal system and It is suggested that Jane Eyre’s fear of retribution and mockery began at the cruel hands of Master. John Reed, although only a schoolboy of some fourteen years old, Jane advises that he ‘bullied and punished me; not two or three times in the week[...] but continually’. Jane however, shows her contempt for his cruelty and self-imposed superiority by speaking to him in an equal derogatory tone ‘Wicked and cruel boy! I said, ‘You are like a murderer-you are like a slave driver’ (p.13) this is the first of many chapters that a battle of Jane against the patriarchal, male-centered and controlled organisation begins (Abrams, 1993). Jane battles against John Reed initially and then does indeed face further retribution from further patriarchal figures within the novel. Throughout the text, it is clear that there is an ideological divide between the public sphere, (male domain, paid work, concerned with politics) and that of the private sphere, (the domiciliary role of the woman). Both of these ideologies had a vast significance in the Victorian era and indeed in the following years. A Victorian woman residing outside of her private sphere is implausible, or, as Dr. Theophilus Hyslop stated in 1905 that ‘The removal of a woman from her natural sphere of domesticity to that of mental labor only renders her less fit to maintain the virility of the race’. Jane makes a statement in chapter six which it is presented to the reader that she would indeed argue with such a statement as mentioned by Hyslop as she says that ‘Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life [...] women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel’ . Moreover, Dr. Hyslop further states that ‘In fact, the higher the woman strives to hold the torch of intellect, the dimmer the rays of light for the vision of her progeny’. It is argued that if indeed Brontë did intend on presenting Jane Eyre as a feminist model, why did the social constraints remain, the oppression shackles unbroken and boundaries left accordingly? There is a clear indication in chapter six that Jane has an opinion and is making a stand through her writings that women should not be confined to the home and be allowed to work as their fellow man: ‘They need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brother do; [...] it is narrow-minded in their more privileged creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex’. In their book entitled The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar state that ‘it was Charlotte who provided the noms de plume that were deliberately ambiguous in gender’. They further claim that Brontë had the power to create the characters the way in which she wanted, however, Rigby challenges Brontë’s creation of the role of the governess, the governess-a woman who is employed in a household to train the children, in a way in which she describes that ‘A governess is not a real woman, but a burden to society’ (Rigby, 1848, p.507). However, Eagleton presents that Jane and her role of the governess be considered as follows: ‘She is an upper servant and so (unlike, supposedly, other servants) [...] she lives at that ambiguous point in the social structure [...] in which two worlds meet and collide’. 

From the beginning of the novel, it becomes apparent that Jane is an independent woman, this fact not under question. Having been sent to reside with her aunt, the cruel Mrs. Reed, Jane is forced to do everything for herself, for she has no money nor real family of her own. The early introduction to women in the novel such as the unfeminine woman that is Mrs. Reed, enables a perception of her in such a way that she is not portrayed as a feminine character, she is portrayed as more of a man-type figure in chapter 1 ‘She was a woman of robust frame, squared shouldered and strong-limbed, not tall, and, though stout, not obese’. The claim of masculinity within Mrs.Reed is further substantiated by Jane, when she says ‘Her household and tenantry were thoroughly under her control’. Making a clear indication that Jane, although residing with a female relative, felt the strong patriarchal presence from a very early age of just ten years old. That is, however, until she discovers via St. John Rivers in chapter 33 that her estranged uncle, a Mr. Eyre of Madeira has passed on and has, in fact, bestowed his fortunes upon Jane. St. John Rivers informs her with a few choice and presumably cold words, like his character: ‘I wish merely to advise you, your uncle [...] you are now rich- merely that, nothing more’. This is another apparent feminist tone in the novel and it does indeed portray Jane in a feminist light, it verifies that Jane did not ever rely on a man for his financial status. It is presented within many critical reviews of Jane Eyre that the character of Bertha is a projection of Jane herself, Bertha became one of the major characters in English fiction and it is suggested that Bertha is indeed a form of Jane’s resistance to the male authority in which she rebels. An excerpt from Freud’s five lectures on psychoanalysis (1910), within displays one of his formulations as follows: ‘Hysterical patients suffer from reminiscences’. Symptoms he suggests are ‘residues and mnemic symbols which could function in the psyche like public ‘monuments or memorials’ or for example, the towering column which is erected in London to commemorate the great fire in 1666. Therefore, it is presented that Brontë’s Jany Eyre can also be considered a mnemic symbol, which in turn reduced women readers to fits of rage and indeed tears. 

The narrative of Jane Eyre is an iconic artifact for feminism, at a time when all of the Brontë sisters were writing under their respective pseudonyms, Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, Jane Eyre was capable therefore of provoking ferocious critical commentary or in what Angela Carter describes in her book: Expletives Deleted (1992) that ‘The clarity and strength of Charlotte Brontë’s perception of her heroine’s struggle for love is extraordinary, yet of all the great novels in the world, Jane Eyre veers the closest to trash’. The description of Bertha, Mr. Rochester’s first wife is the polar opposite to the description of Jane by Brontë, Bertha is described in an animalistic tone and Jane describes Bertha as a ‘Big woman, in stature almost equalling her husband, and ‘She showed virile’. Jane also describes Bertha in a masculine tone in saying that her appearance is ‘Virite and athletic, like some strange and wild animal’. If Jane were a feminist character would she describe her marital predecessor in such a way? Jane further describes her in a way in which is surprising for a woman who merely wished to be accepted for her merit and nothing else, when she speculates that Bertha ‘Is low, common and incapable of being led to anything higher’. In their book entitled The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar state that ‘it was Charlotte who provided the noms de plume that were deliberately ambiguous in gender’. They further claim that Brontë had the power to create the characters the way in which she wanted, however, Rigby challenges Brontë’s creation of the role of the governess, the governess-a woman who is employed in a household to train the children, in a way in which she describes that ‘A governess is not a real woman, but a burden to society’. However, Eagleton presents that Jane and her role of the governess be considered as follows: ‘She is an upper servant and so (unlike, supposedly, other servants) [...] she lives at that ambiguous point in the social structure [...] in which two worlds meet and collide’. The initial intention of this essay was to try to indicate that the novel written by Charlotte Brontë was not intended to be received as a feminist text. 

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Jane Eyre is one of the greatest Victorian novels written, in which Brontë portrays how Jane contests difficulties in pursuit of happiness. Brontë expresses her concerns of ambition, independence, and equality. This causes many critics such as Elaine Showalter, Sandra Guilbert, and Susan Gubar to conclude that Jane Eyre is indeed a feminist text, however, it is the conclusion of this essay that Brontë and her creation or indeed self-portrait in Jane is not a reflection on empowering Victorian women but that of a person fearing mockery and retribution. This concluson is reached via one’s perception of the novel and indeed the character of Jane Eyre, according to Cambridge dictionary online perception is a belief or opinion, often held by many people and is based on how things may seem, both arguments over feminism of this text are worthy of merit however, and it is fair to say that in addition Jane Eyre can be considered a feminist text through her pursuit of esteem, independence and indeed, equality.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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To What Extent Jane Eyre Can Be Read As A Feminist Text. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/to-what-extent-jane-eyre-can-be-read-as-a-feminist-text/
“To What Extent Jane Eyre Can Be Read As A Feminist Text.” GradesFixer, 10 Feb. 2022, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/to-what-extent-jane-eyre-can-be-read-as-a-feminist-text/
To What Extent Jane Eyre Can Be Read As A Feminist Text. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/to-what-extent-jane-eyre-can-be-read-as-a-feminist-text/> [Accessed 21 Jun. 2024].
To What Extent Jane Eyre Can Be Read As A Feminist Text [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Feb 10 [cited 2024 Jun 21]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/to-what-extent-jane-eyre-can-be-read-as-a-feminist-text/
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