Jane Eyre is a novel of proto-feminism, which most certainly asserts a woman’s, especially, right to choose her own destiny. This is a claim for individualism in a society (Victorian England) which did not emphasize individualism for anyone except certain clasess of men. Particularly, Jane’s status as a person alone in the world, without a family, and, especially, a patriarchal figure such as a father to guide and control her, is a main theme of the novel. Since it was rather unthinkable for a woman with a male family figure during this time to make her own way (think of the dominated sisters of the Rev. St. John Rivers), Brontë had to strip away any male, or even older female, family support from her character. Jane’s Aunt Reed rejected her, and her paternal uncle was lost until Jane was conveniently able to inherit his money after his death, making her even more independent.
Brontë created the character of Jane with a set of characteristics which made her absolutely alone by the standards of women of her time and class. Only within this set of characteristics could a character like Jane assert her individuality and live her own life during this time. This is crucial to Brontë’s exploration of both feminism and individualism. This is one of the things that makes Brontë a proto-feminist rather than just a feminist – she has not yet been able to reconcile to herself, or her readers, the idea of individual freedom within a patriarchal system. Since the patriarchal system was not (and still has not, by some accounts) been overthrown, she had to subvert it and work around it, rather than work directly toward changing it.
It might be thought that this story is an adolescent fantasy of Charlotte being free of her dominating father; and, indeed, it may have had its germination in something like that kind of feeling. But Jane Eyre is much more than that. It not only asserts that the lowly (see the famous speech when Jane blurts out in the garden at Rochester “Just because I am plain, and poor, and little…” have rights, but that we should respect those rights and have sympathy for those whose rights are violated. This is achieved in the classic way that novels incite sympathy – they show the character’s suffering (almost always an unjust suffering) and make the character bear it bravely. Jane, from the beginning of the novel, is oppressed and abused at her home with Mrs. Reed, then at Lowood school, then by the guests’ insensitivities at Thornfield, and then again by Rivers. Everywhere Jane goes someone is trying to control her, change her, or mold her into something that is not determined by her. In every case the reader is drawn to siding with Jane (often by Jane’s virtues and courage, and also by the unreasonableness and downright evil of her oppressors) and thus into sympathy with her. Likewise, Jane exhibits sympathy to all who come to her (the pupils at Lowood, Adele, the Rivers sisters), and shows more empathy with other human beings than an independent spirit like her would be expected to show.