Is "Jane Eyre" a feminist novel? Why or why not?
Jane Eyre can be considered a feminist novel, or perhaps more accurately, a protofeminist novel. Works that were written before the twentieth century with strong female protagonists fall into this philosophical and literary tradition. Though Jane does not campaign for equal rights for women, the way she lives her life offers a model for independent women.
Jane's ambition is unlike the traditional social mores of her time and place. She is not eager to marry, calling the institution a "catastrophe." Though an orphan, Jane rejects a dependent stance and is unafraid to self-advocate when she believes she is being mistreated. She is also resentful of being treated like an object when Rochester begins to court her. Only when she is financially independent from her inheritance is she able to accept Rochester's proposal.
So while Jane does not advocate for women's rights generally, she chooses to live on her own terms in a way that anticipates the rhetoric of the Seneca Falls convention that occurred just a year after the novel was published.
Yes, it most certainly is! Even though we meet Jane under the control of different men during her life, first at the Reed's, with John, then Brocklehurst at Lowood, Rochester, her love, and St. John, a man "not likely to be refused," Jane still triumphs. She succeeds in making decisions that are morally right though they break her heart; she must travel through her life alone for all her early years, and when she is reunited with Rochester, it is her decision. Jane does not depend on her beauty or feminine charm to trick men and is never afraid to speak truthfully about matters whether they be painful or not. Jane can be viewed as one of the first 'career' women to make it in a man's world; when she marries, it is by choice. Jane Eyre becomes the strongest character in the novel.
This is one of those questions that can be debated either way. If we compare it to today's literature, obviously the women characters are not at all liberated. However, literature needs to be read in context. During the Victorian era, women did take a back seat to men. They were expected to marry the right man, for example. In this respect, Jane Eyre would be considered a feminist novel because she turned down marriage proposals that many at the time would be considered respectable proposals. She turned them down because she did not want to settle. She never took the easy road and ventured onto her own to find her own way. This was a bold statement for this time period, though many women writers at this time were showing stronger women characters.
If "feminist" means liberation from men and insistence on equal treatment in all things, I say no. This is, though, a novel of Jane's independence. She is perfectly willing to do and be many things, as long as they don't interfere with her personal morals and standards. She is not willing to marry a man whom she does not love. She is not willing to carry on a clandestine affair with a man she loves but who is married. She is willing to forgive those who have wronged her but will not be a party to their bad behavior. This is a novel of a woman's independence, not a feminist treatise.