In Jane Eyre is the setting used to reflect the politics of the time?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Without question, works of fiction are shaped by their times, and, of course, Jane Eyre is no exception. Set in the Victorian era, this novel reflects several political and social conditions, which were reflective of the political milieu of Victorian citizens.

  • Educational Institutions - In the 19th century, there was a movement toward the acceptance of public education for all classes. At first, in some institutions which housed the poor and orphaned, "education" was little more than training in becoming a servant as these "students" were made to work on the upkeep of the institution. However, others were similar to Lowood Institution where the primary function was to educate children for their place in the social order. Thus, Jane is educated to become a governess and she completes a program that would have been satisfactory to Mrs. Reed, who has told the Evangelical Mr. Brocklehurst,

"I should wish her to be brought up in a manner suiting her be made useful, to be kept humble...."

  • Developments in medicine - During the Victorian Period, there were many diseases that killed the lower classes who lived in squalid neighborhoods, such as cholera and typhoid, whooping cough, pneumonia, etc. At Lowood Institution, there is an outbreak of Typhus because of the terribly damp conditions along with the malnutrition of the girls, who are in weakened states. After the spread of disease resulting from the crowding in the manufacturing cities, the British government allocated more money into the medical fields in the common interest.
  • Oppressive social ideas and conditions - In Volume III, Chapter 5 (Ch.31), after being rescued by the Rivers family, Jane procures work as a governess in Morton. In this chapter, there is an allusion to riots staged by the working classes of the town of S--, which authorities feel makes reference to Sheffield, England, where there was Chartist unrest in 1839 and 1840.
  • Class and Gender Divisions - Charlotte Bronte's use of the governess as narrator shocked many Victorians:

According to the Quarterly ReviewJane Eyre exemplified the "tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine."

In the Victorian Era, there was no upward mobility for social classes and women's rights or independence. Nor were women allowed to vote; even lower-class men could not vote until the 1832 Reform Bill. Jane is certainly a woman ahead of her times, independent, intelligent, and uncompromising. She is repulsed by the upper class young ladies who come to Thornfield in hopes of becoming its mistress. These women are appalled that Rochester allows Jane to be seen and heard in their presence. With regard to those in the relgious order, Jane must give them deference: Brocklehurst and St. Rivers. Curiously, Jane can only be an equal with St. John if she travels with him as part of the Victorian missionary impulse as his wife in the West Indies (The mention of this place is Post-colonial criticism). And, it is only with the broken Mr. Rochester that she attains equal stature.