How are women's roles as educators portrayed in Bronte's novel, Jane Eyre? How is this theme situated within the wider elements found in the novel?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Within the setting of Jane Eyre, the teaching profession was one which a woman entered as a means of supporting herself; therefore, it was not a vocation that upper class women entered unless they fell into desperate situations. As a consequence of some women's entry into this profession out of necessity, there were those who were cruel or indifferent to those that they taught. In addition, the profession did not command too much respect. Thus, there is an incongruity to the position of teachers and governesses in this novel.

In Jane Eyre the protagonist is sent away to Lowood School where she encounters much cruelty and some kindness. The superintendent, Miss Temple, for instance, is very kind and generously gives the girls bread and cheese when their breakfasts are inedible. She serves as a very positive role model for teachers and students alike, reinforcing young Jane's earlier feelings from living at Mrs. Reed's that the schoolroom could be "a sanctum." However, this security is disturbed by the unreasonable and cruel Miss Scatcherd, who seems to take a personal dislike to the saintly Helen Burns, who later becomes a martyr to her cruelty. (Jane has even seen Miss Scatcherd "flog her pupil, Burns.")
Another troubling condition to Jane is the reaction of the kind Miss Temple when Mr. Brocklehurst issues cruel and unfair orders. For, it appears that Miss Temple is fearful of confronting her employer and defending the girls; instead, her face seems to turn to stone:

...especially her mouth, closed as if it would have required a sculptor's chisel to open it.

While her compassion and reverence for learning serve Jane as a valuable role model, Miss Temple's cowardly failure to confront injustice when it occurs is very disappointing to Jane.

Later, in Chapter 17, after Jane has been hired as governess at Thornfield, she is fairly content with her position. But, the intrusion of a party of guests at Thronfield disrupts Jane's contentment when she overhears the socially elite guests of Mr. Rochester disparaging governesses. Lady Ingram declares there are many reasons why liaisons between governesses and tutors should never be allowed for even a moment in any well run household. Then, after recounting her many triumphs over her governesses, her daughter Blanche sarcastically enumerates some of these reasons that Lady Ingram holds,

...danger of bad example to innocence of childhood; distractions and consequent neglect of duty on the part of the attached--mutual alliance and reliance; confidence thence resulting--insolence accompanying--mutiny and general blow-up....

These words recall Jane's past demeaning experiences and her contentment is shaken. Further in the narrative, after she leaves Thornfield because she has learned that Mr. Rochester has already been married and she has been deceived, Jane endures great hardship until she is rescued on the steps of Moor House, belonging to St. John Rivers who, ironically, turns out to be her first cousin. In Chapter 30, Jane is taught German by Diana Rivers, and she, in turn, teaches Diana drawing. But, Jane has conflicting thoughts about her religious instructor, St. John, who is so stringent in his beliefs and demands. In point of fact, he is determined to go to India as a missionary, abandoning the chance for a happier life with a woman he loves. He asks Jane to accompany him, but she is unwilling to marry him. Because there is this rift between them, Jane feels the need to close Morton School and part from her students, part of the British peasantry. But, Jane adds, they are a peasantry better educated, better mannered, and more self-respecting than any others in Europe. When St. John appeals to Jane's sense of duty that she should stay on as a teacher
Jane replies that she wishes to "enjoy my own faculties as well to cultivate those of other people." This attitude is incongruous to that of St. John.

Thus, having broken from her role of service to others, Jane has finally achieved independence. As a teacher, like so many other teachers, Jane finds herself placed into positions over which she has little control. But, rather than reacting with cruelty or resentment, the humble Jane serves others well. Notwithstanding her dedicated service, Jane realizes that her position of teaching is inconsistent with her personal development and that she must break from teaching in order to realize true self-hood.