To what extent is Jane Eyre more than a bildungsroman novel?
In many ways, Jane Eyre is an existential novel as Jane finds herself in a meaningless existence without any real identity until she forges her sense of self. As a philosophy, Existentialism
....emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe ...and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one's acts.
- Isolation in a hostile world
Indeed, Jane is the existential heroine as she grows up isolated from her cousins and aunt, who are all hostile toward her,belittling her constantly. Jane herself describes her life at Gateshead Hall,
I was a discord...I was like nobody there; I had nothing in harmony with Mrs. Reed or her children....If they did not love me, in fact, as little did I love them.... I [was] a useless thing,...a noxious thing, chrishing the germs of indignation at their treatment.....
She is truly alone in the hostile and cruel world of Lowood School after the death of her one friend Helen Burns.
Later in the narrative Jane accepts the position of governess at Thornfield where she is alienated from the socially elite with whom her master, Mr. Rochester associates. When she does choose to marry Mr. Rochester, she finds her happiness thrawted by a hostile world of a crazed wife and her brother.
Having left Thornfield, Jane endures loneliness again and even starvation until Diane and Mary Rivers find her.
- Freedom of choice and responsibility for one's actions
After learning that Mr. Rochester is not free to marry her, Jane chooses to leave Thornfield despite being penniless.
Up the blood rushed to his [Mr. Rochester's] face; forth flashed the fire from his eye; erect he sprang; he held his arms out; but I evaded the embrace, and at once quitted the room.
This assertion of self is clearly a brave one as she has nowhere to go, but acts independently upon her principles. After her rescue, the brother of the kind women, St. John Rivers, a coldly devout minister, seeks to elicit her assistance in his missionary work and live with him in a platonic relationship.
In her desire to be happy and form an existence to her own desires and needs, Jane refuses marriage with St. John, explaining to Diane that he
"...has explained that it is not himself, but his office that he wishes to mate. He has told me that I am formed for labour--not for love....But, in my opinion,...would it not be strange..to be chained for life to a man who regarded me but a useful tool?"
Because this life with St. John would be a sacrifice of her freedom of choice, Jane refuses it. After hearing the voice of Mr. Rochester in her heart, Jane returns to Thornfield and finds the wrecked man. Having exercised her freedom of choice, she declares her existential essence with him,
"I am Jane Eyre: I have found you out--I am come back to you...She is all here: her heart, too.
This is above all else a novel that seems to defy categorisation. It certainly can be viewed as a bildungsroman, as it focuses on the development of the eponymous protagonist and the way in which she finally finds a place in the world and society. However, at the same time, it is so much more than this, and it is just as much a novel of gothic horror and a psychological exploration of the limitations of being a female as it is a bildungsroman. For example, many critics find it extremely meaningful that in the famous "stiller doom" passage, where Jane rails against the limitations of her lot as a single woman in her Victorian society, she thinks these thoughts whilst loated on the third storey of Thornfield Hall, which is just next to the attic where Mrs. Rochester is locked away:
Then my sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third storey, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and solitute of the spot, and allow my mind's eye to dwell on whatever bright visions rose before me...
This quote has led some to argue that this novel is actually about repressed female rage, and that Mrs. Rochester is actually Jane's alter-ego, who expresses all of Jane's destructive anger and frustration at being female and the various limitations that this results in. This is just one of many readings of the existence of Mrs. Rochester, but it does point towards the way in which this novel can be read in many different ways, and it is wrong to merely just examine it as a bildungsroman.