illustrated portrait of English author Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë

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How are women represented in Charlotte Brönte's works?

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Certainly, Charlotte Bronte broke from the customary representation of women in Victorian literature as the frail, submissive, pretty, but ignorant female. From the beginning, little, orphaned, homely Jane Eyre is her own person. She rails against the oppression of her aunt after her Uncle Reed dies; she fights for truth and her rights while at Lowood school. Throughout the narrative, it becomes apparent that Jane believes that "we were born to strive and endure." At Lowood Jane talks with the passive Helen, who tells her the Christian doctrine of loving your enemies and doing good to those who hate you; however, Jane demurs,

If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people.... would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse.

Anytime that Jane feels herself oppressed, she rebels. After discovering that Mr. Rochester is already married on her wedding day, Jane departs from Thornfield; after St. John Rivers proposes marriage so that Jane can assist him in his missionary work, she departs. When she does return to Thornfield, Rochester needs her and accepts her on equal terms so that she achieves self-hood.

In Shirley, two young women makes friends: Caroline Helstone, an orphan who lives with her uncle who has come to the home of a mill-owner, Robert Moore to learn French, and Shirley Keeldar, whose life is in contrast to Caroline's bare one as she inherits an estate and because of her wealth is able to act unconventionally. Moreover, it bothers Caroline to be poor and she tells Robert, "There are moments now I am not quite satisfied." When he asks her why, she replies, "I am making no money--earning nothing." Here again, Bronte's heroine expresses her need for self-fulfillment and independence.

The plight of women in 19th century England plays a large role in this novel as they are dependent upon men. In Shirley, married women are also either ignored or abused; spinsters are embittered and poor. In Chapter VI, illustrative of the differences between men and women is a conversation between Caroline Helston and Robert Moore, who curbs his affection for her as he needs to marry a wealthy woman in order to save his mill. Because he has given her little but "a cool look," Caroline is distraught.

A lover masculine so disappointed can speak and urge explanation; a love feminine can say nothing: if she did the result would be shame and anguish.

In her last novel Villette, which is a reworking of her first novel, The Professor with a female as the narrator this time, Lucy is initially in the background and passive; however, as the narrative progresses, an independent and confident young woman evolves from the self-effacing adolescent of the early chapters. In Chapter Vi, for instance, as she sights the Dome in London from her ship, Lucy Snowe has a sense of emerging as a person:

While I looked, my inner self moved; my spirit shook its always-fettered wings half-loose; I had a sudden feeling as if I,...were at last about to taste life: in that morning my soul grew as fast as Jonah's gourd.

Further, Lucy declares her independence,

Stone walls do not a prison, nor iron bars--make. Loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long, especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star. 

Bronte's heroines on the wings of Liberty are guided by this star of Hope.

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