Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1954
Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre was first published in England in October, 1847, and it made a huge splash among the Victorian reading public. The novel was subtitled, "An Autobiography," and readers through the years have been charmed by the strong voice of the heroine who tells the story of her life. The narrator's habit of addressing the reader directly throughout the book, making statements such as "Gentle reader, may you never feel what I then felt," and "reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth!" are quite effective in drawing the reader into the action of the novel.
Jane Eyre is a character whose strength and individuality are remarkable for her times. As model for women readers in the Victorian period and throughout the twentieth century to follow, Jane Eyre encouraged them to make their own choices in living their lives, to develop respect for themselves, and to become individuals. But the early readers of Jane Eyre were not all charmed by the heroine's bold personality. Many readers objected to the novel because they felt that it was "un-Christian," taking offense at Bronte's often bitter attacks on certain aspects of religion and the church in contemporary England. The character of Mr. Brocklehurst, for example, a deeply religious but highly hypocritical figure, was based on a well known clergyman alive at the time, and many readers recognized the characterization right away.
Other Victorian readers felt that the novel was "coarse" because it addresses issues and incidents that were not "proper" for a female narrator to discuss. When Edward Rochester tells Jane of his past history with women, for example, and his possible fathering of Adele Varens, many readers found it highly improper to imagine a man speaking of such matters to a young girl of eighteen. Moreover, Mr. Rochester's plans to marry Jane even though he was married already was a rather shocking situation for a novel to explore. Many readers believed that the writer of the novel was a man, not able to imagine that a woman could possibly write such a story. Bronte's use of the pen-name, "Currer Bell" encouraged this assumption for some time. Many women writers like Bronte chose to publish under a man's name because publishers, critics, and readers were much more likely to respond well to a work by a man, and because the general belief was that it was improper for ladies to write at all.
The issue of female independence is central to Jane Eyre. Much of the strength of Jane's character comes directly from Bronte who was able to voice a lot of her own thoughts and feelings concerning the life of women in the nineteenth century. Additionally, Bronte based a fair amount of the material in the story on actual events from her own family's life. The Lowood School, for example, is closely based on an actual boarding school for the daughters of clergymen that Bronte and several of her sisters attended as children. Her depiction of the horrors of life in such a place is not exaggerated; the conditions were such that two of Bronte's sisters died from illnesses they contracted while living at the school.
In the nineteenth century women had far less personal freedom, and there were few options available for them to support themselves outside of choosing to marry and raise children. Jane's work as a governess represents one of the only respectable ways in which a woman could employ herself if she lacked personal wealth. Even so, governesses were typically treated only a little better than servants, as seen when Mr. Rochester brings his wealthy houseguests to Thornfield and they disdain to interact with Jane at all.
Many readers have noted the strong relationship between Jane Eyre's story and fairy tales. Her descriptions of her early life are very similar to the story of "Cinderella," for example. Her aunt, Mrs. Reed, is akin to the archetypal evil stepmother, and Jane is mistreated while the other children of the house are indulged in every way. The story of Jane's relationship with Mr. Rochester also reflects a few details of the story of "Beauty and the Beast." Mr. Rochester is, after all, described as a rather unattractive man with a gruff exterior, yet Jane gradually grows to love him despite his exterior, much as Beauty grows to love the Beast.
Despite the story's roots in traditional fairy tales, however, it is quite modern and unusual in its description of a woman's search for self and for the life of her choice. Sandra Gilbert has discussed the novel as the story of a woman's coming of age that is accomplished through several important psychological stages. The story begins with Jane's first home, the Reeds' Gateshead, where Jane learns to stand up for herself when she is wrongfully accused of being a liar and a bad child. The story then moves to the grim setting of the Lowood School where Jane gains an education and "becomes a lady" as her old nurse Bessie declares when she visits Jane at the end of chapter 10. Here she is given the model of the saintly Miss Temple, and here she encounters the equally saintly Helen Burns, who responds to her irrational abuse at the hands of Miss Scatcherd with calm acceptance. Helen is in many ways a model Christian who always turns the other cheek, but Jane cannot respond to such treatment m the same way, and her resolve to demand fair treatment in her life is solidified by her relationship with Helen.
Jane then moves on to a new life at Thornfield, whose name suggests some degree of the troubles she will endure there before fleeing to a new chapter in her life with the Rivers family at Moor House, or Marsh End, which Gilbert sees as the end of Jane's journey to adulthood, and where she finally finds a family to replace the awful Reeds of her childhood. Finally, Jane chooses to return to Mr. Rochester, at a new place, Ferndean, hidden deep in the woods. Ferndean represents a separation from the rest of society which is appropriate, since her relationship with Mr. Rochester is to be a new kind of relationship—one between equals, and based on spiritual love, a concept of marriage quite unusual for its time.
One of the most unusual aspects of Jane Eyre is the depiction of Jane's relationship with Mr. Rochester. From the beginning, the novel defies contemporary conventions of the romance in its emphasis on Jane as a plain woman, lacking the physical beauty which usually characterized fictional heroines. As mentioned previously, Mr. Rochester is also described as being physically unattractive, dark, and sullen. At one point soon after their meeting, Mr. Rochester asks Jane if she finds him attractive, and she surprises him and the reader with a firm "No." Jane and Mr. Rochester's early conversations also progress in unusual ways; characteristically with his questioning her in terms of her beliefs and opinions, and her honest, if restrained, answers to his unusual questions. As the relationship progresses, Mr. Rochester tests Jane more and more. His first test is with statements desired to provoke a certain response. Then he tests her with his manipulative disguise as the old gypsy woman to try to discover her feelings for him, and with his cruel manner of proposing marriage by first allowing Jane to believe that he intends to marry Blanche Ingram. If Jane is not the typical Victorian heroine, Mr. Rochester is certainly not the typical Victorian hero.
In addition to these unusual conversations, Bronte gives readers a number of glimpses of Jane and Mr. Rochester in various positions that are unusual for literary depictions of Victorian couples. For example, we frequently see her, a small girl, giving physical support to the older and stalwart Mr. Rochester. When he falls off of his horse upon first seeing Jane, it is Jane who helps Mr. Rochester. When Mr. Rochester's bedroom is set aflame, Jane rescues him. Later, when he is shocked to learn of Mr. Mason's arrival at Thornfield after the gypsy incident, Jane is there for him. And at the end, when he is crippled and blind Rochester depends entirely on Jane to guide him. Moreover, when Mr. Rochester finally does propose marriage to her, Jane reacts with restraint and strongly refuses his wishes to give her jewels and fine new clothes.
Jane is able to gain a new perspective on her relationship with Mr. Rochester when she meets her cousin, St. John Rivers. Unlike Mr. Rochester, Rivers is a strikingly attractive man, but Jane finds his piety and coldness very unattractive. As cruel Mr. Brocklehurst tried to control Jane by telling her that bad girls go to hell, Rivers gradually begins to impose his will on Jane by using religion to subdue her, telling her that she will deny God if she does not accept his proposal of marriage and accompany him as a missionary to India. Just as she is about to break under the strain of this latest male oppressor, Jane psychically hears Mr. Rochester's voice calling her back to him.
Another fascinating aspect of Jane Eyre is Mr. Rochester's mad wife, Bertha Mason Rochester. Some critics, including Sandra Gilbert, interpret Bertha as a double of Jane—representing her "dark side" in psychological terms. Bertha can be said to represent Jane's anger and rage at society's attempts to control her and imprison her in a particular role. Perhaps Bertha's imprisonment at Thornfield can be related to the horrible fear of imprisonment that Jane suffered at being shut up in the terrifying red room at the Reeds' house as a child. Moreover, Bertha appears or is heard laughing at times that mark developments in the relationship between Jane and Mr. Rochester. She even acts out at least one of Jane's unconscious wishes when she comes into Jane's room on the night before Jane's wedding and rips up the wedding veil that Jane felt uncomfortable about wearing. Many readers feel that the treatment of the pathetic Bertha in the novel undercuts any effort on the author's part to provide an encouraging story for women in presenting Jane as a woman who insists on her own independence. The novelist Jean Rhys reacted to the novel in this way, and responded by writing her own "prequel" to Jane Eyre, entitled Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), in which she develops Bertha's own personal story, and the story of her relationship with Edward Rochester before the events of Jane Eyre.
All in all, Jane Eyre is the story of an unusual woman who finds a family, who finds a lover, and who finds herself in a world that has not made her growing into adulthood an easy process in any way. Jane progresses from being an unwanted member of a cruel family of cousins who are forced to help her, to finding the ideal family of cousins in the Rivers, who she is able to help when she comes into her inheritance from her uncle John. It is this inheritance that gives Jane the freedom to make her own choices and to choose never to be dependent on anyone again. But the choice she makes is to return to the man she loves, who, chastened by his symbolic injuries in the burning of his old home and freed from his earlier marriage by the death of his first wife, is at last able to enter into the kind of spiritual relationship of equality that Jane desires as an independent woman and a strong woman who has always managed to remain true to herself.
Source: Arnold A. Markley, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998. Markley is an assistant professor of English at Pennsylvania State University.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2846
Critics have traditionally endowed the heroine and eponym of Charlotte Bronte's romantic masterwork, Jane Eyre, with a prodigious free will. According to various commentators, Jane draws on her knowledge either of good and evil or of her own nature in choosing between a series of conventional literary oppositions—reason and passion, absolute and relative morality, and, finally, love without marriage and marriage without love. Such a reading, however, judges the actions of Jane the young woman without allowing for the extraordinary childhood forces that largely determine her adult personality, thus essentially ignoring the first quarter of the novel. While many have celebrated Bronte's carefully wrought description of her protagonist's first eighteen years for its vivid pathos, no one has as yet accorded this childhood its deserved weight in the novel's ultimate resolution. When viewed from the vantage of modern child psychology, Jane's background—ten years spent at Gateshead barren of affection or adult encouragement, and eight years at Lowood School marked by severe physical privations, public humiliations, and exposure to the cheerless philosophy of Helen Burns—can only exempt Bronte's heroine from common standards of morality or human incentive. The Jane Eyre who emerges from this past of injustice and mental depression is an odd mixture of pride and insecurity. She is saddled with a tenacious pessimism concerning her prospects for happiness, and it is this mentality against which she must struggle, and this over which she triumphs in the end.
It is hard to imagine anyone learned enough to read Jane Eyre who would consider her first ten years emotionally healthful ones. Orphaned in her first year, Jane is given up to her resentful Aunt Reed, whose husband (Jane's mother's brother) also dies within the year. Jane's life to age ten is one of ostracism by the Reed family and unrelenting anxiety over the chidings of the servants, the violence of her cousin John Reed, and the punishments and beratings of Mrs. Reed. Though we as readers do not meet Jane until her tenth year, we may deduce from Mrs. Reed's deathbed admission that Jane's situation has been destitute since infancy—"I hated it the first time I set my eyes on it—a sickly, whining, pining thing"—and her declaration that her children could never bear to be friendly to Jane. The older Jane, who narrates the novel, makes a characteristically self-deprecating excuse for the Reeds' behavior, claiming, "I know that had I been a sanguine, brilliant, careless, exacting, handsome, romping child—though equally dependent and friendless—Mrs. Reed would have endured my presence more complacently." But we cannot admit this statement as "the more sober judgment of the mature Jane, that as a child she brought much of her punishment upon herself." For a child in such circumstances as Jane's at Gateshead to develop the traits that the "mature Jane" enumerates would be unimaginable.
Susan D. Bernstein, in ["Madam Mope: The Bereaved Child in Bronte's Jane Eyre], uses Bronte's depiction of childhood in Jane Eyre to illustrate the effects of grief and loss on children. Bernstein concentrates on the novel's first few chapters, which describe a typical afternoon of melancholy and exclusion for the ten-year-old Jane, culminating in her traumatic banishment to the Red Room—which Jane has supposed to be haunted since her uncle died there years earlier—for defending herself against an attack by her John. The medical implications of the Red Room incident run perhaps even deeper than Bernstein allows, as Jane's emotional reaction provides a textbook example of mental depression. Jane in this scene quite clearly demonstrates five of the eight identifiable symptoms of adult or child depression cited by the American Psychiatric Association. First, she manifests a loss of appetite in her inability to eat either the night she is locked in the Red Room or the following day. Secondly, she is unable to sleep: "For me, the watches of that long night passed in ghastly wakefulness." Third, she displays a lack of interest in usual activities, as she is unable to muster enthusiasm over her favorite engraved dinner plate or over Gulliver's Travels. Fourth, Jane experiences feelings of guilt and worthlessness: "All said I was wicked, and perhaps I might be so." Finally, Jane indulges in suicidal fantasy in her thoughts of forsaking food or drink. It is now widely agreed that most childhood disorders can be traced to either a faulty relationship with the child's parents or to anxiety-provoking experiences that the child cannot understand. Aside from the antagonistic relationship with her guardian, the ghost in the Red Room constitutes for Jane a frightening experience, and as an older narrator she attributes to the incident "some fearful pangs of mental suffering."
Only hope enables human beings to endure such adverse conditions as those Jane endures at Gateshead, and it is the hope of leaving the Reeds that revives Jane's spirits following her fright in the Red Room. This initial experience with hope, however, proves a negative one; the young Jane is learning early the futility of optimism. The change that delivers her from Gateshead is a move to Lowood School, where onto her life of emotional privation is grafted one of physical hardship. At a critical stage in her development Jane is subjected to severe cold and near starvation, conditions that claim the lives of many of her classmates. Her bad luck with adults remains constant as well, as she is almost immediately singled out in front of her classmates by Mr. Brocklehurst, the school's headmaster. Brocklehurst christens Jane a deceitful child, and warns her classmates to "shun her example: if necessary, avoid her company, exclude her from your sports, and shut her out from your converse." Lowood school can be seen as Brocklehurst's project for infusing orphan girls with an ascetic abhorrence of worldly pleasures, and the fire-and-brimstone religion he imposes proves ideal for instilling in his pupils a sense of fear and guilt about happiness on earth.
At Lowood Jane also meets Helen Burns, a character whose acceptance of fate has led critics to read her as a positive model for Jane. But while Helen's calm stoicism later helps Jane to accept hardship, it does little to prepare her for human happiness. Helen lives only for death and the reunion it will bring with her savior. Her reliance on "an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits" may signify a venerable religious faith, but it also serves as a defense mechanism against the sufferings she has found life to hold for an orphan child. Jane finds "an alloy of inexpressible sadness" in Helen's stance—only as Helen dies does Jane see her happy. To Jane, Helen's death represents yet another defeat of hope, as it cuts short what would have been Jane's first real friendship. Jane longs for happiness in this rife, and Helen Burns provides one more affirmation that such longing is for naught.
Although Jane does finally find friendship and encouragement at Lowood in the person of Miss Temple, it is not enough to counteract the effects of her gloomy childhood. Miss Temple is rarely able to abate the physical severity of the school, and nothing can erase the damage wrought by Jane's miserable first decade. The Jane of Lowood is the product of an absolute lack of love and affection, qualities critical to the healthy development of a growing child. While Bronte seemed to sense this truth, modern child psychology has codified it. A loving family atmosphere and a favorable emotional climate in the home are today widely held to be the most important factors in the healthy mental development of the growing child. Parents or adult guardians who deprive their children of warmth or affection risk having their child become withdrawn and depressed, and, like Jane, devoid of any sense of optimism or security. Moreover, such overstrictness as Jane suffers at the hands of Mrs. Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst is today seen as a major source of childhood anxiety and low self-esteem, qualities which well describe the Jane Eyre of Gateshead and Lowood.
Not only does Jane's early life provide an accurate portrayal of childhood depression, but the subsequent emotional development of Bronte's character possesses astonishing psychological verisimilitude as the natural extension of a rocky youth. John Bowlby has done extensive work in the area of childhood loss of or separation from the mother, and has determined such events to have a profound effect in later life. Bowlby claims that the most important factor in the development of mental health is the infant or young child's "warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother or a permanent mother-substitute—one who steadily 'mothers' him." The effects of an unsatisfactory maternal relation, such as Jane's with her Aunt Reed, may extend to the child's later capacity to make and sustain relationships with others. Jane's pessimism is, moreover, a natural result of her maltreatment by the Reeds, who reinforced in her the notion of her own inadequacy and unlovability, a notion, says Bowlby, that may lead the child when grown to develop "a model of attachment figures as likely to be unavailable, or rejecting," and will likely "confirm in [her] the belief that any effort [she] might make to remedy [her] situation would be doomed to failure." Jane Eyre bears out this observation. The mature Jane's need for romantic love is matched by her assurance that such love does not exist for her.
This is not to suggest that Charlotte Bronte was versed in psychological literature, or that Jane Eyre is a calculated illustration of how an abnormal childhood might affect one's later development. Bronte's understanding of the Bowlby pattern was an experiential one, and, literature being the outgrowth of an author's imagination and experience, it is not surprising that Jane Eyre should follow that pattern. While the critic is well-advised to retain a degree of skepticism towards the narrative patterns necessarily imposed by biographers on the retrievable facts of their subjects' lives, and while one must be careful when using biographical evidence not to reduce imaginative art to mere mimesis, readers cannot ignore the verifiable pattern of Bronte's life in interpreting Jane Eyre, which was originally subtitled An Autobiography and was published under a pseudonym. The most basic facts of Bronte's life reveal a history of loss quite similar to Jane's, and it is safe to assume from her later correspondence that Bronte responded to her experience by developing a pessimistic attitude towards her own prospects, an attitude her biographers have characterized variously as a "lack of hope" and a "skeptical incredulity about good fortune."
Jane's habitual mistrust of good fortune manifests itself perhaps most strongly when she finds herself developing amorous feelings toward Rochester. She refuses to succumb to her will because she cannot imagine his returning the love— she cannot allow for a happy ending. In her conviction that "sense would resist delirium: judgment would warn passion," Jane endeavors to punish her own presumptuousness by juxtaposing an idealized bust of Blanche Ingram with an unflattering portrait of herself—a constant reminder that Rochester could never love "a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain." In this poignant scene Jane berates herself violently for her own giddy idealism. A more optimistic character with a more realistic self-image could not but read Rochester's many signs of affection, and accept his inability to love the haughty Blanche. But Jane refuses any insight that favors herself, and as a result she suffers greatly before Rochester's proposal.
The proposal again piques Jane's mistrust. After her characteristic initial response—"I was silent: I thought he mocked me''—she tempers her bliss by insisting on casting the future in the most unflattering light Her response upon hearing pronounced for the first time the name "Jane Rochester" is consistent with her refusal to accept joy: "The feeling, the announcement sent through me, was something stronger than was consistent with joy—something that smote and stunned: it was, I think, almost fear." It is the pessimist—the product of Gateshead, where human attention meant criticism, and of Lowood, where life was taught as a struggle and where Jane's first friend died only months after they met—who says to Rochester:
"It can never be, sir, it does not sound likely Human beings never enjoy complete happiness in this world. I was not born for a different destiny to the rest of my species to imagine such a lot befalling me is a fairy tale—a daydream . . . for a little while you will perhaps be as you are now,—a very little while, and then you will turn cool; and then you will be capricious, and then you will be stern, and I shall have much ado to please you but when you get well used to me, you will perhaps like me again,—like me, I say, not love me. I suppose your love will effervesce in six months, or less." It is fitting that a Bronte character will not view even her opportunity to marry the man she loves as more than a new servitude.
Jane's refusal during the courtship to be pampered or flattered does not betoken pride, but instead a belief that she does not deserve to be treated well. Her incredulity is stoked both by Bertha Rochester's mysterious pre-nuptial antics and by her own portentous dreams. As she awaits Rochester's return on the night before the wedding, she muses, "I feared my hopes were too bright to be realized; and I had enjoyed so much bliss lately that I imagined my fortune had passed its meridian, and must now decline." Jane still sees happiness as a fluke, which will always be ephemeral. In this instance such does indeed prove to be the case, and when Rochester's first marriage and his technically bigamous intent are exposed, Jane is patently unsurprised. She blames herself for her shattered hopes, and instantly forgives Rochester. "Real affection, it seemed, he could not have for me; it had only been fitful passion, that was balked, he would want me no more. I should fear even to cross his path now: my view must be hateful to him. Oh, how blind had been my eyes! How weak my conduct." Her pithy declaration as she leaves Rochester, "we are born to strive and endure," sums up the philosophy that Gateshead and Lowood have fostered. Jane's every adult decision has been biased by the belief that the happiest alternative always is the least realistic.
Jane's departure from Thornfield marks a new stage in her psychic development. She exhibits a sustaining pride during her destitute wanderings on the way to Moor House, and even allows herself to believe that the horrible fate of wandering penniless and friendless through the countryside is not for her. In Diana and Mary Rivers she finally meets two people whose company she can enjoy. When a genealogical quirk brings her a large inheritance, she views it as something that will have only positive effects. It is during this year that Jane begins psychologically to outgrow the effects of her childhood—to realize that life can be at least pleasant, even for her. But she still has one obstacle to overcome.
Though Jane learns at Moor House that life can be bearable, she also realizes that it cannot be happy unless she spends it with Rochester. St. John Rivers' pragmatic proposal to marry Jane and take her along for missionary work in India awakens in the heroine a struggle between her natural pessimism and her deep-rooted desire for Rochester and happiness in England. We never believe that Jane would be happy in India, but her guilty sense of religious duty coupled with her doubts about happiness in England come quite close to making her accept Rivers' proposal. Towards the novel's end Jane's inner battle gathers in narrative intensity, climaxing in her famous discernment of Rochester's mystical voice in the night. This voice represents a triumph of Jane's true desires. She truly wants to be with Rochester, and she truly believes that "the best things the world has" are the "domestic endearments and household joys" that she might enjoy as Mrs. Rochester. The voice she hears convinces Jane to reject Rivers and a pessimistic sacrifice of future happiness, and to gamble on recovering Rochester and bliss. The voice represents the defeat of the pessimist in Jane Eyre.
By ignoring the deterministic role of Jane's childhood and her adult struggle against it, traditional criticism has in essence reduced Jane Eyre to the status of a clever vehicle for the restatement of conventional literary formulas. To see the adult Jane as the crippled but determined product of an unhealthy childhood is to re-establish the novel as the very plausible portrait of a full human life. Jane's happy ending must not be viewed merely as a proper or improper choice between right and wrong, but as the resolution of an intense psychological drama, wherein the degree of free will needed to make such a happy choice is finally attained.
Source: Frederick L. Ashe, "Jane Eyre: The Quest for Optimism," in Studies in the Novel, Summer, 1988, pp. 121-30.
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When Jane is emancipated from the thraldom of her aunt's family, she moves on to a larger social unit, the community of Lowood, exchanging moral oppression for the religious oppression of Mr. Brocklehurst. But Jane has by now built up her defenses: "I stood lonely enough, but to that feeling of isolation I was accustomed: it did not oppress me much." By nature antipathic to Brocklehurst's hypocritical Evangelicalism, Jane is nevertheless drawn towards two other representatives of religion at Lowood. Helen Burns represents a Christian ideal that Jane admires but does not aspire to. Jane, with her intense awareness of self and her fierce sense of justice, could never adopt Helen's attitude of resignation and forgiveness. Again, with her passionate longing for life, Jane could not subscribe to Helen's calm acceptance of death. Miss Temple, on a more human level, embodies the religion of love, goodness and kindness which provides the inspiration and motivation for Jane through her eight years at Lowood. But with the departure of Miss Temple, all Jane's old hunger for life, for experience returns in force: "I tired of the routine of eight years in one afternoon. I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped. . . . For change, stimulus." "I longed to go where there was life and movement." Jane is formed not for religion, but for love. Her repressed nature now reasserts itself as she prepares to embark on a new adventure in life.
Jane's world is an even smaller one than Maggie's [Tulliver's in George Eliot's novel The Mill on the Floss]—she progresses from a barely tolerated dependent in a household of unloving relatives, through a charity child in a charity institution among similarly deprived children, to a governess of a foreign born child of questionable birth in a strange environment, Thornfield. The first two main phases of Jane's life are spent almost exclusively in the two houses or establishments—Gateshead Hall and Lowood—which form the background for her early development. Through these experiences and vicissitudes Jane's personality becomes more and more withdrawn, so that from the solitary child she grows into the "quaint, quiet, grave" young woman whose cool exterior nevertheless conceals "a heart hungering for affection [suggests Kathleen Tillotson in her book Novels of the Eighteen-Forties, 1956]." It is [as Eliot writes in, The Mill on the Floss] "this need of love, this hunger of the heart" that precipitates the emotional and moral crisis in the novel.
Jane Eyre's dilemma is very much like George Eliot's own—whether to live with Rochester as his unmarried wife or sever all relations with him—and George Eliot's strong condemnation of Jane's renunciation is understandable. Perhaps a quotation from George Eliot's own novel will throw light on her reaction to Jane's decision. Near the end of The Mill on the Floss, in a passage that comes nearest to George Eliot's own conception of the moral problem at the heart of the novel, we find this authorial comment: "Moral judgements must remain false and hollow unless they are checked and enlightened by a perpetual reference to the special circumstances that mark the individual lot." This is central to George Eliot's notion of morality and explains in large measure her censure of Jane Eyre. George Eliot obviously thinks that Jane's "special circumstances" justify a defiance of conventional morality and social laws. Her dissatisfaction arises from what she interprets as Jane's misplaced good faith and good intentions. What George Eliot fails to see is that Jane's renunciation of Rochester is made not in the interests of a law, diabolical or not, but in self-interest. And the motivation of Jane's action is not self-sacrifice, but rather self-protection.
Rochester tries to appeal to Jane's judgement of the balance of consequences:
Is it better to drive a fellow-creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law, no man being injured by the breach?—for you have neither relatives nor acquaintances whom you need fear to offend by living with me.
Jane is almost convinced as she tries to reason within herself:
Think of his misery, think of his danger, look at his state when left alone, remember his headlong nature-consider the recklessness following on despair—soothe him, save him, love him, tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?
And then comes the reply from the depths of Jane's soul: Jane is almost convinced as she tries to reason within herself:
I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.
In the crisis, she can only fall back on herself, on her sense of self-protection, on her instinct for self-survival. If Jane is adhering to a principle, it is the principle of self-respecting personal integrity. As she said: "I still possessed my soul." Rochester in his saner moments would have understood the motivation of her decision, as is shown by his penetrating analysis of Jane's character in the guise of a gypsy woman on an earlier occasion:
That brow professes to say—"I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. . . . Reason sits firm and holds the reins, judgement shall have the casting vote in every decision. . . . I shall follow the guiding of that still small voice which interprets the dictates of conscience."
This is of course ironic in the light of later events, for it is precisely these same self-respect, reason, judgement, and conscience that combine to frustrate Rochester.
Jane Eyre's painful decision to leave Rochester is in line with her magnificent outburst in the moonlit garden on Midsummer's eve:
Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh, it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal—as we are!
In a further demonstration of spirit before she understands Rochester's intentions, she declares proudly: "I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you." She might have said the same at the later crisis of emotion and event in which she actually leaves him. In this outburst of pent-up emotions, Jane is assuming for herself and her sex a position and an attitude never before granted to heroines in English fiction—equality in love. Charlotte Bronte believes that love between man and woman is an all-consuming passion shared not only physically, but mentally and spiritually—"to the finest fibre of my nature," as Jane says. What Charlotte Bronte is asking for is a recognition of the emotional needs of a woman—the right to feel, to love unreservedly. In a way, Jane is an . . . unconventional heroine. She claims independence and rejects subservience. She will consent only to a marriage which is the union of equals in independence. Charlotte Bronte sees the relationship between man and woman as one of mutual need, a kind of equal partnership in which the woman is not just the object of pursuit or desire, but is recognized as an active contributor—unafraid to love with all-consuming passion, willing to devote herself to the man, and yet exacting respect and a recognition of her rights as an individual. Charlotte Bronte does not advocate an absolute union, a complete merging of man and woman—this would mean the dissolution of the self. Unlike Catherine Earnshaw who declares! "I am Heathcliff," Jane asserts: "I care for myself." Instead of losing herself in some "otherness," Jane fights to preserve her own identity. The relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff involves a fusion of personalities and leads towards mutual annihilation. The relationship [as suggested by Ruth Bernard Yeazell in her essay "More True Than Real: Jane Eyre's 'Mysterious Summons'," Nineteenth-Century Fictions, 1974] between Jane and Rochester is grounded on the equality and integrity of two independent selves and leads towards life. In the "Eden-like" garden of Thomfield, Jane appears to have secured both love and independence (of spirit, at least); but when it turns out to be a Paradise Lost, Jane must flee temptation and her lover, in order to preserve the integrity of her self against an overwhelming passion.
In a curious passage earlier on, Charlotte Bronte expresses what could well be taken as the manifesto of the Women's Liberation Movement:
Women are supposed to be very calm generally, but women feel just as men feel, they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer, and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.
Charlotte Bronte's concern with the "condition of women" question in her day is revealed here. She herself has struggled for independence and equality not as an exhilaration dreamed of but as a necessity, and the feminist attitude expressed here is assumed by her heroine. . . . Charlotte Bronte really prepares the way for . . . other "rebel" heroines by showing her heroine overcoming social and sexual inferiority with moral, emotional, and intellectual superiority. Jane first encounters Rochester not as his equal but as his subordinate. She escapes the confines of Lowood to enter into a "new servitude," a servitude not just in terms of work but also in terms of love. The relationship between Rochester and Jane is that of master and servant, just as the relationship between hero and heroine in all the other Charlotte Bronte novels is that of teacher and pupil. But the master-servant relationship between Rochester and Jane is essentially one of mutual admiration and respect. Rochester loves Jane for her superiority of mind and heart, and Jane feels "akin" to Rochester and has, in her own words, "something in my brain and heart, in my blood and nerves, that assimilate me mentally to him." F. A. C. Wilson [in an essay "The Primrose Wreath: the Heroes of the Bronte Novels," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 1974] suggests that for Charlotte Bronte, the ideal relationship between man and woman is an extremely flexible one "by which both partners freely alternate between 'masculine,' or controlling, and 'feminine,' or responsive roles" and that "Jane, for her part, enjoys her sexual status as a subordinate, but this is only insofar as it is a role in a game." Jane has no feeling of inferiority at all: she is only conforming outwardly to the Victorian concept of the prescribed roles for men and women, while in reality she believes in equality between the sexes, as evidenced in her vehement assertion of equality in the garden of Thornfield, and Rochester's response "My bride is here, . . . because my equal is here, and my likeness" testifies to his agreement. Her sexual status as a subordinate may be more apparent than real, but her social status as an employee makes her dependent on her master for her livelihood. Jane's sensitive feelings about her position and her strong sense of individuality and independence make her resent any attempt to encroach on her personality. Just before their marriage, when Rochester wants to shower her with fineries and to deck her out in jewels and satin and lace, Jane feels "a sense of annoyance and degradation," partly because her aesthetic sense tells her she looks better as "plain Jane," partly because her moral taste finds such extravagance abhorrent, but mainly because she feels this is a violation of her sense of self and a reflection on her essential dependence. Refusing to play the pampered slave to Rochester's benevolent despot of a sultan, she tells him: "I will be myself" and "I only want an easy mind, sir; not crushed by crowded obligations." She prefers to be herself and to be loved for what she is. It is in a state of reaction against what she construes as Rochester's attempted violation of her sense of self that immediately after this Jane writes to inform her wealthy Uncle John in Madeira of her impending marriage with the underlying motive of perhaps obtaining what she terms an "independency," thereby bringing about the chain of events that leads to the interrupted wedding. So Jane unwittingly incurs her own unhappiness through her desire for independence, which means more than just economic and social status—independence means personal identity and self-esteem.
Source: Mana Yuen, "Two Crises of Decision in Jane Eyre," in English Studies, June, 1976, pp 215-26.
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