Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 583
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre traces the personal development of a young woman who must struggle to maintain a separate identity and independence in the suffocating pressures of her culture. She grapples with the societal expectations of her gender, which frequently conflict with her intuitive sense of self. Each setting and situation that Jane encounters denotes a phase in her personal progress, teaching her and preparing her for the next experience.
The linear organization of Jane’s maturation process is attributable to the viewpoint of the narrator. The narrator is not the child, teenager, or young woman that Jane is during the course of the narrative, but the adult wife and mother who is recounting her story. With hindsight and from a mature perspective, Jane can recognize the pivotal, shaping events of her life. She takes account of her life, selecting events so that a pattern of personal development becomes apparent, what all people do in making sense of their past. The reader also senses Brontë’s voice. Although the novel is not an autobiography, it contains autobiographical elements—Brontë’s experience at the Clergy Daughter’s School is similar to Jane’s years at Lowood, for example. Certainly Brontë draws from her own experience as a maturing young woman in describing the life of Jane Eyre.
Each setting indicates a stage of growth for Jane. Under the cruel treatment of her aunt, Sarah Reed, at Gateshead Hall, Jane learns as a child to rely on her own inner strength. The strong self-reliance that she develops as a protective mechanism in this brutal environment sustains her throughout her life. At Lowood, Jane finds sincere friendship in Helen Burns and a compassionate mother-figure in Maria Temple. Jane learns from Helen’s religious stoicism, but realizes that she is too much in need of human companionship to accept such a solitary existence completely. When Miss Temple leaves to get married, Jane believes that she also must leave, having matured enough to break free from this surrogate mother.
As governess in Thornfield Hall, Jane finds in Edward Fairfax Rochester a kindred spirit equal to her in passion and strong individualism, but also suffering from a faltering sense of identity in regard to what he is and what is expected of him. Bertha, Rochester’s insane wife, who lives in the attic, haunts them both as a symbol of their still-unresolved identities. They cannot truly be united until each has worked out these inner problems.
Jane finally finds real family support with her three cousins at Moor House. She attains self-confidence from her success with the school and financial independence from her uncle’s inheritance. From her unemotional relationship with her cousin St. John Rivers, a zealous minister, she realizes that she needs a passionate love, and her inner standard of religious morals is further solidified in contrast to his frigid piety.
Jane Eyre contains gothic, Romantic, and Victorian elements. Elements of these styles do not simply exist for their own sake, but underscore the major theme of Jane’s personal progress. The gothic and Romantic elements—Bertha’s ghostlike haunting, Thornfield’s dark and castlelike image, the spiritual connection between Rochester and Jane, nature’s sympathetic response to Jane’s emotions with storms and sunshine—are symbolic of Jane’s dark struggles with her identity and her romantic tendency to follow her intuition. The Victorian emphasis on realism, on domestic concerns of marriage and family, and the reconciliation of feeling with reason also pervade the novel.
Last Updated on May 5, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 415
Jane Eyre appealed to the Victorian reading public on both sides of the Atlantic. Published under a pseudonym, the novel had its London enthusiasts at first speculating about the real author, then marveling at the achievement of a little-known, isolated vicar’s daughter from Yorkshire. In America, the plot and narrative technique of Jane Eyre were quickly imitated by women writers hoping to capitalize on the novel’s popularity. The plot contains many elements to capture and maintain the reader’s attention: an abused orphan who rebels successfully against her oppressors, a mystery involving screams in the attic and a burning bed, a marriage stopped at the altar, sensual temptation and moral victory, and the reformation of a good man gone wrong.
The appeal of the book is not dependent solely on a lively plot; Jane Eyre herself is an engaging character. Unwilling to accept others’ definitions of her as an unattractive, dependent relation, Jane asserts herself against those who treat her badly. Faced with unpleasant cousins and oppressive schoolteachers, Jane fights for what she thinks is right. She is made to feel that her passionate responses are a character flaw, but the reader is made to see that her rebelliousness is appropriate.
In a book that explores the conflict between individual and society, it is not surprising that there are a number of structural oppositions as well. Jane’s worldly cousins, the Reeds, are countered by her intellectual cousins, the Riverses. The tyrannical schoolmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst, is paired with the soothing headmistress, Miss Temple. Most important is the contrast between the two proposals of marriage that Jane receives, and the men who make them: Mr. Rochester recognizes Jane’s true character, but he would pamper and oppress her with riches; St. John Rivers respects Jane’s intellectual capabilities and self-control, but he would withhold true love and expect Jane to destroy her health doing difficult missionary work in India. Jane is able to resist both of them because she has developed a healthy sense of self-worth and has risen above the abuse she received as a child. Her emotional independence is matched by an unexpected inheritance, which alleviates Jane’s need to work in subservient positions. Thus strengthened, Jane can return to Rochester after his first wife dies. The physical mutilation he has undergone—blinding and loss of an arm—makes him dependent on Jane for more than amusement. In a marriage of mutual respect and support, Jane’s self-image can continue to prosper.
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