Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664

Some readers have found it remarkable that they could read all the novels of Jane Austen and find no clue to the fact that the author had lived through three of the most momentous events in English history: the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars. Austen deals only with private life. While Charlotte Bronte was not alive during the era of the Luddite Riots of 1811-1812, her father was; and, he had fought on the side of the factory owners. Charlotte's knowledge of the period was something less than encyclopedic. But, she reveals a fine sense of the confusion, hard feelings, and disruption of the time. One of her central themes in Shirley is the need to place one's private needs and desires in proper perspective with the "outside" events and conditions.

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Robert Gerard Moore becomes so obsessed with his fabric mill and the destructive activities of his workers (or, former workers) that he does not notice the growing ardor of his distant cousin Caroline Helstone, although they are much thrown together. Robert is intent on external problems, indeed legitimate bases of worry (his income could be lost if he cannot deal successfully with the rebellious Yorkshiremen). It takes a near breakdown on Caroline's part and a slow convalescence from a gunshot wound to make Robert (who has misguidedly proposed to Shirley, partly because of her generosity to poor families and because of her eagerness to aid him in his difficulties) perceive Caroline's devotion and to respond to it.

Similarly, Shirley is so dedicated to her "good works" and the disturbances in her community that she only slowly gains a knowledge of the growing affection of her former tutor Louis Moore (Robert's brother). It requires a number of lively debates between these two proud and vigorous personalities—in addition to Moore's illness, Shirley's severe injury, and several marriage proposals, which Shirley refuses—to reveal to both of these leading characters that they should wed. Louis is, as he says, "a dependent: I know my place." To this, Shirley responds (thematically), "I am a woman: I know mine." Moore's reaction explains a great deal about his attitude: "I am poor: I must be proud." This pride helps to keep them apart for a long while (as do the distractions of Shirley's busy life); however, Louis's pride is satisfied (he has already told himself, "If I must be her slave, I will not lose my freedom for nothing.") Finally, in a well-written scene in the penultimate chapter, they in effect negotiate an agreement to marry. The key point of discussion is the question of true equality ("And are we equal then, sir? Are we equal at last?")—this concern for egalitarian status reflects the stratification of the society in which the novel is set.

As this and similar episodes indicate, another theme is the need for clear perception, not blurred by personal ambition or economic or private exigencies. The owners and the workers must manage to come to terms; this end is achieved only by the ending of the war, at the close of the plot. By this time, everyone has learned a lesson about seeing things as they are. Even the lame plot strategy of having Caroline's mother, Mrs. Pryor, who had been Shirley's governess, reveal her identity after many years suggests the need for openness and clear-sightedness— the love of Mrs. Pryor for her daughter helps Caroline to recover from her emotional and physical breakdown.

All the themes in Shirley relate to the overwhelming need for order, both in personal lives (neatly arranged at the end of the book with the double marriage, Robert to Caroline and Louis to Shirley) and in national affairs—as Robert Moore points out to the rebellious workers, if he does not use the new machinery, he cannot make a profit and his business will close and no one will have a job. Fortunately, history made this outcome (which did occur elsewhere, in English factories) unnecessary.

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