I’m going a little off topic in today’s blog post, and instead of discussing Irish literature, I’m talking about Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I’ve studied this novel twice now both on Erasmus and in this year’s Victorian Literature module, and the question of feminism has come up both times. I believe Jane Eyre is a feminist novel, and here’s why.
1. She’s not content with her limitations.
When she’s completed her studies at Lowood school and has taken up her post as a teacher there, Jane feels discontent with her life. She believes there’s more she’s capable of, and laments the fact that women are not seen to be equal to men when she begins governing at Thornfield Hall:
“Women are supposed to be vary calm generally, but women feel just as men feel [..] it is narrow-minded in [women’s] more privileged fellow creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings.”
2. She is dissatisfied with Rochester’s treatment of her when they are first engaged.
During Jane and Rochester’s first engagement, Rochester frequently flatters her to the point she is uncomfortable. She says that his promised “jewels for Jane Eyre” sound “unnatural and strange”. When he says he will cover her in “satin and lace”, she responds that he will no longer know her, she will be “an ape in a harlequin’s jacket”. She continues working as a governess, as she does not want any special treatment and recognises the importance she has in Adele’s life. She makes her own decisions about her life, despite her engagement and Rochester’s attempts to control her.
3. She chooses to leave him.
After Jane learns about Bertha, Rochester’s first wife, she refuses to listen to Rochester’s pleas for her to stay with him. She knows she will not be happy with Rochester now she knows the truth. She tells him she can no longer be with him, and leaves Thornfield Hall in the night. She only takes what was hers before she met Rochester, as she does not feel entitled to take the gifts he has given her.
4. She refuses to accompany St. John to India.
Jane uses her sudden family inheritance to move her three newfound cousins, the Rivers, back into the family home they left due to financial trouble. She grows very close to the Rivers sisters, as well as their brother, St. John.
St. John is a religious man, and often preaches to Jane. She respects him and often does as he asks, which is worsens the situation when Jane refuses to marry him and accompany him to India.
Jane knows she will not survive in India, and that St. John does not truly love her. She offers to accompany him as his sister, but he insists on marriage. They argue until Jane says that she “scorns St. John’s idea of love”, and St. John replies that to deny him is to deny God.
A week later, Jane asks St. John’s forgiveness but rejects his proposal, saying “If I were to marry you, you would kill me. You are killing me now.” Jane means, of course, that St. John’s coldness towards her is causing her pain, but St. John does not respond well, calling her “violent, unfeminine, and untrue.”
He tells her to go to India as she’s promised she will, with another married couple; but Jane, knowing she has not promised this, says that “God did not give [her] [her] life to throw away“. Jane is doing what she thinks is right no matter what St. John thinks.
5. She chooses to return to Rochester at the end of the novel.
After declining St. John’s proposal, Jane decides to return to Rochester at the end of the novel. When she arrives back to find Rochester a changed man, blind, and that Bertha is dead, she marries him for love.
It is for these reasons I think Jane Eyre is a feminist novel. What do you think? Do you agree or do you think differently?