Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Bronte, is one of the many fiction novels that were written by female writers to change the way women were perceived in the 19th Century. Jane, a female character, is the protagonist. Written in first person, the novel gives readers an insight into the thoughts and feelings of a woman who lived during a time when women were largely seen as passive and selfless, and men used this dominant representation as an excuse to dominate over, control, and/or feel superior to women. Jane Eyre shows, through it’s strong protagonist, that women are equal to men and that men can never have power over women.
Jane experiences male attempt at domination within the first few chapters of the novel. She begins her story as a young girl living with her cousins, the Reed family, at Gateshead. Her cousin John bullies her and physically abuses her. As first it seems that this is not necessarily because Jane is female, that it could also be because John perceives her to be inferior to him because she is dependent on his family’s wealth for her survival. We get this sense because he tells her she ought to be begging on the streets because she has no money (this is just one example of the critique of class and wealth division that is weaved throughout the novel). The issue of wealth does make it harder to clearly see how gender is at play in this scene of the novel. But if we look again at things from a feminist perspective, there are a few things happening.
Jane’s sisters, while they are wealthier than Jane and could therefore, like John, assume superiority over Jane and use it to harm her, do not do so. At most they ignore her because they are told to by their mother. Furthermore, we are told by Jane that “John had not much affection for his mother and sisters, and an antipathy to me”. As a teenage boy, John is already assuming his place in the patriarchy as being superior to the women around him, simply because of his gender. The added wealth divide between Jane and John allows John to treat Jane abhorrently, while his sisters, who are of the same class, can get by with mere dislike and dismissal from their brother.
Jane is never passive, and does not submit: she fights back. At the beginning of the novel, she does this by physically and vocally defending herself. When Mrs Reed and her servants arrive after John has attacked Jane, they see Jane’s physical resistance and comment: “What a fury to fly at Master John!… Did ever anybody see such a picture of passion!” and Jane is dragged away and locked in the Red Room. They look at her, “incredulous of [her] sanity”. A few things are at play here. Because women were generally seen as passive, when Jane defends herself she is seen as behaving out of character for a girl, and is received with shock and the questioning of her sanity. Meanwhile, the readers can see that Jane’s defense is perfectly justified, and see that her punishment is unjust. In showing this, Bronte challenges the damaging and benighted idea that women (and girls) who act against injustice (through physical force or other means of resistance) are simply insane. With this in mind, the novel perhaps later falls down in the representation of Bertha, where a third layer is added to wealth and gender divides: race. I may look at this in another future blog post.
Jane is always against injustice – but her methods of resisting it evolve over the course of the novel. This begins at Lowood. During her time at Lowood School, Jane learns how to prevent injustice from ruling her life and thus having power over her. Jane is surprised at Helen’s patient acceptance of the cruelty dealt to her by Miss Scatcherd. She says:
“if I were in your place… I should resist her; if she struck me with that rod, I should get it from her hand; I should break it under her nose… When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should – so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again”
Jane’s passion to maintain justice is one of the traits that makes her such a likeable character. On the other hand, Helen maintains that “it is not violence that best overcomes hate… love your enemies; bless them that curse you”. Helen’s teachings almost seem to approach submission to power: something that challenges a feminist reading of the book. However, there are more factors that complicate this that need to be considered. Helen’s lesson to Jane is not to submit to injustice. It is to “distinguish between the criminal and the crime,” she says, “I can so sincerely forgive the first while I abhor the last”. Helen is simply telling Jane to forgive the one who has caused the injustice to occur. By allowing for forgiveness, Helen ensures that injustice does not control her life by filling her with hate: she says, “life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity, or registering wrongs… with this creed revenge never worries my heart… injustice never crushes me too low”. When Jane learns to forgive, she realises that she alone has control over her life, her choices, and her actions. No matter what other people do or say to her. Because of this, by the time she reaches Thornfield, and later Moor House, Jane has started to develop a more nuanced method of resistance and defense against controlling behaviours and injustice (which I will look at in part two).
Thank you for reading, I appreciate any feedback and would love to hear your thoughts on the book in the comments.