Jane Eyre and Feminism: Role Subversion and Women’s Freedom | Part Two

There are a few significant feminist aspects of the novel that I want to make note of. Gender roles are frequently reversed: Jane helps Rochester when he enters the novel and falls from his horse, and saves his life when she wakes him from his fire-lit bed (reversing the typical damsel-in-distress/knight-in-shining-armour roles). Jane resists conforming to the feminine role society placed upon women at the time (which still creates pressure for women today). When Rochester asks her if she thinks him handsome, she bluntly replies, “No, sir” (instead of kindly flattering him), and upon their engagement, Jane does not allow Rochester to adorn her with expensive silks and jewels.

Rochester looks to Jane to save him from ruin and bring joy back into his life, but Jane maintains that they are each responsible for their own lives. She refuses to be a part of Rochester’s fantasy that she, in his eyes the “pure female”, can save him, telling him that she is “no angel”. Ultimately, when Jane leaves Thornfield, Rochester is forced to confront his own failures himself, while Jane is free to prove her worth independent of her relationship with Rochester. This is one of the strongest feminist elements of the book, and prevents the novel from falling into the trap of so many romances, in which both male and female are shown to be dependent on one another to reach their highest potential.

Bronte blurs gender roles and shows that men and women are equally responsible for themselves, yet still allows for love and humanity, as both Jane and Rochester do help each other through their care for one another. This representation is especially significant for women at the time, who were consistently perceived only according to how well they fit into the distorted societal construct of what a woman could be (feminine, beautiful, selfless, passive, or if passionate, mad). Jane does not fit into this construct whatsoever (although Bronte highlights the existence of this construct by having the characters in the novel constantly describing Jane with reference to these traits), but she is still a woman. And so, Bronte dismantled societal expectations of what a women could be. [She also did this through her use of a gender ambiguous pseudonym – which I may write about in another future blog post].

The two parts of the book where Jane’s independence shows up in full force: after her attempted marriage to Mr Rochester at Thornfield, and when St. John proposes marriage at Moor House. In both sections of the book, Jane exerts authority over her own life in the face of two men attempting to remove that authority from her (and take it for themselves). She, and she alone, is in control of her decisions. Jane decides, after it is revealed that Mr Rochester is already married, that she must leave Thornfield, and leave Rochester. Although she has forgiven, and loves, Rochester, she is strongly religious, and does not want to be his mistress while he still has a wife locked away in the attic. It goes against all of her morals. And so, she makes her decision. Rochester is furious, and briefly attempts to overpower her by grabbing her wrist. Jane narrates: “physically, I felt, at the moment, powerless… mentally, I still possessed my soul, and with it the certainty of ultimate safety.” And Rochester realises that it does not matter that he can overpower Jane physically, he will never have power over her will:

“Never was anything at once so frail and indomitable. A mere reed she feels in my hand! I could bend her with my finger and thumb: and what good would it do if I bent, if I uptore, if I crushed her? Consider that eye: consider the resolute, wild, free thing looking out of it, defying me, with more than courage – with a stern triumph. Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it”

Similarly, St John attempts to claim Jane in marriage for his own missionary work. He says to her, “God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife… A missionary’s wife you must – shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you – not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.” Jane considers that she could do the missionary work, but she feels that it is not the kind of life she wants to live. However she cannot consent to be St John’s wife – to her, this would be akin to imprisonment. In spite of societal pressures for women to be feminine and to control their passion, Jane stays true to her own values and listens to her emotions. St John coldly shuns and ignores Jane at her refusal. So Jane responds that she must continue to refuse him “because you almost hate me. If I were to marry you, you would kill me. You are killing me now.” St John calls her words violent and unfeminine and inexcusable, but Jane does not back down or allow him to make her feel shame for expressing her feelings.

Ultimately, it is Jane’s complete refusal to conform to the expectations society and the men around her create for women that gives her freedom and agency. Bronte created a heroine who redefined what women could be.


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