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Callie Goff

Ms. Winter

British Literature, Period 1

10 May, 2017

Jane: The Pillar of Feminism

The manifestation of feminist ideals have transformed incredibly over time, as well as what it

means to be a true feminist. Many writers and artists such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, John William

Waterhouse, and Charlotte Bronte explore this evolving perception of the females role in society. The

most noteworthy work challenging this long debated topic is Charlotte Brontes novel Jane Eyre, in which

the protagonist, governess Jane Eyre, faces many hardships regarding the balance between servitude and

free-will. Jane is brought up in an abusive household in which traditional standards of women is kept

strictly by both her adoptive guardian Mrs, Reed and the staff at Lowood, an all girls school that Jane

attends. This is later contrasted as the novel advances to Thornfield manor where Jane meets Mr.

Rochester, a wealthy man who is infatuated with Janes obstinate behavior. Although it is debated among

critics whether or not Bronte portrays a reformative position on feminism, it is made abundantly clear that

she uses Janes character as a symbol of growth in regards to the standards for women. Bronte explicates

a progressive stance on feminism through Janes deviance, independent spirit, and ability to self-govern;

contrasting the gender expectations of the female in the Victorian era.

Jane faces many ridicules in her life, most commonly in the form of being punished for her

wayward behavior by Mrs. Reed. After being abruptly struck by her cousin John while she is reading,

Jane is punished by Mrs. Reed for responding to the attack. She is put in the red room, a dreary and

isolated section of the home in order to mull over her unladylike and uncivil actions, in which she

explains to the reader that she dared to commit no fault; [she] strove to fulfil every duty; and [she] was

termed naughty and tiresome, sullen and sneaking (Bronte 10). In this it is seen that Jane recognizes the

disparity between how females are punished for the actions of men, and understands that she is mistreated

because she does not conform to the standard expectation of women to accept torment from men.
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Through this, Bronte craftily uses Jane to demonstrate that even if a woman were to abide by every action

they were told, they would still experience punishment as if they had done something wrong. This unfair

treatment is exposed when Jane attends Lowood, and analyzes the forced obedient nature of the girls at

the school. In her reflection, she states that if people [are] always kind and obedient to those who are

cruel and unjust, the wicked grow worse and worse (Bronte 60). Jane, unlike other women of the time

period, questions the authority of men constantly and criticizes the blind willingness to serve men that is

being instilled in the girls of Lowood. Bronte uses Janes character to challenge the ideas that were being

indoctrinated into future generations of women, and raises important questions to the male-dominated

society in the Victorian era. It is mentioned in the essay Jane Eyre and the Evolution of a Feminist

History by Carol A. Senf that when [Jane] is sent away to school at Lowood she becomes a member

of an entire group, implying that Janes history is not individual history any longer but an historical

treatment of her entire sex. It is recognized in this that within her time at Lowood, Jane begins to see that

oppression toward women is widespread, causing her to rebel against the social constructs that are set in

place for young women. Bronte expresses this defiance in Janes character throughout the novel, and

consistently builds on her ability to separate herself from the traditional customs of the Victorian era.

While speaking to her newly made friend at Lowood, Helen, she is comforted about Johns constant

torment: 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 to never do it again (Bronte 60). Bronte utilizes this

conversation to show readers that the expectation that women should sit quietly and take constant abuse

by men is absurd, attempting to influence a shift in the Victorian standard that women should not be given

the power to fight back against their oppressors. It is demonstrated in these opinions that Bronte desires a

more equal and balanced society in which women are offered the ability to stand up against the patriarchy

and claim the basic human right to exist on the same level as men, instead of continuing to be obedient

and serve them, facing punishment if they refuse.

As the novel continues, Bronte explores the balance between the traditional expectations of

feminine behavior and independent comportment when Jane takes a job as governess at Thornfield
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Manor. It is there that she meets the mysterious and curious Mr. Rochester, who takes interest in Janes

unconventional independence and inherent rebellious nature. While sitting by the fire, Rochester inquires

Janes opinion of him in asking if she believes he is handsome; to which Jane reflects that she should, if

[she] had deliberated, have replied to this question by something conventionally vague and polite; but the

answer slipped from [her] tongue No, sir (Bronte 148). Jane does not filter herself like most women

in the Victorian period were expected to do, and in turn Rochester is smitten with her blunt, unorthodox

nature. Although Jane holds a common position for a working woman, she still has the ability to stay true

to her free-thought and not restrict her speech to what is considered proper; displaying the balance she

holds between carrying out traditional roles of women and staying true to her own character. It is noted in

The Mystery at Thornfield: Representations of Madness in Jane Eyre by Valerie Beattie that the novel

unites a concept of linguistic rebellion with a redefinition of femininity, as shown through Janes offbeat

and untraditional behavior. Bronte exhibits a protagonist who finds a balance between servitude, in

accepting a role as governess, and free-will in the way that she vocally expresses her opinion without the

worry of pleasing others. This freedom that Jane possesses is received by Rochester as borderline

inspiring, causing him to become incredibly infatuated by her. Annika Mizel, in her essay Righteous

Restraint in Hard Times and Jane Eyre, discusses the way in which Rochester responds to Janes

blatancy and passionate behavior as an affirmation of Jane's claim to equality, a declaration of love, and

a marriage proposal; opposed to how Mrs. Reed would punish her for such untraditional conduct.

Victorian society often thought that without the guidance of a mans control, women would be out of

their wits and impossible to love; however, Bronte breaks this preconceived notion down by providing a

protagonist who is both free-willed and deeply loved by a well-to-do man. It is exhibited many times

throughout the novel that Jane represents the balance between traditional and liberal traits of women in

the Victorian period, exposing Brontes progressive stance on what women should embody during this


Janes ability to self regulate is demonstrated thoroughly in her time at Thornfield, and was a

direct result of the torment that Mrs. Reed pressed upon her; exposing Brontes viewpoint that women
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desired and developed a self-sufficiency in response to being oppressed. Louise Penner writes in

Domesticity and Self-Possession in the Morgesons and Jane Eyre that each heroine's rebellion against

her oppressors marks the beginnings of her individualism, her desire for self-possession and expression.

Jane comes from an abusive household constantly repressing her femininity and free-spirit, causing her to

develop an intense ability to self-govern and desire the freedom of expression that women were not

granted in this time period. The red room is symbolic of this oppression, and is used as the room in

which punishment and captivity is enforced. When describing the red room, Jane speaks of her deceased

uncle as the spell which kept [the room] so lonely in spite of its grandeur (Bronte 9). Bronte uses this

paradox to describe the role of women in the Victorian era; lonely in their constant oppression even if

they were given riches and a husband, because those objects had no substance to relieve them of their

emptiness. Similar to the red room, The Lady of Shalott written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson explores the

suppression of femininity in the Victorian era through a woman who is cursed and locked away in a

tower, forced to look upon those in Camelot who are free. The Lady of Shalott sees the world in shadows,

disconnected from communication and interaction with others, knowing not what the curse may be/ and

so she weaveth steadily/ and little other care hath she (42-44). Her isolation becomes insufferable, and

she loosed the chain (133) of the entity restraining her from being free. In comparison, both the lady of

Shalott and Jane experience a suppressed upbringing in which they are punished for their womanhood;

however both of them desiring freedom and independence eventually break free from the societal chains

that have been pressed upon them. It is also seen in the painting I Am Half Sick of Shadows by John

William Waterhouse in 1916 the containment of womanhood in the Victorian era.

The woman depicted here is cloaked in mostly red garments,

which is symbolic of sin in many religious texts. During the

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Victorian era, the very nature of being a woman was seen as taboo, causing the oppression of women to

be considered an act of protection and order to society. This woman is in the confines of a seemingly

well-off estate, indicating the gender normality of the womans place being domestic and the mans role

to be providing for the grand estate. Merely being a female in this time period was treated as a curse, as

shown in both The Lady of Shalott and this painting; however this notion is broken down by Bronte in

providing a character as self-sufficient, free, and content with her femininity as Jane.

It is made blatant that throughout the novel, Bronte provides a defining progressive outlook and

position on feminism, and serves as an active advocate for the advancement of women in Victorian

society. Through Janes character arc of being undeniably self-sufficient and consistently defying societal

expectations, readers gain insight on how vastly the feminist movement has evolved over time and

understand the plethora of hardships that were pressed upon women during this era. Jane Eyre, as well as

other notable works such as The Lady of Shalott and I am Half Sick of Shadows, serve as stepping

stones in the constant battle to achieve equity among men and women, and stand as lasting marks for

modern readers to reflect on as the shifting points in how women are expected to behave in current


Works Cited

Beattie, Valerie. "The Mystery at Thornfield: Representations of Madness in Jane Eyre."

Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, edited by Kathy D. Darrow, vol. 228, Gale, 2010.

Literature Resource Center,


%7CH1420101194&it=r&asid=d65d133ae23686a3acee44007aaaa2aa. Accessed 27 Apr. 2017.

Originally published in Studies in the Novel, vol. 28, no. 4, Winter 1996, pp. 493-505.
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Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre: With Connections. Austin, TX: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1999. Print.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. Literary Theory: An

Anthology, 2nd ed., Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Malden, MA, 1998, pp. 597-611

Mizel, Annika. "Righteous restraint in Hard Times and Jane Eyre." Renascence: Essays on

Values in Literature, vol. 68, no. 3, 2016, p. 176+. Literature Resource Center,

%7CA466518130&it=r&asid=6a2f703bdf7baae5b3c00db878536abb. Accessed 27 Apr. 2017.


JANE EYRE." Studies in American Fiction, vol. 27, no. 2, 1999, p. 131. Literature Resource


%7CA59515409&it=r&asid=6336d5ae5cd73283f9b8fda2741c21e7. Accessed 28 Apr. 2017.

Senf, Carol A. "Jane Eyre and the Evolution of a Feminist History1." Nineteenth-Century

Literature Criticism, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 280, Gale, 2014. Literature Resource


%7CH1420116541&it=r&asid=d348186576552c55d87281a91008e8aa. Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

Originally published in VIJ, vol. 13, 1985, pp. 67-81.

Tennyson, Lord Alfred. "The Lady of Shalott." Elements of Literature. Literature of Britain with

World Classics. Austin, TX: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2003. 808-12. Print.

John William Waterhouse. I am Half Sick of Shadows. 1916, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of

Ontario, Toronto
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