Jane Eyre: An Early Feminist or Weak-Willed Victim?

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is one of the most famous novels in print today. It is studied across schools and universities around the world, and has had countless film adaptations made of it. Most people seem to think of Jane Eyre as being somewhere in the realm of romance; they see it as a beautiful story of love. The film adaptations made to date have exemplified this view.

This is based on a misconception. In reality, the story of Jane Eyre is one filled with suffering, hatred, misogyny and sexism. Ultimately, it is about the dark impulses of a manipulative and damaged man, and the place of a nineteenth century woman in this world.

From the opening chapter, we are presented with a daring, brave and bold character; Jane Eyre has a fiery temper and an abhorrence of all that is unjust. The opening descriptions of the Red Room are vivid, and Bronte expertly captures the terrible childhood fear of isolation and the supernatural. The tone is set for a novel that is rife with heart-break and marred by the challenges of coming-of-age.

Jane’s experiences in Lowood are some of the most heart wrenching of the novel. She is thrown from utter neglect with the Reeds to outright abuse; It is in this school that Jane’s first experiences of true sadness and peril emerge, with the death of her friend Helen from consumption. This marks a change in Jane’s outlook. Helen affected her greatly by her attitude towards those who treated her badly. Despite her early devastating experience, she becomes a young woman of strength and character, and leaves Lowood behind to create a life for herself.

It is not until Jane takes on the role of governess for the daughter of the elusive Mr. Rochester that the darkness of the novel truly emerges. Her relationship with Rochester is the most interesting aspect of the novel. From her earliest encounters with him, he comes across as withdrawn, and not completely trustworthy. Yet Jane – our wonderful heroine who we had all grown to love – manages to fall in love with him. In a moment, she seems to dismiss her intelligence and strong-willed nature. She loses a part of herself, and she will never be the same again.

It is clear that Rochester does love Jane, but what underpins his love is an obsession with control. He controls his ‘mad’ wife by keeping her locked in the attic, away from sight, determined not to let Jane know of her existence. We must ask the question, what is her story? How did she come to be married to Mr. Rochester, and locked away in the attic of their home? These questions, for the most part, go unanswered. Nobody seems to seek knowledge on why she has gone mad. Was she driven to this extreme state of despair by her evidently deranged husband, or was the imbalance always there?

Perhaps Rochester’s wife, like Jane, was pulled into his world through some deep fascination with the idea of a damaged and twisted man. Indeed, this fascination characterises many novels in the eternal obsession of women with the bad guy.

It is no secret that throughout the many years of English Literature, the dark and frightening men are the most popular with women. This can be seen in Charlotte’s sister Emily Bronte’s passionate and ultimately disturbing novel Wuthering Heights, in which the evil and disturbed Heathcliff became a sex symbol for countless women across the world. This happened despite his completely neurotic obsession with vengeance.

In more recent times, this obsession has been called the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. Women seem to be drawn into the mind of a damaged man. Perhaps the reasoning for this lies in their nurturing streak, although this seems unlikely. Perhaps the real reason is much darker, and encompasses the twisted allure that can be attributed to characters like Rochester, Heathcliff and Christian Gray.

I believe that this is where Jane’s love for Rochester lies. She has some kind of a dark impulse to discover what it is about this man that seems so damaged. In many ways, Jane has no choice but to fall in love with him. Yet this does not take away from the disappointment we can feel as readers when she does so.

Jane’s coming-of-age arc is advanced when she leaves Rochester upon the discovery that he is married. In this moment, she learns the devastating lesson that sometimes, love is not enough.

Yet Bronte reduces Jane back to her childhood, as she encounters poverty and the supernatural in her time without Rochester. This alerts the reader to the fact that Jane has yet to complete her coming-of-age arc. Something must happen to conclude the snippet of her life journey that we have been presented with. Unfortunately, this takes the shape of her return to Rochester, and what will most likely be a life of dissatisfaction.

Jane has often been dubbed an early feminist – a torch to be held aloft in an era of misogyny and male-dominance. And while her strength and desire for respect certainly show traits of an early feminist, her acceptance of Rochester sends out a very clear, and very sad message to all readers of this novel; Jane could not overcome her circumstances. She could not thrive independently, because a nineteenth century woman of her social stature could not be in a position to do so.

Rather than being the sweeping romance embedded in the heads of most readers, Jane Eyre tells the story of a woman who is defeated and abused, and ultimately accepts her position as a sub-standard human being.


11 comments on “Jane Eyre: An Early Feminist or Weak-Willed Victim?

  1. You should write English books for schools!

    I never read Jane Eyre before so I wasn’t aware of these theme. However, despite having never read it I still had in the back of my head somewhere a notion about it being an idealistic romance novel primarily aimed at lonely women. Funny how common beliefs stick inside your brain almost sub-consciously.

    But yes, you do raise an interesting question regarding so many women’s desire to date a mentally unhinged or abusive man.

    So often these men are unattractive and undesirable by others yet the object of desire by many women – and yes, Fifty Shades of Grey is a very apt comparison!

    I do not wish for a man like this, but speaking from a woman’s perspective I would say the reason many women search for these men is because they are a lot harder to “get”, as it were. Remember the old saying, “Nice guys finish last”? Well, for these women, it’s true. There’s no “fight” to get a nice guy. It’s too easy! They’re too easy to “crack”, as it were; and for these women, these men appear weak, vulnerable and emotional.

    These women instead seek out a man who is stereotypically “masculine” ie have a temper, possessive over partner, etc etc. These men, as oppose to the “nice guys”, are instead perceived as being strong and protective. These women essentially want a nurturer, someone to look after them.

    So, they seek out these angry men – because they are perceived as strong and also because they are harder to “earn” attention from. Also, there is something mysterious about angry, antisocial men.

    Perhaps these woman also seek out these men (in my opinion) because there is something inside of these women that desperately seeks a “puzzle”, as it were. That is, they want to be the intelligent, skilled individual responsible for “fixing/curing” such an abused man. I reckon it goes back to the animal instincts of a woman to nurture.

    There is also a belief out there that women like to be dominated by a man; it is linked into the women’s desire to be “looked after”, as discussed above. This may also go back to the animal instincts as in many tribes pre-civilisation the man was always the one to provide for the family while the woman was the one to nurture the young. We have come a long way since then what with civilisation and money being invented; but there still remains the notion held by many that men and women still carry with them these animal instincts.

    Anyway, these are only my thoughts and observations, just something further to present to the table on this matter.

    As usual, a thought-provoking and excellently written blog, brother!

    • Thanks for commenting Aisling! Interesting perspectives. You should give it a read. I know you don’t like reading but it is a really good book, very addictive. I would be interested to see what you would say about the themes I’ve spoken of above after having read it. Nearly every woman I’ve spoken to about Jane Eyre goes on about how gorgeous and romantic it all is, which in my view is totally untrue.

      • Yes it’s interesting women would claim it to be mushy and romantic when you have raised the blatant relationship issues in your blog (which I trust to be true)

        However, isn’t it funny that so many women speak about Fifty Shades of Grey being romantic too, when the themes include that of domestic violence and psychologically abusive relationships?

        I’m not bashing BDSM; that alone is not my problem with the FSOG trilogy – rather, it is the blatant psychological abusive which bothers me. The relationship between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey is a domineering and abusive one. It is not a matter of them having a normal relationship but role-playing in a BDSM style in their own free time. The relationship is CONSTANT control, constant dominant and submissive relationship quirks – they don’t “get in/out of BDSM role-playing” like many BDSM couples would.

        Although, this is probably not intentionally portrayed as a psychologically abusive relationship; rather it is most likely down to the author’s ignorance and taken societal misconceptions about the whole community of BDSM.

        From what I have read online, couples who indulge in BDSM practices are actually normal couples who role-play in their own time for sexual fulfillment- both parties are contented and aroused by the BDSM behaviours. But in FSOG, Steele does not get sexual fulfillment as she should if the BDSM relationship was somewhat realistic.

        BDSM relationships require mutual consent, I can understand why so many BDSM communities online are annoyed by E.L James’s unrealistic and incorrect display of how these relationships really do work.

        I went into a bit of a tangent there- but it is interesting how FSOG is so popular because it brings us back to the point I made about many women wanting to be dominated, there must be some truth in it.

    • Interesting stuff about Fifty Shades of Gray! I agree with you completely. What is interesting is that E.L James tried to portray a romantic relationship that would sexually excite its audience, but Charlotte Bronte didn’t. I seriously doubt Bronte intended to write a soppy romance.

      • Yep tis all very thought-provoking. I think there’s a definite link to women wanting to be dominated/nurtured as an animal instinct. It’s a weird concept though that women find these story-lines romantic.

  2. Interesting analysis. It begs you to write the next chapter. Right now, as you say, it is a restoration of society and thus–like plays that end with marriage–can be seen as comic and even a deconstruction–but that needs foregrounding. Even satire requires some touchstone of what should be. So, Let’s hear/see the endgame. Someone else could write a chapter where Rochester is changed by rite of fire. Do we allow him to penance and reform in regard to his treatment of the wife figure? Or will Jane herself be the reformer? This would make an interesting anthology of scholarship and fictional alternatives of “Jane Eyre’s Marriage.,”

    • Thanks for the comment Susan! 🙂 That’s a really interesting idea. I never would have thought about that. I suppose what I am still trying to do is figure out why Charlotte Bronte made her go back to Rochester, and the only answer I’ve been able to come up with so far is that it would be popular with readers. People should definitely start thinking of different ways this could have ended and how they could have been good or bad for the plot 🙂

  3. I see Jane as an early feminist. She has the guts to leave what’s familiar (Lowood) in pursuit of something more meaningful. Rochester often seems like a father figure at times, since he seems to be the first male in the novel to show her kindness. (John Reed beat her up, St. John wants to use her for his ministry.) Rochester knows better than to propose but seems to be trying to grab a little happiness since he’s stuck with Bertha. And how was he planning to cope if he had succeeded in marrying Jane and Jane found out about his wife anyway after the marriage?

    Bertha’s story is told in Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. This book was intended to be a prequel to Jane Eyre and is an interesting take on the Edward/Bertha story in Jamaica & England.

    • Interesting point, and thanks for commenting and reading. I had never considered that before, that he was like a father figure. I agree with you on that. Jane essentially grew up with no positive male figures in her life. Perhaps this is why she is so smitten with Rochester when she meets him. I personally felt that she had feminist qualities up until the point when she met Rochester. Perhaps because she so badly wanted a father figure she sacrifices her feminism for his love? Who knows really, Jane is such a complex character, and Bronte certainly succeeded in that respect.

  4. Completely wrong interpretation/ Analysis of Jane Eyre. First off, to think that Jane loses her intelligence once she falls in love with Rochester is absurd. It’s not as if she acts like some teenage girl with a crush. Also, the circumstances under which the marriage between Bertha and Rochester it is very adequately explained by Mr. Rochester himself, with no room for the speculation you’ve put forward. And to think I was going to use this post as a source for my Research Paper. Ha!

    • Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and comment Tom. I’m always pleased to receive criticism on my work – that is, of course, the nature of literary criticism. I don’t understand the purpose of your comment fully however.

      In my piece, I argued several points. You mention my argument that Jane loses her intelligence once she falls in love with Rochester. I will concede that this is a slightly blunt statement on my part, however I do present an argument as to why this may have happened.

      With regards to the relationship between Bertha and Rochester, you are correct, he does give an explanation. My point was that this may not be a completely satisfactory one. I would argue that Bronte leads the reader to have a distrust of him throughout much of the novel, so why would we take his explanation as fact? Bertha has no voice in the novel, so how do we know what she may have wanted to say? And finally, do you really think that his explanation about his marriage excuses the fact that he deceived Jane? To say that there is no room for the speculation I’ve put forward is a blunt observation on your part. This is not just an interpretation made by myself; I refer you to the novel ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by John Rhys. It is a prequel to Jane Eyre that explores the relationship between Rochester and Bertha. While it is another piece of fiction by another author, it brings to the fore the question of Bertha’s supposed ‘insanity’, and questions Rochester’s state of mind.

      For you to say that my interpretation of this novel is ‘wrong’ is a problem, as I have outlined. What I have offered is an argument. That is the standard in scholarly writing of English literature. This was an argument that I presented to my class while studying for my undergraduate degree at university; one that my tutor highly praised. An interpretation of a novel cannot be wrong when it is backed up by an argument. In response, you failed to offer any counter-argument.

      Lastly, I would like to say that I would have strongly urged you not to use this piece as the basis for a research project. This article is not a scholarly one; it is not peer reviewed. It is simply unsuitable for the purpose you were looking at it for. If you are looking for interesting scholarly articles on Jane Eyre consult JSTOR or Google Scholar. You may even find some interesting scholarly debate on Google Books.

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