Jane Eyre and the Plight of Women

What makes Jane Eyre such a great read? In the middle of my reading and rereading of Jane Eyre, I would have said Mr. Rochester. Rochester and Jane, maybe, but definitely Rochester. I will probably always feel that way, but lately I have been thinking if it isn’t Jane Eyre that really makes the book. Duh, OBVIOUSLY, I hear some of you thinking, THE BOOK IS CALLED JANE EYRE, RIGHT? And yes, so it is. But she is a hidden presence at times, I feel. Subdued almost. At times irritatingly so. But in the end, I think she wins out. Not in a weak, “I want to serve my master” way, but because she holds to her ideals, makes her own way in the world. If she wasn’t so annoying at times, she might easily be the greatest literary role model.

F.H. Townsend, source: http://janeeyreillustrated.com

Somehow, for years when I thought of Jane Eyre, I thought of a meek woman. I silently accused the Brontës of a very patriarchal perspective that doesn’t leave any space for women’s self-development. I know, I know, how wrong I was! Blasphemous, almost. I wonder if it is because for years I solely concentrated on Jane Austen, or if it is just a weird personal twist in my thoughts. Either way, looking back, I do kind of see where this idea came from. If the passages you remember are things like this (which, by the way, make me gasp and want to shake some sense into the girl all at once):

“I like to serve you, sir, and to obey you in all that is right.”

and the rest of the story gets muddled into: falls in love with her “master”, the man has his first wife locked in a tower, she runs away, then comes back to him and forgives him. Somehow, somehow, I forgot the most important parts of Jane Eyre’s character or twisted the situations in the book into ones in which she is an almost helpless bystander. Now, I don’t feel she is annoying at all. But certainly, I like her better as the story progresses, as she learns to stand up for herself.

Example: Jane’s inner dialogue when she listens to Mr. Rochester pleading for her to stay with her, even if he already has a wife, was surprisingly similar to my own reaction while reading these scenes. Part of me wanted her to stay with him, to hell with virtue, let’s choose love! But you know, just know, that that is what she shouldn’t do. And Jane comes out all the stronger for not giving in. Maybe you could see her as an uptight, rather prim and small-minded girl who is following the rules far too often, but I disagree. Even if part of me wants her to give in, step into that room to see Rochester before she leaves Thornfield Hall, I know she would not have been happy. I know that had she done that, she would truly have given herself up. She would have defined herself solely on her relationship and love for Rochester.

I started to like Jane even more when she confronts St. John and tells him that she will not accompany him as a wife to help him in his missionary work (even if I was surprised that she would consider accompanying him anyway, what happened to not wanting to have too much distance between her and Rochester?). Her resistance, and once again keeping to her principles, keeping to her experience of love, even if no one else agrees, touched me. And St. John might very well be one of those characters that redeems Rochester along the way.

And let’s not forget about the many times Jane saves Rochester. Literally, from a fire, but most of all, from a wasted and miserable life.

Rereading this, I learned to admire not only Jane Eyre, but Charlotte Brontë. Her text can very well be read as a feminist text, even if the word was non-existent at that time. She enables her heroine to create her own life, her own space and her own character, in the limited space a woman at that time had. I love the thought that Jane Eyre asserts herself, not as a woman, but as an individual. I think this quote, on Jane’s feeling of dissatisfaction with her life at Thornfield before she met Rochester, even though she knew people would say she should be happy with what she had, pretty much sums it up:

“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”

17 thoughts on “Jane Eyre and the Plight of Women

  1. chasing bawa

    I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own where she talks about Jane Eyre and Jane Austen. I too feel the same way about Jane Eyre and recall feeling almost shocked at Jane’s quiet strength and force of thought.

  2. Teresa

    A huge, huge part of my love of Jane Eyre is Jane’s strength. I think your original view of her as meek is pretty common, though, although I’ve never quite understood it comes from. I’ve always seen her as really strong and independent, without having the irritating willfulness of Catherine from Wuthering Heights.

  3. Laura

    Brilliant post, Iris! I first read Jane as a teenager, and didn’t think about any of the deeper meanings. Re-reading as an adult my first reactions to Jane were more of the “shake some sense into her” variety. I like the way you put her in a feminist context. I may need another re-read someday!

  4. Amanda

    One of the members of my book club pointed out the month we read this that Jane can’t end up with Rochester until she is his equal both in character and in social standing/finances. Rochester loses so much of what he has, and Jane has become an independent woman, and only then can they be together. In the end, Jane not only has enough money to support her for the rest of her life, but her morality, dignity, and health are all whole. Rochester, on the other hand, has suffered many losses in all those areas. I loved that reading of the book, the equality of the two characters at the end of the book.

  5. rhapsodyinbooks

    I hated that Jane wouldn’t just stay with Mr. Rochester, but I agree with you that it never would have worked out. One wonders, given today’s much less rigorous moral standards, if Jane had stayed, would Mr. R. have respected her? Would she have respected herself? Could they have been happy?

  6. bookssnob

    I think Jane is remarkable. Intelligent, passionate, brave, self controlled and strong willed, she knows her own heart and she is not prepared to give up her morals for anything or anyone. She will not be bullied or put down because of her inferior social status, and when she falls down, she picks herself up and she carries on.

    I have always found her the centre of the story; without her, Rochester would just be another stereotypical lothario with too much money and an eye for his female servants. With her to be his foil, he becomes an arrogant but essentially goodhearted and misunderstood hero, who can only be truly happy when Jane is by his side. This dependence on Jane’s strengthening and purifying influence makes him actually her dependent, giving Jane a position of influence and power in the novel that is far above his. Jane can choose to leave, but Rochester doesn’t have the willpower to, and so while she forges a new life for herself, he stays behind and self destructs until Jane comes back to rescue him.

    Jane is the heart and soul and strength of Rochester, really. Without her, he is nothing, and we wouldn’t love him half as much.

  7. Jenny

    I always think it speaks very well of Rochester that Jane’s the girl he falls in love with. She’s smashing. Absolutely one of my favorite ever heroines. When she says “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me,” I want to stand up and cheer. She is so so brave. She’s religious without being sanctimonious. She’s so forthright and honest, and on top of everything, she’s got a wicked sense of humor. I love her so much.

  8. Jillian

    Yes, yes, yes! I love that final quote!!

    I never saw Jane as a weak character. To me she always felt quite strong — strong in her determination, and strong in her convictions. I liked her spirit from scene one.

  9. Jodie

    Yay, claps! Jane Eyre should be every girls heroine because she tries so hard, but doesn’t always master herself so she makes space for a young woman’s passionate rage, but also tries to teach us to turn that into a productive strength of resolve instead of letting it detroy us. I’ve gone through and still hold on to lots of interpretations of Jane and Rochester’s relationship and right now I’m at the ‘CB had a bit of an evil streak in her’ phase, considering that she not only humbles Rochester so he’ll be Jane’s equal, but takes it a little further and burns him so he’ll become dependent on her. Jane rules that house by the end of the book.

  10. rebeccareid

    I always think of Jane as a strong independent woman. She does what she wants throughout the book. I don’t remember the quote you give above (“I want to serve you, sir”) or where it comes in the book, but for her, it’s her way of loving him — some people are servers, and she’s saying she WANTS to give her strength, her free will, her independence to him. I think it’s sweet in that context. She’s strong even as she says that, not subservient.

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