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Thread: Feminist Issue in Jane Eyre

  1. #1

    Feminist Issue in Jane Eyre

    I see Charlotte’s Jane Eyre as an all-encompassing portrayal and thoroughgoing critique of Victorian society. It is far more comprehensive and eloquent than her previous but unpublished novel The Professor. This novel brings Charlotte very near to Charles Dickens in the sense that like many of the Dickinsonian novels, Jane Eyre vividly presents the socio-economic anomalies of the time, exposing the unbearable plights of the orphaned children (Oliver Twist). The first strength of the novel lies in the fact that it chronicles in a highly rapturous eloquence the life and living conditions, hopes and aspiration, sorrows and sufferings of the people belonging to different rungs of the social strata. And its second strength lies in the fact that it presents itself more than a social reportage: apart from presenting a strong critique on the unjust, discrepant, and anomalous social, political, economic structures, values, and practices of the age, it also envisions how the human society needs to be.
    Most importantly, this novel gives voice to the marginalized class and gender, grinded into the exploitative feudalistic structure of the society. Certainly, the novel also comes as an evidence—as Altick argues: “By the beginning of the nineteenth century the powerful concept of “refinement” prescribed that all women outside the working class abstain from gainful employment except in cases of extreme necessity. It was such cases which resulted in a few Victorian women becoming professional writers.”—to the fact that Victorian middle (and in some cases working) class women were more engaged in the intellectual endeavors compared to their upper-class contemporaries. Charlotte’s novel narrates—though obliquely—her own story of higher aspirations and of hardships in the person of a governess. The successful publication of this novel, after the setback experienced with the first, is no less interesting story of self-revelation and self-empowerment through self-education and writing of a Victorian woman author who had to disguise her gender by using a penname of a male. With the success of this novel Charlotte—like Jane Eyre, the governess—is able to form an identity that she long struggled to establish.
    Apart from the class issues, the whole of novel revolves around the most pressing issues of femininity and gender. There is no denying that Jane Eyre is a very radical in her opinions and actions about herself and her gender as a whole. She is both visionary and revolutionary: it is, indeed, uncanny for a woman of her time to say: “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” (129-30). In my view Jane Eyre is far ahead of her time to raise the questions pertaining to gender and class oppression, which is why the novel received scathing reviews from various conservative reviewers. But like many other masterpieces of literature that heralded the coming of an age by studying the state of affairs of the power relation in the society, Jane Eyre heralds of the changes that were to take place long after. A strong call for the social reform, Jane Eyre, in my view, can be considered as a fictional version of J. S. Mill’s seminal work The Subjection of Women (1869).

  2. #2
    who me?? optimisticnad's Avatar
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    You're right that the character Jane Eyre was way ahead of her time. However - surely the ending only confirms Victorian stereotypes? That she inherits money - becomes a lady of her own standing means only THEN can she marry Rochester. Rochester becomes a blind invalid of sort - he becomes dependent on Jane Eyre. They are equals now and only now can a union take place between the two which society would approve of. Had Jane Eyre got what she wanted before both their transformation - then the novel would have been truly ahead of its time.
    We can never know what to want, because living only one life we can neither compare it with our previous lives, nor perfect it in our lives to come'
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  3. #3
    ksotikoula ksotikoula's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by optimisticnad View Post
    You're right that the character Jane Eyre was way ahead of her time. However - surely the ending only confirms Victorian stereotypes?
    I don't see like this. The end does not take that form out of compliance to conventions. Jane Eyre is both a realistic tale and fairytale, but also a tragedy. And as a tragedy the heroes have commited an Hubris towards God: Rochester with his arrogance of "paving the hell with energy" and "sullying his flower" and Jane with "not being able to see God those days" because she had made an idol out of His creation. So after Hubris comes Wrath of God and punishment (separation and mutilation), to end up with Katharsis (=relief and reunion). That is also why I object to comments like blindness symbolizing his castration by a sadistic Charlotte Bronte. His punishment is the one that Bible has set for adultery.
    I grant you however that Charlotte did judge and disapprove of his Byronic past, being at the same time ironic to her younger self who had created a hero like Zamorna. This particular kind of man was alluring and sexy and seducing but he could not cover the sentimental needs of a woman or treat her as an equal. So Rochester was the rejection of Zamorna. He started as a Byronic hero, with his black horse, looking like a rider of Apocalypse only to end up only two minutes later smashing his face on the road, falling in front of Jane's feet: a really not Byronic entrance. And during the novel he has to change a lot and come to better understanding of his nature in order to be with his Jane.
    Her equality with him in the end may seem forced. But I believe Charlotte wanted both to bring out some aspects of Jane's personality (for example her disinterested way of accepting a fortune and sharing it and her decision to marry a cripple which shows her love was real and not effect of her being dazzled by his force or money) but also she makes another point. When Jane met Rochester was utterly alone (no family), destitute and leading a boring life and his being fascinating could make many women have a crush on him. Well Jane's love is not just a crush. Even after having found both money and family something is missing. He is truly her other half.
    And I object to those that say that Charlotte after creating such a powerful heroine makes her conventionally married. Feminism is not about rejecting men and living alone. Jane knows loneliness is a too high price to pay for independence. She has to find a balance and we really want her to be with her man. She deserves him after all. So maybe the theme of rewarding worthy characters may be conventional, but it works for me since society is usually so unfair and leaves a bitter taste. I need sometimes a fairytale to assure me that it doesn't have to be this way . Sometimes love and justice prevail even in our earthly world (not having to wait only for the spiritual one if you believe in it).

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    Feminist issues

    Well, feminism is, after all, just a civil rights issue, isn't it? The issues people are speaking of in these posts sound more like socioeconomic issues. My husband and I always laugh when these books are made into movies - the way the herione's face lights up when she first sees the hero's estate!
    Feminism comes in when the idea surfaces that the woman is who she marries. That concept is so entrenched in the time that all of the authors buy into it. They just make baby steps into feminism.

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    ksotikoula: He started as a Byronic hero, with his black horse, looking like a rider of Apocalypse only to end up only two minutes later smashing his face on the road, falling in front of Jane's feet: a really not Byronic entrance.
    Totaly agree with that. It is the strangest meeting and it foreshadows the end-resolution.

    Not only does he fall flat on his face, he can't stand on his own two feet anymore, and is forced to use Jane as support to get to his horse and mount it again. A most unflattering and unheroic picture: an independent man of the world who needs to lean on a tiny, frail looking female figure. It's not just ironic, it's jarring.
    The theme persists of the hero never really being able to act the hero (instead he is saved by the female lead): she saves his life after Bertha sets his bed on fire, he can't make her rich nor is he allowed to dazzle her with gifts, he's not around when Bertha enters her room and tears the veil, he can't give her his home (it's burned down), can't provide her with her first family, he can't find her after she ran off and make sure she's physically well. He doesn't even directly own te title of giving her a position for a governess. Mrs Fairfox gave Jane the job. And as for paying her wages: he owes her 5. His lament of "Jane, Jane, Jane" that causes her to return to Thornfield would, in other romances, have been the thing the female lead would be doing, not the manly hero.
    And in the end, he is reduced back to the state of the hero who's forced to physically lean on Jane, once more, in his blind state, just as when he first meets her.
    Jane is the action hero, whereas Rochester, whether he likes it not or not, is rendered to a passive role. And you need only to get a copy of the Venus and Mars advize books, that tries to defend this culturally ingrained idea where men are the action heroes and women take a passive role in courtship, to realize how the romance tale of Jane Eyre is even now still much ahead of gender role perception in courtship.

    StJohn, in contrast, is much more of an action hero: he actively takes her in the house and saves her from death and poverty, he supplies her with a job, he is the means through which she learns she has family relations and an heirress. Were it not for StJohn she would have no family, no money, no home, no food, no life. In contrast to Rochester, he persues her, pops the question thrice without even loving her, and almost manages to secure her through reasoning and emotional manipulation, if it weren't for Rochester's lament.

    Rochester's affection and love grows depending on Jane's activity too. He himself declares that he practically fell in love with her (was bewitched by her) from the moment he leans on her to get back to his horse.

    "When once I had pressed the frail shoulder, something new - a fresh sap and sense - stole into my frame. It was well I had learnt that this elf must return to me - that it belonged to my house down below - or I could not have felt it pass away from under my hand, and seen it vanish behind the dim hedge, without singular regret." (Jane Eyre, penguin books, VIII Chapter I, p 351)

    The point in time in the courthship where he accepts his own infatuation with her and forms serious marriage plans is after she saves him from the burning bed. Before that holding of her hand, he always calls her Miss Eyre. After that, no during, he starts to address her as Jane ever after. At least it shows he cannot but regard her in an intimiate emotional state. That he contemplates marriage by then can be denoted from his leaving the next morning in order to get Blanche Ingram and co to Thornfield, and provoke Jane into jealousy by planting into her head the idea he courts Blanche and intends to marry her.

    And he reveals his emotions and intentions only truly after she declares herself his equal and persists in leaving Thornfield, despite the fact that, a long while before this declaration of equality, Jane has already been candid enough she considers her home to be the place where he is.

    Jane herself recognizes that she must prevent Rochester from being an active lover to her: no presents, no jewelry, no idling away their time in each other's arms. Their official courtship benefits from her blocking any of his attempts to shower her with material and emotional evidence of his love (as he feels compelled to), and instead revert back to a game of provocations.

    Likewise she recognizes that the one thing that will assure him losing regard for her is to become his mistress in the French villa. Instead she must break his heart in order to have him love and respect her forever.

    Rochester finally surrenders to her completely, and not just physically by needing her to be his lead while he's blind, when he says, "Which you shall make for me, Jane. I will abide by your decision." Only after that does he regain enough action to ask her to marry him. The passivity of his courtship role is again reverberated in Jane's active declaration, "Reader, I married him.

    Loving him and marrying him has not just been her own choice and will, but also her own doing, except for the fact that he at least gets the honour of uttering the proposal. It seems but a meagre contribution that Rochester deserves Jane Eyre for his wife, just because he manages to pop the question. And yet, I never feel he's undeserving of her. Jane voices the reason why he deserves her to StJohn: he was the first to love her as she is.

    More, despite his scoundrel past, his boarish behaviour, his jealousy scheme, his lies about his marital status, I never feel he disrespects her, although there is always the danger lurking around the corner he might come to disrespect her were it not for her pert replies, her defiance and her active exertion of her own will. Jane has self-respect and integrity (rather than morality and social confirmity), even as a child already. And Rochester is the instrument in which her self-respect and integrity is tested. Not just by him being the domineering, willfull brute she needs to stand up against, but by him being the man she loves passionately at the same time.

    Rochester seems to be aware of both Jane's integrity and self-respect from the start of the acquaintance. His respect for her imo exists from the start, simply because it's evoked by the self-respect she seems to have been born with, rather than taught by life eperience. But he acts contrary to his feelings because
    a) he does not actively know her well enough
    b) he's used to get his way because of his status and station in life
    c) he's used to get his way because of his domineering character
    He even warns her of (b) and (c) early on already. Rochester wants to be sure she is what he thinks she is and acts from the first meeting until she runs away from Thornfield in every manner to provoke her into disrespecting herself: as a master, as an undeclared lover, as her courtier and husband to be.

    To me the ultimate question the book asks is whether Jane will forget herself and disrespect herself?
    - as a dependent child in a well-enough gentry family for material needs without being loved
    - as a dependent child in an austere environment
    - as a dependent employee under the caprice of her moody employer
    - as a woman
    - as a rejected family member even hated at her aunt's deathbed
    - as a woman passionately in love
    - as a homeless destitute
    - as a cousin to family who love her and she owes her life

    She proves throughout she does not lose her sense of self in any of the circumstances she ends up, not even the most alluring temptation of all: drunken, passionate love.
    Last edited by sweetsunray; 05-26-2009 at 05:22 PM.

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    Registered User mona amon's Avatar
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    Not only does he fall flat on his face, he can't stand on his own two feet anymore, and is forced to use Jane as support to get to his horse and mount it again. A most unflattering and unheroic picture: an independent man of the world who needs to lean on a tiny, frail looking female figure. It's not just ironic, it's jarring.
    The theme persists of the hero never really being able to act the hero (instead he is saved by the female lead): she saves his life after Bertha sets his bed on fire, he can't make her rich nor is he allowed to dazzle her with gifts, he's not around when Bertha enters her room and tears the veil, he can't give her his home (it's burned down), can't provide her with her first family, he can't find her after she ran off and make sure she's physically well. He doesn't even directly own te title of giving her a position for a governess. Mrs Fairfox gave Jane the job. And as for paying her wages: he owes her 5.

    -Sweetsunray
    LOL! I wonder why I find him so romantic, then. I guess it's because he gives her a rose, is right there on the spot to catch her when she stumbles and falls, and best of all, when she runs to meet him on that stormy night and he scoops her up onto his saddle...
    Exit, pursued by a bear.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mona amon View Post
    LOL! I wonder why I find him so romantic, then. I guess it's because he gives her a rose, is right there on the spot to catch her when she stumbles and falls, and best of all, when she runs to meet him on that stormy night and he scoops her up onto his saddle...


    Maybe because romance is not as gender role specific as some try to make it out to be, but simply the tension, problems to overcome combined with the anticipation of the interaction between the characters. Love is about 2 unique people finding happiness, affection and tenderness with each other, rather than following some gender role stereotype. And by deviating it, CB manages to say even more how it's love itself which is important, rather than any cultural expectation. And if it's not feminist it's at least emancipated to write about a relationship that works, is romantic, passionate, loving and respectful while it deviates from gender role stereotyping. More, CB also manages to portray the both of them in reversed action roles without Rochester losing his masculinity nor Jane losing her femininity.

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    Pièce de Résistance Scheherazade's Avatar
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    I think I will rean JE again this summer. It is on my DS, anyway.
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