Jane Eyre And The Patriarchal Society
Charlotte Brontë wrote many of her works at a time in England’s history that praised and valued the work of men and largely dismissed the equally brilliant works of women. Leading the charge that demanded women’s works be heard, Brontë wrote Jane Eyre as an embodiment against the patriarchal society in which she and many other women writers of the nineteenth century lived. Jane Eyre is a novel that examines the patriarchal society of the time, explores what it means to be a feminist within a man’s world, and investigates self-realization by utilizing a journey motif. Through Bronë’s careful composition, she creates a world fraught with symbolism of the repressive nature of the patriarchal society through gothic images that influenced novels at her time of writing. Brontë also skillfully deconstructs the restrictive and patriarchal gender norms of the Victorian society by playing on age, social class, and power. By all these means, Brontë produces a classic novel introducing groundbreaking feminism into the nineteenth century.
From the very first pages of the novel, Brontë begins to develop Jane’s character as a fiery young girl, unhappy in the oppressive and unfortunate situation in which she finds herself, in the indentured care of her cold aunt. It is while in her aunt’s care at Gateshead that the reader sees the first glimpse of Jane as a non-traditional female in this time period. She is described as, “a little toad” with “shocking conduct” and a personality that is “passionate and rude” (Brontë 8, 20). A female in this time period is typically described as quiet, pretty- if not simply plain, accepting of their place, and tend to live stagnant lives devoid of traveling, except when the time comes to marry (Locy, 107). Jane appears to embody none of these traits; it is in this aspect that the reader begins to see Jane as a more masculine figure or a budding feminist. Brontë further cultivates Jane as a feminist by modeling her development into womanhood after a typical Victorian male’s development. Her first travel, which Brontë does not include in the novel, is from her previous home with her parents to Gateshead. Then from Gateshead, Jane is whisked away to a school where she receives an education and goes on to earn a position teaching. From teaching at Lowell, she travels again to Thornfield, then to a place unknown to her, and back to Rochester in Ferndale. When compared to the typical male development plot in this time period, the reader will find that Jane’s experiences and developmental stages are strikingly similar, “each stage in her life is marked by a move to a new location much in the same way as a boy’s story of development is” (Locy, 107).
In addition to her masculine developmental stages, Jane’s thoughts and actions also portray her in a feminist light. She is deeply discontented with what little is expected and accepted of a woman in her time and her social standing, “to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing the piano and embroidering bags” (Brontë, 96). Jane dreams bigger than to be enslaved to her estate, to her work, or to her social class. Essentially, Jane does not desire to be enslaved to performing her gender. Jane makes this clear to the reader in her initial introduction to Rochester, whom does not pay her any attention despite her feminization and performance of the ideal Victorian female gender role, adorning her best silk dress and single pearl. She basks in his dismissiveness towards her and her performance of the female gender. Jane even feels empowered by Rochester’s indifference, “a decent quiescence, under the freak of manner, gave me the advantage” (Brontë, 147). In Jane’s securing of the governess position at Thornfield, she defines her feminism even more so, as Ester Godfrey states, “the threat to gender stability presented by governesses stemmed [...] from the more explicit sexual threat governesses wielded to the middle-class men they encountered. They were feminine and they were not feminine” (859). This is the perfect middle-class position of power that Jane craves; a power over the master. Whether it be due to her small advantage of Rochester paying no mind to her gender performance, deeming it unnecessary, or to the fact that a governess, “extends sexual connotations” by “stealing a look [...] toward her male employer” meaning “she could not be trusted to regulate her own sexuality”(Godfrey, 859). Feminism requires no apology for the female sexual desire. That is why earning the position of governess at Thornfield was so pivotal for Jane. Godfrey brings this to the reader’s attention saying, “Governesses provide a site for middle-class male desire while working against existing gender norms and outside of sexual restriction imposed upon middle-class wives and daughters” (860). This means that securing the position as Thornfield governess makes the marriage and romance between Rochester and Jane possible and solidifies Jane as a feminist operating outside of the normal feminine sphere.
This feminist culmination of freedom and self-aware power would not have been possible if not for Jane’s travels. Each physical journey Jane partakes also takes on some sort of a spiritual component. A longing for freedom from one place to another is also a steady theme during the whole of the novel. The need for this emancipation stems from Gateshead as it is a representation of the patriarchal society that keeps Jane enslaved. The gothic elements that describe Gateshead and its horrible red room with “curtains of deep red damask, stood out like a tabernacle [...] two large windows, their blinds always drawn down, [...] This room was chill, [...] it was silent, [and] solemn,” where Jane was locked away for her acting out against her “Master” Reed, make the red room become the entire estate and one and its experiences are inseparable from the other for Jane (Brontë, 8). Each scene of longing to reach freedom, whether physically or psychologically, always involves Jane gazing through the window followed by a journey, as illustrated in this scene, “I fell to breathing on the frost-flowers with which the window fretted”(Brontë, 26). She is yearning for liberation from her deceased uncle’s estate, “If I had anywhere else to go, I should be glad to leave it; but I can never get away from Gateshead” (Brontë, 20). This highlights why the drawn blinds in the red room are such an issue; they prevent Jane from ever escaping the domineering patriarchy that is Gateshead.
In this case of Jane gazing out the window, Mr. Brocklehurst will soon arrive to collect her and bring her on a journey to Lowood, a charity school run for orphans.From her very first journey from Gateshead to Lowell, Jane travels from a place where she is different,“you are a dependant,”unwelcome, “you ought to beg, and not to live here,” and repressed by the patriarchal authority of her cousin, “Master Reed,”to a place where she is an equal among her peers. The journey to Lowood, however, is filled with gothic imagery to foreshadow the new patriarchy she is to encounter at the school. Jane says that she is, “severed [...] from Gateshead: thus whirled away to unknown [...] remote and mysterious regions” (Brontë, 39). Ruth Livesey describes the gothic nature of the trip affecting Jane in such a way that she is terrified and scared of being kidnapped from the “great gray hills,” “a valley dark with wood,” and “a wild wind rushing amongst the trees” (40). Following this foreshadowing, Jane’s feminist spirit falls victim to the personality-silencing oppression of the patriarch of Lowood, Mr. Brocklehurst.Mr. Brocklehurst exerts his dominance over the ladies at Lowood to such an extent that he even controls how feminine their appearances are, “why has she [...] curled hair? [...] I have again and again intimidated that I desire the hair to be arranged closely, modestly, and plainly. [emphasis on intimidated added];” the language Brontë speaks through Mr. Brocklehurst, “intimidated” rather than “said” or “stated,” highlights all that is wrong with patriarchal figures of this time (Brontë, 23-27). Despite the presence of the intimidating male figure at Lowood, Jane finally has the chance to make a friend, Helen, and discovers much about herself through the instruction of Miss Temple. Miss Temple teaches Jane what is expected of a woman, “to her [...] I owed the best part of my acquirements; her friendship and society had been my continual solace” (Brontë, 86). Jane’s next journey, from Lowood to Thornfield and the stops along the way, is foreshadowed with a window scene, “My world had for some years been in Lowood. My experience had been of its rules and its systems; now I remembered that the real world was wide [...] I went to my window, opened it, and looked out. There were the skirts of Lowood; there were the hilly horizon. My eyes passed on all other objects to rest on those most remote, the blue peaks” (Brontë, 28). In this window-gazing scene, Brontë chooses not to specify the amount of time spent at Lowood to accentuate how long and uneventful it was to be there, trapped with the rules set in place by its domineering supervisor. Jane has been so enslaved by the authority of Mr. Brocklehurst, that she even forgets a world exists beyond Lowood. Jane had almost lost who she was. This window-gazing scene is important as it serves to realign Jane with her feminism, “Now I was left in my natural element” and longs to be freed, “Grant me at least a new servitude” (Brontë, 87-88). Not long after, Jane finds herself taking control of her situation and walks to the post office to advertise herself for governess. This marks the beginning of her long journey to Thornfield and the feminist spiritual growth she experiences being a governess for Rochester.
Not long after her appointment at Thornfield, Jane is once again seen at the window, looking out, “waiting for I [she] knew not what” (Brontë, 234). The reader now knows to prepare for a journey with Jane. However, this journey is missing the usual element of a forlorn hope for freedom. This is because the reason for her traveling is different; she is not attempting to flee from Thornfield, but she is going to return to Gateshead, where it all began for Jane. Jane returns to Gateshead to visit with her ailing aunt and the reader is faced with a window scene again. This time, the window-gazing represents a journey for Jane, from Gateshead and free of an oppressive ghost from her past, as well as her aunt, from this life to the next, “The rain beat strongly against the panes [...] ‘One lies here,’ I thought, ‘who will soon be beyond the war of earthly elements. Whither will that spirit [...] flit when at length released?’” (Brontë, 266). The spirit Jane is referring to is both her’s and Mrs. Reed’s; Jane’s spirit will at last be free of Gateshead with her aunt’s passing and her aunt’s spirit will be free from this Earth. This particular scene is the perfect example of how the journeys Jane takes are both spiritual and physical, as now she will retire from Gateshead once more.
One of the most important window scenes in the novel is Jane actually peering into the window at Moor House. This reversal of the looking out for freedom is pivotal to Jane’s success as a powerful feminist. Not only is this a place where she arrives at more self-realization, but also the place that makes it possible for her to come into a large inheritance, which secures her feminism and power. At her learning of her inheritance, Jane recognizes that she is finally free and able to make her own choices, “it is a fine thing to be lifted in a moment from indigence to wealth [...] Independence would be glorious-- yes, I felt that--that thought swelled my heart” (Brontë, 414). She learns that she enjoys the rewards of household duties, “The best thing the world has,”and that a “hard and cold” husband was not for her, as “it would be a trying things to be his wife” (Brontë, 426). For this reason, along with her outspoken feminist personality, Jane allows herself to refuse St. John’s marriage proposal, “I am ready to go to India, if I may go free. You have hitherto been my adopted brother-- I, your adopted sister: let us continue as such: you and I had better not marry,” and “I will never be your wife” (Brontë, 440-448). She is able to make these decisions due to her new found wealth, as before her inheritance was discovered, Jane would have had to marry for social status and become the property of her husband. Again, the theme of freedom by travel is revealed to the reader and, coupled with the rejection of marriage, displays the essence of feminism still exuded by Jane. A power reversal is in the making; it climaxes with St. John’s marriage proposal and soon after follows the fall of Rochester’s patriarchal dominionship. This chapter draws to a close with Jane listlessly gazing out the window with Diane, signaling a new journey is soon to begin.
Jane’s next journey takes her back to Rochester, but now as a woman with more freedom and more power. By this mode, it is necessary that Jane had rejected Rochester’s proposal to runaway and remain together as master and mistress. This allows Jane to strengthen the feminist aspects of herself by choosing her own self respect over the chance to become little more than a mistress. With her refusal, subsequent leave, and gain of fortune, Jane begins to subvert Rochester’s power over her and the reader witnesses a reversal of roles. The beginning of this reversal is revealed to the reader as Jane nears what was once Thornfield, “I looked with timorous joy towards a stately house; I saw a blackened ruin” (Brontë, 462). The gothic imagery surrounding her first glimpse of a ruined Thornfield, “the crows sailing overhead,”“At last the woods rose,” and the imagining of her master standing in his window awaiting her coming foreshadows the unfortunate situation Jane will happen upon (Brontë, 459-460). Compared to what Sharon Locy states, “Thornfield, the symbol of male domination, must be destroyed and Jane may only return to Rochester when she has been empowered by her own wealth [...] that would make her more his equal,” the turning of tables is complete, but Jane has yet to discover this herself (115). Jane’s own discovery of her power blossoms with her first glimpse of Rochester at Ferndean, “[I] stood to watch him-- to examine him, myself unseen, and alas! to him invisible. In his countenance I saw change: [...] the caged eagle [...] look as looked that sightless Samson” (Brontë, 469). Jane’s rejoicing in Rochester’s inability to see her and her comparison to him as a caged Eagle, and to Samson, the great man defeated by a woman, all exhibit Jane’s newfound power. Rochester’s enlightenment to Jane’s upper hand comes when she refuses to tell him who she is despite his commands, “Who is this? [...] Answer me” to which Jane replies, but does not answer his question, “Will you have a little more water, sir” (Brontë, 471). Rochester senses the change in Jane even more so when she tells him, “I am an independent woman now. [...] Quite rich, sir” to which Rochester replies, “Jane, you have now [...] friends who will look after you, and not suffer you to devote yourself to a blind lamenter like me?” (Brontë, 473). Here, Brontë shows the reader that Jane is able to speak in such a way because she is able to due to her place in society (Livesey, 625). Rochester’s unease at Jane’s escape from his control is highlighted here as he has placed himself at the mercy of her choice to stay with him as a burden or to leave and be free. Godfrey observes, “the sexual threat of Jane’s youth influences the transference of physical and economic strength [power and dominance] from Rochester to Jane” and “Describing himself, he places himself in the typically feminine, powerless position in the marriage” (Livesey, 865-868).
Where Jane’s once alluring youth excited and enhanced Rochester’s dominance over her, after her return to Thornfield, it has morphed into a threatening presence. With Thornfield in ashes, his position in society lowered, and his eyesight gone, Rochester becomes vulnerable. It is in Jane’s return that her feminist qualities are undeniable. Her speech, her inner thoughts, and her actions exude that of a modern day, oppression-less woman. Jane knows she is the one in control and she likes it, “just as a royal eagle, chained to a perch, should be forced to entreat a sparrow to become its purveyor” (Brontë, 562). Finally, Jane has reached the moment of freedom she has been longing for over the duration of the novel; Rochester, the only man in Jane’s life that would cause threat to her feminist freedom, abandons his patriarchal hold over Jane and she is free from all constraints (Godfrey, 868).
Brontë’s choice to allow Jane only to overcome the male authoritative obstacles posed to her little by little allows Jane’s growth as a feminist to converge with her final power overthrow. It makes the reversal of power from the patriarchy to the feminist sphere, even verging on matriarchy, possible. Brontë utilized Jane to illustrate the impact traveling had on women of her time and the ability of those journeys to change and shape their minds; she shows the reader through Jane that the more one travels, the more they grow in self-realization and sufficiency. Through Jane, Brontë comments on the unacceptable idea of women as property in the patriarchal society and demonstrates how a woman can find equality in her marriage. The subtle use of gothic imagery to foreshadow the impending oppression of male authority is brilliant in that Brontë was writing in a time where gothic novels were the popular entertainment piece among men. Her choice to use the window as a representation of a longing for freedom was fitting as the only thing that seperated Jane from her desires was an invisible boundary, much like the patriarchal society was an invisible boundary to the women of Brontë’s time. The deconstruction of the gender roles in Jane’s world and her forthcoming as a new type of feminist woman truly separate Brontë’s commentary fromany other novel at the time that was written simply for enjoyment. If Jane Eyre does nothing else, it reveals that Brontë was a woman beyond her time.