Timeless: A Commentary on Feminism in Charlotte Bronte's “Jane Eyre”c
Although the history of feminism has experienced its ups and downs, there is no doubt that Charlotte Bronte’s ageless novel, “Jane Eyre,” is a champion for the female voice. Jane Eyre’s personal struggle for independence, self-respect, dignity and equality—all of which she demands in her relationships with other characters—permeate throughout Bronte’s novel. This captivating story of an orphan who displays perseverance and resilience in the face of strict gender roles and despair compels readers to take action with the remarkable calibre of strength, courage and hope that Jane most exquisitely embodies.
Orphaned as an infant, Jane experiences a miserable youth at Gateshead, her Aunt Reed’s residence. Relentlessly outcasted, alienated and victimized at the hands of her cousins due to her low social class and lack of intimate relation to the Reeds, she is soon sent away to a charity school for orphaned girls. Despite rigid classroom instruction at Lowood Institute led by hypocritical and indifferent headmaster Mr. Brocklehurst, Jane learns to combat these hardships and difficulties through her friendship with Helen Burns. As they grow closer, Jane learns many life lessons from Helen, who demonstrates a strong moral system and faith in God, but soon succumbs when a typhus outbreak takes her life along with many other students. Companionless, Jane remains at the school for six more years as a student, and two more after that as a teacher.
She then accepts a position as a governess at Thornfield Manor, where she teaches a young French girl named Adele. As she accompanies Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper, she finds herself secretly falling in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester. Jane soons discovers his dark and impassioned nature after she saves him from a fire which Mr. Rochester claims was caused by Grace Poole, a maid servant also working at the Thornfield Residence. Jane, still attempting to piece together her life at the Manor, grows morose and despondent when Mr. Rochester brings home a beautiful yet fierce woman named Blanche Ingram. Convinced that she has no place in Mr, Rochester’s eyes, Jane believes that he will propose to Ms. Ingram; to her surprise, he proposes to Jane instead, who disbelievingly accepts.
Just as Mr. Rochester and Jane get ready to exchange vows on their wedding day, Mr. Mason rushes in the church to declare that Mr. Rochester already has a wife. He claims to be the brother of Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester’s wife. As he elaborates on Bertha and Mr. Rochester’s marriage in Jamaica, Rochester testifies that it is true. He then brings the wedding guests and Jane to see Bertha, who has gone mad. Mr. Rochester reveals that he pays Grace Poole to control his bestial wife, and that the fire that almost claimed Rochester’s life at the beginning of the story was indeed caused by Bertha. Overcome by disbelief and sorrow, Jane’s conscience tells her marrying the man she loves after learning this information would be immoral and impossible, so she eventually flees Thornfield.
Sans money, Jane is forced to wander the streets and beg for food to survive. Luckily, three siblings who live in a manor called March End find her and take her in. Jane comes to know the two girls as Diana and Mary and the other sibling as St. John, who is a clergyman. He then finds Jane a job at a school in Morton, and she accepts. One day, St. John tells her that Jane’s uncle, John Eyre, has passed away, and has left her a sizable inheritance. She also discovers she and the Rivers are related Upon this discovery, she decides to share her inheritance with her newfound cousins.
As St. John decides to go to India to serve as a missionary, he requests that Jane accompany him as his wife. Jane agrees to go to India with him, but she refuses to marry him because she does not love him. Despite this, St. John pressures her to reconsider her decision. Caught in a conflict between her conscience and desire, she realizes that she is still in love with Mr. Rochester. One night, she hears Mr. Rochester's voice call her name, causing her to immediately depart Marsh End and makes her journey to Thornfield, where she is reunited with Mr. Rochester. She discovers that Bertha started a fire that burned the Manor to the ground and cost Bertha her life. She also learns that Mr. Rochester, who lost his eyesight while trying to save himself and his servants in the house fire, has moved to a new residence. Finally reunited with the man of her dreams, Jane and Mr. Rochester eventually get married and have a child.
Unprecedented for her time, Jane makes independent decisions and considers what aligns with her well-being and morals. She demonstrates a strength of character and voice, and the desire to be free from the restricted gender roles and norms set for women of her time. She defies and challenges these ideals about women in her society by marrying the man she truly loves and is of a higher social class than her. For Jane, love knows no bounds—no matter the age, social status or physical disability.