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Independence From A Gender-Influenced World

by James Fannon

Charlotte Brontë, an English novelist and poet, was an important figure in Victorian era England. One of a few female writers during the time, Brontë challenged the social structures that acted as the general normality, including social classes, religion, and morality. These themes are present in many of her works, including Shirley, Villette, and The Professor. Her novel Jane Eyre demonstrates these themes in a remarkable fashion, but the most prominent theme in the novel is that of gender roles, including the destructibility of them. The world that heavily valued gender roles constantly tries to transform Jane into the submissive, ideal woman of the era, and although it ends up happening, the fight and spirit that Jane displays throughout the novel serve as an empowering motif of how gender roles depress the spirit, dreams, and aspirations of a free individual such as Jane Eyre.

It is important to know the expectations of men and women during the Victorian era to understand why Jane Eyre is such an important novel. Felicia Appell states, “During the Victorian era, men and women searched for an ideal relationship based on the expectations of a demanding society…. Women in the Victorian society had one main role in life, which was to marry and take part in their husbands’ interests and business. Before marriage, they would learn housewife skills such as weaving, cooking, washing,

and cleaning, unless they were of a wealthy family.” (Victorian Ideals:  The Influence of Society’s Ideals on Victorian Relationships) In this fashion, women were merely placed on metaphorical pedestals, expected to be submissive, and understand that it was not their place to be in the same educated space as men. The traditional roles of women as well as the lack of advanced education that they received is only one notion of injustice and inequality, forcing a free spirit to remain subdued because it is not what society wants. Although men did not have nearly the amount of pressure to adapt to societal standards, Appell states, “…men not only had to gain women’s respect before marriage, but they also had to impress the rest of society and their male gender.  Men became victims of social pressures because their peers scrutinized their success.” (Victorian Ideals:  The Influence of Society’s Ideals on Victorian Relationships) Both genders received expectations that could affect their lives. Women must remain “feminine”, innocent, and put their own desires aside for those of her husband. Men were expected to be successful and raise a family, otherwise they would not be considered masculine or truly useful.

Many of these gender roles are present in Jane Eyre, and Jane herself enters many situations in which these are forced upon her. In some cases, her subjugation is actually brought upon by other women, albeit with a higher social standing. In spite of this, Haiyan Gao states, “When Jane is about to leave Gateshead to the charity school, Mrs. Reed thinks she can make Jane frightened by her status and decides to give a hypocritical and sanctimonious talk to guide Jane to express gratitude in front of Mr. Lloyd, the apothecary. But Jane refuses to be this rich lady’s doll, being treated as unemotional and shameless.” (Reflection on Feminism in Jane Eyre) This is a notable

moment in the novel, as it is one of the first instances where Jane stands up for herself, demonstrating her sense of justice and willingness to break the gender role of women being compliant to her “superiors”. In addition, Jane’s passion and refusal to compromise to fit Rochester’s idea of marriage are an example of the refusal to surrender to a limiting institution. She states, “Feeling . . . clamoured wildly. “Oh, comply!” it said. “. . . soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?” Still indomitable was the reply: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” (Brontë, 2009, p. 102) Jane is desperately trying to avoid being trapped by this marriage. Although she loves Rochester, she realizes that marrying him will only constrict her passions and desire to be unbound to the gender constructions of Victorian era society. This event also happens after she finds out about Bertha Mason, which means that Jane would merely be Rochester’s mistress rather than his wife. This would almost certainly end Jane’s respect for herself as well as Rochester’s respect for her if she complies. Jane also rebels against the Victorian era view of marriage as more of a status symbol rather than an institution founded upon true love. Gao points out, “Jane is in great unconformity with the social environment at that time. She dares to fight against the conventional marriage ideas, which well reflects all feminists’ voice and wish for a true love.” (Reflection on Feminism in Jane Eyre). Her experience with John is a primary example of this, as he offers her an opportunity to contribute more to the world than she would by being a housewife. As Jane points out, however, that

marriage would be “one of duty, not of passion.” (Brontë, 2009, p. 239) This relates to the expectation that one must get married at all cost. In many instances, the marriage is done out of necessity rather than out of love. Jane’s refusal to John’s offer represents her will to overcome these gender expectations.

Brontë’s writings in Jane Eyre have undoubtedly been somewhat influenced by the time period. Throughout the novel, there is a constant struggle between following gender constitutions established by society. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar write, “And we must particularly do this to understand literature by women because… the images of ‘angels’ and ‘monsters’ … have also pervaded women’s writing… that few women have definitely ‘killed’ either figure.” (The Madwoman in the Attic) These constructions depict one subject as less than another (or more destructive than another), and Jane Eyre struggles to break out of the impressions that were almost programmed into her. At the Lowood School, the girls are told to be passive, and to be subservient to men. Although Jane was only a child at the time, she still had a sense of equality, and this “education” only distanced her further from societal expectations. The idea of angels and monsters can also come into play when Bertha Mason is discussed. Many characters in the novel, including Jane at some points, view her as insane because of what Rochester told them and what they saw in the attic. However, this “demonic” form is not as black and white as the characters perceive it to be. Like Jane, Bertha is a trapped spirit, stuck up in an attic because she would not be subservient to Rochester. Jane Eyre seems to realize this, and even seems to equate it to her own position.  These black and white accusations towards

Bertha are no doubt a product of the societal expectations that have become the normality. Of course, these expectations are based on the home. Gilbert and Gubar write, “For the more secular nineteenth century, however, the eternal type of female purity was represented… by an angel in the house.” (The Madwoman in the Attic) Although Jane somewhat falls into these gender roles by becoming a governess, there really wasn’t an alternative in terms of a career. However, she still kept her fiery spirit that has helped to keep her free. Even when she was with Rochester, many of her actions demonstrated her resistance to the life of a passive housewife. Despite her ultimately giving in to the constitution of marriage at the end, she does so with her and Rochester as equals. In a way, it can be seen that Jane held her own against Rochester and societal expectations until the both could marry without compromise.

Jane Eyre was significant in its social criticism of many topics, notably that of gender roles. Brontë created many characters that represented the flaws of Victorian era society, including Rochester, and put herself and her desire for equality in characters like Jane Eyre. Although some characters eventually gave in to these expectations, even in these circumstances it is apparent that the idea of defined gender roles and gender submissiveness can prove to be detrimental to society and those within it, binding them from their passions and true potential.

Works Cited

Appell, Felicia. “Victorian Ideals: The Influence of Society’s Ideals on Victorian Relationships.” McKendree. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Feb. 2015. .

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. First Vintage Classics ed. New York: Vintage, 2009. Print.

Gao, Haiyan. “Reflection on Feminism in Jane Eyre.” Literature Resource Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Feb. 2015. .

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” The University of West Georgia. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Feb. 2015. .