The nineteenth century symbolized many tensions. Industrialization forced a re-evaluation of the way societies viewed their work world. Imperialism and racism solidified cultural barriers. Class warfare remained as prominent as ever. Writers and artists continually challenged traditional notions about sensuality and morality. Amidst all the turmoil, women began to take their first tentative steps toward equality and independence. This first era of feminism found a voice in the works of many of its contemporary authors, from Judith Sargent Murray to Mary Shelley.
Many English scholars would consider Charlotte Bronte among these feminist voices. She rose from the ranks of governess to become a best-selling author. Further, Bronte’s most celebrated novel, Jane Eyre, follows the coming-of-age tale of a strong-willed and passionate young woman—a significant departure from the willful young men who populated such tales at the time. Yet despite surface appearances, Bronte’s novel proves that the era of feminism had not quite yet reached its peak. The characters of Helen Burns, Bertha Mason, and even Jane herself present a subtle support of traditional gender roles.
Consider Jane’s first major peer influence, Helen Burns. Helen is, in many respects, the standard and the ideal of the nineteenth century woman: meek, passive, and accepting. While Jane spends her time at Lowood bemoaning the harsh conditions and the uncaring ways of Mr. Brocklehurst, Helen is the very picture of passive nobility. Like Jane, she is an overworked orphan who cannot even wash her own clothes for the frozen water. Jane’s first contact with Helen arrives when she observes a harsh teacher named Miss Scatcherd mistreating the young girl.
Yet, unlike Jane, Helen takes her circumstances in stride. She spends her time learning and studying rather than brooding over her fate. She tells Jane that Christian principles teach her to love her enemies and to accept her lot in life. The orphan even believes that any time spent daydreaming of her family is wasted time. Although her presence in the novel is brief, Helen maintains her status as arguably the most sainted character. No matter her own plight, she is always ready to cheer Jane with a smile.
She dies a noble death, devoid of anger and regret and full of relief and happiness at leaving the suffering world behind. Helen’s lasting impact on Jane is apparent. While Helen is alive, Jane declares, ““to gain some real affection from you…. or any other whom I truly love, I would willingly submit to have the bone of my arm broken, or to let a bull toss me, or to stand behind a kicking horse, and let it dash its hoof at my chest. ” Fifteen years after her death, Helen’s spirit still lives on, as her gravestone is finally marked (by Jane) with the phrase, “I shall rise again.
” By novel’s end, that prophecy may be fulfilled. Let us now consider the starkest contrast to Helen’s passivity, Bertha Mason. The reader learns through Rochester’s back story that Bertha is anything but the ideal housewife. She is presented as a rough and perverse character prone to bursts of anger and indulgence. At a loss of how to handle his strong-willed wife, Rochester does what any puzzled husband would do: he imprisons her. He chooses to “shelter…. her degradation with secrecy. ” And what is the result of this “shelter”ing?…
Bertha embodies the caged animal role that her husband has assigned her. She scurries around on all fours, thrashing and tearing at anything in sight (most especially, her husband). One way or another, Rochester has managed to force his wife into a role of submission. The reader may wonder if this loving husband’s motives were entirely pure, or if he simply needed a way to contain a woman who did not fit into his mold of a standard wife. He freely admits that he spends his free time not in the care of his wife, but in searching for love.
He leaves the inconvenience of his wife to a nursemaid. One may even ask if the Bertha presented in the novel was truly a product of her heredity, or if she was a product a Victorian society and a husband which could not accept her true nature. Did she have to pay for her strong personality with her sanity and, ultimately, her life? After all, while Helen is given a painless and noble passing, Bertha dies in a literal ball of flame. In a sense, Bertha represents the hidden nature of Jane, and women as a whole.
An examination of Jane’s own words will draw a parallel between the two women. Upon learning about Rochester’s marriage to Bertha, Jane thinks: “Feeling…. clamoured wildly. ” Her traditional impulses are saying, “soothe him; save him; love him. ” But the side of her that craves more than being an undignified mistress warns “who will be injured by what you do? ” For Jane, the answer is herself. Unlike Bertha, Jane (because of her refinement and education), must temper her impulses and wage all of her battles internally. Yet the battles still rage.
Perhaps Bertha is an outward manifestation of the tension which brewed within all of the ‘happy and submissive’ wives and mothers of the time. As Jane herself proclaims: I could not help it; the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes…my sole relief was to walk along the corridor … let my heart be heaved by the exultant movement… a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously; quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling, that I desired and had not in my actual existence… Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot…
The reader sees through such musings that Jane is a woman with the potential for revolution. She is revolted by the thought of being “always restrained, and always checked—forced to keep the fire of my nature continually low, to compel it to burn inwardly and never utter a cry…” For these reasons, she chooses not to marry St. John. She also expresses displeasure when Rochester attempts to dress and pamper her, declaring that she feels like a doll and a possession. But despite these moments of independence, Jane still reverts to traditional romantic heroine type often in the novel.
Once she arrives at Thornfield, the focus shifts almost immediately from Jane’s struggles for independence to her possible romance with Rochester. The Thornfield portion of the novel presents Jane at her weakest. She is forced into the role of governess, which she dislikes. She spends her free time roaming the aforementioned corridors, restless in her imprisonment. She is saddened by Rochester’s absence, and exhibits jealousy upon his return with Blanche Ingram. And she allows the beautiful socialite to intimidate and belittle her with nary a word of protest.
At times, Jane seems every bit the damsel in distress just waiting for her knight in shining armor to ride to the rescue: “My hopes were all dead. . . .” When she leaves Rochester and Thornfield following the discovery of Bertha, Jane regains some of her independence. She makes new friends in Diana and Mary, she finds herself teaching at (rather than attending) a charity school, she lives independently in a cottage, she refuses to enter a marriage of convenience, and she inherits a massive fortune, ensuring her financial independence. Jane has seemingly transformed herself into a feminist’s dream.
However, what many scholars and readers view as the culmination of Jane’s rise to feminist hero is in fact her solidified surrender to tradition. When Jane marries Rochester at novel’s end, many see a woman entering into an equal and true partnership with a man. Jane claims as much: “ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together…. ”
But are the two truly equals? Is Rochester only equal to Jane once he has been blinded, lost a hand, traumatized, dejected, and dependent? What statement does this make about women? Is Jane only equal to Rochester once she has claimed her fortune from a dead man? Can her story only find happiness with the traditional romantic ending—a wedding? It seems that the passive and noble Helen has “risen” again by novel’s end, in the form of Jane Eyre Rochester…. a woman content with her “more animated” conversations in the “red room” of her marriage?