What does a feminist figure entail? What exactly does it take to be regarded as one? Well, the answer to this question lies in the very definition of feminism: the advocacy of women’s rights and interests. Basically, in an ideal world, women have the same political, social, and economic privileges that men possess. In other words, rather than being heavily reliant on a man for financial gain, a successful status, and the vaguest sense of autonomy, the woman in question should – to the best of her ability – achieve these things on her own. Moreover, and most importantly, the woman should feel content with her ending situation so as to demonstrate that, like men, women can ultimately attain self-fulfillment. With this so-called feminist figure, the intent is to verify that women should not simply submit to the social hierarchy. To achieve rights as well as personal happiness, women have to be active and speak their minds in order to fight for justice.
Now that we have outlined the essentials of feminism, it is time to introduce the debate currently at hand that this paper will explore: Can Jane – the timid but strong-hearted protagonist from Charlotte Bronte’s bestseller Jane Eyre – be classified a feminist figure? By the end of the book, can readers assert with confidence that she fought against the confines of society, boasted her worth, and came out with her head held high? Well, the situation is a lot more complicated than that, and therefore it is impossible to answer this inquiry with a mere ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Some critics contend that, having risen from rags to riches and found a secure home with a loving husband, Jane serves as a representation of the positive consequences of feminism. Others firmly rebuke this idea, arguing that, out of fear of the unknown, Jane actually halted the momentum of an advantageous future, and so her character seems to work against the feminist objective. Frankly, there is no easy route to follow in regards to revolution; however, by looking at various interpretations of Jane Eyre, we can gauge if Jane validates that it is achievable and a necessity.
To start off, it is important to clarify who Jane Eyre is. She’s not your typical, doe-eyed, 19th century heroine. Sure, she is relatively reserved and spends a majority of her story under servitude, but she is not entirely subordinate. In fact, one could argue that she is actually a fierce rebel in disguise – quietly trying to defy the social hierarchy as she makes a name for herself. In her article “Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the Female Detective and the ‘Crime’ of Female Selfhood,” Sandro Juny claims that Jane is an active character. In spite of her “dependent position as a governess,“ should the opportunity arise, she will fearlessly voice her opinion (21). For example, there are multiple occasions when Mr. Rochester runs to Jane for advice, and she offers it to him more like a trusted confidante than an obedient employee looking to impress her boss (Jung 22). She is honest while also taking sensitivity and respectability into account.
Also, in consequence of being victimized as a child, Jane is positively ambitious. Growing up under the harsh, judgmental eyes of Mrs. Reed and being bullied by her selfish cousins induces her to develop “intense feelings of insecurity, vulnerability, and hopelessness” (Paris 145). Therefore, there is no question as to why Jane desperately searches for an environment where she feels in control and appreciated. She wants to be more than useful. She craves “warmth and approval” (Paris 149). She needs to feel valued. As Jane tells her friend Helen in the book, she “would rather die than live” if she had to cope with isolation and hatred from others (Bronte 1: 84). This indicates that Jane is someone who downright refuses rejection. She had her fill of it throughout her youth, and now she desires love and acceptance. Finally, Jane is keen on the idea of experience and travel, for she recognizes that the world is wide and vast. Out there, “a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements” awaits anyone who is brave enough, and she eagerly seeks it out; otherwise, she knows that she might fall into the general pattern for women – constrained, stagnate, and “in silent revolt.” All of these unconventional traits combined seem to make Jane a likely candidate for a feminist figure.
But does Jane’s happily ever after honestly quench her thirst for autonomy and adventure? That is the principal question that has been driving critics absolutely mad. Many people are insisting that Jane took the ring far too quickly. Evidently, she and Mr. Rochester are very infatuated with each other, but throughout the text, there is evidence that suggests that their mutual lovefest was blinding. In her article “Heading Out is Not Going Home: Jane Eyre,” Melodie Manohan explains that Jane’s story is a prime example of a quest-romance: “a conjunction of contrary imperatives which press the female hero into antithetical terms and push her in opposite directions” (590). In simpler terms, at the same time the heroine is compelled to find catalysts that will spark thrilling adventures, she yearns for the love of a partner, which impedes her from stepping beyond the typical household setting. Monahan contends that Jane’s devotion and lust for Rochester gradually overlaps with her experience, causing her originally grand quest to alter (602). All of a sudden, Mr. Rochester becomes the epitome of excitement, and her sights avert from soaring freely around the world to firmly clasping his hand. Therefore, when the two’s fates conveniently align and the circumstances are fortunate enough, before she genuinely has a chance at beautiful liberation, she submits to the matrimony. Sadly, Jane fails to see that, by marrying Rochester, she traps herself because following the wedding comes the obligation as well as obliteration. Monahan points out that “childbirth objectifies, literalizes, the self in the same way that traditional marriage objectifies, and therefore infantilizes women when it identifies her only in reference to her husband” (600). Essentially, once her vows are made, Jane – supposedly headstrong, passionate, event-pursing Jane – inevitably dooms herself to regulation, for not only will her opportunity to journey deplete to nothing, but also her identity latches onto Rochester’s. For the remainder of her life, she will forever predominantly be called Mrs. Rochester. She is incapable of leaving him behind, and considering that he is now partially crippled and blind, she cannot exactly thrust him into a foreign environment. Her final destination is the home.
But maybe Jane is not as much of a thrill-seeker as she puts on, which illustrates why she appears glad about her situation at the end of the book. In his book “Imagined Human Beings,” Bernard J. Paris claims that, regardless of her wish for experience and adventure, when all’s said and done, Jane is too afraid to go after them (156). As stated before, Jane was raised in an atmosphere that was neither pleasant nor welcoming. She was viewed as “a compound of virulent passions, mean spirit, and dangerous duplicity,” and therefore, the notion that she could never be cherished was ingrained in her brain (Bronte 1: 16). As a result, when she moves from Gateshead, Jane is motivated to prove her worth. She yearns to negate her snobby aunt’s assertions and demonstrate that she can be a well-mannered, tolerable, enchanting young lady. This justifies Jane’s unyielding commitment to maintaining a good reputation and good behavior, for she turns the other cheek on many occasions over the course of the book (Paris 148). In addition, this provides crucial insight on why Jane befriends Helen Burns, a girl whose personality contrasts with hers in more ways than one, and is inspired by her. While Jane has rash impulses, such as wanting to vengefully break a rod beneath a teacher’s nose, Helen is settled and composed (Bronte 1: 67). While Jane cries out for love and bonds, Helen is unattached, her only companion being God. Basically, Helen serves a model for Jane on how to be humble, believe in God, handle indignation, and subdue her violent tendencies (Paris 151). Furthermore, now that Jane has learned and adapted to this way of life, she is scared of reverting back. If she acts on one of her bolder inclinations, will her progress diminish? Would she be bad again? As Bernard J. Paris says, Jane has been interpreted wrongly by critics because she, at the very core, is not “a free spirit who rebels against the constrictions of her feminine lot” (156-57). She aspires to travel over borders, yes, but she also has grown accustomed to rules. Gone is the girl that would run away from home and starve herself to death because of maltreatment. Gone is her drama queen disposition! At this point in time, she would rather follow the guidelines on how to be an ideal woman than fulfill her earthly fancies. “Her life is focused on managing her rage, gaining security, and assuaging her feelings of being wicked, unworthy, and unlovable” (Paris 161). She figures that, since Mr. Rochester is such an enthralling man and her time with Mr. Rochester has been sublime, she can spend the rest of her days in his company and acquire that sense of completion. In her mind, she can gratify all her thoughts and dreams through Mr. Rochester.
And frankly, she is not completely false. In his article “Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the Female Detective and the ‘Crime’ of Female Selfhood,” Sandro Jung shows that Jane’s brain and body were engaged at Thornfield. According to Jung, a woman has to put her intelligence to the test so that she can grasp the worldly concepts as well as properly form her own distinct identity (164). At Thornfield, Jane’s curiosity is continuously stimulated, and she utilizes her judgment to read the clues and unravel the present mysteries. For instance, the first truth that Jane is eager to disclose involves the eerie laughter that she hears in the middle of the night. Mrs. Fairfax tries to steer Jane away from the secret by declaring that it was Grace Poole, but Jane cannot believe that that “tragic,” “preternatural” laugh could have emitted from someone so low and unremarkable (Bronte 136). She does cleverly drop the subject though because she understands that Mrs. Fairfax is being vague and further inquiry would accomplish nothing. Moreover, after the fire in Rochester’s bedroom and he says that it was Grace Poole’s doing, Jane is quick to investigate. She observes Poole’s behavior the next day: “in her common features, was nothing either of the paleness or desperation one would have expected to see marking the countenance of a woman who attempted murder.” She also discerns that, upon gazing back at her, Grace Poole displayed “no start, no increase or failure of colour betrayed emotion, consciousness of guilt, or fear of detection” (Bronte 1: 196). Clearly, surrounded by unsolved enigmas and on the hunt for an attempted murder suspect, Jane’s senses were seriously working on overdrive at Thornfield. Thus, because she regarded Mr. Rochester as the instigator of all anticipation, she associated him with it. Edward Rochester is the carrier of arousal and exhilaration. Even more, in being able to expose these puzzles, Jane has basically transcended the conventional woman and “her social liminality” because she’s become “free-thinking” and enlightened on the human psyche (Jung 29). And so, she stays with Mr. Rochester under the impression that life with him will proceed in this interesting manner.
Plus, Jane and Rochester are in love with each other and – disregarding the fact that Jane spontaneously gained a fortune at the end – they respect one another like equals. In his article “Marriage in Jane Eyre: from Contract to Conversation,” James Phillips puts forth that Jane and Rochester’s relationship is well-functioning because they are of similar wits (205). For a marriage to be successful, love cannot be the only element that grounds it, which puts Bertha and Rochester’s dynamic into perspective. Surely, there was a time when Rochester had deep feelings and attraction towards Bertha, so when his father proposed the idea of marriage, he had no problem with it. Unfortunately, Bertha and Rochester were not compatible because her mental capacity made it impossible for them to see eye-to-eye. Over time, she had converted from a human to quite literally an animalistic being. By the hour that Jane meets Bertha, she cannot decipher whether she is a “beast or human being.” Bertha “grovelled, seemingly, on all fours” and “snatched and growled like some strange wild animal” (211). Unshockingly, conversation between Bertha and Rochester was inconceivable with her condition. Moreover, Rochester admires Jane because he saw the boundless potential of her mind. In spite of Jane’s reserved demeanor, he measures the talent that is there, and if anything, he wants most to wrench it out of her. Phillips states, “He wants her to speak; he wants her as someone who speaks” (206). This rationalizes why Rochester lies about wedding Blanche Ingram, does the absurd gypsy act, and suggests replacing her as a governess: he intends to break her out of her shell. He desires to draw out the best version of herself: unfiltered. By prodding where it stings, he thinks that Jane will finally loosen the reins on her temper and vehemently unleash her thoughts. He longs for her to do so because he knows – as soon as their intellects match – they will be on par. Even prior to Jane’s accumulation of wealth, their divergent statuses were irrelevant to him: “My bride is here… because my equal is here, and my likeness,” Rochester said as he asks Jane to marry him the first time (Bronte 2: 19). Plainly stated, when Rochester looks at Jane, he recognizes her brilliance and the masterpieces they could bring about together. Their unity is perfect not only because of their undying passions, but also their minds and voices correspond (Phillips 210). They do not worry about hiding.
Still, with regard to Mr. Rochester’s past, odd attempts at pursuing her, and his needy personality, perhaps Jane was not so wise in conceding to marry him. Yes, they are in love, but there is such thing as toxic relationships because one of the partners are not entirely stable. In fact, there is significant evidence that Mr. Rochester is thoroughly unhinged. In his article “Jane Eyre: The Apocalypse of the Body,” Paul Pickrel places a magnifying glass over the character of Rochester and analyzes several occurrences where his behavior could be labeled disturbed, and it starts with his first encounter with Jane. He says, “The first time Jane sees him he looms above her, a heroic figure astride a great horse; a moment later he is on the ground unable to get up without her help” (168). Right off the bat, this gives off the impression that Mr. Rochester is unbalanced or unsettled in his own skin. He does not his place in the world, and he is in search of someone to take his hand and guide him in the right direction. Next, Pickrel criticizes the event where Rochester dresses up as a gypsy and then asks Jane how she would respond if someone spat at him: “There has to be something deeply wrong with a rich man in the prime of his life and in his own fine house full of servants who presents himself… as an outcast old woman in rags, and imagines herself spat upon by the most elegant society the country affords at the very moment that they are his own house guests” (168). Undeniably, Mr. Rochester does not seem to have his head on straight. He is like an adolescent, struggling to figure out which path to follow. Does he want to be a part of the higher class, constantly fussing over money and never surpassing superficial thought? Or does he want to be amongst the common folk where the attire is poor and the work is laborious, but the people are more captivating? Devoid of any decent mentors, he does not have a concrete role in the world, and so now, he turns to Jane with the hope that she can his saving grace. He needs her to lend him her hand. He needs her to offer him aid so that he will no longer mess up as well as no longer be lost. Pricknel also points a finger at Mr. Rochester for giving Grace Poole, a woman who is known to get drunk from time to time, the position of watching Bertha, for it is foreseeable that such circumstances could lead to her escape and causing havoc (169). All in all, it is apparent that Rochester is incredibly insecure, and his common sense is obviously malfunctioning.
Nevertheless, Mr. Rochester’s indecisive personality is not the deciding factor if Jane Eyre embodies feminism. The real, pivotal concern is this: Is Jane happy? Is she fully satisfied with the affairs of her life? According to Bernard J. Paris, the answer is inconclusive. It seems like the layout for a happily ever after was bestowed upon her. She gets the man she sought after, acquires wealth, her self-confidence increases, and she lives quite comfortably overall. Her success conveys the message that, with discipline and ambition, women can excel. On top of that, as Lauren Owsley announces in her article “Charlotte Bronte’s Circumvention of Patriarchy: Gender. Labour and Financial Agency in Jane Eyre,” Jane is living proof that women are capable of possessing wealth and having the same influence as men without falling apart. Women are not fragile beings that crumble with the slightest application of pressure. Actually, Jane shows that giving power to a lone woman is monumentally beneficial because it allows her to take initiative and play a bigger part (Owsley 63). Once she starts tackling tasks that exceed those of a servant, she can feel prized and praised. She can stop trekking through egg shells, apprehensive if her effort is even worth it. Now, having said that, Jane may have gained a significant amount of power, but she did not use it to drastically enhance her life. She did not venture down the greatest avenue and open up a world of possibilities for herself. On the contrary, she returns to an injured, blind Mr. Rochester, meaning she will have to take care of him – a helpless disabled man – until death do them part. Farewell to her hopes of traveling, seeing the world, and thus triumphing over the patriarchal hierarchy! While Jane claims at the end that she feels tranquil in this mundane setting, Paris refuses to believe her. Aside from her innate rebellious spirit, which unlikely would be satisfied with isolation and eternal servitude, he states that she “is at pains to repeat all the tribunes she has received and to call attention to her talents, virtues, and triumphs” (165). In other words, by the end of her tale, rather than zealously declaring her happiness to her readers, Jane is actually trying to convince herself that she is content – that she is fulfilled.
So, back to the original question: Can Jane Eyre be classified as a feminist figure? Well, it depends on whether or not you think that, at the end of her story, Jane was being candid. Everybody has their own idea of an epic final chapter. Your opinion of Jane Eyre – if she projects a prominent message for feminism – reflects back on your personal standards of fulfillment.