This week, I’m reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (go pick it up—it’s awesome), so I’ve been thinking a lot about how feminism manifests itself in literature. I think it’s hard for any modern female writer not to wonder how literature has historically represented her gender. So that’s why at the Adroit blog, we’re launching the Feminist Fridays series—and what better place to start than Jane Eyre feminism.
We want to talk about what makes a character, writer, or piece of writing feminist, and how the evolution of society impacts the way that we write about women in literature. Let’s dive in.
The real question, though, is if that silhouette’s messy hairdo is feminist.
To start, I would like to point out that the feminist criticism of literature isn’t about playing the “Feminist or Not Feminist?” game. Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether or not we can bang a gavel and definitively call a piece of literature feminist. But it’s important to be able to determine the feminist merits of literature because of the implications and social influence that literature can have. After all, do we want a teen girl in her high school English class to learn from her reading material that her purpose in life is to serve her husband? I sure hope not. But sometimes, I find it hard to look at the women of classic literature and think, “Yes! This is the kind of woman that I want to be.”
When literary scholarship is so ingrained in older works, how do we evaluate literature through a modern feminist lens?
Before examining the feminist merit of a novel, we need to define what feminism means. I think that feminism is about having complete and total agency over our lifestyle and choices, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and any other facet of our being.
Let’s talk Charlotte Brontë. If you’ve never read Jane Eyre, this is the part where you go read the SparkNotes summary.
Jane Eyre is widely considered to be one of the first feminist novels, but I’ve never been sold on the idea. I do believe, though, that within the context of Victorian England, Jane Eyre could be considered feminist, but only to an extent. This is the crux of the problem, though—society has (thankfully) grown enough in the past couple hundred of years that what may have seemed incredibly feminist in the nineteenth century is antithetical to twenty-first century feminism. Jane’s actions are deeply rooted in her moral beliefs, and the ability to make conscious lifestyle choices for herself is inarguably feminist. But when I look at Jane’s choices through a contemporary lens, I can’t help but feel that, despite her moral character, she fails to fully liberate herself from an oppressive, marriage-obsessed culture.
Jane Eyre focuses largely on the gothic, mysterious relationship between Jane and Rochester, the man who owns the estate where Jane is a governess. As I flip through my copy of Jane Eyre, I notice an uncomfortable trend: from chapters thirteen through eighteen, each chapter’s opening sentence centers on Mr. Rochester. It’s okay to be boy-crazy (and still feminist!), but come on, Jane, seriously? Get it together.
On her wedding day, Jane finds out that Rochester is already married to a manic woman trapped in the attic of the estate (Okay, Rochester. Totally not creepy.). After the wedding is called off, Brontë writes that Jane “was a cold, solitary girl again: her life was pale; her prospects were desolate.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not too keen on the message that life is “desolate” without a man to marry.
Shortly after the reveal, Rochester implores Jane to begin their life together far away in a romantic French villa. Although Jane is in love with Rochester and admits that she would enjoy life with him in France, she chooses not to go with him because she is afraid of being considered his mistress, since they aren’t married. Instead, Jane tries to support herself by working various jobs around the countryside until she faints on a doorstep.
Jane’s decision not to go to France is often considered to be The Pinnacle of Feminism—she refuses to be anything less than Rochester’s wife. While the choice to put her self-esteem above a man is admirable, I can’t help but feel frustrated that Jane would throw away the prospect of a happy, romantic life in a French villa just because she prizes the institution of marriage enough to believe that only a legal document can validate her relationship.
Marriage has its place in modern society, but it’s hard to deny that its origins were inherently patriarchal. Still, I would find it more appealing if Jane decided that she cared more about her personal happiness than whether she would potentially be considered a mistress… But of course, what’s a good book without some heart-breaking conflict?
Fast-forward a bit in the plot. A man named St. John asks Jane to marry him and work as a missionary in India. Jane declines because she does not love him. This time, I’ll go ahead and cheer Jane on. She knows that she won’t truly be happy if she marries a man for the sake of convenience, and the fact that she has the right to make this decision is a step in the right direction. Good for you, Jane.
Later, Jane returns to Rochester’s estate, only to find out that a fire killed his wife—in other words, Rochester is no longer married. He is, however, physically handicapped and blind. Only after Rochester’s physical state deteriorates can Jane feel like his equal. Jane says, “perhaps it was that circumstance that drew us so very near–that knit us so very close: for I was then his vision, as I am still his right hand.” Jane derives happiness from her ability to service Rochester; the relationship brings her joy because she feels useful, and only from her utility can she feel loved and respected.
And they all lived happily ever after… right?
Brontë portrays this as a happy ending, but from a feminist perspective, I’m not happy.
Let’s start with the flawed concept that a man and a woman aren’t equal until the man is maimed by a giant fire. From Brontë’s perspective, Jane and Rochester can’t have a functional marriage until their relationship is mutually beneficial. Love and respect are not enough—Rochester must benefit when Jane takes care of him in his weakened physical state, and Jane must benefit when she elevates her social status by marrying a rich man.
I reject the idea that Jane was inferior to Rochester to begin with. Sure, he is of a much higher social class (Jane was a governess in his estate, remember?), but if they are in a truly healthy relationship, this shouldn’t matter.
I think this is what makes me feel so uncomfortable when Jane Eyre is referred to as a major feminist novel. Let’s stop insisting that the ideal woman is a morally-guided Christ figure and start giving women the power to make life choices that don’t depend on marriage and child-rearing. Let’s separate our self-worth from our relationship status, and when we do find a suitable partner, let’s consider them our equals on the simple basis that we are human beings who respect each other, and not on the basis of codependency.
Although Jane Eyre bordered on radical at the time of its publication—so radical that Brontë published it under a male name—I don’t think that we can consider Jane a feminist role model in the twenty-first century. Instead, literature should function as an education in how society has evolved since the 1840s, and how Jane Eyre and Charlotte Brontë lacked the social mobility to fit my mold—my twenty-first century American mold—of what a modern feminist role model should be. Jane’s journey towards understanding herself and finding peace is lodged in her relationships with men, and I don’t think that the novel can send a holistically feminist message when Jane’s self-worth and happiness are so strongly affected by the men in her life.
But in Victorian England, a woman’s social mobility was closely related with her romantic relationships. As Roxane Gay writes in Bad Feminist, “feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed.” So maybe Jane is a “bad feminist.” Maybe in a modern Jane Eyre, Jane would have had an option to better herself and her life in ways that didn’t involve marriage.
I don’t blame Charlotte Brontë for living when she lived, but I still wish that Jane Eyre wasn’t so widely considered to be the quintessential feminist novel. Morality is great and all, Jane, but I think that there are other protagonists out there who can more effectively prove to women that they are people who matter outside of their reproductive and marital abilities.
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What a nicely thought-out piece! I still love Jane’s insistence on living by her own lights. Created at a time when women were always portrayed following their hearts, Jane instead insists that following her conscience is even more important. Still, I think you are totally right that Jane’s choices don’t mean the same thing in today’s world that they meant in hers.
This is an unfair assessment, I feel: The book is about two main characters, Jane and Rochester, and their relationship. The plot is concerned with their love story – its themes are about independence, but the plot is a love story, and so for it to end with the love story’s culmination is perfectly natural, as is the bulk of the book concering Jane’s interactions with Rochester and thoughts on their relationship.
The fact is Rochester says Jane is his equal before he’s maimed, and she as well. In any case the book’s feminist value do not lie in something as superficial as whether she marries or not at the end but in Jane’s character and her unbending, unbreakable, impassioned will and need to be an independent woman and make her own choices. She does not bend to Rochester, in their many intellectual conversations, she does not bend to her ‘family’ in the beginning, not to the moralizing religious men in the story, at her school, with St. John. And Jane is ultimately the one to seek marriage and ask for Rochester’s hand – when he does it earlier in the book the whole thing goes to the dogs, when she’s the active part in the end all is right.
When she leaves him it’s not because she worships the idea of marriage and the paper slip that proves it – it’s because she respects herself too much to be a man’s mistress, and to be fooled and passively submit to his games. She needs to reestablish control over her own life. He’s not burned so that he’s "brought down" to her level, his handicap is a symbol of how Jane has become the stronger part in their marriage as a result of her pride. At every single turn Jane stays true to herself to the point where readers even today thinks she’s ‘stubborn’ or difficult when in fact it’s the only way for her to maintain her self-respect in a sexist, classist society.
This was of course wildly radical for its times – CB was however not just speaking ‘for her times’. Adressing her male critics who had judged her not for her writing but for her gender she brought up an issue that’s as relevant today: “To you I am neither man nor woman. I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me–the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.”
Her feminism was clear enough in her books and outside of it. And if you want a Charlotte Bronte novel that’s more explicitly anti straight-marriage and with an ending that satisfies that particular want may I suggest Villette. "Shirley" is also explicitly feminist in its supremely radical reshaping of Christian mythology where Eve takes the shape of a titan, a god and a creator, not a fallen sinner. That book does end in marriage, but with the most biting satire to go with it.
Amanda, I used to read the book as you do. I discounted any pages I didn’t personally identify with and only ran with the love story. But a closer reading of the entire novel will show you that this is a story about the strength of one female character, which happens to include a love story we still love to be entertained by.
I almost feel as if you’re reading this as if Bronte and Jane are one, which they most decidedly are NOT.
Bronte has Jane tell a first person narrative. Those first hundred pages before she falls for Rochester are there for a reason, and those hundred pages when she lives with St. John are there for a reason as well. She is her own person with her own set of beliefs that she will not put aside for love. Yes, for several chapters she is wildly caught up with her passion for Rochester; this is Jane talking, as a first person narrative should. And Bronte has Jane find herself again, and value herself and the beliefs she has held her life long, since before she met Rochester.
At your age I thought she was nuts to run away, and I hated that Rochester was punished and I even almost blamed Jane for it!
But in those pages while Jane is away teaching school (watch your facts, you claim she did odd jobs before fainting at St.John’s doorstep, not so, she begged), Bronte is laying out the evidence that Jane wasn’t driven merely by religious duty to leave Rochester. It was deep personal conviction. Otherwise, she would have accepted St John’s proposals as her duty. He’s a minister, he’s virtuous, handsome, etc. As Rochester says at the end, St John had it all, how could Jane not choose him? But Jane will either choose love on her terms or remain single and work, and when released from work, strive to create a sense of domesticity that as an orphan she has lacked her life long.
Bronte has created Jane to have self knowledge. She knows who she is and what is right for her, regardless of what the world expects or thinks of her.
And I haven’t even touched on the issue of financial independence.
Yes, this is a feminist novel, as relevant today as it was when it was written.
What a great entry! congratulation for your work, I enjoyed it a lot! 🙂
Absolutely love love love this – couldn’t agree more! Studying Jane Eyre for A-Level English Lit and found this extremely helpful, thank you v much
This helped me a lot with my English essay! I really admire your writing, it is very cohesive and brings up good points I hadn’t thought of. Keep it up!
I appreciate your point of view, but I think you’re discrediting the time in which the novel was written. It was 1847, and a female doing the things Jane did was thought to be completely radical. So yes, it was feminist at the time, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have literary merit or value in feminist history and culture today.
I enjoyed your point of view as it is different from many that I have heard. I would like to point out that Jane considered herself Mr. Rochester’s equal before he was disabled and told him this when he very first professed his love to her.
I really liked your different point-of-view expressed in the article. You definitely have a point, but I feel it’s unfair to judge and criticise the book outside of its context — literary criticism requires a certain mindset that you are always comparing it to its time, not the modern world. If we compared books to the modern world, it would defeat the point of the book really.
I feel Jane Eyre is an important piece of feminist literature, just as To Kill a Mockingbird is an important piece of literature commenting on the treatment of POC. To Kill a Mockingbird’s portrayal surely isn’t ideal in the modern understanding of black rights, or one to be copied in the modern world, but that does not in any way degrade its immense importance. It’s still an important book commenting on the treatment of black people. In the same vein, Jane Eyre is still an important feminist novel.
You have to criticise novels within their context to gain a sense of their importance, not a modern one.
Also, as Christina and Matias so eloquently pointed out, there are some misunderstandings of the text’s meaning.
I see where you’re coming from, and agree that in a modern view, Jane Eyre isn’t the ideal feminist novel, but I still believe Jane Eyre is an important feminist novel in the timeline of feminist literature. I don’t think anyone would say Jane Eyre is without flaws, or that Jane Eyre’s life is something to be copied completely in the modern world, but that doesn’t mean it is any less a feminist novel, and an important one at that.
Wonder what one would do with complete and total agency
In my small sphere of thoughts I considered this novel is a mixture of love and feminist elements.
In the Victorian context it’s a very well known feminist novel because at that time female were suffering of male dominance everywhere in Victorian England. secondly Jane self decision power shows female strength and strong physics.
On the other hand this novel is a love story because the happy end and the lust of Jane romance for Rochester shows the love site of this novel.
Oh my gosh, I totally agree! I never understood why people thought this was so good. It’s also totally inappropriate that he was her employer, let’s not forget that. It never seemed about love, but about manipulation. He seemed to toy with her. Oh well, I could go on and on. Glad I’m not alone!
Thank you for this article: I recently reread Jane E for the first time in about 20 years and I feel like I’ve had to re-evaluate so much of what I thought I loved about the book in my teens. Jane’s life with the Reeds, at boarding school and the slowly growing relationship between Jane and Rochester is still thrilling. But the period of living with St John and her decision to turn him down is sooo drawwwn out as to be unbearable. I mean, I’m impressed that she sticks to her guns and refuses to spend her life in the tropics on anybody else’s terms. But if she is so interested in education, why does she jack in the job at the little village school so quickly as soon as her financial circumstances pick up? (PS: I can see much debate in the comments about how Rochester’s disabilities ‘bring him down’ to Jane’s status – but don’t forget that, as a newly minted heiress, Jane is now a hot prospect herself. Rochester certainly doesn’t forget it…)
Hi! I for one never thought that Jane Eyre was a "feminist" novel. In fact, the word ", feminist" wasn’t coined until the late nineteenth century, the 1890’s I believe, sure Jane does some serious soap – boxing but in the end all she wanted was a man. Harriet Martinue commented that all of CB’s novels were nothing more than girl meets boy stories and that women can and should be able to be happy and fulfilled without a man. Which got CB’s back up so that she never spoke to Ms. Martinue again. Oh, the real reason Jane didn’t ride off into the sunset with Rochester was because she was afraid that a few years down the road he would dump her like he did his other mistresses.That is also why poor Rochester had to be crippled,blinded,and maimed…it made him easier to handle. You should read the book "Imagined Human Beings" by Bernard J. Paris. His essay on Jane Eyre (and Charlotte Bronte) from a psychological approach is spot on! He said what I always thought about Jane Eyre but which I couldn’t articulate properly. In fact,some of things he said about Jane Eyre could also apply to Hannibal Lecter. 😀
Although I don’t agree with everything you said, I really enjoyed this article. It made me laugh because it’s fun to read. Originally I came across your blog because I’m researching for a term paper, but I love it. I love the concept of "Feminist Friday" and surely will come by every now and then! Thank you!
Is it not a misread to say that Jane only saw herself as Rochester’s equal once he was maimed and blinded? Did she not previously see herself as his equal, and he hers?
I do hope this was written tongue-in-cheek…. surely the maiming of Rochester in the fire is Godly punishment for attempting to trick Jane into a bigamous marriage and then offering her the position of mistress, therefore committing adultery.
Her moral stance is her guiding light despite her lack of social status and economic power at a time when women were defined by their sex in a patriarchal system.
For a woman to strike out and work in itself was a threat to men as she was neither wife nor mother and therefore beyond his control.
This is a feminist text throughout.