Written in the Victorian period, later critics have frequently searched for a strong feminist voice in Jane Eyre. They often find this voice in the eponymous protagonist of the novel who portrays an unconventional model of femininity.
Jane is an independent woman, or as independent as a Victorian woman could be. She is an orphan and is sent to a school at a young age which separates her even from her extended family, the Reeds. She becomes a governess and therefore enters the professional world to sustain herself rather than relying on outside help. She chooses to leave Thornfield rather than become Rochester’s mistress, holding her principles above love and the idea of a home, both of which she had been denied of all her life. She becomes a mistress at a school instead of continuing to live with the Rivers. She refuses to marry St John and instead opts for retaining her selfhood, self-identity, and notions of love and marriage. She decides to divide her inheritance equally amongst her newfound family, prioritising relationships over material wealth. And finally, it is she who decides to marry Rochester. Needless to say, Jane Eyre is unconventional, independent, and exceptional. She represents a new kind of femininity that was no longer content with staying in the shadows and preferred active, rather than passive, actions and created her own life on her own terms. Without a doubt, there is more than enough reason to celebrate the fresh voice of femininity and a potentially proto-feminist voice created by Bronte, well before Feminism as a movement emerged.
However, Jane Eyre is not the only woman in the text. It is indeed interesting that while Bronte celebrates her Jane, she does so by pitting her against all the other women in the text and putting them down.
From the Reed sisters to the Ingram sisters, from Helen Burns to Rosamond Oliver, contrasts are drawn, flaws and strengths are presented, situations are manipulated, and by the end of it, Jane always emerges victorious. But perhaps the most significant battle over the ideal of femininity is that between Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason.
Before Bertha Mason is introduced, there is an ominous foreshadowing of her presence which adds to the gothic elements of the novel. She is constantly compared with the wild, the animalistic, the unnatural, and is constantly dehumanised. While when Jane is compared to the fantastical or the animal, it highlights her purity, when the same is done with Bertha, it is only to emphasise on her monstrosity. The fact that is through her marriage with Rochester that the latter gained financial independence and stability is conveniently forgotten and she is locked in what should have been her home simply because she doesn’t fulfil society’s criteria of the perfect woman. Whether the fact that she happens to be Creole is a factor in it or a random side note is not a question difficult to answer. She is reduced to her excesses and is declared mad, and even when the readers find out about her death, instead of celebrating her last attempt at gaining freedom or fretting over the tragedy of her death, they are asked to celebrate the removal of the main impediment of the Jane-Rochester match.
Thus while the novel, Jane Eyre, celebrates a feminist voice in the form of its protagonist, it also delegitimises every other model of femininity offered by the text and consequently becomes extremely exclusive.
2 thoughts on “Jane Eyre and The Feminist Voice”
Good points you’ve raised here, particularly on how Jane had to step on other women to be above everyone else. Great review with thought-provoking points.
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Thank you so much! I feel like it’s so easy to call Jane Eyre a feminist text and be done with it when in reality it only works in favour of Jane at the cost of so many other characters. It is definitely a great novel and has so much depth especially in terms of feminist criticism.