Jane Eyre, Through the Feminist Glasses
Barbara Taylor defines a feminist heroine as “To be heroic, the woman must prove exceptional for her time, in many ways more advanced than her female contemporaries. Yet to be a feminist heroine, she must continue to view her own destiny as intimately, even inextricably linked to the fates of those same contemporaries.” If one cannot talk about a singular, monolithic, fixed, deprived literature, feminism cannot be reduced a single category and representation when one looks at feminist literature too. One cannot put together the idea of feminism of Virginia Woolf and the feminism of Simone de Beauvoir or the feminism of Nilgün Marmara and the feminism of Halide Edip Ad?var. In fact, the category which was established in the 19th century as women’s rights and women’s equality did not define a single group at any time in history; liberal, socialist, Marxist, lesbian, ecological, existentialist, separatist, radical etc. and therefore there are differences between feminist works. For this reason, the characteristics of a feminist heroine depend on the feminist ideology, which becomes different groups and interpretations. However, Jane Eyre was written in the patriarchal society of the 19 the century. Women were regarded as “secondary sex” and they were submissive and were “Angel of the house” who spent her all time in her pretty home (!) under a male oppression. So, when this novel is examined under the light of the society that produced, Jane can be considered as a feminist heroine.
The Victorian Age is a complete hell for women, though not for the middle class and wealthy men. In terms of morality and social order, the mid-19th century was a lump of contradictions: on the one hand, the British seemed to have bowed to sexual taboos, and holy marriages that were completely devoid of love. On the other hand, cities are full of women who sell their bodies in order not to starve, prostitution becomes more and more widespread. Jane is a woman trying to live in the Age of Victoria and while thinking about how to live her life, she discovers her own power and turns it into a “room” where she wants to live independently. However, for this woman who tries to preserve the independence of her soul, the real space is not her “room” but the restricted places.
The first of these restrictive areas in Jane’s life is the Gateshead Mansion, where the cruel treatment of the three children of Georgiana, Eliza and John and her mothers’ companionship with this cruelty make Jane’s life irresistible from childhood. The primary reason for her exclusion is that she is a different child. She is excluded because she is a questioning girl who does not comply with traditional conventions. When she was a little girl decides not to submit to John’s repression and she also attacks him soon, which led her to live in Lowood School where she feels much more repressed. This is Jane’s first battle with the patriarchal society and also a proof that she is ahead her time. Also, Jane is forced to give up her own individuality and sense of freedom by the overseer of Lowood School who is another male daemon after her cousin John. However, her desire for independence is so big that no one cannot destroy it.
Another reason supporting this result is the appearance of Jane, which is far from charm and sweetness. Simone de Beauvoir believes that the little girl can notice the meaning of “beauty” and “ugliness” with approval and disapproval and then she begins to think that she must have attractive and fascinating looking to be accepted by male-centered society. The appearance of a woman is a very important criterion for society, if a woman has a good look, she is both ideal and preferable. Therefore, heroines are described as the most beautiful girls that shining like the sun in many literary works. However, Jane Eyre is plain and little like Elizabeth who is the heroine of Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Rochester thinks that Jane has “rather the look of another world” and even he is astonished that she has got “that sort of face.” (Brontë, 113) Brontë chooses a harsh face to Jane Eyre purposely to subvert the images of heroine and standard sense of the beauty of male-centric culture. What she wants to show to readers is her inner beauty, wisdom, and determined personality instead of her appearance. The rebellion of Bronte brings to mind Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 which satirizes the traditional sense of beauty in the literary works.
Unlike the typical Victorian women whose first purpose is to find a man in their life in order to survive financially, Jane’s major aim is not to marry, but to keep her identity and her independence in a male governed society. So, Jane Eyre thinks that marriage gives true love instead of fame or fortune and women should get married when they fall in love, so her love is mere and never mixed with earthly profit. After the Lowood School, Jane becomes a governess and she gets employment at Thornfield Hall. Here, she falls in love Edward Fairfax Rochester who is the master of Thornfield Hall. She cannot resist the pressure of her feeling and confesses her love to Mr. Rochester and also unlike a shy Victorian woman, she is not afraid of kissing him. “He is not to them what he is to me,” I thought: “he is not of their kind. I believe he is of mine;—I am sure he is—I feel akin to him—I understand the language of his countenance and movements: though rank and wealth sever us widely, I have something in my brain and heart, in my blood and nerves, that assimilates me mentally to him … I must, then, repeat continually that we are for ever sundered:—and yet, while I breathe and think, I must love him.” (Brontë 148) Jane tells the intensity of her feelings in detail. It is shocking for the reader to describe a woman’s character with such frankness. In the middle of the 19th century, young girls were considered purified from such enthusiastic emotions. If they were single, they could just have made eyes at men. The overjoyed feelings of love could not suit polite young girls, but street girls. The physical closeness between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester is seen as a shame that is unforgivable.
On the other hand, Jane’s intense sense of equality and independence is more than her feelings toward Mr. Rochester and she has the power to leave him when she feels a threatening towards her freedom by him. The following quote perfectly shows the feminist thoughts on equality of Jane: “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need an excuse for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” (Bronte 95) She left Thornfield Hall decisively when she learns that Mr. Rochester has already a wife. Jane fights for her individuality and independence and refuses to be his concubine. Her free soul and dignity are more important than being a wife of him. This can be seen as a woman’s attempt to destroy form that is set for her by the male-dominated culture.
After leaving Rochester in Thornfield Hall, Jane finds herself homeless and lives miserable days of begging, sleeping outside and nearly starving. Finally, she is taken in at her cousins’ home and they help her to get better and John helps her to start a new school too. At the same time, St. John wants to marry her so Jane will accompany and work for him when he goes to ?ndia. Yet, she refuses him because she is sure that if she becomes his wife, he will end her identity and freedom. This can be understood with this quotation: “I could no longer talk, or laugh freely when he was by because tiresomely importunate instinct reminded me that vivacity was distasteful to him.” (Brontë 359). Besides, she is still in love with Rochester. In the end, she comes together Rochester but now he is a blind man and almost all of her problems are solved without losing Jane’s true identity and her freedom. Now, she is sure that they are equal. Also, she finds the true love she desires for a long time and tells: “No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am … To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as a company. (Brontë 399).
Brontë shows that although women are dependent on men for financial and social needs, a woman such as Jane can symbolize a shift in this concept. Jane Eyre has spent difficult times, filled with hatred and rage since her childhood times, which are caused by many different men and even her sisters (!) However, under the constraints of the period, Jane never allows society to shape her through its customs and norms and also she fights for her independence by believing in the power and determination within her. She is not an angel, but she is a woman who just makes decisions about her life and resists to sustain her decisions at difficult conditions and she is a woman who tries to protect her independence and her own “room” with her strong will at the terrible times. All of her actions and ideas that are literally rebellion against to patriarchal society and its traditions make her a feminist heroine in her era. “I can live alone if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.” (Brontë 297)
Jane Eyre, Through the Feminist Glasses