Feminist criticism and literary history

A feminist focus

Feminist criticism concentrates on:

  • The presentation of female experience in character and action, frequently pointing out the misrepresentation of female characters by male authors, and challenging sexist points view
  • The ‘silence' of women in certain works of literature and how different those works might seem if the female point of view were more fully represented
  • The work of overlooked or neglected female authors, who are seen as constituting a separate literary tradition, which is different from - but not necessarily inferior to - a tradition hitherto dominated by male writers (an aspect of literary history).

This novel offers many opportunities for the first two of these approaches.

The female voice in Jane Eyre

As it is narrated by Jane, the female point of view naturally predominates, but it is important to bear in mind that the events of the novel might seem very different if narrated by one of the other women characters. No other character could give as complete an account of these events, but they could certainly throw light on particular episodes:

  • In the case of Mrs Reed, we have part of such a narration when in Chapter 21 (Volume 2, Chapter 6), Jane goes to her visit her dying aunt, who reveals her feelings about being left in charge of Jane
  • Georgiana and Eliza Reed may also have their own story to tell, concerning the arrival of an unwanted poor cousin, the loss of their father, the weakness of their mother and the favouritism shown towards their domineering brother John
  • At Lowood School, both Miss Temple and Miss Scatcherd have opportunities to observe Jane's character and behaviour, and also have their own histories, which have brought them to work in such an establishment
  • Servants often see things that other characters do not, so it would be interesting to know how Bessie, Mrs Fairfax or Grace Poole regard Jane
  • Both Adèle and Blanche Ingram are viewed very much from the outside (although Rochester does give an account of Adèle's origins); Blanche, in particular, is seen by Jane in a very negative light.

The ‘silence' of the first Mrs Rochester

Much critical attention has been focused on Mr Rochester's first wife. In the novel she is almost invariably referred to by her maiden name of Bertha Mason:

  • In the early part of the novel, her presence is marked only by the sound of her laugh
  • She appears to Jane in a menacing manner in what seem to be dreams or apparitions
  • She attacks her brother, Mr Mason, when he attempts to visit her
  • Her presence is only explained after Mason interrupts Jane and Rochester's wedding, revealing the latter's attempted bigamy
  • Jane and the reader only encounter Bertha Mason in Chapter 26 (Volume 2, Chapter 11), when Rochester reveals the inhabitant of the attic
  • The account he then gives of his marriage is entirely from Rochester's point of view: his first wife is never given the opportunity to speak in a ‘sane' voice and give her own version of her life
  • In 1966, the novelist Jean Rhys (1890-1979), like Bertha a white woman from the West Indies, published her novel Wide Sargasso Sea which tells the story of Rochester and Bertha's marriage. (See also Post-colonial criticism and Bertha Rochester: ‘the madwoman in the attic').
  • Choose one of the following characters and tell her part of the story of Jane Eyre from her own point of view:
    • Georgiana Reed
    • Miss Temple
    • Grace Poole
    • Blanche Ingram.
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