Gender and the role of women

The political and the personal

The following passage, from Chapter 12 (Volume 1, Chapter 12), is one of the most interesting in the novel. It occurs soon after Jane's arrival at Thornfield, but before Rochester has returned. Although Jane has achieved her wish of leaving Lowood and finding a new life, she still finds herself restless and stands on the roof of Thornfield, just as she looked out of her window at Lowood in Chapter 10 (Volume 1, Chapter 10), looking out and thinking about what else the world may hold:

It is in vain to say that human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise of the 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.

A feminist message

Victorian woman writingSeveral things are notable about this passage:

  • It is an occasion when the novel very definitely sets out to make a point or develop an argument
  • It employs challenging and political language: ‘revolt', ‘rebellions', ‘restraint', ‘narrow-minded', ‘privileged'
  • Some of this language is applied not to a political party, a social class or even a nation – it refers to the situation of women
  • The political is thus brought into the realm of gender and the individual woman
  • It is scornful about ‘what custom has pronounced necessary' for women, listing a number of activities that are either domestic or decorative and which prevent women from carrying out more useful tasks
  • The words ‘restraint' and ‘stagnation' suggest the kind of inactivity, both mental and physical, to which women are condemned.

Female roles in the novel

The novel contains a number of female roles with which Jane compares herself at various points. They are discussed in Characterisation: Jane's female role models, but some further comments might be helpful in this context.

Physical attractiveness and dependence

  • At one extreme is Céline Varens, who is entirely at the disposal of men, with a succession of lovers who support and indulge her, but whom she treats badly in return. But for Jane's intervention, Adèle might have turned into the same kind of woman
  • Although Blanche Ingram lives in an entirely respectable society, her destiny, too, lies in finding a suitably rich man to marry and support her. The way in which she adorns her body emphasises her role as a commodity in a social marriage market
  • Georgiana Reed is another woman driven by vanity, who allows her life to be determined by the values of a shallow social world.

Moral attractiveness and independence of mind

  • Helen Burns stands on the borderline of being a positive or negative example to Jane: on the positive side lie her sweetness of character and her intellectual qualities; but Jane, much as she loves her, finds it difficult to accept her religious resignation and her ready acceptance of illness, suffering and death
  • Rosamund Oliver is a more complex example in that she is beautiful but also good hearted. She does not suffer from the faults of vanity and/ or pride that affect the other attractive women in the novel and is able independently to use her wealth and position for good purposes
  • Miss Temple is again a positive example and obviously helps to mould Jane into the woman she is when she leaves Lowood for Thornfield. Her intellectual qualities are prominent, but so, too, are her courage in standing up to Brocklehurst and the compassion and concern that she displays for the girls in her care
  • Diana and Mary Rivers are the women in the novel most like Jane and she welcomes them both as examples and as companions.

Most interesting of all is Bertha Mason, whose role in the novel is discussed in Characterisation: Bertha Rochester.

A feminist novel?

Although Jane Eyre contains a number of sharp criticisms of the treatment of women and the social roles assigned to them, it also demonstrates that women can live their lives on equal terms with - or independent of – men. The book is pro women without being anti men:

  • All the most sympathetic women characters – Miss Temple, Rosamund, Diana and Mary and Jane herself – are married by the end of the novel
  • Its least sympathetic characters include members of both sexes
  • What matters most are a person's strength of character and moral values, not their gender
  • Jane does achieves true parity with Rochester by the end of the novel, rather than having to settle for the role either he or St John intended for her

Two points are worth making, however:

  • In general social terms, the novel does not ultimately challenge the status quo – the present state of things: it points out religious hypocrisy and the abuse of wealth and privilege in relations to women, but does not argue for any fundamental change in the structure of society
  • Some literary critics writing about the novel have made the point that the Rochester whom Jane marries is rather reduced from the man she first meets and falls in love with. They ask whether he has had to be reduced to manageable proportions; however, this doesn't quite accord with what Jane says in the passage from Chapter 12 with which this section begins.
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