Jane Eyre was published in 1847, at the height of the nineteenth century. At the time, many people believed that the liberation of women would threaten and disrupt the traditional institution of home and family. Jane Eyre proclaims the equality of a governess. It is the first novel that allows women the opportunity to break away from conventional society and follow their own desires. It is also the first book in which the role of women in life was seriously explored and questioned and because of this, the novel which brought Charlotte Bronte worldwide criticism.
Many people claimed that Jane Eyre had an “extreme, radicalist image”, was highly inappropriate and encouraged women to rebel against the conventional Victorian society. It is for these reasons that “Jane Eyre” has been the topic of much controversial discussion for many centuries. Women in Victorian times were extremely restricted as to what roles were open to them. Those who were poor, as well as uneducated were particularly limited when it came down to career choices. They were confined to taking up roles where they served the richer, aristocratic classes.
They worked as maids and in jobs where they needed little or no education. In these positions they earned little money for themselves and were usually put up in the household in return for their labour. It was expected that a woman who derived from a working class background would marry into the same class and nothing better. Very few women were rebellious enough to follow their dreams at the risk of defying the Victorian society and their expected roles as destitute and penniless woman. Very few succeeded in bettering their status or ranking in life.
In this novel we see Jane Eyre rebelling against the Victorian society, following her dreams and improving her position with determination and fortiveness. There was a clear divide between the lives of the aristocratic women and the lower class women in Victorian times and this partition is clearly evident in “Jane Eyre”. The lower class women had the opportunity to become maids and seeked employment where they would be serving the wealthier classes. They were heavily discriminated against because of their social status. The aristocratic women in Victorian times were typically wealthy, self-indulgent and extremely condescending.
One example of a typical aristocratic figure is Blanche Ingram. Blanche is admired by all around her for her beauty and charm and is eminent because she is the daughter of the prestigious Lady Ingram. She and the other society guests are described as being,”proud as peacocks”. Both Blanche and her mother talk in the stilted language of affection and aristocratic status.
When Blache asks her mother, “am I right Baroness Ingram? “, being the proud society mother she replies, “my lily flower you are right-as always”. Blanche shows the rude, self-awareness of a girl possessing beauty and wealth, Moulded like a Diana-and fully conscious of her ranking. ” Blanche’ arrogance is built in and like the Reed children, she has been thoroughly spoilt. Because of her adoring mother she is completely selfish. She looks down on Jane, the governess who is, “discontented, poor and plain. ” She tries to humiliate her, just as the Reeds did, and asks Mr Rochester, “Does that person want you? ” when Jane comes down to ask Mr Rochester for leave to see Mrs Reed. Again Blanche Ingram is the typical example of the nineteenth century aristocratic lady, spoilt, snobbish and highly disrespectful.
The roles available to aristocratic women were widespread, although the majority tended to opt for the idle role of a housewife and entertainer to other society guests. Although they were respectable and indeed honourable, unlike poorer women, they were still restricted in the sense that they were expected to marry into their own aristocratic class. Blanche Ingram flirts with Mr Rochester, not because she has affections for him, but because he is wealthy and like her, is an aristocrat. Because of her provincial attitude she can not see why Mr Rochester treats Jane with respect, let alone could have any romantic interest in her.
However, although restricted in this sense, they were far less limited than poor, uneducated women were. Unlike them, they were not forced to work for their upkeep and living. They had palliative, luxurious lives for which they had to conduct themselves appropriately, as “ladies”. The role of a Victorian woman is a far cry from the typical hardships that a figure like Bessie would have had to endure. Bessie is a maid at the Reeds’ residence, Gateshead. She is at their beck and call and her life revolves entirely around her duties as a maid.
At one stage in he book we get the impression that Bessie may be bitter because of her position and ranking in relation to others like the Reeds. She tries to make Jane feel inferior and belittles her in an attempt to justify her own subordinate position. “You are less than a servant because you do not work for your keep. ” She is resentful and rancorous where her pessimistic situation is concerned and by making Jane feel the extent of her dependence on Mrs Reed, she is trying to make Jane feel the same. She, unlike Jane, does not have the passionate incentive to improve her situation and achieve equality for herself.
She is either of a weaker nature or has a generally submissive character that does not provide her with the strength she needs to rebel for what she believes in. Whatever the reason she is clearly the kind of person never to rebel against the despairing Victorian society. Jane Eyre is of a slightly better ranking than Bessie but only because unlike Bessie, she is educated. Nevertheless she is still a poor orphan and like her, has limited opportunities. From the very beginning of the novel, at Gateshead, Jane is excluded by the Reeds because of her social status.
The Reeds have unchristian attitudes and take full opportunity of using their social hierarchy over Jane to their advantage. They exclude her from all family life and make it evident that they resent her living with them. They frequently resort to calling her derogatory names such as,”bad animal” and “mad cat”. In the very first chapter we here Jane describing the extent of Mrs Reeds hatred towards her, “She boxed both my ears and left without a word. ” The Reeds are fully aware of Jane’s status and treat her accordingly, as an undeserved orphan.
As John Reed, her cousin, so spitefully reminds her, she is nothing more than a “dependent. ” She is condemned and discriminated against for being an orphan. She is made to feel disconcerted in a place that is supposed to be her home and she feels like “an uncongenial alien. ” Another example of the bigotry she is faced with is when she falls ill. Instead of having a physician called out for her, an apothecary is called for instead. This is a clear indication that the Reeds do not consider her worthy enough to receive the same treatment that they do.
For their cruel ways do not allow them to look beyond the fact that she is “second class. ” Jane is poor, but as determined as any person is. She is never contented to except what is expected of a woman of her status and is constantly feeling the pain of inequality. Being a poor, educated woman the role of a governess is one of the few careers available to her. She goes to Thornfield to be a governess to Adele, Mr Rochester’s illegitimate French child. However, on her arrival we see that although she has taken up the job open to a woman of her ranking, she refuses to be the typical weak, submissive governess.
Governesses were expected to adapt their opinions to suit their employers. They were expected to hide their beliefs and have no objections to being trampled on by their employers. Jane shows her refusal to submit to these typical expectations when Mr Rochester asks, “do you find me handsome? ” and Jane replies quite honestly, “no Sir, I do not. ” When Mr Rochester tries to force her into marrying into a bigamous marriage she refuses. Even though Mr Rochester is prepared to defy what he sees as meaningless sanctions of society and marry her regardless, she refuses. This kind of refusal would have been seen as extraordinary.
Because, Jane being the employee, she would have been expected to tolerate such requests. Jane chooses to take a moral stand and flee from temptation. She does not want to become just another possession to Mr Rochester and she asks him, “Do you think I can stay here to become nothing to you? ” She refuses to be an object because of her second class. The majority of women in her situation would have been grateful at the proposal of wealth and a better status. However, Jane is determined to achieve equality and dependence. She leaves Thornfield and goes to stay with her cousin St John at Moor End.
St John again offers her marriage, she has no possessions and again this is a chance for her to better her life. However Jane finds the idea of marrying into a life without love and just possessions terrifying. She scorns St Johns idea of love and recognises that a relationship with him would destroy the inner person she has fought so hard to maintain. The person who rebels against the ideal and opts into situation that she feels happy with. She knows that entering into a loveless marriage for convenience would be hugely hypocritical to her proclaimed desire for independence.
However, having received a large sum of money from her late Uncle whilst still at Moor End, her position changes greatly. She is no longer required by society to be submissive and weak. She does not have to be apprehensive of revealing the real Jane and all her opinions. Her new found money not only gives her wealth but social recognition and the liberty she has always strove to achieve. She goes back to Thornfield with the desire to marry Mr Rochester as an equal. She has always loved him but her fear of societies condemning influence made her apprehensive to marry him as a dependent.
When she goes back to him she has independence and freedom and no longer has to worry about the critical Victorian society. When asked why she returned, she has one simple but key answer, “I stand here infront of you as an equal. ” Throughout the novel we see Jane battling against the Victorian society and their conventional expectations. She battled fiercely against the Reeds in an attempt to achieve recognition for her as a human being and not as an orphan. However, it is not till the very end that we see her achieve this goal.
Had she had the money she has at the end, at the very beginning, I am certain that she would not have had to endure the discrimination she did. She would have been treated as a person with feelings and not superficially, as a penniless dependent. This novel indicates the extent to which the Victorian society were prejudice towards the poor and uneducated. Their criticising nature of the Victorian society did not allow them to treat people for the character they were but only for the change in their pockets. Jane succeeding to achieve her independence was not only a governess becoming a “lady”, but a cry for equality everywhere.