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Analysis of Jane Eyre with Contemporary Feminist Criticism

By Shelby Moreno

Charlotte Brontë’s book, Jane Eyre, has been a well-known piece of literature since it was released in the 19th century. During its popular reign throughout history, it has received a wide variety of feedback. Not only was Jane Eyre seen as “naughty” and “immoral” when it was published, but even in its early stages of development, Brontë faced much backlash (Balberry). Most critics felt that her “personality was reflected in the novel and that personality was irredeemably coarse, vulgar and alien” (Balberry). Later on, however, her work soon began to gain recognition and support. Brontë’s messages of respect and equality for women were then acknowledged, and some years following the publication of Jane Eyre, the women’s suffrage movement swept through Britain and left a lasting effect. Many have even recognized Brontë’s work to be one of the many factors in influencing this era of change (Ward). Furthermore, readers today still claim that Brontë’s commentary of class and women’s confinement of social convention are still relevant in illustrating the new aspects of feminism today. Although this can be true in terms of outlining the positive shifts society has made, it is not valid to continue to define new age morals based on the outdated perspective and the historical context of Jane Eyre’s story. Therefore, despite Jane Eyre being formerly credited for its progressive philosophy of the female image during its release, if read with a presentist viewpoint, certain word choices and symbolic references do not convey the same feminist values. Furthermore, it fails to align with the current feminist agenda, specifically, in terms of equality, and does not transcend time with its underlying messages of women in society. Therefore, by using contemporary scholarship and modern ideals, the reevaluation of Brontë’s novel provides evidence that Jane Eyre no longer maintains its status as an accurate representation of feminism. At the time, Brontë, along with her work, was judged by society for challenging the social order and neglecting traditional Victorian values. Due to her gender, Brontë was forced to publish her novel under the “ambiguous pseudonym, Currer Bell, to avoid prejudice against female authors” (Zheng). After the release of her progressive creation, her reputation and career suffered greatly. Many had negative perspectives due to Jane Eyre’s “easy acceptance of a love which transcends class and its author’s vivid portrayal of emotion” (Balberry). Many Victorian critics felt that there was a dangerous undertone in the novel's messages, which was due to their discouragement of Jane’s independence and her ‘unrestrained’ character. In 1848, one reviewer, Elizabeth Rigby, who was composing a piece for the Quarterly Review, a conservative periodical, wrote that ‘the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine … is the same which has also written Jane Eyre’ (Balberry). Others viewed the novel to be at fault for not only the corruption of modern tastes and morality in art but in life as well. Although, in retrospect, these negative reactions were the result of misogyny and sexism reinforced by society during this era. Despite this controversy, during the 1840s, Jane Eyre was still a revolutionary text and upon its release, the novel was a bestseller due to many female readers' ability to relate to the desire for free will and equality that Jane embodied. “For a long time, numerous readers favored the image of Jane Eyre very much. Jane Eyre is the first, also the most powerful and popular novel to represent the modern view of women’s position in society”, (Gao). Furthermore, the book called into question traditional Victorian values of class and challenged the patriarchal standard of women, which furthered the push for progression as well as created a controversial storyline that many readers of the time were not used to seeing. However, if this novel were to be published in today’s world, it would not be viewed in this same context. Not only have the dynamics of society changed drastically in recent years, but the goals of feminism have become more solidified as well. There have been various actions throughout history that have caused significant rises in feminism and equality. For instance, the Suffrage Movement, the implication of the 19th amendment, the Civil Rights Movement, Title IX, and the 1st-3rd waves of feminism. Following these events, the most recent movement that has supported women is called, “fourth-wave feminism” (“The Fourth Wave of Feminism.”). This new wave of feminism, which began around 2012, includes all the major themes from the former waves. One prominent idea is reproductive rights, which came from second-wave feminism that began in the early 1960s, and another is female heteronormativity, which came from the third-wave of feminism during the 1990s (Sethmini). Along with this, fourth-wave feminism also includes the values that women throughout history have been attempting to gain advocacy for in a singular, cohesive idea; intersectionality. The term ‘intersectionality’ was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Crenshaw is a scholar and civil rights advocate who describes intersectionality to be, “the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect” (“What Does Intersectional Feminism Actually Mean?”). Although Crenshaw herself admits that she is not the first to bring into discussion the idea and importance of intersectionality, she is the one who made it so profound in today’s society. From her activism, the women of today have been able to adapt feminism and recreate it to center around intersectionality. “Today, intersectionality encompasses more than just the intersections of race and gender. It’s now widely used to illustrate the interplay between any kinds of discrimination, whether it’s based on gender, race, age, class, socioeconomic status, physical or mental ability, gender or sexual identity, religion, or ethnicity” (“What Does Intersectional Feminism Actually Mean?”). Although there are alternate branches and different interpretations of feminism today, this wave is the focal point for modern feminists. Even taking into consideration the various forms of feminist ideals, in comparison, all of them have a baseline of accentuating that women are human beings. “To say that a woman is a human being is to disentangle her from the dangerous nexus of objectification, prejudice and cultural norms and it is, most importantly, to establish her on an equal footing with ‘men’ and all that this subject-position provides. The rehumanization of ‘woman’ is the goal of the feminist theoreticians” (Rich). After taking into consideration the historical background of feminism and previous perspectives of Jane Eyre, there are numerous ways in which the novel does not follow today’s feminist agenda. For example, from a presentist stance, the word “master” is seen as anti-feminist due to its oppressive and misogynistic connotation. From a technical standpoint, the historical definition of ‘master’ means, “a man who has people working for him, especially servants or slaves” (“Master Definition & Meaning.”). Furthermore, the modern meaning; “a man in charge of an organization or group” continues to illustrate the patriarchal values of society that have transcended time (“Master Definition & Meaning.”). Although there are different contexts for this word in the book, it is how Jane uses the term that majorly contributes to the oppressive nature of women that many readers might recognize now. It should be noted, however, that to fully understand the extent to which this word is currently viewed as anti-feminist, there must also be some concentration on the other situations where this term is used within the scope of the book. Take into consideration St. John and his references to God or a higher power throughout the book. At the conclusion of Jane Eyre, the audience reads a quote from him in a letter addressed to Jane. He states, “‘My Master...has forewarned me. Daily He announces more distinctly,—‘Surely I come quickly!’ and hourly I more eagerly respond,—‘Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!’” (Brontë 507). From this, along with the other knowledge the readers gain about St. John’s religious practices, it is apparent that he sees himself as a vessel to carry out another’s righteous plan. This is seen from the introduction of St. John and even to the very end of the book. Not only is it shown here that the word ‘master’ is used to reference a superior being that is in control and has the ability to determine people’s fate, but also that there are others under the ‘master’ that follow. Furthermore, on the occasions in which Jane is using this word, she is most commonly referring to Mr. Rochester. An example of this is in chapter 36 when Jane says, “I shuddered involuntarily, and clung instinctively closer to my blind but beloved master” (Brontë 497). Now seeing an alternative definition to this term presented by St. John in the book, it is reasonable to assume the definition is similar when Jane uses it to describe her husband and supposed ‘equal’ partner (Brontë 454). Not only is Jane suggesting that Mr. Rochester is her guardian and decision-maker, but also that she is not at a high enough status to address him in a more informal, intimate way. Thus, from Jane’s constant usage of this word in this devaluing manner, it can be inferred that even in a proposed progressive and feminist book, Brontë’s language is no longer able to be seen in this way. Another instance in which Brontë’s writing decisions influence a non-supportive feminist stance is the repeated use of the word ‘frame’. In chapter 23 of the book, there is a prime usage of this word in a disguised, sentimental form. During this chapter, while Jane and Mr. Rochester are in the gardens professing their true feelings for one another, Rochester says, “I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you—especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame...” (Brontë 280). Although Mr. Rochester is explicitly admitting his feelings for Jane and repeatedly reassures her throughout the book that they are equals, this inclusion of defining her body as a stationary object conveys the opposite. Not only it is apparent from this passage that Mr. Rochester sees Jane as a creation made from himself, but also that he is defining her image based on popular standards rather than her true self-defining beauty. By labeling her figure as a “little frame”, Rochester is minimizing Jane’s womanhood. Frames are not only associated with being dainty, expensive, and useful but they are also made to be hung and hold a work of art to be admired by others. Furthermore, the comparison of Jane’s appearance to a frame can also be taken in another direction. The word ‘frame’ is also used to illustrate the attributes of a doorway or even a window. Not only does this suggest that Jane is physically connected to a house, as well as reinforce the misogynistic views of the Victorian era, but also that due to her size and gender, she is something that people construct to their liking. Along with this idea, it even implies that Jane is nothing but another feature of a wealthy household that the inhabitants, literally and metaphorically, walk through her or even see through her; not acknowledging her as an independent being with a mind and soul. Due to this, it is apparent that “Brontë utilizes the metaphor of houses, rooms, and enclosures throughout the novel to symbolize the patriarchal structures within society that inhibit or negate the possibility of female liberty” (Anderson). Thus, from this interaction, readers of today not only learn that Mr. Rochester subconsciously views women as inferior or subservient to men, but also that Jane Eyre is not entirely feminist with the usage of demeaning language to describe women. Continuing the inspection of word choice, the reference and symbolism to birds is an additional example of how Jane Eyre fails to align with modern feminist ideals. “As early as 1300, ‘bird’ was used for ‘girl’ and it most likely derived from “confusion with another similar Middle English word, ‘burde’, which also meant ‘young woman’” (A.). Today, the term ‘bird’ is“commonly used to describe a woman that one is aware of as being materially obsessed” and it is a well-known “derogatory form of the term ‘chick’” (A.). Birds, themselves, are a popular interest for many due to their delicacy and beauty. Along with this, some species of birds are hunted and flaunted as trophies. Taking this into account, there are a multitude of ways that birds themselves, and the word ‘bird’ specifically, can be a metaphor for traditional gender roles. During the scene when Mr. Rochester is proposing to Jane, there is a moment where he tells her, “Jane, be still; don’t struggle so, like a wild frantic bird that is rending its own plumage in its desperation” (Brontë 282). From this comment, it is insinuated that Mr. Rochester is unknowingly objectifying Jane. Although his intentions are seemingly pure, and even after he attempts to convince Jane that she is truly his equal, a statement such as this only supports the subconscious gender standards of the time that have been ingrained into him. Considering one of the alternative definitions of the term ‘bird’, and the situation in which Rochester used it, there is reasonable evidence to conclude that the incorporation of this word in Jane Eyre was done so with underlying degrading connotations towards women. Therefore, when Mr. Rochester labels Jane in this demeaning manner, he is not only showing his deep-rooted misogynistic tendencies but also how during this time, women were visualized as nothing more than servants to the men in their lives. Moreover, by comparing Jane to an animal in this manner, Brontë not only exemplifies internalized misogyny, but she also reflects her implicit bias within her work in a way that today’s readers may not agree with. From a modern feminist perspective, an instance in which Jane Eyre’s underlying meanings are not interpreted as empowering is by the way female emotions are portrayed. Unlike the current form of feminism, Jane Eyre minimizes the validity of women’s feelings rather than acknowledging them. On several occasions, they are described as a form of madness and sometimes illustrated as animalistic behavior, which is especially prevalent when Jane is retelling her encounters with Bertha Mason. Due to this, there is a negative portrayal of mental illness as well as a subsequent and frivolous attitude towards feminine expression. As a child, Jane was described as “wild”, “frantic”, and “devilish” by adults (Brontë). This representation of her emotions characterizes how Victorian society enforced, and preferred, a repressed woman. Not only were “they were considered inferior to men, and given a stereotypical image showing them as gentle, loyal and angelic,” but they were also “rejected of any personal opinions or independence, for these were only a man’s privilege” (“The Repression of Women in Victorian Society as Shown in 19th Century Literature.”). Furthermore, it also exemplifies the internalized misogyny that Jane herself possesses on a deeper level, and therefore, further solidifies the anti-feministic qualities of the book. In chapter 26, a memory of Bertha contained in her room is depicted by Jane. She tells her readers, “a figure ran backwards and forwards...it groveled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal...the maniac bellowed....” (Brontë 326). By illustrating Bertha in this manner, Jane is not only maintaining the patriarchal perspectives of women but also demonstrating her own internalized misogyny. Throughout the story, Jane personally endures similar trivializations and excused emotional trauma as Bertha, although she continues to define herself, and other women, by the same pressured standards of men that constantly oppress and challenge her. Therefore, along with accentuating that women from young ages are taught to align with the male gaze within society, Jane is also outlining how female emotions are constantly overlooked or seen as a form of mental illness rather than true human reaction. This attitude towards a woman’s mental state is further demonstrated when “Rochester invokes medical authority to corroborate his assessment of Bertha which demonstrates how men could deliberately invoke the masculine powers of Victorian medicine and law to disarm, discredit, and confine women who refused to suffer and be still” (Anderson). Additionally, “Bertha's unwomanliness--her masculinity in a society that raises femininity onto a pedestal--further stigmatizes Bertha as fallen. She embodies the unfeminine aspect of both anger and madness which threatens masculine control of Victorian society. Bertha must be contained because she is not submissive” (Anderson). By allowing Jane to picture Bertha in a way that conforms to the male-dominated society, Brontë not only reinforces the patriarchal standard of women but also exemplifies subsequent female competitiveness. Therefore, Brontë only further creates a non-feministic undertone to her novel in the scope of today’s audience. To further elaborate on how Jane Eyre’s underlying messages are not truly feminist today, an analysis of women in society is relevant. This can be examined specifically when Brontë portrays the feminine attributes of the moon when discussing certain scenes. Although the moon may represent a plethora of things, and have infinite symbolism across many cultures, in the moments when Jane is characterizing the moon, it is in a seemingly, deep-rooted misogynistic fashion. Though there are a multitude of nuances that the moon may exemplify within the book, such as mystery, the way in which Brontë uses it to emphasize Jane’s femininity is now seen as problematic. Throughout history, other depictions of the moon within literature are mostly centered around women and their non-masculine traits. Furthermore, seeing as the moon is commonly used to illustrate females, specifically in a goddess or mother-like form, it also hints at their fertility. Along these lines, in terms of Victorian ideals, women were valued for their ability to reproduce; and to create a family to inherit fortune was of large importance during this time as well. Seeing the alternative ways in which this symbol can be used, a situation where the can readers see this representation of the moon is in chapter 20. Jane opens the chapter by illustrating the night scene. She states, “...when the moon, which was full and bright (for the night was fine), came in her course to that space in the sky opposite my casement, and looked in at me through the unveiled panes, her glorious gaze roused me. Awaking in the dead of night, I opened my eyes on her disk—silver-white and crystal clear. It was beautiful, but too solemn...” (Brontë 228). In this passage, it is noticeable that Jane feels a connection to the moon. She elaborates on how she is ‘roused’ by its ‘beauty’. Though it may not have been the intention of Brontë to convey the moon’s effect on Jane in this manner, it is still worth focusing on her language concerning the metaphorical symbolism. This description not only tells readers that Jane is sexually awakened, but that along with men, she too is enchanted by the overpowering views that society forced on women at the time. Jane describes the moon as ‘full’ and in many literary instances, a full moon is used as a way to insinuate success, power, and fulfillment. Acknowledging some popular themes within the book such as love, marriage, and sense of belonging, it is reasonable to conclude that here, Jane is slowly making her way to what she has always longed for her whole life; a family. Therefore, to Jane, a way in which to achieve this dream would be to find a husband and have a child, thus starting a family of her own. This misconceived goal that for women to feel valuable and accomplished they must have money and a family is another deep-rooted ideal that was reinforced in the Victorian era. Further along these lines, by picturing the moon as ‘silver-white’, Brontë is continuing to elaborate on her misogynistic versions of happiness for women. In many cases, the color silver is used to represent self-control. Not only is this a trait something that men expect women to possess, but it is also neglecting and diminishing the sexual desires that females do have. Additionally, the color white is used to symbolize purity and new beginnings. By also using this to describe the moon, Brontë is conforming to the patriarchal visions of women by viewing them to have qualities that men are supposed to take and dominate. Thus, communicating that Brontë’s views of women are somewhat aligned with that of the male gaze and that her interpretation of feminism would not uphold the standards of the progressive women today. Considering the historical background and original criticism of the novel, it is clear that Jane Eyre was a recognized piece of literature upon its release. Not only this, but it made a considerably large impact on society’s mindset and perspective during this time as well. With regards to this, readers today are able to identify certain aspects of the book that are not consistent with the goals of contemporary beliefs. Due to certain word choices, the underlying messages of men’s mentalities of women, as well as the view of women in society, it is evident that Jane Eyre does not continue to portray feminism by today’s standards. Although Jane Eyre is not an accurate portrayal of modern feminism, it still can be noted that its previous impact was influential to the ideals of today. To continue the teaching of Jane Eyre today, it is imperative to also accentuate the fact that Jane Eyre is a historical marker in terms of literature and feminism, rather than a representation of the current, progressive perspective of citizens today.
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