Out of the Shell: Jane Eyre’s Transformation
Arguably one of Charlotte Brontë’s most interesting protagonists, Jane Eyre illustrates the paradoxically maternal and child-like role women had in the Victorian era. Despite her ornery and rebellious temperament as a child, Jane proves herself to be desirable to two very different kinds of men. Her unique characteristics appeal to both the virtuous, pious Mr. St. John as well as the hedonistic, wealthy bachelor, Mr. Rochester. Her transition from a fiery, impassioned victim to a woman who determines her own fate is inspiring. She is respected as an individual; however, she is consistently described in ways that deny her humanity. Bronte argues that the ideal English wife, while personifying characteristics of independence and intelligence, is only desired so long as she remains subordinate, and therefore nonthreatening, to her male peers.
Jane certainly does not behave like a subordinate as a child, however. Jane’s story begins in a moment of pivotal change. Abused by her aunt and cousins, to whom her care was secured by her uncle, Jane is newly orphaned and alone. The scenery is desolate to match her psychological state: the only family that she has left does not accept her, and, as a child, her capacity to understand the familial conflict she has become a central part of is limited. Her male cousin, John Reed, dehumanizes her. He calls her a “bad animal” (Dickens 3), suggesting that disobedience is part of her base, less-than-human identity. Although readers eventually become aware of karma’s vengeance against the selfish, over-indulged boy, Jane does not know that justice will win out. Confronted with only unjustified abuse, Jane describes her mood as that of a “revolted slave” (8). She at least sees herself as a human, although a sub-human slave at that.
Despite receiving an education at Lowood, in which she learns to behave virtuously and piously, Jane does not emerge as a free and independent woman. Though...
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