Jane Eyre: a Critical Analysis of Gender Relations in Victorian Literature

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Jane Eyre: A Critical Analysis of Gender Relations in Victorian Literature

Modern society tends to view the Victorian era as one of oppression and constraint, despite the social and cultural upheaval of the time. This contradiction refers, in large, to the constraints imposed on the female gender. Women in Victorian England were viewed as inferior to their male counterparts, and were allocated clearly defined roles within society. Their treatment is a subject that is explored and critiqued throughout the literature of the time, and subsequent analysis by literary commentators. As Maynard comments (1984); ‘Few observers of the Victorian Scene have failed to point out the unusual degree of sexual restraint imposed upon social life and published literature’. However, it is in the work of the Brontë sisters that one witnesses the most comprehensive, and sometimes startling account of the social and gender restraints of the time. This paper will concentrate on the novel Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Brontë, and published in 1847 under the pseudonym Currer Bell. The adoption of a male pseudonym in itself reflects an underlying social prejudice towards female novelists, as outlined by the author; ‘Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell...while we did not like to declare ourselves women...we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice’ (Smith, 2000). This somewhat disturbing observation by the author sets the tone of the novel itself, and implies what it is exactly that set the Brontë sisters apart from their contemporaries; their ‘unfeminine’ style of writing.

Jane Eyre is, in effect, a love story, and concentrates on the main character’s quest to find true love. It cannot be classed, however, as a solely romantic novel as the character’s quest for love involves a struggle for equal treatment, social acceptance, and value. In doing so, she questions and refuses to conform to an array of social norms associated with the era. Jane’s desire to be loved is evident in the opening stages of the story, in her conversation with Helen Burn’s; ‘if others don't love me I would rather die than live...I would willingly submit to have the bone of my arm broken, or to let a bull toss me, or to stand behind a kicking horse, and let it dash its hoof at my chest’ (Brontë, 1847). This somewhat distressing insight into the young Eyre’s mindset captures her quest for ‘true love’, as opposed to the loveless relationships and marriages associated with the time. This association is witnessed by Jane’s eventual husband, Mr Rochester, in his first marriage;  ‘Bertha Antoinette Mason, she was wanted by my father for her fortune. I hardly spoke with her before the wedding. I lived with her for 4 years. Her temper ripened, her vices sprang up, violent and unchaste’ (Brontë, 1847). Rochester’s summary of the ‘marriage’ is a disturbing insight into the arranged, and socially acceptable, marriages of the time.

Brontë sets her protagonist apart from her peers in her views of love, but further cements this difference in her continued criticism of the attitudes of the Victorian class. This is apparent in chapter 17 in particular, when she questions her growing feelings for Mr Rochester; ‘You have nothing to do with the master of Thornfield, further than to receive the salary he gives you for teaching his protégé.... so don't make him the object of your fine feelings’. (Brontë, 1847) It becomes clear, however, that despite Jane’s attempts to restrain her emotions, she is fighting a losing battle and is becoming increasingly enraptured with Mr Rochester, reacting in a heated manner upon receipt of a letter from him; ‘And while she broke the seal and perused the document, I went on taking my coffee...Why my hand shook, and why I involuntarily spilt half the contents of my cup into my saucer, I did not choose to consider’ (Brontë, 1847). Jane’s employment as a...
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