The Exposure of Feminist Critique in 19th Century Literature: a Look at Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

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Resistance is the action of fighting back against an unwanted force that may be deemed oppressive in ones life. It is created for different causes and comes in many forms; it may be made verbal, explicit, implicit, physical, and even made humorous or satirical. Charlotte Brontë, a 19th century Victorian feminist wrote her novel Jane Eyre as a means of exposing the confining environments, shameful lack of education, and pitiful dependence upon male relatives for survival (Brackett, 2000). Charlotte Brontë used literature as a means of feminist cultural resistance by identifying the underlying factors of how the Victorian ideologies, gender and social construction of that time was limiting, and brings to light barriers that faced women in the early 19th century, and these same barriers that continue to face women today. Her feminist writings during this time period explored the depths of feminism and the ideas of limitations through class distinctions and boundaries in a hierarchal, classist, and sexist society during the time of Victorian England. Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre is a prime example of the use of feminist long fiction, which features female characters whose quest for self-satisfaction causes conflict within a traditionally patriarchal society (Brackett, 2000).

Victorian ideologies in Brontë’s work and life are highly evident. In Jane Eyre, Brontë introduces and constantly refers to Jane as plain and stresses her lack of requisite beauty as the heroine of the novel. Presumably in male Victorian literature, the heroine or more so, damsel is presented as a fair maiden, with rosy cheeks and flashing eyes. Brontë uses this mould and opposes it by creating a female who is “puny, with irregular features whose unpromising physical attributes never fail to be remarked upon by everyone she encounters and by herself” (Brackett, 2000). Brontë purposely illustrates Jane as this “un-ideal” heroine to poke at the typical ideological female heroine. She also defies ideological Victorian etiquette in Jane Eyre. When Rochester is introduced to Jane, Brontë presents a feminist portrait of Jane and the time period in which a “woman walking alone in that era should never address a man, but Jane goes out of her way to help Rochester--she even lets him place his hand on her shoulder, and even though Rochester tries to stop her, Jane explains that she would never walk away without helping a person in need” (Brackett, 2000). The reversal of sex roles in the novel illustrates Brontë’s disapproval of the way women in Victorian society were deemed as unworthy of giving help and only receiving it. Throughout the novel Brontë ensures that Jane is constantly saving Rochester from emotionally and physically damaging situations. She rejects Rochester’s assumption that she is helpless, and declares her independence by saying, "I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will which I now exert to leave you," (Brontë, 282). Jane’s independence of mind in Victorian society “possesses her to a degree that would be a handicap to the conventional Victorian marriage and is a threat to the literary tradition of masculine heroism” (Bell, 1996). Brontë presents a Jane as realist, yet a utopian romantic, while at the same time confronting social reality. Everything Jane says enforces that she is not the typical romantic heroine whose life story shall end in marriage. Brontë uses Jane as a heroine who is able to recognize and finally break down the barriers if gender, and class.

Resisting social construction during Brontë’s time is a difficult feat when women are dependant on men and wealth for survival. The idea of maintaining one’s class or fear becoming a poor outcast is presented several times throughout Jane’s life. Jane at a young age does not want to be associated with poorness by refusing to give up her middle class status she feels entitle to while living with the Reeds. When Jane is...
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