Analysis of Jane Eyre
"Yes; Mrs. Rochester," said he; "Young Mrs. Rochester-Fair-fax Rochester's girl-bride." -Rochester to Jane, Jane Eyre
Since its publication in 1847, readers of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre have debated the subversive implications of this text. The plot conventions of Jane's rise to fortune and the marriage union that concludes the novel suggest conservative affirmations of class and gender identities that seemingly contradict the novel's more disruptive aspects. Despite the personal or professional motivations that led Bronte to conform the conclusion to sentimental norms, the novel continues to prove unsettling in its use of gender identities and its associations of gender with class and age.2 Notably, while challenging gender identities, the text does more than simply transfer power from the patriarchal grasp of Rochester to the powerless hand of Jane, and it does more than feed post-Butlerian critical perspectives; the text highlights the anxieties and complexities of the Victorian understanding of gender by paradoxically dismantling and reifying nineteenth-century notions of masculinity and femininity. Masculine and feminine constructions in Jane Eyre ultimately cannot be separated from the larger gender anxieties raised by Jane's class position or from the "twenty years of difference" (p. 333) between the partners of the novel's marriage plot. Jane's roles as governess and as girl bride associate her with complex and often contradictory notions of androgyny and femininity, sexuality and innocence. Because of their complex relationships to power, economics and age operate as essential pieces in the textual performances of gender identities, performances that suggest conscious parodies of these identities and lead to radical rejections of gender norms. Furthermore, the class differences between Jane and Rochester combine with the gap between their ages to exaggerate the already extreme binary logic of Victorian gender relations and create what Judith Butler calls "psychic excess," a feature of "psychic mimesis" that structures performance and potentially undermines gender identities.3 Reading Jane Eyre to uncover how class and age influence gender offers more insight into the text's subtle shifts in power and potentially reconciles disparate critical readings of the novel.
By the mid- 1840s, the increasing effects of industrialism and capitalism coincided with the processes that undermined and reinstated gender identities. In Women, Power, and Subversion: Social Strategies in British Fiction, 1778-1860, Judith Lowder Newton examines the division of the nineteenth-century labor force, claiming that the rise of factory production led to the decline of home industry and therefore to the rise of "separate spheres" for masculine and feminine work.4 Yet, these gendered realms of labor were inextricably bound with class economics; rather than experiencing a dramatic division of a masculine workplace and feminine domesticity, working-class laborers witnessed an increased blurring of gender division by the mid- 1840s. Agrarian notions of men's and women's work dissolved as both men and women were utilized in the growing industrial economy.5 Moreover, the corresponding polarization of male and female realms within the middle class can be read as the result of a larger societal anxiety about gender identities that emerged from the instability of working-class gender roles in the new social framework.
For example, in 1843 Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna published a study on the British working class: The Perils of the Nation: An Appeal to the Legislature, the Clergy, and the Higher and Middle Classes. In the chapter regarding the mining poor, the unsteadiness of class-based gender identities becomes central to Tonna's study. She laments at length the sinful licentiousness that pervades the...
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