Charlotte Bronte 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.
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Charlotte Bronte’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 Bronte’s work and life are highly evident. In Jane Eyre, Bronte 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. Bronte 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). Bronte 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, Bronte 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 Bronte’s disapproval of the way women in Victorian society were deemed as unworthy of giving help and only receiving it.
Throughout the novel Bronte 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," (Bronte, 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).
Bronte 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. Bronte uses Jane as a heroine who is able to recognize and finally break down the barriers if gender, and class. Resisting social construction during Bronte’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 asked if she wants to find any of her other relatives she replies, “I should not like to belong to poor people” (Bronte, 10), and adds “I could not see how poor people had the means of being kind…” (Bronte, 10) after finding out that they too were poor. Jane is taught at a young age to look down on people not of her caste, and to oppress them the same way that she herself is oppressed as a female orphan.
Though Jane is not influenced directly by social status at all times, it is still a constant factor which Bronte makes evident. In Victorian England, a female must either be born or married into her social class, and this is what defines her. The character of Jane served to undercut the popular female stereotypes of fiction: the angel of the house, the invalid, or the whore (Brackett, 2000). Bronte creates Jane as her own force, in which she is neither the angel, invalid or whore, but a young lady who is intelligent and has pride and dignity.
In this Victorian society, her unsubmissiveness and independence is her social fault, which Bronte pokes fun at (Brackett, 2000). Male Victorian writers cast women during this time as social, finagling creatures whose goals are to obtain as many friends as possible and throw the most elaborate parties. Bronte opposes this by creating Jane as an opposite of these “defining” characteristics, by making Jane a female who could are less about how many people adore her, a female who would actually enjoy a life with few companions.
As mentioned before, Jane’s sense of dignity is evident. As Jane became Rochester’s governess, she is faced with the option of becoming Rochester’s mistress, causing this internal battle between her love for Rochester and her self respect. Instead Jane declines this proposal as she would rather have her self respect intact, a move not many women would have chosen in Victorian society. Bronte is not only vocal about the absurdness of these Victorian ideologies, but she is also stringent in pointing out that these ideologies directly oppress the female gender.
In Jane Eyre, Bronte criticizes the Victorian conceptions of gender roles. She does this in many ways throughout the novel, but one was by pointing out in Jane Eyre that Bertha Mason is seen as “inhuman” when she acts out by setting her husbands bed on fire. Bertha’s enraged with fury at her husband Rochester’s betrayal because he got engaged to Jane; Bronte conveys the point that women during this time should restrain all emotion, or else they are seen as alien.
Bronte also stresses education, or lack thereof, which was something that women during that time either has very little of, or had no access too depending on their class. In a scene, when Jane is all but eight years old, Jane receives cruel treatment from her younger male cousin John Reed, and when she retaliates she is reprimanded for it and is told to treat her “young master” with respect, causing her to wonder is she herself is seen as a servant.
Another idea of oppression through gender during the Victorian era in Jane Eyre is when Jane has to decide between either becoming either a teacher or a governess. This is important because it highlights that women had only two options in terms of employment, and both of which consist of male superiors. While lack of education in women was common during this time, Bronte again forces the reader to recognize Jane as being an individual, whose intelligence and education is equal to that of a man’s. Upper class women never had occupations, nor did they ever work.
But following Jane’s engagement to Rochester, she tells him that she will continue to work because she refuses to be dependant on a man, and that she will not be subservient to him. Here Bronte is exposing the Victorian idea of dependency on husband/male relatives for survival, by making Jane dependant on only herself. She forces the reader to see that she has created Jane and Rochester equal. During the Victorian era, gender plays a defining role in how one is perceived within these Victorian ideologies and oppression because of gender, Women are supposed to be very calm generally but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.
It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex” (Bronte, 96). This passage highlights Jane’s feelings of imprisonment and of the female condition, where females are clearly not treated as equal to men, and discusses Bronte’s own views on the general conditions of Victorian women.
This passage also alludes to Bronte’s critique of not only gender roles, but the feelings of imprisonment of society, of her class, and of her battle with her feelings as a woman with morals. Bronte’s use of literature as an exposing agent of women during Victorian societies is important to the feminist cultural resistance movement. Throughout the novel, the oppression of women within Victorian ideologies, gender and social class is made clear, and Bronte uses Jane as an opposing force against these restraining ideas of the time.
Jane not only has an ambiguous social standing, which leads to her to criticise discrimination based on one’s class, but she also is constantly fighting more powerful male forces than herself in order to not be seen by her sex but as a human individual. While this book was written in the 19th century, its vision does work towards social justice, recognizing and trying to bring to light these barriers that have and still continue to dominate the female sex. Bronte uses her art to expose male cultural power and female social identity during a time of artistic male dominance.