When Jane Eyre was first published by Charlotte Brontë in 1847, it was under the pseudonym Currer Bell, because in Victorian era England, female authors were often judged harshly for their sex rather than the quality of their work. Charlotte Brontë wanted to avoid gender-based criticism of her novel, however, her gender did prove to be an issue. The novel was an immediate success, but critics claimed the story would be admirable if it were written by a man, but “odious” if by a woman. In a responding letter, Brontë wrote:
“To you, I am neither man nor woman. I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me–the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.”
In decades since the book’s publication, Jane Eyre has been hailed as a classic and a feminist story ahead of its time. Many have noted the similarities between the story and Brontë's own life: both suffered from the loss of several family members and worked as governesses, and were considered physically unattractive. Brontë’s story follows the eponymous orphan Jane Eyre through struggles at the Lowood School, as a governess at Thornfield Manor, and at her cousin’s home Marsh End.
Jane Eyre is a character with backbone, spirit, and intelligence, traits that isolate her as a uniquely strong and nuanced character. All of these qualities are contrasted with her physical plainness and smallness, which would typically disqualify her from any additional attention or merit. However, Jane’s intelligence and self-assurance are the attributes that attract both of her Mr. Rochester and St. John to her. This is highly unusual in an era where a woman's social mobility depended on her appearance, and women were not considered men’s equals.
Therefore, it is Jane’s unusual self-reliance and independence that has brought about her diagnosis of a “feminist” protagonist. The most significant instances of her strong personality are when Jane rejects the advances of men who have significantly more social power and influence than her in accordance with her own moral compass.
In the first case, Jane is pursued by Mr. Rochester, owner of Thornfield. After teaching at Lowood for two years, Jane becomes restless and decides to offer herself as a governess. She is accepted to tutor a young French girl named Adele at Thornfield Hall. The owner of Thornfield and guardian of Adele, Mr. Rochester, is condescending and flippant towards Jane in many conversations, however, it is ultimately revealed that he is in love with Jane and wishes to marry her. Jane, who has never been in a romantic relationship, accepts his proposal, believing she has finally found a person who will be faithful and stay by her side. Her plans of a peaceful life with Mr. Rochester are ruined when she learns Mr. Rochester is married to an insane woman named Bertha, whom he keeps confined in his attic.
Jane, injured by Mr. Rochestor’s deception, resolves to leave Thornfield Hall. Mr. Rochester begs her to remain with him and become his mistress, despite recounting his low opinions of his past mistresses to Jane earlier in the book. Jane is torn between a comfortable but immoral life with Mr. Rochester and choosing her own independence.
“They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamored wildly. ‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?’ Still indomitable was the reply—‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself”.
In spite of the care and attention that Mr. Rochester offers, Jane resolves to leave Thornfield and start over. This is an act that has been widely hailed as “feminist”, since Jane refuses to bent to the will of a powerful man and prioritizes her own mental and spiritual wellbeing over love.
After wandering the countryside and begging for work, Jane ends up starving and desolate at Marsh End, a more modest house that is owned by St. John Rivers and his sisters, Diana and Mary. St. John is a handsome and serious clergyman who takes Jane in and provides her with a job as a teacher for rural schoolgirls. Emotionally, St. John is the polar opposite of Mr. Rochester; he is reserved, cold, and restless. His religion serves as an outlet for his ambition, and he compels Jane to marry him and accompany him on a missionary trip to India.
“God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife,” he tells [Jane]. “It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labor, not love. A missionary’s wife you must—shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you—not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.”
Jane rejects St. John’s proposal, realizing that she cannot be in a marriage without love. Although her marriage to St. John would give her a concrete purpose in life, Jane is unwilling to submit to a marriage in which she is deemed inferior, a servant, and unloveable.
St. John’s insistence that Jane must marry him instead compels her to return to Mr. Rochester, who has narrowly escaped death after Bertha set his house on fire and committed suicide by jumping off of the top floor of Thornfield Hall. He has become blind and lost one arm as a result of the fire, and his entire estate was destroyed.
Jane returns to Mr. Rochester with a fresh perspective and a fortune. A relative of hers died and left her an inheritance of 20 thousand pounds, which has aided Jane’s feelings of security and autonomy in her life. Finding Mr. Rochester subdued and dispirited by her absence and his injuries, Jane promises to take care of him. They declare their love for each other and marry, with Jane concluding the novel by stating that she and Mr. Rochester had children together and he partially regained his sight a few years later.
It is the ending of the novel that many readers deem anti-feminist. Is Jane’s commitment to Mr. Rochester fully autonomous and clear-headed, when it is evident that Jane had no basis for a healthy romantic relationship? Mr. Rochester was not only her boss, but her superior in age, wealth, and experience.. He was in his late 30s, and she was a teenager when he proposed to her. Although he stated vocally that he believed he and Jane to be equals, she feels most enamored in their relationship when he relies on her for sight and guidance.
Does Jane’s refusal to become Mr. Rochester's mistress qualify her as a strong-willed protagonist? Undoubtedly, her rejection of St. John’s loveless marriage proves she desires romance and support in her life, but her return to Mr. Rochester is often seen as an acquiescence to an unhealthy and unbalanced relationship. Even in marriage, and with a fortune, is she considered equal to Mr. Rochester?
Jane Eyre is doubtlessly a love story with the most romantic possible context for Victorian-era England, but today may not measure up as a feminist masterpiece to critics. However, Jane Eyre remains one of the most complex female characters ever written, and her journey of self-exploration and moral reckoning is one of the most widely acclaimed globally.
Breanna Crossman is a 17-year-old writer from Orange County, California who currently resides on Long Island. She writes for Neutral Citizen Journalism and runs Spiritus Mundi Review, an interdisciplinary arts magazine. When she is not reading or writing, you can find her drinking coffee, watching Hayao Miyazaki films, and hanging out with her cat. Instagram: @breannacrossman