The Themes of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre
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The Themes of Jane Eyre
In the beginning of Jane Eyre, Jane struggles against Bessie, the nurse at Gateshead Hall, and says, I resisted all the way: a new thing for me…"(Chapter 2). This sentence foreshadows what will be an important theme of the rest of the book, that of female independence or rebelliousness. Jane is here resisting her unfair punishment, but throughout the novel she expresses her opinions on the state of women. Tied to this theme is another of class and the resistance of the terms of one's class. Spiritual and supernatural themes can also be traced throughout the novel.
Soon after Jane is settled at Lowood Institution she finds the enjoyment of expanding her own mind and talents. She forgets the hardships of living at the school and focuses on the work of her own hands. She is not willing to give this up when she is engaged to Rochester. She resists becoming dependent on him and his money. She does not want to be like his mistresses, with their fancy gowns and jewels, but even after she and Rochester are married, she wants to remain as Adele's governess. She is not willing to give up her independence to Rochester, and tries to seek her own fortune by writing to her uncle. In the end, when she does have her own money, she states, "I am my own mistress" (Chapter 37).
Jane not only shows the reader her beliefs on female independence through her actions, but also through her thoughts. Jane desires to see more of the world and have more interaction with its people. While she appreciates her simple life at Thornfield, she regrets that she does not have the means to travel. She relates her feelings to all women, not just those of her class, saying:
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 (Chapter 12).
It is also important here to talk about Bertha, for she is a female character who is often seen resisting.
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Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte Female Independence Simple Life Calm Lowood Enjoyment Regrets Rochester Bessie
It may be wondered why Jane seems to have little sympathy for her, and part of the reason for this may be seen with how Bertha is portrayed. While Bertha is a woman, she is not presented as such. She is described in animal-like terms, and is called ‘it', not even ‘she' in the beginning. Jane describes her meeting with Bertha as such:
In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing; and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face (Chapter 26).
Jane is disadvantaged in many ways as she has no wealth, family, social position or beauty. Jane does have intelligence though, and her disposition is such to make Rochester fall in love with her. Here is seen resistance against class, as Rochester wishes to marry Jane in spite of the disapproval that will come from his class, and Jane also resists this disapproval and will marry him. However, Jane will not rebel against God or lose her self-respect and become Rochester's mistress when she finds out that he is already married.
There is also a spiritual theme running through the novel. When Jane is at Lowood she meets Helen Burns, the good and sacrificing girl whom Jane questions about God and Heaven right before she dies. This seems to begin Jane's relationship with religion that is traced more through the book. Jane calls on God after she finds out about Rochester's wife. She locks herself in her room, and states, "One idea only still throbbed lifelike within me – a remembrance of God: it begot an unuttered prayer…'be not far from me for trouble is near: there is none to help'" (Chapter 26). Again when she is trying to resist succumbing to Rochester's passion and a dishonest marriage with him we see her turning to God. After Rochester's attempts, Jane tells him to "do as I do: trust in God and yourself. Believe in Heaven. Hope to meet again there" (Chapter 27).
The religion theme is perhaps most important in Jane's relationship with St. John. When Jane refuses his attempts to get her to marry him and go to India, he says that she is not refusing him, but God. When Jane does almost accept him it is because she suddenly feels much veneration for him and her reasons for not accepting him dissolve. She says, "Religion called – Angels beckoned – God commanded – life rolled together like a scroll – death's gates opening showed eternity beyond: it seemed, that for safety and bliss there, all here might be sacrificed in a second" (Chapter 35).
Here one of the supernatural aspects of the novel steps in, and Jane hears Rochester calling her from afar. Later it is related that Rochester could also hear her reply. This is only one example of the supernatural in the novel. Near the beginning of the novel Jane feels she sees a ghost while she is locked in the red-room, and she takes it as a message from another world. When Jane is walking to Hay and first hears Rochester's horse approaching, she expects to see a North-of-England spirit called a ‘Gytrash' a lion-like creature with a huge head. When she sees Rochester the spell is broken, as she knows that nothing ever rides the Gytrash. When Jane first sees Bertha in her room by candlelight, she describes her in supernatural-like terms, thinking perhaps that she is a ghost.
Jane also relates a dream of a woman she knew in the past and how it was a presentiment of her sister's illness. Jane dreams of infants, as this woman did, and these dreams are followed by the attack on Mason and Robert's visit telling Jane that John Reed had died and that Mrs. Reed was on her deathbed. She again has dreams of infants before her failed wedding, and she has a dream of Thornfield as a ruin, which she later sees has become reality
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Love Versus Autonomy
Jane Eyre is very much the story of a quest to be loved. Jane searches, not just for romantic love, but also for a sense of being valued, of belonging. Thus Jane says to Helen Burns: “to gain some real affection from you, or Miss Temple, or any other whom I truly love, 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” (Chapter 8). Yet, over the course of the book, Jane must learn how to gain love without sacrificing and harming herself in the process.
Her fear of losing her autonomy motivates her refusal of Rochester’s marriage proposal. Jane believes that “marrying” Rochester while he remains legally tied to Bertha would mean rendering herself a mistress and sacrificing her own integrity for the sake of emotional gratification. On the other hand, her life at Moor House tests her in the opposite manner. There, she enjoys economic independence and engages in worthwhile and useful work, teaching the poor; yet she lacks emotional sustenance. Although St. John proposes marriage, offering her a partnership built around a common purpose, Jane knows their marriage would remain loveless.
Nonetheless, the events of Jane’s stay at Moor House are necessary tests of Jane’s autonomy. Only after proving her self-sufficiency to herself can she marry Rochester and not be asymmetrically dependent upon him as her “master.” The marriage can be one between equals. As Jane says: “I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine. . . . To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company. . . . We are precisely suited in character—perfect concord is the result” (Chapter 38).
Throughout the novel, Jane struggles to find the right balance between moral duty and earthly pleasure, between obligation to her spirit and attention to her body. She encounters three main religious figures: Mr. Brocklehurst, Helen Burns, and St. John Rivers. Each represents a model of religion that Jane ultimately rejects as she forms her own ideas about faith and principle, and their practical consequences.
Mr. Brocklehurst illustrates the dangers and hypocrisies that Charlotte Brontë perceived in the nineteenth-century Evangelical movement. Mr. Brocklehurst adopts the rhetoric of Evangelicalism when he claims to be purging his students of pride, but his method of subjecting them to various privations and humiliations, like when he orders that the naturally curly hair of one of Jane’s classmates be cut so as to lie straight, is entirely un-Christian. Of course, Brocklehurst’s proscriptions are difficult to follow, and his hypocritical support of his own luxuriously wealthy family at the expense of the Lowood students shows Brontë’s wariness of the Evangelical movement. Helen Burns’s meek and forbearing mode of Christianity, on the other hand, is too passive for Jane to adopt as her own, although she loves and admires Helen for it.
Many chapters later, St. John Rivers provides another model of Christian behavior. His is a Christianity of ambition, glory, and extreme self-importance. St. John urges Jane to sacrifice her emotional deeds for the fulfillment of her moral duty, offering her a way of life that would require her to be disloyal to her own self.
More main ideas from Jane Eyre