Feminist Ideals and the Women Of

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    Feminist Ideals and the Women

    of "Jane Eyre" 90An Essay on Jane Eyre

    In the mid-nineteenth century, a woman would have carried the burden of "staying in her placeIn other words, she was subject to the generally accepted standards and roles that society ha

    placed upon her, which did not necessarily provide her with liberty, dignity or independence. Yif Charlotte Bronte's character Jane Eyre had truly existed in that time period, she would havdefied most of these cultural standards and proved herself a paradigm for aspiring feminists her day. Jane's commitment to dignity, independence, freedom of choice, unwillingness submit to a man's emotional power and willingness to speak her mind were fostered by somfemale characters in the novel. Yet these traits also contrast sharply with some of Bronte's othfemale characters Jane Eyre can be labeled as a feminist role model due to her relationshipwith men that defied the generally accepted roles of the nineteenth-century woman. This title especially fitting when her life is compared and contrasted to other female characters in thnovel.

    In order to understand Jane's role as a feminist, a definition of this term must be establishedThe word "feminist" is defined as "one who advocates equal rights for women" ("Feminist" 1)Yet a "feminist" does not necessarily protest in the streets; any woman who wishes to be equwith men and expresses this viewpoint in word and action can be considered to possess ideaon which the feminist movement is based. Though women had been writing feminist texts sincthe late 18th century, an actual feminist movement did not form in Britain until the late 19tcentury under leaders such as Emily Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett ("Feminist" 1). CharlotBronte was publishing Jane Eyre just as First Wave Feminism was beginning to develop, witwriters such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson and EmiBronte proving their worth as writers and incorporating feminist ideals into their work (Steely12-13). Jane Eyre was one of many post-Civil War novels "aimed at young female readers which an adolescent woman attempts to gain maturity and ascendency over the terms of hworld" (Steelye 13).

    Jane Eyre, of course, did not take to the streets with her feminist ideals, but she expressed heview of women's equality almost subconsciously, through word and deed. She lived in a "worthat measured the likelihood of her success by the degree of her marriageability," which wouhave included her familial connections, economic status and beauty (Moglene 484). Yet, Jandoes not allow her goals to rest solely upon marrying. True, Rochester's betrayal throws her inthe depths of despair, but she tells St. John expressly that she could be perfectly happy as simple teacher with her own school and a few pupils.

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    Two of Jane's actions are the most explicit in proving her role as a feminist. The first is hattitude toward Mr. Rochester's attempts to lavish her with jewels and expensive garments foher wedding. In fact, she says that "the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned withsense of annoyance and degradation" (Bronte 236). Her unwillingness to be objectified is thstrongest indication that she does not define herself by two of the "marriageability" componenpreviously discussed: economic status and beauty.

    The second action is Jane's leaving of Mr. Rochester, which exhibits her courage. By this deeshe both defies the Victorian expectation of submitting to a man's will (ie, acting as Rochestermistress) and shows that she can break from the emotional power that Rochester wields oveher. Though it is hard for her to leave, she nevertheless draws up the courage to leave a life security, promise and love for the unknown, refusing to let this man maintain his grip on heheart. In addition, her refusal to become a mistress shows that she has maintained a certadignity, refusing to give in to her physical and emotional desires that would be seen as uncoutby society.

    Some may argue that Jane eventually "gives in" to her emotions when she returns to M

    Rochester. This return, however, was not done in the spirit of surrender, but due to threalization that even if she returns to Rochester, his love will free her, not imprison her as will SJohn's. Notably, she only returns after she has received a large inheritance from her uncleBecause she is now established as Mr. Rochester's social equal, her return is not out oneediness or greed. After all, she returns of her own free choice and because of her belief thshe can "become a wife without sacrificing a grain of her Jane Eyre-ity" (Rich 474).

    In fact, Jane's relationship with Mr. Rochester is a constant struggle for her to maintain her owindividual identity (Eagleton 493-494). In other words, she plays the role of servant yet makesperfectly clear to him that she does not consider herself below him in terms of spiritual qualities

    She insists to him that she is more than her social status, saying, "Do you think, because I apoor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as mucsoul as you--and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and mucwealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you(Bronte 222). When Mr. Rochester refers to her as his equal and likeness, it appears that Janhas made headway in asserting her equality with the master.

    In some respects, Jane finds herself almost superior to Mr. Rochester morally, for Rochestersin of keeping Bertha Mason a secret gives rise to questions about the quality of his characterJane is comparatively moral, as evidence by her refusal to become nothing more than h

    mistress. Rochester's dilapidated state at the end of the novel not only displays the deterioratioof his physical body, but perhaps is also a symbol of the weakening of his soul. Here it seemthat he is now truly equal, or even less equal to Jane, who has developed her soul to ipotential by finally discovering how to balance her independence with passion. After this journeof self-discovery, she can finally "rehumanise" Jane also refuses to give in to a manpatriarchal attempts by refusing St. John's demand that she marry him for reasons with whicshe does not agree. After all, St. John admits he does not love her and then uses his religiouviews as an excuse to goad her into marrying him. In fact, he even attempts to make her feguilty by saying that God would not be pleased with two people living together with "a divideallegiance: it must be entire" (Bronte 357). By making this claim, however, he seems to b

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    implying that God would only be happy if St. John had full and complete ownership of JaneThough Jane is tempted, she does not give in because she realizes that in order to please him"I felt daily more and more that I must disown half my nature, stifle my faculties, wrest my tastefrom their original bent, force myself to the adoption of pursuits for which I had no naturvocation... it racked me hourly to aspire to the standard he uplifted" (Bronte 326). In othwords, it pained her to realize that her marriage might be based on a lifestyle for which she hano desire and a partnership void of true love.

    This desire for independence has been apparent since Jane's early childhood experiences aGateshead where she is subject to the cruelty of Aunt Reed. This woman shows the young gno love and wishes to have ultimate authority over her mind and spirit, similar to St. Johnintentions. Her punishment of locking Jane in the Red Room nurtures a central characteristic the young girl: the desire to survive with dignity. Jane declares to Aunt Reed that this "violenaction is an injustice and that she cannot live in this unloving environment. At the end of hdiscourse, she feels her soul begin "to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, triumph, I ever felt... as if an invisible bond had burst and that I had struggled out into unhopedfor liberty" (Bronte 31). This is the beginning of a spirit that Jane carries forward into her futu

    relationships with men, beginning with the detestable Mr. Brocklehurst. For example, shdisplays courageous defiance to Mr. Brocklehurst in answer to his question about where evchildren are sent after death (Bronte 27). This scene, especially when put into context of thlater part of the novel, emphasizes her willpower to stand up to a man. The cruel master Lowood School is another example of a man in Jane's life who attempts to rule completely ovwomen, as exemplified by his attempts to force the girls into subordination and simple living.

    This fortitude and mental strength begins with Mr. Brocklehurst but is further nurtured througmore interpersonal interactions at Lowood School. At this institution is a woman whose feminiattitude influences Jane's thinking and who teaches the young girl that kindness and love exis

    in her world. Miss Temple has an independent spirit that has allowed her to accomplish certain level of open-minded intellect. She is a successful teacher, forward thinking, unmarrieand ambitious. She stands up to the authoritative male figure Mr. Brocklehurst, certainly aunexpected action of any woman in her position. As Jane's first positive female role model, MisTemple encourages the spirit of independence and dignity in Jane.

    This dignity was also strongly influenced by her childhood friend Helen Burns. Helen faces hstruggles with a dignity that is based more upon her Christian views than anything feminist, bdignity nonetheless. Even on her deathbed, she places her dire fate in the hands of God, whom she has so much faith (Bronte 71). Though Jane struggles to understand this at first

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