What does Jane Eyrehave to say about social class? Does the book criticize or reinforce existing Victorian social prejudices?
Victorian society was notoriously hierarchical and rigid, a fact that is amply explored in Jane Eyre. However, our titular heroine does not advocate for the dissolution of England’s rigid class system. Rather, Jane Eyre views the class system as a useful means of determining character. Those at the top and bottom—the very rich and the thoroughly impoverished—can be dismissed safely. It is those who float around the system, defying classification, who merit attention and praise in the novels.
Jane despises nearly every well-off, well-bred character in the novel and treats nearly every character mired in poverty with condescension at best and scorn at worst. The well-to-do Reed children torment, bully, and demean Jane. Mr. Brocklehurst lavishes money on his wife’s and daughters’ beauty regimens, but starves the pupils at his school and forces them to cut off their beautiful hair. Blanche Ingram and her mother make cruel, half-witted remarks and parade around in their expensive finery like peacocks. And yet Jane is only slightly less hard on the poorest, lowliest people she meets. If they escape the scorn she heaps on the rich, they earn only grudging condescension. Hannah is a dense, superstitious woman who is willing to let Jane die in the cold. Jane’s students work hard, but they only achieve as much as poor and low-class girls can—that is, not very much of anything. Bessie is praised for her kindness to Jane, but even she is depicted as a dull, slightly pathetic creature.
In contrast, the unclassifiable characters win Jane’s admiration and affection. Those who have either money or good breeding—but not both—are characterized as those most worth knowing. Helen is poor but full of natural elegance; she is depicted as an angel on earth, a model of piety, virtue, and empathy. Miss Temple is a middle-class woman with the carriage of an aristocrat; she is shown to be a fair and kind authority figure. Adèle is a sweet child whose mother was a promiscuous entertainer; she is depicted as a loving, if shallow, girl. Diana, Mary, and St. John are classy but impoverished; they are portrayed as generous, loving, educated, and lively. Mr. Rochester is land-rich but sexily low-rent and debauched; he is characterized as a gruff but good-hearted and ultra-masculine philosopher.
Of course, Jane Eyre herself is the prime example of the unclassifiable person. Perhaps more than any other character, she is suspended in limbo between high and low class. Her mother came from high society, but her father was an impoverished clergyman. She is a penniless orphan, but she is brought up in a rich, high class household. She is a governess, but she works for a member of the landed gentry and attends social gatherings with elegant aristocrats. She is a working woman, but one of uncommon intelligence and artistic accomplishments. Jane doesn’t hide her defects: She portrays herself as moody, judgmental, and quick-tempered. But she is the heroine of this story, and doesn’t hesitate to ask for the appreciation a heroine deserves. Her classless state is what enables her to be a keen observer, a proto-feminist, a paragon of moral virtue, a loyalist to her own beliefs, and a fearless adventurer.
When reading Jane Eyre, we must always bear in mind that it is a novel told in the first person, by a fascinating, passionate, intelligent, and flawed woman. Brontë’s views on class may not be exactly the same as Jane Eyre’s; in fact, she may want us to view Jane’s prejudices with the same kind of skepticism with which Jane observes the very rich and very poor. Jane’s views are not meant to be the last word on class, but rather a provocative viewpoint that inspires us to examine our own opinions on society.
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Jane Eyre (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)
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Belonging to a family is a major theme in Jane Eyre. Family was extremely important to a woman in the Victorian period. It provided emotional and financial support to her as a child and an unmarried woman. Later, it defined her as a wife and mother. As an orphan, however, Jane is cast into a Victorian domestic wilderness, without a mother to prepare her for her proper place in society and without a father to care for her until her husband can replace him.
The absence of family creates a mixed effect in Jane. Her painful solitude spurs her to spend much of her young life in search of a family. Many of the characters serve as symbolic mothers for Jane. The harsh mothering of her aunt Mrs. Reed causes Jane to suffer, forcing her to withdraw into a lonely shell for protection. Miss Temple at Lowood is Jane’s first positive mother figure, showing compassion and caring and leading her on the path to self-fulfillment by encouraging her studies in French and literature.
The novel’s structure buttresses the theme of Jane’s search for a family. Beginning with the false, hurtful family of Mrs. Reed and her spoiled children, Jane encounters increasingly more rewarding versions of family coinciding with her personal maturation. At Lowood, Helen Burns and Miss Temple are a caring sister and mother. At Thornfield, Jane becomes a pseudo-mother to the sweet Adele and Mrs. Fairfax is a comforting mother-figure, but Jane is not yet able to be Rochester’s wife.
At Moor House, she encounters an even stronger sense of familial belonging with Diana, Mary, and St. John Rivers, her cousins. She lovingly prepares the house for their Christmas reunion and shares her inheritance with them. Therefore, the strange coincidence of Jane ending up on the doorstep of Moor House should not be seen as a rupture in realism, but a thematic device. She rejects St. John’s proposal of an authoritative, loveless marriage as a warped confusion of brother, husband, and father roles. Finally, Jane returns to a more enlightened Rochester to start a true family.
Jane’s lack of family also has instilled in her a strong sense of self-reliance and independence. Even as a child in Sarah Reed’s house, Jane recognizes the essential injustice of her predicament. She rejects the qualitative judgments that society makes on the basis of class and recognizes her cousins for the shallow, self-indulgent children that they are. Her personal standard of ethics tells her that Reed’s children are not her superiors. She also balks at Mr. Brocklehurst’s estimation of her as dishonest, recognizing his hypocrisy in demanding that his pupils live humbly and poorly, while his wife and daughters are bedecked in plumes and furs. Jane seems most humiliated and angered when her integrity is in question.
Jane’s self-reliance and personal ethics allow her to recognize the unfairness of many societal conventions. She is belittled and ignored as a “mere governess” by Rochester’s upper-class guests, but she recognizes them as arrogant and self-centered. Although she ranks far below Rochester in social rank and wealth, a profound impediment to a marriage in the Victorian era, she feels equal to him in soul, understanding his true nature. Jane finds his courting of the frivolous Blanche Ingram for her political and social connections disturbing because she knows that she herself is more his intellectual and spiritual equal.
Rochester’s courtship of Blanche is particularly ironic in the light of his marriage to the insane Bertha, whom he was tricked into marrying for the sake of monetary and political gain. It is significant that the primary symbol of hypocritical societal propriety, Thornfield Hall, in which Rochester lives a sham life of decorum, must be destroyed by fire before he and Jane can live together happily and truthfully.
The most convincing evidence of Jane’s strength and independence, however, is her narrative voice. From the very beginning of the novel, the reader is struck by the sense of confidence and control in the narrative voice. Brontë cleverly manipulates reader response through the compelling voice of Jane. At times, one is brought close to the narrator in an intimate relationship in which Jane makes the reader a confidant, revealing inner feelings and weaknesses. Yet she never allows herself complete vulnerability as a narrator. Often Jane addresses readers directly, never letting them forget that she is aware of their presence. Readers are not eavesdroppers as in a third-person narrative, but invited guests of Jane, who is in complete control of the narrative. She creates suspense by withholding information from readers, such as the identity of Rochester when he is disguised as an old gypsy, playing with them to heighten their interest. Jane’s voice is so commanding that her reliability and sincerity do not come into doubt.