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Jane Eyre

by Charlotte Bronte

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Themes

Morality

Jane refuses to become Mr. Rochester's paramour because of her "impassioned self-respect and moral conviction." She rejects St. John Rivers' religious fervour as much as the libertine aspects of Mr. Rochester's character. Instead, she works out a morality expressed in love, independence, and forgiveness.

God and religion

Throughout the novel, Jane endeavours to attain an equilibrium between moral duty and earthly happiness. She despises the hypocrisy of Mr. Brocklehurst, and sees the deficiencies in St. John Rivers' indulgent yet detached devotion to his Christian duty. As a child, Jane admires Helen Burns' life's philosophy of 'turning the other cheek', which in turn helps her in adult life to forgive Aunt Reed and the Reed cousins for their cruelty. Although she does not seem to subscribe to any of the standard forms of popular Christianity, she honours traditional morality – particularly seen when she refuses to marry Mr. Rochester until he is widowed. The last sentence of the novel is a prayer of St. John Rivers on his own behalf: "Religion serves to moderate Jane's behavior, but she never represses her true self."

In her preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, Brontë makes her beliefs clear; "conventionality is not morality" and "self-righteousness is not religion," declaring that narrow human doctrines, which serve only to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. Throughout the novel, Brontë presents contrasts between characters who believe in and practice what she considers a true Christianity, and those who pervert religion to further their own ends. Here are further examples:

Mr. Brocklehurst, who oversees Lowood Institution, is a hypocritical Christian. He professes aid and charity but does the opposite by using religion as a justification for punishment. For instance, he cites the Biblical passage "man shall not live by bread alone", to rebuke Miss Temple for having fed the girls an extra meal to compensate for their inedible breakfast of burnt porridge. He tells Miss Temple that she "may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!".

Helen Burns is a complete contrast to Brocklehurst; she follows the Christian creed of 'turning the other cheek' and by loving those who hate her. On her deathbed, Helen tells Jane "I'm going home to God, who loves me." Jane herself cannot quite profess Helen's absolute, selfless faith. Jane does not seem to follow a particular doctrine, but she is sincerely religious in a non-doctrinaire, general way; it is Jane, after all, who places the stone with the word "Resurgam" (Latin for 'I will rise again') on Helen's grave, some fifteen years after her friend's death. Jane is seen frequently praying and calling on God to assist her, especially with her struggles concerning Mr. Rochester; praying for his wellness and safety.

After Hannah, the Rivers' housekeeper, tried to turn the begging Jane away at the door, Jane later tells her that "if you are a Christian, you ought not consider poverty a crime."

The young evangelical clergyman St. John Rivers is a more conventionally religious figure. However, Brontë portrays his religious aspect ambiguously. Jane calls him "a very good man," yet she finds him cold and forbidding. In his determination to do good deeds (in the form of missionary work in India), St. John courts martyrdom. Moreover, he is unable to see Jane as a whole person, but views her only as a helpmate in his impending missionary work.

Mr. Rochester is a less than perfect Christian. He is, indeed, a sinner: he attempts to enter into a bigamous marriage with Jane and, when that fails, tries to persuade her to become his mistress. He also confesses that he has had three previous mistresses. However, at the end of the book Mr.Rochester repents his sinfulness, thanks God for returning Jane, and asks Him for the strength to lead a purer life. It is implied that Rochester's maiming and blindness were God's judgment for his sins, and that the partial recovery of his sight was due to his repentance. "God had tempered judgment with mercy."

Social class

Jane's ambiguous social position — a penniless yet decently educated orphan from a good family – leads her to criticise some discrimination based on class, though she makes class discriminations herself. Although she is educated, well-mannered, and relatively sophisticated, she is still a governess, a paid employee (middle class), and therefore relatively powerless. She respectfully defers to Rochester and his guests from the upper class, but she asks Leah, the housemaid (lower class), to get her a candle rather than get it herself, and has a servant girl when she is school mistress at the small village school in Morton. While Jane is always conscious of her social position (Rochester is master and she is employee) in everyday matters, at heart she sees herself as his equal, as evidenced in her passionate speech prior to Rochester's first proposal. "... it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!"

Gender relations

A particularly important theme in the novel is the depiction of a patriarchal society. Jane attempts to assert her own identity within male-dominated society. Three of the main male characters, Mr. Brocklehurst, Mr. Rochester and St. John Rivers, try to keep Jane in a subordinate position and prevent her from expressing her own thoughts and feelings. Jane escapes Mr. Brocklehurst and rejects St. John, and she only marries Mr. Rochester once she is sure that their marriage is one between equals. Through Jane, Brontë opposes Victorian stereotypes about women, articulating her own feminist philosophy:

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. (Chapter XII)

It is also interesting to note that while most readings of Jane Eyre dwell on the fact that Bertha is insane, it is not because she is insane that Rochester hates her (chap. 27). The two specific claims that he makes against her, before she became insane, are that she was 'intemperate and unchaste' and that he therefore felt degraded. Some feminist readings of the novel have taken this to mean that the strictures imposed on women contemporary to the book were such that stepping outside of them could have been construed as insane.

Other interpretations have seen this as evidence that Bertha was syphilitic, and that the romanticism of the book neglects the truth that Edward Rochester would have been as well.[8] The book may use the syphilitic condition as a metaphor for the sexual predation and narcissistic projection of Edward Rochester; Edward says Bertha is "unchaste" in an attempt to relieve himself of the psychic pain of his having the disease himself and his own likely role in Bertha acquiring that condition as well as the fact he likely has the disease and risks infecting Jane. His psychological projection combined with his position of power distorts reality such that it gives Bertha no choice but to be "insane" (which may be combined with actual physical brain deterioration from the syphilis) if any challenge to his veracity would cause her greater problems, such as abandonment, starvation, etc.

Love and passion

A central theme in Jane Eyre is that of the clash between conscience and passion — which one is to adhere to, and how to find a middle ground between the two. Jane, extremely passionate yet also dedicated to a close personal relationship with God, struggles between either extreme for much of the novel. An instance of her leaning towards conscience over passion can be seen after it has been revealed that Mr. Rochester already has a wife, when Jane is begged to run away with Mr. Rochester and become his mistress. Up until that moment, Jane had been riding on a wave of emotion, forgetting all thoughts of reason and logic, replacing God with Mr. Rochester in her eyes, and allowing herself to be swept away in the moment. However, once the harsh reality of the situation sets in, Jane does everything in her power to refuse Mr. Rochester, despite almost every part of her rejecting the idea and urging her to just give into Mr. Rochester's appeal. In the moment, Jane experiences an epiphany in regards to conscience, realising that “laws and principles are not for times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this.” Jane finally comes to understand that all passion, as she had been living her life up until then, and all conscience, as she had leaned towards during her time at Lowood, is neither good nor preferable. In this case, Jane had allowed herself to lean too far in the direction of passion, and she is in danger of giving up all logic and reason in favour of temptation. However, Jane finally asserts that in times of true moral trial, such as the one she is in with Mr. Rochester at the moment, to forgo one's principles, to violate the “law given by God,” would be too easy — and not something she is willing to do. Jane's struggles to find a middle ground between her passionate and conscience-driven sides frequently go back and forth throughout the novel, but in this case she has drawn the line as to where passion is taking too great a role in her life, and where she will not allow herself to forgo her moral and religious principles.

Feminism

The role and standing of women in the Victorian era is considered by Brontë in Jane Eyre, specifically in regard to Jane's independence and ability to make decisions for herself. As a young woman, small and of relatively low social standing, Jane encounters men during her journey, of good, bad, and morally debatable character. However, many of them, no matter their ultimate intentions, attempt to establish some form of power and control over Jane. One example can be seen in Mr. Rochester, a man who ardently loves Jane, but who frequently commands and orders Jane about. As a self-assured and established man, and her employer, Mr. Rochester naturally assumes the position of the master in their relationship. He sometimes demands rather than questioning Jane, tries to manipulate and assess her feelings towards him, and enjoys propping up Jane through excessive gifts and luxuries that only he would have been able to provide. Jane, however, believes in the importance of women's independence, and strives to maintain a position in life devoid of any debts to others. Her initial lack of money and social status unnerves her, as she realises that without the means to be an independent woman, she is bound to either struggle through life trying to make a living or marry and become dependent on a man. Even after Jane agrees to marry Mr. Rochester, and is swept up in the passion of the moment, the feminist elements of her personality still show through. She is uncomfortable with the showering of lavish gifts, as she resents that they will make her further reliant on and in debt to Mr. Rochester, and thus tries to resist them. Furthermore, Jane asserts that until she is married to Mr. Rochester, she will continue to be Adèle's governess and earn her keep. This plan, which was entirely radical and unheard of for the time, further illustrates Jane's drive to remain a somewhat independent woman. It was for this reason she suddenly remembered and wrote to her uncle who until now thought her dead. "... if I had but a prospect of one day bringing Mr. Rochester an accession of fortune, I could better endure to be kept by him now." This feminist undercurrent also presents itself Jane's interaction with her long-lost cousin, St. John Rivers. St. John repressed Jane's feeling and controlled her excessively. She often felt that he "took away [her] liberty of mind".[9] During her stay with her cousin, St. John proposes to Jane, by claiming her "as a soldier would a new weapon".[10] Jane realises that she cannot marry a man who constantly forces her into submission and treats her like an object, and she refuses to marry him. Once again, her need for independence shines through.

The only time Jane truly feels ready to marry a man is when she is equal to him. In the end of Jane Eyre, Jane inherits a fortune from her uncle. This allows her to be economically independent from Mr. Rochester. Also, Mr. Rochester becomes lame and blind after the fire that ripped through his home. He now depends on Jane, rather than Jane depending on him. This change in the power dynamic of their relationship unites the two of them once again.

While the significant men present in Jane's life throughout the novel all try to, in some form or another, establish themselves as dominant over Jane, she in most cases remains resistant at least to a certain degree, refusing to submit fully or lose all of her independence. The only time Jane feels comfortable attaching herself to a man is when she knows that she is his financial, intellectual, and emotional equal. This final adherence to her strong convictions on the independence of women point out Brontë's similar views on the patriarchal Victorian society of the time.

Atonement and forgiveness

Much of the religious concern in Jane Eyre has to do with atonement and forgiveness. Mr. Rochester is tormented by his awareness of his past sins and misdeeds. He frequently confesses that he has led a life of vice, and many of his actions in the course of the novel are less than commendable. Readers may accuse him of behaving sadistically in deceiving Jane about the nature of his relationship (or rather, non-relationship) with Blanche Ingram to provoke Jane's jealousy. His confinement of Bertha may bespeak mixed motives. He is certainly aware that in the eyes of both religious and civil authorities, his marriage to Jane before Bertha's death would be bigamous. Yet, at the same time, Mr. Rochester makes genuine efforts to atone for his behaviour. For example, although he does not believe that he is Adele's natural father, he adopts her as his ward and sees that she is well cared for. This adoption may well be an act of atonement for the sins he has committed. He expresses his self-disgust at having tried to console himself by having three different mistresses during his travels in Europe and begs Jane to forgive him for these past transgressions. However, Mr. Rochester can only atone completely – and be forgiven completely – after Jane has refused to be his mistress and left him. The destruction of Thornfield by fire finally removes the stain of his past sins; the loss of his left hand and of his eyesight is the price he must pay to atone completely for his sins. Only after this purgation can he be redeemed by Jane's love.[citation needed]

Search for home and family

Without any living family that she is aware of (until well into the story), throughout the course of the novel Jane searches for a place that she can call home. Significantly, houses play a prominent part in the story. (In keeping with a long English tradition, all the houses in the book have names). The novel's opening finds Jane living at Gateshead Hall, but this is hardly a home. Mrs. Reed and her children refuse to acknowledge her as a relation, treating her instead as an unwanted intruder and an inferior.

Shunted off to Lowood Institution, a boarding school for orphans and destitute children, Jane finds a home of sorts, although her place here is ambiguous and temporary. The school's manager, Mr. Brocklehurst, treats it more as a business and a place of correction than as school in loco parentis (in place of the parent). His emphasis on discipline and on spartan conditions at the expense of the girls' health make it the antithesis of the ideal home.

Jane subsequently believes she has found a home at Thornfield Hall. Anticipating the worst when she arrives, she is relieved when she is made to feel welcome by Mrs. Fairfax. She feels genuine affection for Adèle (who in a way is also an orphan) and is happy to serve as her governess. As her love for Mr. Rochester grows, she believes that she has found her ideal husband in spite of his eccentric manner and that they will make a home together at Thornfield. The revelation – as they are on the verge of marriage – that he is already legally married – brings her dream of home crashing down. Fleeing Thornfield, she literally becomes homeless and is reduced to begging for food and shelter. The opportunity of having a home presents itself when she enters Moor House, where the Rivers sisters and their brother, the Reverend St. John Rivers, are mourning the death of their father. She soon speaks of Diana and Mary Rivers as her own sisters, and is overjoyed when she learns that they are indeed her cousins. She tells St. John Rivers that learning that she has living relations is far more important than inheriting twenty thousand pounds. (She mourns the uncle she never knew. Earlier she was disheartened on learning that Mrs. Reed told her uncle that Jane had died and sent him away.) However, St. John Rivers' offer of marriage cannot sever her emotional attachment to Rochester. In an almost visionary episode, she hears Mr. Rochester's voice calling her to return to him. The last chapter begins with the famous simple declarative sentence, "Reader, I married him," and after a long series of travails Jane's search for home and family ends in a union with her ideal mate.

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