Jane Eyre: a feminist novel?

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When Jane Eyre was published, it was a big mystery whether it was written by a man or a woman. Charlotte Brontë, the writer of the book, had adopted a male sounding pen name because she was aware of the ruling standard, which said that a female writer could not hope for a ranking similar to men’s. Married women had little existence in general: they had almost no legal rights, properties or divorce rights, neither could they vote or enter universities. But it was soon found out that this romantic book about struggle and suffering must have been written by a woman. You only have to read the following passage:

Women…feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do. (Ch. 12)

The fact that men and women were unequal in this time, is one of the main themes of Jane Eyre. Jane is an orphan and is very poor and she is neither beautiful nor wealthy. Therefore her future does not look very bright. Jane has to make a great effort to show her own identity in a society that is dominated by men. Many critics have described the book as ‘feminist’. This is the reason why I picked this novel. Personally I am a huge proponent of feminism. But even though the book may express a feminist philosophy for the time the writer lived in, it seems very unfeminist from my perspective.

After a horrible youth at charity school, Jane takes a job as governess at Thornfield Hall, a rather creepy castle owned by the attractive Mr. Rochester. She falls in love with him but at their wedding, she discovers his secretive past, which forces her to choose a path of independence. Because she misses Mr. Rocherster, Jane later returns to Thornfield to find a burned down castle. She learns that Mr. Rochester’s crazy wife set the house on fire and committed suicide by jumping from the roof. Trying to save her, Mr. Rochester lost a hand and his eyesight. Jane declares her love for him and comes to live with him as his caring wife.

I was disappointed by the fact that Jane can only accept Mr. Rochester as her partner once he is disabled. At the beginning of the book, he is still a ‘complete’ man and overpowers Jane, who seems too innocent for him. But at the end of the novel, Jane can play the ‘good old’ female role in the household, by taking care of her husband.

Furthermore, this story is too romantic for a real feminist novel. It misses the sensible outlook on life and practical style that feminists tend to have. The book uses many motifs from Gothic fiction. Examples are Thornfield Hall (Mr. Rochester’s house) and The Madwoman in the Attic, that is Mr. Rocherster’s wife. She attacks someone in a scary way: “She sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my heart” (Chapter 20). Next to this, Charlotte refers fairy tales and uses romantic poetry in the book.

So if you are looking for a passionate novel about equality and freedom, I would definitely recommend Jane Eyre, but do not expect a ‘feminist’ novel in the sense that we use the word today.

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