For those of you that don’t know, Jane Eyre is the main character of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel…well, Jane Eyre. The plot follows the life of a young woman, who goes on to become a governess after a frankly horrible childhood. She falls in love with the master of the house, but when she discovers his dark secret she runs away (although she does still end up with him at the end of the book). The novel is regarded as one of literature’s classic love stories – despite the fact that in one scene, the hero dresses up as an old woman to try and trick Jane – and has become a staple of countless GCSE English courses. As for Jane herself, many academics regard her as one of the first truly feminist heroines in fiction, who continues to have an effect on modern literature.
But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
For the most part, Jane Eyre is a character who is in control of her own wider destiny, but not always in a direct sense. She gets her guardian to send her away to school, giving her an education; later on, she gets herself a job there, teaching her former classmates for about two years. When she gets bored, she gets herself a new job as a governess at Thornfield Hall, and when she believes that she will be losing her job she starts looking for another. She makes all of these decisions herself, even though she must depend on other people’s compliance for them to come to fruition. She’s also fully capable of taking control of her life when other people don’t want to help her. After her failed wedding to Mr Rochester, he asks her to be his mistress (less than a day after she discovered he had a mad wife locked up in the attic, GREAT TIMING EDWARD); she doesn’t want to compromise her beliefs, so she runs away. She does the same thing when her long-lost cousin St. John (weirdly, pronounced Sinjeon) tries to force her into a loveless marriage.
Unlike Lizzie Bennet, who is always constrained by the conventions of the English gentry, Jane has no ties to the aristocracy and consequently has a lot more freedom. This was normal for nineteenth-century England, as the social restrictions placed on ‘ladies’ couldn’t realistically be applied to anyone who had to work for a living. But even when she is briefly lumped into the nobility bracket – when she’s Mr Rochester’s fiancée and when she inherits a large sum of money – she still does not bow to the pressures of social convention. She is perfectly prepared to walk out of her situation with nothing but the clothes on her back, and does so – twice. She’s still expected to marry, as all nineteenth-century women were, but she does so on her own terms. Much like Lizzie Bennet, she turns down an offer of marriage from a clergyman, who were the nineteenth-century equivalent of shirtless firefighters when it came to marriage prospects. She may be under certain social pressures, but she doesn’t let that hold her back.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
We actually find out quite a lot about Jane’s goals, beliefs and hobbies over the course of the novel. She likes to draw, and learn languages, and read poetry. These are all part of the accomplishments that any nineteenth-century woman would be expected to have, but Jane expresses a clear preference for these activities over things like dancing, singing, or playing the piano (which are also things that an ‘accomplished’ young woman would be expected to do).
As far as her goals go, her main aims in the novel are to find some kind of useful occupation for herself, and to find a home where she won’t be constantly trampled on. Her beliefs are much more clearly defined: she’s a devout Christian who believes in constantly keeping herself busy, she thinks people should be given opportunities regardless of their social class and she passionately believes that children should be taught kindly, rather than with all the relentless cane-brandishing that the Victorians were so famous for. These are all the results of her upbringing and experiences, so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Jane’s a pretty consistent character. She’s an intelligent, serious young woman who can be plain-spoken to the point of brusqueness. She has a very calm exterior, but she is capable of an incredible depth of feeling. Her skills remain largely consistent too – she picks up languages very quickly, but as it’s been established that she used to teach languages, this is no surprise to the reader.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
This is where it gets a little tricky. Jane Eyre is, at its core, a romance novel, so you can’t really talk about Jane’s progression as a character without mentioning her love life. This is the closest I was able to get –
“A serious young woman becomes a governess and learns a dark secret about her employer.”
– but frankly, that sounds more like the plot to a murder mystery novel. While Jane’s personality, goals and prospects are not as intricately linked to her love life as Lizzie Bennet’s are, her progress through the novel cannot be divorced from her romantic decisions. I’ll give her half a point, because I was able to come up with something, even if it did sound murder-y.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
For the heroine of a romance novel, a surprising amount of Jane’s decisions aren’t influenced by her love life at all. Most of the romantic situations are engineered by Mr Rochester, Jane’s employer, who spends most of the book pursuing her. As she’s his servant, she has little choice but to obey his orders and go along with whatever weird scenario he’s set up.
Most of her decisions are influenced by her own goals and beliefs, whether she’s deciding to make herself useful, to follow her dream of teaching people, or standing by her principles and refusing to enter into a loveless marriage. Interestingly, the most significant decision she makes – to leave Mr Rochester when he asks her to become his mistress – goes directly against her romantic wishes. She wants to stay with Mr Rochester and freely admits that she still loves him, but her Christian beliefs are too strong for her to her to seriously consider this as an option. She doesn’t let her romantic feelings overwhelm all her other beliefs, so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Jane is a constantly progressing character. In the first part of the novel we see her as a child, unloved by the aunt who took her in. She lashes out at her aunt and cousins and is prone to frequent rages, but eventually learns to control her temper and forgive her adopted family. Over the course of the novel, we see her become a more confident character, secure in her own beliefs. While the bulk of the character progression happens in the first part of the novel, it is nevertheless significant and drastically affects her actions through the rest of the book. What’s more, she continues to develop in other ways, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- Does she have a weakness?
Jane Eyre is written in first-person, and Jane spends a significant part of the novel telling the reader just how rubbish she is. She lists her flaws at length, but I don’t think that half of them actually count as weaknesses. She’s constantly telling her audience that she’s too passionate, but that doesn’t actually get her into any trouble – when it comes down to it, she’s able to resist her passions just fine. A lot of the flaws she sees in herself (such as being plain, or passionate, or uninteresting) may well have been considered flaws by a nineteenth-century readership, but I’m not sure how many modern readers would say the same thing.
However, in my view this is exactly where Jane’s true weakness lies. She’s constantly telling her readers how plain she is, how unimportant she is, how many flaws she has. This is her flaw: her sense of self-confidence has been so shot to pieces by her abusive upbringing that she puts herself down all the time, cuts herself off emotionally, and genuinely cannot believe that anyone could actually love her. Not only does this hold her back over the course of the story (as her unwillingness to believe anyone could love her makes her actively hide her true feelings), it’s also a very realistic portrayal of how some victims of childhood abuse attempt to rationalise their experiences.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Jane drives the plot forward at every turn. While a substantial amount of the romantic elements to the story are arranged by Mr Rochester, Jane’s decisions form the focal points of the novel. She is the one who decides where she goes and what she does, and while other characters do influence her decisions, she still has an impact on the plot.
SCORE SO FAR: 7.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
In order to properly discuss gender stereotypes in Jane Eyre, you have to look at the novel through two lenses: one considering nineteenth-century gender stereotypes, and one considering modern gender stereotypes. Get your time travel hats on.
By Victorian standards, Jane is a ground-breaking character. She’s brusque, impertinent, insults the people who took her in and is a woman actively pursuing a career – and this is presented in a favourable light all throughout the novel. This is far from the ideal of the demure Victorian lady, so when Jane Eyre was first published, she would have been a revolutionary character.
By modern standards, she’s not quite so progressive. A lot of the ways that she brushes aside Victorian gender stereotypes still apply, but they can’t form the bulk of the way she interacts with clichés simply because society has changed so much. She really buys into the idea of female purity, consistently idolising it all through the novel. She’s always in the role of caretaker, whether she’s looking after children or sick people. She’s constantly pushed around by the two men who propose to her, and never really sees either of them as her equal: she describes St. John as a Greek god who could crush her with the sheer force of his willpower, and she never once stops referring to Mr Rochester as her ‘master’, even after she stopped being his servant. She considers both of them to be far superior to her, even when they demonstrate their flaws or actively make her unhappy. And now, we come to Jane’s relationship with Mr Rochester himself.
As I already mentioned, Jane completely idolises Mr Rochester. She thinks everything he does is pretty much perfect, and never really addresses his flaws. Mr Rochester has considerable social power over Jane, and steamrollers over her wishes more than once: when he’s preparing for their wedding, he insists on buying her extravagant clothes and jewellery, and although she manages to persuade him to spend less, he still doesn’t pay much attention to the fact that she’s uncomfortable with it. What’s more, he manipulates her into their relationship. He makes her jealous by faking feelings for a society lady, and watches to see if it makes her miserable. He tries to trick her into committing bigamy – a crime which, in Victorian England, would have left Jane’s reputation in tatters and may well have landed her in jail. Even after it’s revealed that he’s imprisoned his mad wife in the attic for TEN YEARS, Jane never considers him to have done anything wrong, and it’s only when he’s been blinded and lost a hand that Jane considers herself his equal.
Part of this could reasonably be chalked up to the ways that first love can completely blind-side you – and it’s worth remembering that for most of the novel, Jane is a teenage girl. However, by modern standards this relationship is unhealthy, and yet it’s still held up as one of English literature’s great romances. For most of the novel Jane sees herself as utterly beneath Mr Rochester, and she makes a lot more allowances for his flaws than she does for any other character. As far as gender stereotypes go, what Jane’s relationship with Mr Rochester really represents is the idea that women can forgive any flaw if they love someone enough, and that any kind of behaviour is acceptable in a relationship – especially if it’s ‘true love’. I’ll give her half a point for her impact on Victorian morals, but I can’t help feeling I’m being generous.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Jane has a number of relationships with a wide range of female characters. She’s terrified of the first Mrs Rochester, even though she rarely sees her. She’s also afraid of Grace Poole, who she initially blames for all of Mrs Rochester’s attempts to harm people, but she actively tries to ward her off with veiled threats. She gets on well with the servants at Thornfield Hall, has a sisterly relationship with her long-lost cousins, and has a mother-daughter relationship with her pupil, Adele. At the beginning of the novel she hates her guardian, Mrs Reed, and her two daughters, but as the novel goes on she forgives them and sees their flaws in a more dispassionate light.
Her relationships get really interesting when you look at how she views the women she looks up to. Over the course of the story Jane meets several women who she ends up idolising – Miss Temple and Helen Burns being chief among them. She spends several pages waxing on about their kindness, their goodness, and goes into great detail about their physical attractiveness. Jane spends a huge amount of time describing attractive women in the novel – even those she actively dislikes or barely knows, such as Blanche Ingram and Rosamond Oliver. Some people have interpreted this as sexual attraction, and while Jane’s lengthy descriptions are the only part of the text that supports this, it does nevertheless add another layer to these relationships. I found an article where you can read more about it here – it’s not very serious and can get a little sweary, but it sums up the evidence pretty nicely.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
Jane Eyre is a well-developed, consistent character who’s firmly in control of her own life. She has very clearly defined goals and beliefs that stay with her all through the novel, she doesn’t let her love life overwhelm all her decisions and she struggles with a realistic weakness that continually holds her back. While her character might not be quite as ground-breaking as it was when the novel was first published, Jane Eyre is nevertheless a compelling character.
Next week, I’ll be looking at Howl’s Moving Castle. Sophie Hatter, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.