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Jane Eyre: Cultivating The Feminine as Feminist

22 Nov 2017Essay Samples

Abstract: This essay reads Jane Eyre with attention to the symbols of Nature, and the natural relations that Jane assumes within the natural world. Bronte offers the moon as a feminine symbol in the story, one that reappears as a source of light and inspiration for Jane, thus presenting the moon as a feminine Ideal. With this symbolic representation of nature in gendered terms, Bronte provides a feminist novel, where the prominent feature of Jane’s character is her independence and personal will, and is symbolized in a feminine ideal of Nature.

Introduction

In Charlotte Bronte’s (1847) novel, Jane Eyre, the character of Jane is frequently positioned in relations with Nature, and more significantly, in ways that reveal Nature as a feminine strength. This essay will examine the ways Jane derives her independence and personal will from perceiving the feminine values in Nature, and how this establishes a feminist theme for the novel, and for the character herself.

Naturally Jane

While Jane displays an affinity for being in natural settings, amongst flowers and trees, she also expresses an intimate relation with Nature that separates her from the other characters of the novel. For example, when Mr. Brocklehurst interrogates Jane about her understandings of the Bible, Jane responds with her personal views:

“Do you read your Bible?”

“Sometimes.”…

“And the Psalms? I hope you like them?”

“No, sir.” (25)

When Brocklehurst declares the beauty of the Psalms, Jane replies, “Psalms are not interesting,” (25).

Jane’s relations with faith are raised again at the Lowood Institute, in a conversation with her friend, Helen (47). Helen has been expressing her thoughts about kindness and obedience, and Jane contradicts her:

“But I feel this, Helen; I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it is deserved.” (47)

At this point Helen responds, “Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine; but Christians and civilized nations disown it.” (47). Here, Jane’s thoughts about human nature are compared to (natural) uncivilized beliefs.

Bronte emphasizes the difference between Jane’s feminine values against men’s perspectives of nature and what is Natural several times in the novel.

For example, Mr. Brocklehurst condemns one girl for having curly hair, and is then told by one of the teachers that it “curls naturally.” (53). To this, Brocklehurst exclaims, “Naturally! Yes, but we are not to conform to nature: I wish these girls to be the children of grace: and why that abundance? …” (53)

Bronte also portrays Jane as having both a restless curiosity, and a restless need for physical activity. Clearly Bronte held opinions that were contrary to the Victorian assumptions that women required tranquillity; thus, in one bold expression of her opinions of women, Jane states,

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 constraint, 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 by making puddings and knitting stockings…It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than customs has pronounced necessary for their sex. (95)

Moon Goddess

Edward Rochester, at first, seems to be unable to recognize Jane as an independent other and subverts her interaction with Nature. He does this by claiming she is a victim of Nature, and not naturally herself, when he says, “…I don’t mean to flatter you: if you are cast in a different mold to the majority, it is no merit of yours: Nature did it….” (118)

Throughout her childhood, Jane is guided by the moon until she arrives at Thornfield. Ironically, the moon is conspicuously absent from Jane's life at Thornfield until the night that she meets Rochester. The moon, "waxing bright", appears when Jane encounters Rochester for the first time (99). When Rochester tells Jane she should not be out so late, Jane replies, "I am not at all afraid of being out late when it is moonlight" (100). At this initial meeting, the moon is a source of comfort for Jane, a companion, and a light that coheres with her “natural” spiritedness.

As Jane's relationship with Rochester progresses, the moon symbol becomes an active guide to Jane. Rochester's first attempt to redefine Jane occurs when he disguises himself as a fortune teller. When he asks Jane why she does not tremble, Jane replies, "I am not cold" (173). When he asks why she doesn't turn pale, she replies, "I am not sick" (173). When he asks why she does not consult him, she replies, "I am not silly" (173). Rochester counters Jane's statements with his own reinterpretation and refuses to recognize Jane's independence. Still in his disguise, Rochester states:

You are cold, because you are alone: no contact strikes the fire from you that is in you. You are sick: because the best of feelings, the highest and sweetest given to man, keeps far away from you. You are silly, because, suffer as you may, you will not beckon it to approach; nor will you stir one step to meet it where it waits you (173).

Here, Rochester redefines Jane's statements and characterizes her situation as lacking needs that only he can fill.

Shortly after this dialogue, the moon becomes a more aggressive symbol. That night, the "full and bright" moon awakens Jane after she falls asleep (180). Jane states that the moon "…came in her course to that space in the sky opposite my casement, and looked in at me through the unveiled panes, her glorious gaze roused me…" (181, emphasis added). By waking Jane, the moon plays an active, almost physical, role in the scene. The moon becomes a more prominent symbol and here, by referring to the moon as “her,” Jane explicitly characterizes the moon as female.

On the night of Rochester's proposal, Jane first notices Rochester's shadow "…thrown long over the garden by the moon…" when she attempts to sneak past him (220). After Jane accepts Rochester's proposal, a change comes over the night. Jane describes the moon as "…not yet set, and we were all in shadow: I could scarcely see my master’s face…"(226). Meanwhile, the chestnut tree "writhed and groaned…" and "…wind roared in the laurel walk…" (226). Jane sees a "…livid, vivid spark…" and hears "…a crack, a crash, and a close rattling peal."(227).

Rochester and Jane escape Nature's fury when they flee to Thornfield Hall. The next morning, Jane learns that the chestnut tree "had been struck by lightening in the night, and half of it split away." (227).

There are two points in the novel where the moon is Jane’s significant guide. When Rochester is proposing to Jane, she declares she has no faith in him, does not trust a word he says (225). When he insists he is being earnest, Jane says, “Mr. Rochester, let me look at your face: turn to the moonlight.” (225) When he asks why, Jane responds, “Because I want to read your countenance; turn!” (225). She sees his tormented features in the light, she decides to believe him, at which point the storm breaks suddenly and they run inside.

In this scene, Nature is playing a dominant role, and Jane is struggling to understand what the meanings are – by defying her intuitions about not trusting Rochester, Nature acts against them with violent force.

Following this event, when Jane learns that Rochester is already married, Jane does turn towards the moon herself, to seek guidance. After the aborted wedding, Jane dreams of the red-room at Gateshead and the moon.

…she broke forth as never a moon yet burst from cloud: a hand fist penetrated the sable folds and waved them away; then, not a moon, but a white human form shone in the azure, inclining a glorious brow earthward. It gazed and gazed and gazed on me. It spoke to my spirit: immeasurably distant was the tone, yes so near, it whispered in my heart -'My daughter, flee temptation!' 'Mother, I will'. (285)

At this pivotal moment, Jane returns to her true mother figure and gains the inner strength to leave Rochester.

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Conclusion

Throughout the novel, Jane is assertive, and aware of her relations with her surroundings. In particular, Jane possesses an affinity with Nature in ways that guide and comfort her throughout her story. Bronte determines the position of Nature by bringing the moon and its ideal as a feminine symbol into Jane’s own natural inclinations. It is in Jane's cooperative interaction with Nature that she is able to endure her hardships and make her decisions. In this way, Bronte provides a feminine Ideal that works as a feminist theme the novel, and for the character of Jane Eyre.

Works Cited

  • Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, (1847), The John C. Winston Company, 1954.

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