“Contradiction in Jane Eyre: Conversations of 19th Century Feminism” by Audrey Clement
Magnificat, April 2022
As a staple in classic feminist literature, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre plunges readers into the 19th century feminine sphere. Brontë’s narrator, Jane, is a delightfully complex heroine who exemplifies the successes and limitations of 19th century feminist philosophy. At times, Jane is a stellar example of the independent Victorian woman struggling against a hostile patriarchal society. Other times, she is an active participant in patriarchal society, directing hostility towards other women and prioritizing male comfort and desires. For some, especially those who know and love Jane Eyre as feminist literature, the polarity inherent in Jane’s character may be difficult to interpret. As readers and scholars, I posit we can approach the issue in two ways. First and foremost, we can praise Brontë for her success in creating a character who so eloquently personifies the feminine psyche, which has been trained to always hate or criticize femininity over masculinity (which often escapes critique entirely). We can use these very contradictions to explore the progress of feminist philosophy since the novel was published.
Contradictions often peacefully coexist in our world, but that does not necessarily make them easier to understand. Deconstructionist theory attempts to do so; thus, it is helpful to our understanding of Jane to adopt a deconstructionist approach. Throughout the novel, readers become aware of a duality in Jane’s subconscious—she never addresses it herself, but her contradictory actions confirm its existence. Readers may initially process these contradictions as symptoms of a flawed character, but I believe it is more rewarding to consider these contradictions as naturally occurring psychic duality, created by a feminine mind at war with the mandates of her culture. Lois Tyson, author of Critical Theory Today, calls this phenomenon the multiple and fragmented self. She states that “we [consist] of any number of conflicting beliefs, desires, fears, anxieties, and intentions” (Tyson 257). Tyson claims that human identity is shaped by “an unstable, ambiguous force-field of competing ideologies” inherent to human existence, meaning that people will naturally contradict themselves (Tyson 249, 257). Jane is no exception, as her innate, human inclination towards intellectual and physical freedom competes with patriarchal norms for space in her psyche. Opposing perspectives are represented within a single character. The theory of a multiplicity of selves offers a solution to the confusion readers may feel—Jane’s contradictory actions do not have to be a problem. Contradictions in the fictional often reflect contradictions in the real world. Jane’s fractured character provides us an opportunity to explore a patriarchal feminist psyche that is continually at odds with itself. This fracture reveals itself most often in the ways Jane interacts with other characters in the novel.
Jane, the Halfway Feminist: How does Jane interact with other women?
A patriarchal feminist psyche is characterized by the desire for one’s personal advancement as a woman accompanied by the refusal to advocate for the advancement of all women, either consciously or unconsciously. In other words, the patriarchal feminist is unfamiliar with solidarity; she sees other women as competition rather than allies. In her book on the marginalization of feminism, bell hooks says that perceiving other women as threats is a direct result of patriarchal indoctrination: “We are taught that our relationships with one another diminish rather than enrich our experience. We are taught that women are “natural enemies,” that solidarity will never exist between us because we cannot, should not, and do not bond with one another” (hooks 43). Indeed, for feminine identifying feminists, analyzing how we perceive and interact with women may reveal our patriarchal biases more effectively than our interactions with men precisely because society indoctrinates women to oppose one another. Such is the case with Jane.
As the novel progresses and Jane transitions into womanhood, she increasingly interacts with women who are unlike herself in status and appearance. It is towards these women that Jane directs her ire. These emotions range from outright disparagement to quiet condescension. Her criticism often seems motivated by patriarchal expectations, where no matter how women present themselves, they are subjected to disapproval. hooks states that “[S]exism is perpetuated by the victims themselves who are socialized to behave in ways that make them act in complicity with the status quo” (43). Jane, as a member of patriarchal society, may subconsciously criticize other women by measuring them against an unrealistic patriarchal standard. For example, Jane’s scathing internal monologue criticizes Miss Ingram for her defects:
She was very showy, but she was not genuine: she had a fine person, many brilliant attainments; but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature: nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness. She was not good; she was not original: she used to repeat sounding phrases from books: she never offered, nor had, an opinion of her own. (Brontë 199).
While Jane’s assessment of Miss Ingram’s character may not be inaccurate, the manner in which she criticizes her is fueled by the patriarchy. Jane begins to dislike Miss Ingram because of her insults aimed towards governesses and lower classes of women, but rather than criticizing Miss Ingram on the quality of her arguments (or lack thereof), Jane attacks her personality and her intelligence; thus, the criticism falls flat. Additionally, Jane’s internal outburst seems motivated by jealousy, not simply moral principle— she is intently aware that Miss Ingram is chasing the attention of Mr. Rochester, whose attention she wishes for herself. Jane remarks that “Miss Ingram was a mark beneath jealousy: she was too inferior to excite the feeling” (Brontë 199), yet spends pages denouncing her character. She also admits to being “irresistibly attracted” to Rochester and Miss Ingram’s interactions, and watching them carefully:
I see Mr. Rochester turn to Miss Ingram, and Miss Ingram to him; I see her incline her head towards him, till the jetty curls almost touch his shoulder and wave against his cheek; I hear their mutual whisperings; I recall their interchanged glances… I saw all his attentions appropriated by a great lady, who scored to touch me with the hem of her robes as she passed (Brontë 199).
One wonders if Jane truly escapes the jealousy she claims Miss Ingram is incapable of inspiring. Indeed, it seems more likely that Jane views Miss Ingram as a threat to Jane’s access to Rochester, which causes Jane to internally reject her.
Jane has a similar reaction to Miss Oliver later in the novel, although their interactions are not characterized by the bitterness Jane feels for Miss Ingram. The similarity in Jane’s reactions to these women lies primarily in her propensity to unfairly evaluate and criticize them. For example, even though Jane does not outright dislike Miss Oliver, she clearly looks down on her for her giddy and flirtatious nature. Jane describes Miss Oliver as “coquettish… not worthlessly selfish…indulged since birth… hasty… vain… unthinking… not profoundly interesting or thoroughly impressive” (Brontë 400). Jane, self admittedly a “cool observer of her own sex,” counteracts every positive quality of Miss Oliver’s with something inherently negative or “wrong” with her character. Her interactions with these women are characterized by a sense of personal superiority. This ingrained patriarchal perspective affects how she thinks about other women, to such an extent that she cannot form lasting bonds with women different from herself. Jane does experience lasting relationships with women in the novel, which is why prominent scholars like Adrienne Rich praise the novel for its depiction of female solidarity. We see Jane extend financial support to Mary and Diana, potentially allowing them to move more freely in society, as well as form lasting friendships with both. In her early life, she bonds with Helen Burns and Miss Temple, who support one another through numerous difficulties. These achievements are not diminished if we recognize that Jane Eyre does not depict solidarity between all women.
I am not claiming that the responsibility for developing solidarity that crosses social boundaries lands solely on Jane’s shoulders. In fact, as members of the upper echelon, it is logical to assume that socialites like Miss Ingram and Miss Oliver could more easily make the first move on that front (as Miss Oliver does!). I do believe that Jane’s hostile interactions with women of other social classes reveal the limitations of Jane Eyre as a feminist manifesto, and reveal Jane’s inability to escape patriarchal thinking. hooks says that “[w]omen are divided by sexist attitudes, racism, class privilege, and a host of other prejudices… unless… barriers separating women can be eliminated… we cannot hope to change and transform society as a whole” (44). Through Jane, Brontë strengthens established societal boundaries by eliminating the possibility for women of different social classes to bond, revealing the limitation of her feminist thought. Jane is only open to sisterhood with specific types of women—granted, it is unlikely that Ms. Ingram would be open to sisterhood with Jane, but the author’s choice to draw that socio-economic boundary with such rigidity says something about the quality of woman Brontë believes is deserving of total liberation. Indeed, the women Jane does bond with are all eerily like her, both in their socio-economic standing and philosophy (Diana, Mary, Helen, Miss Temple, etc.). Although there are plenty of criticisms to be had about how socially privileged white women (like Blanche Ingram) do little to nothing to dismantle patriarchal ideals, praising one kind of woman while disparaging another does little to change hierarchical structures; it is not productive. By pitting readers against certain women to support Jane, Brontë undermines the effective feminist advocacy of Jane Eyre from a modern perspective.
The Patriarchal Feminist: Seeking Male Approval and Denying Male Accountability
The contradictions within Jane’s patriarchal feminist psyche manifest in her interactions with men as well. Although Jane is always the focal point of these interactions, it is fascinating how Jane continually seeks the approval of men. A patriarchal society tells women that they have no value outside of their relationships to men. In the words of bell hooks, “Male supremacist ideology encourages women to believe we are valueless and obtain value only by relating to or bonding with men” (hooks 44). A patriarchal society pushes Jane towards the approval of men rather than bonds with women, as evidenced by her relationship with St. John. Although Jane is not interested in St. John romantically, she still seeks to please him, even when it is unpleasant for her. She learns “Hindo-stanee” instead of German at his behest, while Mary and Diana “agreed that St. John should never have persuaded them to such a step” (Brontë 433). As time progresses, Jane states that: “I… wished more to please him: but to do so, I felt daily more and more that I must disown half my nature… it racked me hourly to aspire to the standard he uplifted” (Brontë 434). Jane sacrifices her personal comfort as well as quality time with Mary and Diana (with whom she was learning German) in favor of St. John’s approval of her. She prioritizes male attention over herself and other women, perhaps subconsciously, indicating society’s indoctrination which tells her to be submissive and agreeable to men’s desires.
Although Jane does seek St. John’s approval frequently, their relationship also provides her ample opportunity to assert her independence and personal agency, creating contradiction. There are limits to Jane’s prioritization of St. John’s wants; at a point, she insists on prioritizing herself and her wants. Jane’s reaction to St. John’s proposal even demonstrates progressive feminist ideas for the time period—she attempts to bond with St. John platonically, stating: “I regard you as a brother—you, me as a sister.” The society in which Jane operates only allows women and men to bond intimately through marriage and romantic relationships (an exception could be made for siblings). St. John’s reaction makes this clear, as he immediately refuses the potential connection, implying impropriety: “We cannot—we cannot… it would not do” (Brontë 442). Contrary to her earlier acquiescence to St. John’s wishes, Jane firmly establishes herself her own personal agent; she makes decisions for herself, regardless of outside approval or disapproval. She also aligns herself with femininity here, as her main reasoning for refusing St. John is quite romantic; they “did not love each other as man and wife should” (Brontë 442). It is clear in her interactions with St. John that Jane is often torn between patriarchal societal norms and her feminist values—they are symptomatic of her fractured self.
Jane’s relationship with Rochester carries the same confusing contradictions. Many scholars have criticized Jane and Rochester’s relationship on the basis of romantic love; they argue that Jane’s choice to enter into a romantic relationship is a betrayal of herself. In her essay “Jane Eyre: The Temptations of a Motherless Woman,” Adrienne Rich characterizes their initial relationship as a patriarchal “temptation” (Rich 474). Rich argues that Jane must refuse traditional Gothic understandings of romance, which she does by leaving Rochester a first time. Rich also believes that Rochester and Jane’s marriage is inherently practical and unromantic (Rich 482). I agree with Rich that there are problems in Jane and Rochester’s relationship; however, I do not believe the problem is the fact they love one another. Jane’s romantic feelings are not the cause of the inequality in this relationship. Rochester’s problematic actions are. Additionally, Jane’s inability (or refusal) to hold Rochester accountable for his condescending, misogynist, or abusive actions shows how she has been trained by a patriarchal society to sympathize with Mr. Rochester over the women he is hurting. There are many examples of Mr. Rochester hurting women verbally, psychologically, and physically, and Jane dismissing (and therefore accepting) his behavior. Even Adèle, a small child, does not escape maltreatment; Mr. Rochester often speaks negatively of her and insults her to her face, like when he claims “She is not bright, she has no talents” (Brontë 130). Jane never addresses this with Rochester, yet she rightfully criticizes Ms. Ingram for the same behavior, showing how she aligns with Mr. Rochester over other women (Brontë 200). Mr. Rochester also psychologically manipulates Jane, which is played off as a poor attempt at romance (when he masquerades as a fortune teller to get information). Of course, the most serious of Mr. Rochester’s infractions is his abuse of Bertha.
Scholars in the past have argued that Bertha’s character is not meant to be viewed realistically, that her primary function is metaphorical. In their book, “The Madwoman in the Attic,” Gilbert and Gubar state: “Most important, her [Jane’s] confrontation, not with Rochester but with Rochester’s mad wife Bertha, is the book’s central confrontation, an encounter … not with her own sexuality but with her own imprisoned ‘hunger, rebellion, and rage’” (339). Early feminist scholars like Gilbert and Gubar popularized the interpretation of Bertha as a mere representation of Jane’s imprisoned psyche, that Bertha is all the anger Jane is unable to express. While I find the concept intriguing, assuming Bertha is only a function of the novel erases her humanity and dismisses the abuse she has experienced. More specifically, it dismisses the abuse she has experienced at the hands of Rochester. Indeed, at no point does Brontë address the issue of Rochester’s character. When Jane learns about Bertha, she does not mention a problem with his behavior, other than the fact that he “[speaks] of her [Bertha] with hate—with vindictive antipathy,” and that “the attribute of stainless truth was gone from his idea” (Brontë 326, 321). She is upset that he lied, and that he speaks of Bertha derogatorily, but she does not blame him for his actual actions, which should be inexcusable. Jane even states that she “would not ascribe vice to him” (Brontë 321). Jane’s silence and her refusal to acknowledge his faults are indicative of the patriarchal side of her psyche as she grants him leniency when he should be challenged.
The way Jane aligns with Rochester even in his worst moments are contradicted by her ability to assert her personal agency in spite of him, similarly to the way she opposes St. John. She exerts her autonomy when she chooses to leave Rochester, saying that it would be wicked “to obey” him, that she will care for herself (Brontë 343, 344). She insists on plain clothes despite Rochester’s wish for extravagant outfits. Earlier in the novel, before their romantic relationship is established, she debates with him about her rate of pay and insists her salary be on her terms, not his (Brontë 243). These instances create duality, where we simultaneously see Jane as a feminist and a product of the patriarchy. It seems Jane is a feminist for herself, but struggles when it comes to advocating for others or defining herself outside of male approval (although these struggles are not all-encompassing). However positive and inspiring Jane’s moments of clarity may be, her dismissal of the suffering of other women significantly limits the novel’s ability to serve as a feminist work.
Analyzing the failures of dated works may seem pessimistic to some; however, I do not believe the intent of this kind of analysis is to disqualify or discount works that have been important to so many readers. The purpose of deconstructive analysis is to highlight where a text is revolutionary, and to point out areas where texts no longer serve or represent us. It is a celebration of its successes and our progress.
The issues of feminine independence and women’s rights portrayed in Jane Eyre still resonate with modern-day readers, as equality is still a work in progress. Women are still confined through a lack of opportunity, unequal pay, and countless other areas, and these women are searching for solutions just like Jane. Analyzing the failures of Jane’s feminism teaches us that the solution will never be harming other women or perceiving them as threats, even if we are acting through silent complicity. Perhaps, like Jane, we are not aware of how our own patriarchal indoctrination blinds us to the everyday harm we do. I hope this analysis can serve as a reminder to others (as it did to me) that we are all peddlers of patriarchal oppression when we lack self-awareness. We are all capable of self-reflection and growth; this is the true heart of feminism.
Gilbert, Sandra M., et al. “A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane’s Progress.” The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press, 2020, pp. 336–71, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvxkn74x.14.
hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. South End Press. Boston, 1984. Print.
Tyson, Lois. “Deconstructive Criticism.” Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, 2nd ed.,. Taylor & Francis Group. New York, 2006, pp. 249-261.
Rich, Adrienne. “Jane Eyre: The Temptations of a Motherless Woman.” Jane Eyre: An Authoritative Text, Context, Criticism, edited by Richard J. Dunn, W.W. Norton & Co., 2001, pp. 469-483.