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Themes in Jane Eyre

Justice

Jane Eyre persistently seeks justice, which makes Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel timeless. The main message is about not giving up in the face of injustice; Jane persists through countless trials and tribulations. The novel is structured into five quest-like episodes:

  • Life at Gateshead
  • Schooling at Lowood
  • Time spent at Thornfield
  • Stay at Moor House
  • Life at Ferndean (where Jane reunites with Rochester)

Within each of these, Jane experiences sequences of suffering. Rhetorical questions are often used to depict Jane questioning her experiences. For example, she asks Mr. Rochester:

“Do you think I am an automaton? A machine without feelings?”

Jane’s suffering is typically caused by injustice, making it all the more significant that the character is steadfast in seeking justice.

Independence

In the 19th century, women were strongly expected to conform to gender roles. Children were also considered subordinate, with moral instruction books written warning them of sinful behaviour and its frightening consequences, such as hell.

The character of Mr Brocklehurst represents this kind of instruction and religious fear, as when first meeting Jane he asks:

“Do you know where the wicked go after death?”

Jane automatically responds:

“They go to hell.”

Our protagonist, as a young girl growing into adulthood, stands against oppression. In the first few chapters, Jane’s childhood journeys from a ‘dependent’ at Gateshead Hall to an independent student and young woman at Lowood school.

As an adult, it is also purposeful that Jane does not rush quickly into a relationship with the upper-class Mr Rochester; she speaks to him as an equal, regardless of their differing social backgrounds. Brontë presents a likeable, strong and independent female character.

In Chapter Eighteen, Jane says to Rochester:

“I do not think, sir, you have any right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have…”

This extended sentence showcases the protagonist’s passion and her willingness to address inequalities, whether they are based on gender, age or experience. The famous metaphor: “I am a bird, and no net ensnares me” also serves to prove the independent nature of this character, especially with the symbol of a “bird” representing freedom.

Social class

Brontë critiques the flaws in her society. She not only highlights the inequalities between genders and social classes but also portrays the marginalisation of children. In the Victorian era, a famous saying was for children to be “seen, but not heard.” However, others at the time were starting to become more sympathetic towards children, recognising that children needed to be nurtured – and children needed to be heard.

At the time, feelings and emotions were suppressed: people put up appearances in public. The evidence of this is also that Mr Rochester keeps his real ‘wife’ in the attic – in secret. Bertha Mason functions to question society’s view on mental health and illness. When Bertha escapes on Rochester and Jane’s wedding day, she is described as tearing away the veil:

“it removed my [Jane’s] veil from its gaunt head, rent it in two parts, and flinging both on the floor, trampled on them”

Jane

The use of the pronoun “it” shows how Bertha is not treated as human, and the verbs “trampled” and “flinging” portray the instinctual rage this character expresses. Considering she has been severely oppressed; readers are led to appreciate a sense of Bertha’s anger.

Education

Although characters in the novel gain empowerment through education, educational establishments are depicted in a negative light. Lowood Institution in the novel is partially based on the school Charlotte Brontë and her older sisters attended, the Clergy Daughters’ School.

At Lowood School, Jane receives education from the kind Miss Temple (one of the only ‘fair’ adults in the novel), and guidance from Helen Burns, who persistently quotes the New Testament to Jane: “Love your enemies; bless them that curse you”. Through Helen Burns and Miss Temple, Jane’s character is able to progress into a more articulate and patient character – perhaps paving the way to later becoming a governess.

Jane’s character serves as a voice that questions religion, schooling and hypocrisy in the Victorian era. With her own Father as a clergyman, perhaps Brontë wanted to explore and question religious dogma in her writing. Brontë certainly seems to write in favour of sharing a benevolent faith, rather than faith that indoctrinates fear.

Romance

Jane’s character experiences two threads of romance in the novel:

  • One that slowly develops with Mr Edward Rochester
  • Another that quickly advances with St John Rivers

St John Rivers (who finds Jane outside and feverish – at a real low point), later proposes to her saying:

“A missionary’s wife you must – shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you…”

This language expresses the modal “must” and “shall” to show how John Rivers was of an era where he believed he could instruct a woman to marry him. The verb “claim” also emphasises this, and the character is confused when Jane responds that she will not marry him – because she does not love him.

In the final chapters, Jane chooses Rochester of her own accord, and uses a declarative in the ending to say:

“Reader, I married him.”

This simple sentence is typical of Jane’s character: plainly and stoically informing readers of her decision. Despite this turn of events, it is suggested that this is the romance Jane truly desired. With Rochester having lost all his material belongings and his sight, they now have only each other.

Jane’s journey to self-discovery is central to this bildungsroman (plot following childhood into adulthood), where despite everything, she never compromises her principles.

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