A Marxist reading of Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte was written during an era of strict moral standards and defined social class. Jane, the main character of the book, was set in a culturally indefinite social standing: that of a governess. Yet, through the book, she managed to find herself in other social standings; she rose from the lowly status of an orphan to a middle classed women earning her own wages as a governess, then to a rich women by inheritance. Despite her slow rise in social class throughout the book, she was still imprisoned by the social classes that confined her rank as a female, not just the rank of her wealth had earned her. This played a large part in her blooming relationship with an older and richer man, Mr. Rochester. This repression was caused mostly by the cultural standards set by the Victorian Era defined by the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901. Women, sex, and religious deviance were heavily repressed. Women were seen as docile: being the victim of marriages and used only as social devices to please men. They were considered unreliable. They were shrugged off as passion driven opposed to using logic based on education or reason. Yet despite this, Jane Eyre is somehow different. The book represents the shift from the ancient feminist and social values. Jane had her own mind and values, which set her apart from other women in that era. She did not contradict Victorian values; she simply allowed a realistic conventional female perspective to the repressive time period. Jane Eyre was used by Charlotte Bronte to express morals that transcend Victorian values.

In the book, Jane uses morals and reason to make wise decisions. Because women weren’t seen as high as men in this era, this book debunks beliefs that all women are passion driven due to the amount of value and thought she sheds on most of her decisions. She is reliable and trustworthy, with more values than most of the other main male characters in the book. For example, Mr. Rochester had asked to marry Jane Eyre despite the fact that he was married to another women, though crazy. In this case, he had not used his best judgments in asking another woman to marry him due to the mistress status that Jane would have to undertake. Having such an illicit relationship like that of a mistress would be based on passion and sexuality, something highly forbidden for women in the Victorian era. Having mistresses and prostitutes were technically legal in this era, yet it would have proven to be socially detrimental. It would have been illegitimate also in a Marxist sense: Jane was of a lower class and Mr. Rochester would have been taking advantage of his class to coax Jane into an illegitimate sexual relationship. Jane, however, manages to take the high road and refuses to marry Mr. Rochester, despite her love for him. This reverses the role in traditional Victorian suspicions because the male in the relationship, Mr. Rochester, is the one seeking a lower class female to take advantage of when it is usually the female seeking a boost in status through association. Jane listens to her own reason rather than the rules set by society and passion: things that women were culturally trained to seek.

However, Jane is not set out to change the way the world views women. She is a new way to look at women even through a non-traditional lens; Jane simply lives and thinks differently without any outstanding statement of individuality. Dale Kramer proposes that:

The fact is that the motivating forces of Jane Eyre’s personality are not sexual concepts at all but personal concepts. She reacts as she does to erotic situations not because of repressions or desires to emasculate or castrate her menfolk, but because she fully understands her own motivations. She also comprehends the significance of alternatives she is presented with, and the states of life that her choice of action can lead her to. Unlike the actions of modern protagonists, whose lives are a continual process of self-frustration and self-discovery, Jane’s conform to her principles and her understanding of her moral and physical needs. (Kramer 288)

Kramer implies that the Jane’s personality would have been more rash and based on outside influences such as repression or desires to upstage her menfolk. In fact, Jane does not seem to be set to debunk her Victorian values at all: she seems to simply be indifferent to the Victorian repression without a separate agenda. Her values are personal and are the product of reason rather than the product of going through the wrong path once before. She was not easily influenced by her repressive society and does not respond to it by having the personality that she does. She is not rebellious of culture’s standards. All of her principles are based on her own morals, not reactions to frustrated misguidance and passion towards resurrecting her past mistakes within society.

Jane’s marriage was a large symbol of how her decisions were based on reason rather than reaction to society. Jane did deny her engagement with Mr. Rochester at first when she realized that her fiancé was married to another women. However, she did marry him once he became more undesirable both in appearance and social standings when it was a legitimate marriage. She loved him passionately, yet she did not allow this to overcome her ability to deny their marriage. Her reason allowed her to marry him later because regardless of his appearance and lack of wealth: they could be legally wed. It was not based on social standing like other Victorian marriages were arranged despite his wealth. Jane obviously did not marry him because he was wealthy; she denied his gifts. She was also uninterested in her rise of social standing due to his wealth; she denied the right to call him by his first name even when engaged and even continued to teach Adele as the house governess. She did marry Mr. Rochester, however, when she achieved her own wealth through inheritance and denied marriage to a younger and more handsome man. Jane seemed to have made a point to maintain her social standings in order to be considered by her personality rather than her rank as well as not letting this factors influence her own considerations.

Her ability to refuse the premarital gifts gave her the power of independence in her relationship, unlike other Victorian relationships. It was thought proper for the woman of the relationship to be completely dependant on the man. It was this way that the man would be financially responsible, due to a working woman being socially detrimental, implying that the family was too poor to sustain the wife. That act of refusing the gifts and preserving a lower social standing allowed her to, as Jane said, “maintain… that distance between you and myself most conductive to our real mutual advantage” (Bronte 276). Jane used this advantage to assure that she loved him for the right reasons, allowing the ability to test herself and her partialness of society’s values. As Ellis says, “By retaining her own class status, she is able to avoid Rochester's attempts to mold her into his image of her, an image that would go against her personality” (Ellis 138-61). If she did manage to allow Mr. Rochester to ‘mold her’ then she would be sacrificing her own person and becoming a vessel for social hierarchy for the man, like other women in confining marriages in the Victorian time period.

Marriage in Victorian times was considered a way to control and possess women. Most marriages were considered controlling and imprisoning to some extent, causing women to be subjects of ownership. This was described by English jurist, William Blackstone, “in law a husband and wife are one person, and the husband is that person” (Jones 402). Jane, however, managed to be her own person, choosing both to be married and her own worth in the relationship. She had proven her independence during their engagement, but things changed once they actually got married. In the last chapter of the book, Jane reflects on her marriage to Mr. Rochester. Her tone in this concluding section is eerily different: she is happy but seemed to give up her individuality in this union with Mr. Rochester. Lorna Ellis writes:

In Jane Eyre, the conventional aspects of the ‘happy ending,’ in which Jane acquires a fortune and settles down into a quiet domestic bliss serving the man she loves, is uneasily balanced by Jane’s continuing autonomy and control: her ability to gain marriage on her own terms, to maintain power over her husband by acting as his ‘eyes,’ and to write her own story in the form of an autobiography. (Ellis 138-61)

Ellis makes a good point: the ending is rather uneasy compared to the rest of the book. Jane is emotionally unruly and independent through most of the novel, but when she gets married, she becomes submissive and becomes emotionally one with Mr. Rochester. However, the difference Jane and the submission found in other Victorian marriages is that Jane chose to be in this situation. Her sacrifice was for love and not for the rise in social standing or wealth. Jane being a rich woman by inheritance at this point of the book adds to the extra amount of choice Jane demonstrates by marrying Mr. Rochester. He needed her due to his disabilities more than she needed him for his money. However, Ellis argument for this can be redirected. She did not maintain power by acting as Mr. Rochester’s eyes. She had to take care of him as if a servant. The story being written as an autobiography could easily be served as a way to advertise how a strong independent woman was taught to succumb to her husband as a one-dimensional wife of the Victorian era. The book, at this point, started to correspond with the culture at the time: regardless of her social status, she was still lower than Mr. Rochester because she was his wife. She lowered herself in rank by marrying a poorer, older man, but managed to marry him for the appropriate reason: love. Choosing love was in its own way, a statement against the Victorian culture.

Normally in marriage, the women are the ones that are asked to sacrifice. The separate social views between men and woman were described as men being, “competitive, assertive,… and materialistic.” Women were “pious, pure, gentle… and sacrificing” (Woloch 125). Jane, however, asked for a different type of union: one of which both partners are seen as equals. Slightly before Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester declare their love for each other, Jane says:

Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit: just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal—as we are! (Bronte 377-8)

Jane not only bridges the gap between men and women in terms of hierarchy, but she also does the same between those of higher and lower classes. She proclaims that she is human despite uncontrollable factors such as appearance and class standings. However, it was possibly improper to address Mr. Rochester in such a way considering the circumstances at this time: Jane was under the impression that Mr. Rochester was engaged to another woman and Jane was quitting her job to move to Ireland for another governess situation. The reason she said this was because she was confessing her love for Mr. Rochester, and did not care of what impression she made upon him. Becoming a governess to another household would not have affected her rank, but she still was able to articulate her feelings to him in what would be considered as improper in the Victorian sense. Maria Yuen says:

She might have said the same at the later crisis of emotion and event in which she actually leaves him. In this outburst of pent-up emotions, Jane is assuming for herself and her sex a position and an attitude never before granted to heroines in English fiction--equality in love. Charlotte Brontë believes that love between man and woman is an all-consuming passion shared not only physically, but mentally and spiritually--"to the finest fibre of my nature," as Jane says. What Charlotte Brontë is asking for is a recognition of the emotional needs of a woman--the right to feel, to love unreservedly. In a way, Jane is an ... unconventional heroine. She claims independence and rejects subservience. She will consent only to a marriage which is the union of equals in independence. Charlotte Brontë sees the relationship between man and woman as one of mutual need. (Yuen 215-26)

Yuen sees this confession as a way for Jane to declare equality when she wouldn’t have otherwise have a chance. With this dialogue, Jane did something that was never done before, proven that this sense of equality was not previously unheard of in female bildungsroman. It was not, perhaps, that the early Victorians did not want its young women to be loved. It was just always implied that the woman would be the one in the relationship to seek the man, and compete against other women. Charlotte Bronte did not seek to rebel against the Victorian values when considering the idea of love and marriage it just allowed for Jane to advertise the ideal and allow for it to be romanticized. This allowed her individuality and power which rose her past values set by the Victorian culture.

Jane wanted equality not only through her relationship with Mr. Rochester, but also with other people throughout the book. She wanted to be seen as more than what her ranking and beauty would allow her to become. Jane had learned as a child that she needed to treated equaly in order to be revered fairly amongst the rest of the children. The reason she could not was because she was not the real daughter of her benefactor, and was therefore despised to some extent as a burden upon the household. She had learned that despite the social class ranking differences, she still did not deserve to be treated unfairly even as a small child. She denied the proposal to St. John not only because he did not love her, but because she saw it as an unfair situation. Victorian rule would have deemed it proper for her to marry him as St. John suggests so that they may function in India together without conflict. With this stunt, she managed to once again, follow her own path of moral and reason rather than passion to make her decisions rather than following the Victorian cultural expectation of women to make decisions based on social advantage.

Jane Eyre was essentially about the woman having the ability to not having to conform to ideals and thinking for themselves. External forces such as class structure and female repression was not considered in this book; it gave an example of a young woman how was repressed due to these factors, yet allowed her inner reflection to make her decisions for her. Her inner most being, one of which she derived her morals and reasons did not make her any less female yet it managed to segregate her from other woman in the Victorian time period. With her decisions, she was able to move between class standings and repression in order to be true to herself and not just what society had set for her. She managed to become successful in society being very wealthy, and successful with relationships, being completely happy with her union with Mr. Rochester. Victorian values were not contradicted when she denied being dependent on a male and allowing her social class to restrict her decisions, but were merely expanded upon in order to give Jane feel unrestricted movement with only the confines of her own morals.

Works Cited

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Modern Library, 200.Chitham, Edward, "Jane Eyre: Overview" in Reference Guide English Literature, 2nd ed., edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991

Ellis, Lorna, "Jane Eyre and the Self-Constructed Heroine." In Appearing to Diminish: Female Development and the British Bildungsroman, 1750-1850, pp. 138-61. Lewisburg, Pa. and London: Bucknell University Press and Associated University

Kramer, Dale, "Thematic Structure in Jane Eyre," in Papers on Language and Literature, Presses, 1999. Winter, 1968, pp. 288-98.

Jones, Wendy. “Feminism, fiction, and Contract Theory: Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right.” Critcism XXXVI (Summer 1994): 401-14 Hellerstein, Erna Olafson, Hume, Leslie

Parker, and Offen, Karen M., eds. Victorian Women; A documentary Account of Women’s Lives in Nineteeth-Century England, France, and the United States. Stanford: Stanford University Press 1981

Yuen, Maria, "Two Crises of Decision in Jane Eyre, in English Studies, June 1976, pp. 215-26. Reprinted in Novels for Students, Vol. 4.