A strong fan of literature, Christina frequently reads, analyzes, and writes stories and poems.
Connecting Social Discrimination and Stagnation
Charlotte Bronte and Richard Wright both effectively utilize contrasting ideas to accurately portray reality effectively in their novels Jane Eyre and Native Son. The ideas of individual agency and potential progress contrasts with inevitable stagnation via the social class. Jane Eyre and Bigger Thomas are born into two different oppressive situations. As a young black man in 1930s Chicago, Bigger is faced with discrimination during every aspect of his life. When he tries to take agency over his life and work for the Daltons, he still must acknowledge the social hierarchy that puts him below them. The same boy who had no qualms threatening his associate into committing a crime transforms into a terrified, quiet, and humble gentleman constantly peppering his speech with “yessuh”s and “nawsuh”s. He understands that even in a household of NAACP supporters, there is still a line between him and white people; he cannot cross it, and society will always remind him of that. Whether it’s through the housing black people are denied to keep them in the poorest part of town or the few education opportunities available to them, black people are not allowed to advance their lives.
Jane is initially not allowed to progress either; the Reeds see her as dirt and “less than a servant” and they will not let her forget it (Bronte 15). She is ridiculed and beaten enough to feel “a drop or two of blood from [her] head trickle down [her] neck” (Bronte 14). She feels “like any other rebel slave” when she struggles against Bessie and Abbot before getting locked up in the red room (Bronte 15). She was born at the bottom of the social pyramid, and they have no qualms letting her get crushed there. Later at Thornfield, Jane is still considered part of a lower society. While she has improved her situation, changing from an abused, dependent orphan at Gateshead to a teacher at Lowood and later to a governess at Thornfield, she is still considered farther down in the social hierarchy than the people around her. Ms Ingram does not hesitate to insinuate all governess, including Jane, are underneath her, describing them as “detestable… and ridiculous” (Bronte 205). Mr Rochester also sees Jane as beneath him; he tells Jane “hiring a mistress is the next worse thing to buying a slave [because they are]... often...and always...inferior” and later asks the governess to marry him while he is still wed to Bertha, thus becoming his mistress (Bronte 359).
Absence of Complete Agency
While Jane does become rich and establish her own freedom and life from it, she becomes rich based on her inheritance. This is just another aspect of her life she doesn’t actually have control over; people cannot choose what financial situations their parents were in or how much they inherit. While she has no control over the most significant change in her social class, Jane to a small extent does establish true agency over her life. Her numerous jobs happen as a result of her actions; for example, her invitation to work at Thornfield is a direct result of her advertisements. While Jane’s actions helped her to slowly climb the social pyramid, the inheritance, the aspect she has no control over, is what placed her on the social pyramid. No matter what she did, she was destined to rise.
As Jane was destined to gain her fortune, Bigger was doomed to die like the rat he killed in his apartment the minute he killed Mary. There is no mystery cousins or unknown parents to save Bigger from the lowest tier of his society- he is the one expected to pull himself and his family up the hierarchy by himself through his job at the Daltons. While the job had the potential to improve their finances, Bigger is coerced into this thin-veiled requirement depicted as an opportunity because he can only “take the job at Dalton’s and be miserable or...refuse it and starve” (Wright 12). When coercion is present, the decision is never one of choice, but of survival. In addition, he is not supposed to prosper in the environment he lives in; it’s impossible because he was “‘whipped before [he was] born. What’s the use?’” (Wright 351). He is given the smallest opportunities, and people assume the worst of him because of his skin; he tells his lawyer Max “‘[white men] say we rape white women… That’s what some white men say. They believe that.’” (Wright 351). When someone is given the worst cards in life and people assume the worst of them automatically, there’s not much they can do to help or defend themselves. They do their best to survive under their circumstances.
Extreme Passion: The Lesson of Bigger
Survival is not always life and death; sometimes it’s feeling alive or dead. There are many ways black people in Native Son cope with their constant and inescapable discrimination, and some ways are more controversial than others. While Mother Thomas uses religion to keep her sanity, Bessie uses alcohol, and Bigger uses violence. The later coping mechanisms are not ideal for reader sympathy, yet Wright uses these to accurately depict the reality of the time period. In reality, Bigger never had much control over his life; most black people didn’t. However, he completely relishes in the powerful feeling violence gains him; it gives him an edge over others, a reason he “need not be afraid” (Wright 129). While walking around concealing a gun, he inaccurately feels in control of his life for one moment because “that gun could always make folks stand away and think twice before bothering him” (Wright 129). Violence is a break from the calculated and constrained attitude he must maintain around white people; through it, he can release his passionate frustration.
However, constantly releasing violence or giving into passionated ideas is not practical, specifically in his position of the social hierarchy, and Bigger learns that the hard way through his death sentence; the prosecution took advantage of the numerous times Bigger stole or masturbated in the theater to destroy any chance of the jury being sympathetic to him. Someone who places passion over practicality always has to deal with the consequences; that is the lesson Bigger learns.
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Extreme Passion: The Lesson of Rochester
On the other hand, Jane learns the opposite; valuing practicality over passion always isn’t a way to live either. At Thornfield, Jane initially constrains herself and buries her love for Rochester while she works as a governess; they are not part of the same social class and therefore cannot fraternize. While Rochester almost gets Jane to give in to her passion and marry him, Jane refuses the marriage once she learns Rochester was still married to Bertha. Instead of giving in to her passions, Jane rebukes them in order to later marry on less unequal terms with Rochester once she receives her inheritance.
Extreme Practicality: The Lesson of St. John
Before she does marry him however, Jane lives with St John Rivers, a man who has “reason, not feeling, [as] his guide” (Bronte 432). He ignores his love for Rosamond Oliver and proposes to Jane instead because he felt Jane would be a perfect missionary wife. In his attempt to convince her to agree to this marriage, he says she was “formed for labor, not for love”, and while this was true for Jane for most of the novel, it no longer applies to her at this point (Bronte 464). She wholeheartedly sticks with her refusal to marry despite his insistence and bitter attitude he carries after he is denied. When she becomes aware of her inheritance, she immediately divides the sum evenly between her and the Rivers, confusing John; while she values family highly, he is ruled by his practicality.
The Balance of Passion and Practicality: the Lesson of Jane
Between the passionate Rochester and the practical St John, Jane realizes that either extreme is unacceptable. She wouldn’t feel alive in a life without passion and if she had a life without practicality, her life would completely spiral out of control, like Bigger. A delicate combination of the two is imperative; this is why she only gives into her passion and marries Rochester after she is financially independent and thus practical to do so.
In both novels, practicality clashes with passion, either in the forms of love or coping mechanisms, and true agency contrasts with destiny. Wright most effectively depicts the ideas of agency and destiny; through Bigger’s life, the reader is exposed to many different people of the black community, as well as their coping mechanisms and actions. No matter what actions or how acceptable or healthy ways they cope with their oppression, every black man and woman is discriminated against. When Mary’s body is found and Bigger runs from the police, the entire black community is scorned. However, it becomes clear that people will still be judged thoroughly if they use an unacceptable way to cope. Bronte, on the other hand, depicts the juxtaposing concepts of passion and practicality the best. In her youth at Lowood, Jane gives in to her passion often until she learns patience from Helen. Later she values practicality over passion wholeheartedly at Thornfield, and only when she realizes how a completely practical life would be through her interactions with St John does she realize the two must be balanced.
© 2018 Christina Garvis
Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on January 16, 2019:
Christina, this is an outstanding literary essay. You insightfully compare and contrast two very dissimilar novels and from your analysis convincingly make philosophical points.
Some of the social-historical matters you touch upon are examined in breadth and depth in the book SETTLERS by Sakai. It is currently free at Kindle and is online in PDF.
Sam Ling on October 24, 2018:
This a wonderfully insightful and cogent comparative study of Wright's and Bronte's memorable characters. I also enjoyed the "Things Fall Apart" / "Heart of Darkness" shoutout to another pair of tragic heroes, chafing uncomfortably and/or rebelling against tribal expectations and double standards.
I think you will enjoy Jean Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea," which is a Caribbean reworking of the Jane Eyre story, available both as a novel and a highly acclaimed film.