The Objectification of Jane Eyre
As the child, so also the woman—an uninteresting, sententious, pedantic thing; with no experience of the world, and yet with no simplicity or freshness in its stead.
- Elizabeth Rigby, Quarterly Review December 1848
In Elizabeth Rigby’s well-known contemporary review of Jane Eyre, she refers to Jane as an “uninteresting, sententious, pedantic thing,” (Rigby). Although this may have been unconsciously done, Rigby is continuing an important theme in the novel: the objectification of Jane herself. Throughout Jane Eyre, Jane is referred to as a ‘thing’ tens of times, especially throughout her childhood. Mr. Rochester, although he does refer to her as a thing, more often uses fairylike and elfish terms to refer to Jane. Animalistic terms, ranging from “Rat!” to a variety of avian comparisons, follow Jane throughout her life. Just the word ‘bird’ itself, excluding references to specific species, appears over thirty times throughout the novel.
These terms are not used consistently throughout the story: they change and even evolve in terms of their meaning as Jane matures into womanhood. Certainly, Jane Eyre is commonly looked at as one of the first examples of a Bildungsroman, or a ‘coming of age’ novel in which a young person, often a societal outlier in some way, experiences great conflict in their life but ultimately reaches maturity and with it, happiness. Countless papers have been written analyzing the extent of how Jane fits into the realm of Bildungroman novels, and the novel has been analyzed as a Bildungsroman through lenses of both gender and class.
Indeed, Jane Eyre is not only looked at as a classic Bildungsroman, but also a protofeminist work with Jane as the heroine. However, when we observe Jane in terms of her objectification, she almost ceases to be human throughout the novel: at least, she is not a human in the way that characters surrounding her present humanity. She becomes a strange and unearthly outsider. Jane is certainly a heavily critiqued and excluded character, yet she remains the ‘heroine’ of the novel. This paper will question what is means to have the narrator, with whom we are meant to empathize with and relate to, become an inhuman object in the eyes of other characters.
Furthermore, this paper will also employ the use of Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze to analyze Jane’s objectification, especially in terms of how she is objectified by Mr. Rochester. The power dynamics between the two evolve greatly throughout the novel, and much of this is due to Jane’s own growth and journey towards the final stage of the Bildungsroman. The two can only truly be happy when Mr. Rochester is no longer the dominant masculine force in their relationship.
Finally, this paper will look at how Jane’s objectification plays into the novel as a Bildungsroman through tracking the chronological evolution of the terms used to objectify Jane, broken into three parts: the term ‘thing,’ fairylike terms, and animalistic descriptions. It will also examine the effects of how Jane’s objectification builds and affects her character in her journey to both womanhood and humanity.
 For a particularly interesting analysis of how Jane functions as a Bildungsroman, especially outside of her romantic relationship with Rochester, see Craina’s “What Jane Eyre Taught.”
I. Thing Jane
The opening chapters of Jane Eyre waste no time in objectifying young Jane. Just in the first few sections during which Jane is living under the Reeds, she is referred to as a ‘thing’ a total of ten times, while she is seldom called by her own name. None of the other children in the household are referred to in this manner, thus immediately separating Jane from the Reed children and making it clear that she is different. Indeed, Jane is an outlier in the Reed household; she is an orphan who neither Mrs. Reed nor her children have any affection or warmth for during her childhood. Jane is an outsider in other ways as well, most namely, her personality and character. This objectification of Jane marginalizes her but also builds and develops her character.
First, we must examine exactly when Jane is referred to as a ‘thing,’ and by whom. Bessie is the most common offender: at one point she refers to Jane with this descriptor four times in just over a page, saying “You naughty little thing…You are a strange child…a little roving, solitary thing…a queer, frightened, shy little thing…You sharp little thing!” (Brontë 38-40). Each of these comments comes directly after Jane does something out of the ordinary; something that the typical child would not do. Initially, she does not come when Bessie summons her for lunch. Then, Jane recalls how she hugs Bessie, describing this action as “more frank and fearless than any I was habituated to indulge in,” (39). Not only does Jane act unusually for a child, but she acts in a way that she herself deems outside of her regular character: she even seems to surprise herself. This demonstrates quite early on, though subtly, that Jane’s character is not so easily defined: she cannot be placed in a box or simply described. Her character acts in unexpected ways and quite often surprises us. This inability to definitively characterize Jane continues past her childhood and throughout the novel, although the way in which her strangeness is conveyed evolves.
Jane acts unusually yet again when she clearly and directly tells Bessie that she believes Bessie dislikes her, causing Bessie to remark that Jane is a “sharp little thing!” (40). In this situation, a girl of perhaps ten years is accusing her elder of treating her with aversion. Had Jane been one of the wealthy and spoiled Reeds, this may have been expected. However, Jane is considered perhaps the most inferior being in the household: Miss Abbott exclaims, “…you are less than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep,” (12). Jane is in no place to make such remarks to Bessie, and in doing so she acts in a strange and unusual manner for a child in her position. Thus, Bessie classifies her as a thing yet again, for she is unable to come up with any other descriptor that accurately names young Jane.
It is also important to note that the word “little” precedes Jane’s title as well. Jane does, indeed, stand out physically: she consciously notes her “physical inferiority” to the Reed children, especially in terms of size (7). However, this adjective acts in another way as well. Smallness often indicates inferiority, and this adjective acts in a way that is indeed belittling. Not only is she a child, who is already assumed to be lesser than an adult in terms of intelligence and strength, but she is a small child. Moreover, she is almost not even a child: the word ‘thing’ objectifies her and characterizes her as something that perhaps is not quite human. Thus, her relatives are able to treat her in inhumane ways: young John Reed physically and verbally abuses Jane. He attacks her and throws a book at her head, causing her to bleed. Jane is then blamed for this and is locked “away [in] the red-room,” (11), which terrifies young Jane so much that she goes into a panic and falls ill.
In the scene with John Reed, Jane even self-identifies as a thing, noting that when she is attacked John “had closed with a desperate thing,” (11). Jane, then, views herself as a thing as well, acknowledging that she is not easily characterized and is quite unlike anything else that she knows. As a young child, Jane has nobody to identify with and therefore no way of identifying herself. Jane refers to herself as a thing yet again when she points out that the Reeds “were not bound to regard with affection a thing that could not sympathise with one amongst them…a useless thing, incapable of serving their interest…a noxious thing, cherishing the germs of indignation at their treatment, of contempt of their judgment,” (15-16). The Reeds do not view her as useful, entertaining, or even pleasant. Mrs. Reed wants Jane to endeavor to “acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition…a more attractive and sprightly manner…lighter, franker, more natural…” (7). Jane is clearly unlike the ideal Victorian child that Mrs. Reed envisions, who would be playful, attractive, and lively. Her caretakers are consequently unable to describe her as a child as she does not fit into the category: instead, they simply call her a ‘thing’.
Furthermore, the term ‘thing’ is incredibly vague, yet it has many implications. The vagueness demonstrates the difficulty that both Jane herself and others have in attempting to identify her. Finding a more specific word would be almost impossible: from the start, Jane is not a typical, containable, easily describable character. This term also transforms Jane into the ‘other’ and marginalizes her, forcing us to recognize that she is strange and casting her as an outsider in the family. Although Mrs. Reed does claim that she wishes Jane to become more childlike, there is no doubt that even if Jane were to conform, her treatment would not change greatly for she is in many ways a threat to the Reeds. Mrs. Reed recalls how her husband “[noticed] it as if it had been his own: more, indeed, than he ever noticed his own at that age,” (232). Mrs. Reed does not want Jane to usurp her children’s position, and so she takes every measure possible – even denying Jane her uncle’s letter – in order to confine Jane to a lower status than the Reeds. The marginalization of Jane through objectifying terms further diminishes her threat, not only to Mrs. Reed’s children, but to Mrs. Reed herself: Jane’s outbursts threaten her authority, while also attacking her conscience. By marginalizing Jane and making her inhuman, Mrs. Reed’s deprivation of Jane in terms of familial ties, wealth, and class becomes almost guiltless as she is not seen as an actual human being.
However, the ambiguity of ‘thing’ also allows for fewer restraints in terms of her character development. Although the word can and should be viewed as degrading and objectifying in many ways, it does permit for some leeway: for example, when Jane verbally attacks Mrs. Reed immediately before leaving for Lowood, her outburst is almost accepted by Mrs. Reed. Jane says, “…I dislike you the worst of anybody…the very thought of you makes me sick, and…you treated me with miserable cruelty,” (36). Jane, since she is not truly considered to be a child or even a human, is not restricted to typical societal norms. Although she speaks quite improperly to Mrs. Reed, her outburst seems just to the reader and is not shocking or out of character, for her character is so unusual. In fact, the reader is clearly meant to sympathize with Jane throughout her childhood. Being the protagonist of the novel, the reader is, of course, predisposed to have sympathy for her. However, the title of ‘thing’ does actually further our sympathy as it casts young Jane as an underdog of sorts. Not only is she treated harshly by the Reeds, but she is a strange outcast who does not fit in with what society expects of her, and she is surrounded by those who have much more power and wealth than she.
Mrs. Reed soon sends Jane to study at Lowood. Throughout Jane’s entire time staying at school, she is not called a ‘thing’ a single time. As Moglen points out, “Lowood does, paradoxically, provide Jane with a supportive environment…the students share her social and economic background. She is no longer an outsider, necessarily inferior,” (Moglen 114). Lowood is the place of the outsider, and because of this, Jane thrives there. She is no longer seen as a ‘thing,’ because she now lives in an environment in which all of the students are treated fairly equally – indeed, Jane continues to endure harsh treatment, but she does so alongside all of her peers. She is no longer an outsider and she can easily be characterized in the same manner as all of the other students at Lowood.
The usage of the word does, however, reappear, albeit much less often than during her childhood. Mr. Rochester most commonly uses the term, amongst other fairylike terms which will be discussed later in the paper. At Thornfield, Jane becomes an outsider yet again: she is not a servant, but she is not a member of Mr. Rochester’s family or upper class friends either. As Jane and Mr. Rochester begin to form affections for one another, her role becomes even more confusing: to be employed by the same person that you love is undoubtedly a strange position. Mr. Rochester then begins to view Jane as his thing, his object. When he proposes to her, he says, “You – you strange – you almost unearthly thing! – I love as my own flesh,” (Brontë 255). Rochester verbalizes Jane’s alien character. Just as she was not quite human as a child, so she remains as an adult. Taking away her humanity is indeed a form of objectification, and it allows Mr. Rochester to marginalize Jane. In Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze, she points out how “…the determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly,” (Mulvey 366). Rochester sees Jane as his object to dress up and make pretty after their engagement, Jane even describes how he dressed her “like a doll,” (Brontë 268). A doll is a ‘thing’ just as Jane is to Rochester: a non-human object designed solely for the pleasure of the user.
Jane, however, reclaims the title of ‘thing’ during her adulthood. In a conversation with Mr. Rochester, she boldly states, “‘I had rather be a thing than an angel,” (262). Rochester often refers to her as an angel, as well as a thing, and Jane makes it clear that she does not accept the former. In calling her an angel, Rochester is idolizing Jane and trying to make her out to be something that she is not. Jane rejects this and prefers to be inhuman instead of some celestial being, although she clearly does not care for either descriptor. Jane simply wants to be a human, but Rochester does not understand Jane or her character, especially in terms of the ideal nineteenth century femininity, and thus cannot label her as a human. At one point, he even tries to confirm her humanity, asking, “‘You are altogether a human being Jane? You are certain of that?’” to which Jane replies, “‘I conscientiously believe so, Mr. Rochester,’” (437). In reclaiming this human title, Jane recognizes her strangeness and even comes to terms with that fact that she may always be somewhat of an outsider, an ‘other,’ but this does not subtract from her humanity.
It is important to note that, in general, Jane is referred to as a ‘thing’ by those who are sympathetic to her. Although Mrs. Reed does refer to Jane as a ‘thing’ on her deathbed, for the most part the Reeds are not the ones who directly objectify her (although they do embody her objectification through their treatment of her). This demonstrates that Jane is not simply being marginalized by those who dislike her, but her objectification extends to those who care about her and even her own self. This emphasizes Jane’s thingness – it is not simply a method that those who hate her use in order to put her down, but rather a true reflection of her character traits: she is honestly difficult to describe and cannot be characterized as a child or even a human. She is odd in the eyes of everyone, even those who may find her endearing.
As in many classic Bildungsroman stories, Jane must be an outsider before she can achieve maturity and ultimately happiness. The word ‘thing’ is an unusual objectifier in that it is both vague, yet perhaps even more objectifying than animalistic and fairylike terms. Jane is being referred to as something that is neither living nor animate in any way: a literal object. This term marginalizes Jane, belittles her, and makes her undeniably strange and inhuman. As a protagonist who is also a constant outsider, Jane’s character is complex and unique. She is an underdog who is treated inhumanely, and yet her unusual character allows her to act outside of and even challenge social norms. In doing so, she challenges social norms outside of the novel as well. Indeed, Jane’s character can not and will not conform to the ideal nineteenth century image of subservient femininity, and thus one of the only ways that others can manage to label her is as a ‘thing.’ However, Jane challenges more than just this: she challenges humanity altogether. We see her beginning to come to terms with her strangeness, and in doing so she sows the seeds to creating her own version of humanity.
 For an interesting reading on the Victorian images of girlhood and feminine development and experience, see Graff’s “The History of Childhood and Youth.”
 See “The Appeal of the Underdog” for further reading on why people “like and support underdogs under most circumstances,” (Vandello).
 For an interesting analysis of Jane’s health throughout Jane Eyre, especially in Lowood, see “Illness in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights” by Helene Dilgen.
 Mulvey’s theory will be discussed more fully in its application to Mr. Rochester in the second section of this paper.
II. Fairy Jane
Just as Jane’s title of ‘thing’ was more heavily used throughout her childhood, the usage of fairylike terms such as “elf,” “imp,” “sprite,” and “fairy,” reaches its maximum height during Jane’s time at Thornfield, with Mr. Rochester being the main perpetrator. However, fairytales are introduced to Jane far before she becomes a governess: at Gateshead, Bessie narrates “passages of love and adventure taken from old fairy tales,” (9) and in doing she presents Jane with “conventional images of passive femininity…These images influence her, even as she learns that expectations fed by fairy tales are neither practical nor fulfilling,” (Jnge).
After being locked in the red room, young Jane observes herself in a looking glass. She notes, “the strange little figure there staring at me…had the effect of a real spirit: I thought it like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented, (14). This is the first time that Jane is referred to in fairylike terms in the novel, and it is done by Jane herself. From a young age, she understands her place in the Reed household. She has been told throughout her entire childhood that she is lesser than the Reeds. In this scene we see Jane attempting to label herself, while simultaneously marginalizing herself: her reflection is a picture of how she perceives herself, both physically and mentally. Jane labels herself by comparing her reflection to non-human creatures, thus demonstrating that she sees herself as inhuman and unnatural as well. She does not fit in with any form of humanity that she knows, so she cannot identify with humans.
Furthermore, Jane does not simply label herself as a fairy, but an imp as well, which has a very different connotation. While fairies are more childlike, jocund, and innocent, imps often are described in a more negative and mischievous light, even as “gremlins” (Jaekel 12). Per usual, Jane does not fit cleanly into one of these categories: she is a strange mix of the two, and even in the nonhuman world she remains an outsider. Jane knows this, explaining to the reader, “I was like nobody there,” (15). She cannot be a fairy as she is not truly childlike, although she is technically a child. The impish half to her indicates this lack of childish character that Mrs. Reed, as discussed earlier, wishes for Jane to endeavor to obtain. Jane, although perhaps not mischievous, is undoubtedly a cause of discord in Gateshead. Whether or not she initiates the conflicts does not matter, as she is the one who is blamed for them. As shown by this self-labeling, Jane has internalized much of the harsh criticism that she has experienced during her childhood.
As Jane moves to Thornfield, Mr. Rochester wastes no time in identifying her as a type of fairy: upon his first interaction with Jane in which she is conscious of his identity, he tells Jane, “When you came on me in Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse,” (122). Mr. Rochester does not understand Jane, both initially and at many points throughout their relationship. During this initial interaction that Rochester refers to, Jane notes that he “seemed puzzled to decide what I was,” (114). She does not act in the manner that Mr. Rochester expects from a woman, or even from a human, and her actions confuse him, forcing Rochester to identify her with non human terms. It is in these moments, when Jane’s character does not line up with that of a traditional, subservient, feminine nineteenth century woman, that Rochester characterizes Jane using these fairylike adjectives.
However, in using these terms Rochester is not simply marginalizing Jane. He is simultaneously raising her onto a pedestal and worshipping her as a superhuman being: nevertheless, this further marginalizes her in many ways, regardless of whether or not this was Rochester’s intention. The Victorians often sexualized and fetishized fairies and other spritely beings. The genre of fairytales allowed for the exploration of “new attitudes towards sex, a curiosity about the unknown and forbidden, and a desire to escape respectability,” (Susina). By referring to Jane in fairylike terms, Rochester is fetishizing her for himself by furthering her strange and mysterious character. However, Jane’s strangeness can only be for Rochester himself and no one else. As Mulvey points out in her theory of the male gaze, “her eroticism is subject to the male star alone,” (Mulvey 368).
After the proposal, we see Rochester’s attempts to mold Jane into a more traditional version of femininity. He declares to Jane, “‘I will myself put the diamond chain around your neck…I will clasp the bracelets on these fine wrists, and load these fairy-like fingers with rings…You are a beauty…I will make the world acknowledge you as a beauty too,’” (259). This post-proposal scene has many functions, one of which is to force Jane’s strangeness to become unseen to all except Mr. Rochester himself. In doing this, Rochester becomes the sole person who can enjoy Jane’s forbidden, otherworldly draw. Additionally, Jane “becomes his property” (Mulvey 368) after she has agreed to marry him. Thus Rochester, who accepts and actively promotes traditional feminine ideals throughout the novel, must remove any remaining threat that Jane poses. Specifically, he must control and dominate the power dynamic between the two. Mulvey describes one way of doing this: the male character “…builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself (368). This is a “voyeuristic…fetishistic mechanism to circumvent her threat” (372), and it is exactly how Rochester further dehumanizes Jane: she becomes a fairylike plaything for him to use and ultimately control.
Rochester’s endlessly flattery and determination to beautify Jane deeply angers her: Jane will not accept this frivolous adornment. She proclaims, “‘Don’t address me as if I were a beauty: I am your plain, Quakerish governess…then you won’t know me, sir; and I shall not be your Jane Eyre any longer, but an ape in a harlequin’s jacket,’” (259). Jane refuses to accept a classically feminine role. In the words of Jnge, “she cannot and will not become a passive fairy tale heroine,” (15). After further flattery, Rochester attempts to label Jane again and begins to call her elfish, but Jane interrupts him, exclaiming, “‘Hush, sir! You don’t talk very wisely just now,’” (261). She is determined to remain true to herself and Rochester’s ‘male gaze’ is indeed one of the many reasons why his and Jane’s initial engagement is ultimately doomed to fail.
Jane, despite Rochester’s pleas, knows that she must leave him after she discovers Bertha’s existence. Mulvey argues that the male character’s role is “the active one of forwarding the story, making things happen,” (367). Jane refuses to let this happen: after the failed wedding ceremony, she declares that she must leaves Thornfield. Rochester begs Jane to stay, but still cannot understand the deeper reasons why their marriage cannot yet work: he desperately calls her a “savage, beautiful creature!” (318) whilst pleading. Rochester completely loses his power in this situation, and yet he still attempts to build up Jane’s beauty and physicality by dehumanizing her and making her into a pretty object in his final attempts to grasp onto his dominance.
Jane rejects Rochester’s dehumanizing labels and leaves Thornfield. She eventually finds a new home with the Rivers, and there her fairylike labels disappear just as her title of ‘thing’ disappeared during her time at Lowood. Even during her lowest point, when she is on the verge of death and asks the Rivers for help, they call her a “beggar-woman,” (336), demonstrating that despite her poor situation she is still a human. During this period of Jane’s life, she is no longer a child or a strange, fetishized being. She becomes a member of the Rivers’ family, both figuratively and literally. Jane describes, “Thought fitted thought; opinion met opinion: we coincided, in short, perfectly,” (350).
During her time at Moor House, Jane gains family, wealth, and independence, essentially bringing her to the same social class that Mr. Rochester resides in. Meanwhile, Mr. Rochester is significantly humbled due the burning of Thornfield by Bertha and his loss of sight and hand. When Jane finally returns to Thornfield in order to find Mr. Rochester again, her fairylike labels almost completely disappear. Mr. Rochester’s male gaze is, quite literally, gone: he is mostly blind and his masculine power has dissipated. He is overjoyed that Jane has returned and is desperate that she stays, repeatedly asking “‘And you will stay with me?’” (435). In these moments, Jane undoubtedly is in control of the story, and Mr. Rochester knows this.
When they do become engaged again, Rochester makes no attempt to beautify Jane: he remarks, “‘there is but the license to get- then we marry…Never mind fine clothes and jewels, now: all that is not worth a fillip,’” (446). They have a “quiet wedding” (448) and Jane declares, ten years later, that “No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh,” (450). Rochester and Jane have no only become equals, but Rochester has accepted Jane for who she is and even joined her strange world. Although he does call her a “changeling,” Jane says, “‘You talk of my being a fairy; but I am sure, you are more like a brownie,’” (438). In addition to the two being brought to the same class and power dynamics, they are now both not-quite-human human beings and can successfully coexist in a marriage.
As Jane evolves, so does the meaning behind the fairylike terms used to describe her. As a child, their main purpose was the identify her as a troublesome and non-human being: an outsider in the Reed household. Similarly to the usage of ‘thing,’ these descriptions further Jane’s essential first stage of the Bildungsroman: that of existing as an outsider in society. As Jane moves to Thornfield, Mr. Rochester uses these terms to both objectify and sexualize Jane. Although their marriage technically could not work due to Bertha’s existence, it was doomed to fail regardless due to Rochester’s attempts to dominate Jane through the objectification and beautification of her. The two can only be married and reach the final ‘happy’ stage of the classic Bildungsroman when Rochester accepts and even embraces Jane’s rejection of traditional Victorian femininity as well as traditional humanity, and the two finally become equals.
 Many have read this scene and description as both a first menstruation and as a type of rape. See Jaekel’s “A Tale of a ‘half fairy half imp’” for further reading on Jane’s loss of childish innocence.
III. Animal Jane
Unlike the first two sections, the usage of animalistic terms to describe Jane occurs quite consistently throughout her life. Just as young Jane listened to Bessie’s fairy tales, we see her reading Bewick’s History of British Birds during the opening chapter. Jane almost obsessively describes the contents of the book, concluding by saying, “With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy,” (9). The first animal comparison that we get is indirect: whilst describing the contents of the book, she specifically notes a “…black, horned thing seated aloof on a rock, surveying a distant crowd surrounding a gallows,” (9). The description of this bird immediately reflects Jane’s situation as John Reed forces Jane to stand by the door, where he then throws a book at Jane’s head, causing her to “[strike her] head against the door and [cut] it,” (11). This head wound is strongly reminiscent of the bird on the gallows which Jane had mentioned earlier. Jane feels as though she is nothing more than a dark bird, lonely and surrounded by those who either watch or promote her suffering.
The reader is meant to empathize with Jane’s suffering, yet the adult characters in the novel blame her for the incident. This is not the only animal comparison that we see during this violent scene: John Reed also calls her a “bad animal” (9) and yells at her, “Rat! rat!” (11). Not only is Jane compared to an animal, but she is a bad animal; a small and dirty rodent whom nobody holds affection for. These negative animalistic descriptions are unsurprising: as observed in the first two sections, Jane is extremely marginalized during her time at the Reed household. Many of these animal comparisons function as a way of furthering Jane’s dehumanization and disempowering her.
After the red room incident, Jane falls into an illness and describes how she feels “physically weak and broken down…accustomed as I was to a life of ceaseless reprimand and thankless fagging,” (20). Bessie then puts a plate of food in front of Jane, painted brightly with a “bird of paradise” which usually “[stirs in Jane] a most enthusiastic sense of admiration,” however at this moment she observes that “the plumage of the bird…seemed strangely faded,” (20). Yet again, this bird is a clear representation of Jane. After her traumatic experience, she feels emotionally faded and worn out. This tiredness is not just due to the red room incident, but rather an exhaustion from her life with the Reeds. Just as the bird is forever trapped on the plate, Jane feels trapped in the Reed household.
It becomes clear quite quickly that Jane is the bird, and the avian descriptions, if not immediately direct, mirror her experiences. During the violent scene with John, she notes how John “twist[s] the necks of the pigeons, kill[s] the little pea-chicks…” (15) in his free time. Indeed, he spends much of his free time torturing young Jane. Many have read the avian comparisons in Jane Eyre as almost solely existing in order to disempower her and further her imprisonment, and certainly many of them fulfill this purpose. Monahan writes how the “bird metaphors reveal the power dynamics in [Jane’s] relationship to Rochester….Rochester typifies Jane as an ensnared bird…His confession of love comes side by side with terms of entrapment,” (598). Others have observed the descriptions as forms of empowerment for Jane: as Paul Marchbanks points out, the “commonly restricting” bird imagery is transformed into a “liberating one,” in this novel (Marchbanks 121). Whether positive or negative, the descriptions undoubtedly function as a “paradigm of power,” (Anderson and Lawrence 241).
As Jane’s birdlike comparisons reflect her character, they also reflect her evolution throughout the novel. As seen earlier in this section, the descriptors used by the Reeds and even by Jane herself in the beginning of the novel reflect her imprisonment. The object-like inhumanity of a bird is emphasized, as is its entrapment: indeed, the idea of a caged bird is common throughout literature. As Jane moves on to the next stage of her life at Lowood, the bird follows her there: she observes and attempts to feed a “hungry little robin” seconds before Mr. Brocklehurst arrives at Gateshead (30). The robin both reflects Jane’s current situation and foreshadows her future at Lowood. Jane is hungry to escape her current life and is emotionally starved of love and affection by the Reeds. As Jane struggles to feed the small robin, she is simultaneously attempting to feed herself, but it is difficult with nobody around to help. At Lowood, Jane becomes physically hungry, but her emotional hunger for friendship and care are finally satisfied by Helen and Miss Temple.
The next major transition in Jane’s life brings with it an entirely new host of birdlike comparisons. As Jane arrives at Thornfield, Mr. Rochester is introduced to her life. Just as Mr. Rochester is one of the largest proponents of her fairylike characterizations, he construes the bulk of Jane’s avian descriptions as well. Upon their first true meeting, Mr. Rochester notes how he has observed in Jane’s eyes, “at intervals, the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage: a vivid, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high,” (138). Jane is still a caged bird at this point; although she has obtained freedom from the Reeds she has not truly achieved independence yet. The cage can be seen to represent the oppression of Jane, especially in terms of class and gender. Although Jane is not a typical feminine character, she is still tightly constrained by the traditional ideals of femininity and she conforms to them in many ways, although she frequently speaks out against them to the reader and occasionally to characters in the novel. In the words of Mizel, after Jane’s experience at Lowood she “grows to embody self restraint and poise,” (187). Jane represses her love for Mr. Rochester and often takes great care to act as his governess and nothing else, as someone in her social position should do. Furthermore, the cage represents the containment of humanity: specifically, what a human is expected to be. Jane is forced to conform to this and indeed attempts to act as a typical human: yet others still can tell that she is odd. She has not yet embraced her strangeness.
Rochester, however, observes that the bird is glancing out every so often: Jane is beginning to explore outside of the cage. She takes the initiative to leave Lowood and expand her world, yet she is still completely reliant on Mr. Rochester and without him she has no home or income. At this point, Rochester is still clearly dominant in their relationship. He continues to refer to her with birdlike terms throughout the rest of the novel. However, Jane slowly begins to reflect the projection of avian adjectives back onto Mr. Rochester, first doing so when she observes that he is like “a fierce falcon,” (204) in comparison to Mr. Mason. This reverse objectification serves an important purpose by bringing Jane and Mr. Rochester onto the same level: Jane is not the only one being compared to animals anymore.
Still, Jane’s birdlike descriptions of Mr. Rochester don’t become fully fledged until the reunification of the two at the end of the novel. Rochester, on the other hand, does continue to refer to Jane with birdlike terms, and ultimately dehumanizes her in doing so. The two are still not equals and Rochester remains in the more powerful position: while he compares Jane to birds directly, Jane refers to him in avian terms only in her thoughts. She is still a caged bird, unable to break free, while Rochester reinforces her cage through various forms of objectification. This reaches its pinnacle after the failed wedding ceremony when Rochester forcefully tells her, “‘Jane, be still; don’t struggle so, like a wild, frantic bird that is rending its own plumage in its desperation,’” (253). Whilst speaking, Rochester’s arms are wrapped around Jane like a cage, but she finally breaks free, saying, “‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you,’” (253). Jane takes the avian descriptions into her own hands and, for the time being, rejects them, and along with them she rejects Rochester. Jane has broken out of her cage: although she may not yet be wealthy or powerful, she is free. Furthermore, she asserts her humanity: although she may be strange and not conform to the characteristics of a traditional human, that does not mean that she is not an equal being.
When the two are reunited at the end of the novel, they are far more equal then ever before. As discussed earlier, Jane even holds more power than Mr. Rochester as she is the one who forwards the action by returning to him. Thus, Jane does not feel tied down by the avian descriptions because she is now a fully fledged bird, and the birdlike comparisons no longer cage her but rather represent her freedom. She tells Mr. Rochester, “‘I am an independent woman now,” (434). Mr. Rochester, however, is described as a “caged eagle,” (431). The roles have been reversed and Jane is now on the outside of the cage looking in.
With Jane in the dominant position, the avian descriptions become terms of endearment between the two. Jane, from early childhood, has always had an affinity for birds: from the History of British Birds to the china plate, her birdlike descriptions for Mr. Rochester show her affection. Similarly to the fairylike descriptions, the bird comparisons form an alliance outside of typical humanity that bonds Jane and Mr. Rochester. She describes how his hair “reminds [her] of eagles’ feathers,” (436), while he calls Jane his “sky-lark” (439). Mr. Rochester is attracted to the strangeness of Jane, while she enjoys his wild nature. Jane asks, “And, reader, do you think I feared him in his blind ferocity?- if you do, you little know me,” (431). Mr. Rochester’s ferocity, while Jane was indeed attracted to it earlier in the novel, was heavily connected to his dominant masculinity. At the end of the book he has been greatly humbled by the combination of Jane deserting him and his loss of sight and home. His ferocity remains attractive to Jane but it is no longer threatening.
Throughout her childhood, animalistic descriptions of Jane serve to dehumanize her. Negative characters such as John Reed compare her to an animal in objectifying ways. Jane’s birdlike comparisons, however, function to demonstrate her evolution throughout the story and her eventual gain of freedom, going from a marginalized and caged bird to a free, fully fledged animal. The avian descriptions track the development of the Bildungsroman in this way. Mr. Rochester, before and during their first engagement, used avian terminology to describe Jane, yet the two were not of equal status and these descriptors further dehumanized Jane. However, after the reunification of the two, the birdlike characterizations serve as a way to bond the two: Jane writes, “Birds were faithful to their mates, birds were emblems of love,” (321). The two are quite literally separated from the rest of humanity: their new home at Ferndean is isolated from society. There, Jane and Mr. Rochester can exist as inhuman humans and ultimately be happy for the rest of their lives.
 See Anderson and Lawrence’s “Bird Imagery and the Dynamics of Dominance and Submission in Jane Eyre” for further reading on the various interpretations of avian imagery.
Rigby concludes her review of Jane Eyre by declaring, “…for if we ascribe the book to a woman at all, we have no alternative but to ascribe it to one who has, for some sufficient reason, long forfeited the society of her own sex,” (Rigby). Yet again, Rigby is perhaps unknowingly touching upon a crucial aspect of the novel. Just as Rigby views Jane as an isolated and unnatural outsider, many characters in the novel view her similarly. Although Rigby and the characters may view the departure of woman from society as utterly unacceptable, Jane sees it as the only way to truly become herself and ultimately achieve happiness.
Our narrator is undoubtedly peculiar, especially as the protagonist of the novel. Through the combined use of the term ‘thing,’ fairylike descriptions, and avian comparisons, Jane is characterized as an inhuman ‘other,’ which is an odd place for the heroine to be. She is strange, often unknowable, and difficult to identify. Jane’s ambiguity and vague character can often serve to create an alluring aura surrounding her, drawing the reader in so that they want to learn more. However, her peculiarity serves other purposes: Jane not only tears down social and gender hierarchies as she evolves throughout the story, but she even tears down human ones. Other characters often marginalize her through the use of these objectifying terms in order to reduce this threat that she poses: the threat of challenging social, gender, and human norms and ultimately the hierarchy in which most Victorians existed in.
Zlotnick describes how “Jane Eyre is a female Bildungsroman in which Jane travels from dispossessed orphanhood to self-possession,” (DeMaria 42). Indeed, as a child Jane is an outsider in the Reed household and is constantly told that she is lesser than even the servants in Gateshead. What is important is the ending of the Bildungsroman: Jane does not achieve wide-spread societal acceptance, nor she does not become a traditional, subservient Victorian woman. She does, however, achieve happiness, and she does so by accepting and embracing the animalistic and inhuman traits that she possesses in order to redefine womanhood and humanity. In doing so, Jane questions societal expectations: how does society define humanity? What is expected of humans? As an inhuman protagonist who is intelligent, sympathized with by readers, and ultimately iconic, we are furthermore meant to challenge the dominance and superiority of the human ego that humanity has so greatly emphasized. Humans abuse their power, not only in terms of other animals but, as seen with Jane, they abuse their power in terms of other humans as well. Jane is marginalized by humans; ones who have significantly more power than she. At the end of the novel, Jane clearly does not envy this human hierarchy, she rather steps outside of it and creates her very own definition of what it means to be human with Rochester by her side.
Jane thus creates a revolution: while it may be small and important to only a few within the novel, the effects outside of the novel are infinitely greater. In the words of Peters, “Inside the novel, Jane has only limited exposure; outside the novel, she has unlimited exposure. And this influence upon society is what the reviewers so feared,” (Peters 72). Indeed, this seems to be exactly what Rigby feared. Jane has been hugely influential on intellectual, cultural, and societal levels.While Jane’s marginalization by both characters and critics serves to diminish her threat to the status quo, Jane refuses to be ignored: her message is sent out into the world.
V. Works Cited
Anderson, Kathleen, and Heather R Lawrence. “Bird Imagery and the Dynamics of Dominance and Submission in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.” Brontë Studies, vol. 40, no. 3, 2015, pp. 240–251., https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/1474893215Z.000000000152.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Oxford University Press, 2008.
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