Skip to main content

Why Is Charlotte Brontë's 'Jane Eyre' Considered Central to the Feminist Canon?

Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

Theatrical poster for a recent film adaptation of "Jane Eyre"

Theatrical poster for a recent film adaptation of "Jane Eyre"

An Essential Feminist Novel

Jane Eyre’s message of gender equality, individuality, and female empowerment is the foundation of why the text is considered central to the feminist canon. Charlotte Brontë broke conventional stereotypes to create a work that empowers women. The characterisation of Eyre rejects the contextual norms of women being subservient and dependent on male control.

Eyre’s characterisation highlighted the value of independent thinking and equality while challenging the subordinate depiction of women within literature. Thus, the values of equality, female empowerment, and independent identities that the text embraces demonstrate why it is central to the feminist canon.

According to Gao, the goal of feminism is:

To achieve gender equality in all of humanity. All feminist theory has a basic premise, which is, women worldwide are under an oppression, discrimination, and hierarchy state

— Gao 2013, p. 927

Brontë is an inspiration to feminists due to the way she highlighted and explored themes of gender inequality, oppression, and discrimination that are still explored in feminist theory. According to Gao, those in the Victorian age understood women were treated unequally, despite their rank, (2013, p. 927). A woman was supposed to be subservient to her husband and fill her time with domestic duties.

Despite the discrimination she faced, Brontë published novels exploring the female psyche (Nelson 2011, p. 184). The writing itself acts as a rebellion against the alternative or oppositional to dominant values of this period (Donovan 1991, p. 451). This shows the text holds feminist values since the author herself defied social norms to create Jane Eyre. Hence, her creation of Jane Eyre allowed her to shed new light on female identity and on the identity of female writers (Nelson 2011, p. 184).

Furthermore, Brontë was part of a wave of late eighteenth and nineteenth-century female writers such as Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, and George Eliot who wrote texts that advocated equality. These writers used their personal experiences and their critical attitude toward patriarchal ideology. This allowed the audience at the time to deeply connect with the characters since this created an authentic depiction of oppression in Victorian England (Donovan 1991, p. 451). For example, Brontë wrote of Eyre as a simple woman who relied on her own values and self-respect to create:

Recognition that the same heart and the same spirit animate both men and women, and that love is the pairing of equals in these spheres

— Martin 1996, p. 93

This advocated the message that women can live by their own standards, rather than relying on society or men to provide them with fulfillment. Consequently, Jane Eyre sends an empowering message to women of the time period and present day. Hence, the messages of female empowerment explored throughout the text and advocated by Brontë herself demonstrates why Jane Eyre is central to the feminist canon.

Jane Eyre is central to the feminist canon due to the convention breaking independence Eyre displayed as a female character. According to Lamonaca, during the Patriarchal Victorian Period where the text is set:

Evangelists championed the liberty of discernment and conscience for all believers, but also prized a model of marriage in which wives were spiritual subordinate to their husbands

— Lamonaca 2002, p. 247

Women were expected “to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings” (Brontë 1847, p. 95). This quote expresses the way women were praised for trivial pursuits rather than their intelligence, wit, or strength (Minogue 1999, p. 15).

However, Eyre insists one “should never depend on a fellow-creature” for their personal fulfillment, which puts her in juxtaposition to these expectations (Brontë 1847, p. 415). Eyre defies the role of a subordinate female by refusing to be objectified by Rochester. For instance, Rochester tries to objectify her and to make her fit his ideal of a woman by buying her expensive jewels and clothes. It would have been easier to accept this treatment because it would have ensured Eyre’s financial security.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

However, Eyre argues he is trying to alter her identity to “an ape in a harlequin’s jacket—a jay in borrowed plumes” (Brontë 1847, p. 494). Feminist ideals are shown when she chooses to value her identity and independence over materialism. Therefore, Eyre’s choices convey a strong message of female independence that demonstrates why Jane Eyre is considered central to the feminist canon.

The prominent message that women should value their independent thinking and equality rather than subjecting them to male control highlights why Jane Eyre is part of the feminist canon. According to Lamonaca:

Jane’s resistance to male control . . . is vexed by the fact both Rochester and St. John cloak their agendas in religious language

— 2002, p. 249

Both Rochester and St. John attempt to control Eyre by presuming their desire to control Jane is compatible with God’s will. To Eyre, marriage is a trap that would make her lose her independence. She refuses to conform to St. John’s ideal domesticated wife and rejects his marriage proposal, causing him to get angry:

If you reject it, it is not me you deny, but God. Through my means, He opens to you a noble career; as my wife only can you enter upon it. Refuse to be my wife, and you limit yourself for ever to a track of selfish ease and barren obscurity

— Charlotte 1847, p. 784

This demonstrates how male figures, especially of spiritual standing, would use flawed religious ideologies to persuade women to marry them. This tactic is also used by Rochester who argues that his attraction for her is God’s will and he attempts to convince her to commit bigamy.

Jane refuses because becoming his mistress would not allow her to be his equal and would make her a lesser person than who she was destined to be (Lamonaca 2002, p. 246). St. John’s offer of marriage would bring her financial security yet domesticity, while Rochester would bring her shame and true love.

The way Eyre puts her values of freedom and self-fulfillment before these options correspond with feminist ideals of female empowerment. Therefore, Eyre’s rejection of marriage proposals and the conservative stereotype of a woman make a convincing case for why Jane Eyre is considered part of the feminist canon.

why-is-charlotte-brontes-jane-eyre-considered-central-to-the-feminist-canon

Eyre’s characterisation challenges the subordinate depiction of women within literature, highlighting why Jane Eyre is central for the feminist canon. According to Lamonaca (2002, p. 248), Jane confronts the model of female piety found in Milton’s portrayal of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost (Milton, John., Lewalski, Barbara 2007) and Lucille’s characterisation in Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife (ed. Waldron 1995).

Typically, women were presented as subordinate, flat characters, using similar models to both Eve and Lucille. They were depicted “as virtuous, quiet, and possesses no opinions independent of those she has been taught” (Lamonaca 2002, p. 248). Larson notes that proto-feminist writers “had to expose the violence of a dominant ideal and ‘kill’, maim, or at the very least convert the Victorian Angel in the House” (1991, p. 46).

Drawing on Christian discourse and theology, Brontë, along with many of her female contemporaries, challenged the existing ideals of Eves and Angels (Lamonaca 2002, p. 259). To achieve this, Eyre seeks to interpret God’s will for herself and pursue her independence, equality and the rejection of social norms. For example, when Rochester calls her an angel, she responds with:

‘I am not an angel,’ I asserted; ‘and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me—for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate’

— Brontë 1847, p. 500

By accepting the idea of being an angel, she would be sacrificing her identity to cater to Rochester’s desire for purity and innocence. Her rejection of the angelic Victorian era stereotype of women encourages women to value their own identity over conformity. Ergo, the prominent message that women should value independence and equality illustrates why Jane Eyre is considered central to the feminist canon.

why-is-charlotte-brontes-jane-eyre-considered-central-to-the-feminist-canon

The prominent messages of gender equality, individuality, and female empowerment highlight why Jane Eyre is considered central to the feminist canon. Brontë opposed gender inequality to embody the message that women can live by their own standards within Jane Eyre. Eyre’s determination to retain her identity and independence even though an easier life would have come of being subordinate to Rochester demonstrates how the text aligns with feminist values.

Rejecting Rochester and St. John’s attempts to control her through marriage, Eyre places her values of freedom and self-fulfillment before conformity. The juxtaposition between Eyre and female stereotypes encouraged women to value their own identity over conformity. Ultimately, although Jane Eyre was created in the 1800s, it conveys messages of individual empowerment and equality that are applicable to modern society.

Reference List

Brontë, Charlotte 1847, Jane Eyre, Smith, Elder & Co., England. Viewed 13 November 2017, from Planet PDF.

Donovan, Josephine 1991, ‘Women and the Rise of the Novel: A Feminist-Marxist Theory’, The University of Chicago Press, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 441-462.

Gao, Haiyan 2013, ‘Reflection on Feminism in Jane Eyre’, Theory and Practice in Language Studies, Vol. 3, No. 6, pp. 926-931.

Lamonaca, Maria 2002, ‘Jane's Crown of Thorns: Feminism and Christianity in "Jane Eyre"’, The Johns Hopkins University Press, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 245-263

Larson, Janet 1991, ‘Lady-Wrestling for Victorian Soul: Discourse, Gender, and Spirituality in Women’s Texts’, Religion and Literature, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 43-64.

Martin, Robert 1966, Charlotte Brontë's Novels: The Accents of Persuasion, Norton, New York.

Waldron, Mary (ed.) 1995, Coelebs in Search of a Wife, Theommes, London.

Milton, John., Lewalski, Barbara 2007, Paradise lost, Blackwell Pub, Malden, Massachusetts.

Nelson, Barbara 2011, ‘Faces of Jane Eyre’, Journal of Research in Gender Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 183- 187.

© 2017 Simran Singh

Related Articles