Jane Eyre, is the story of a penniless orphan child who grows up to be a fiercely independent woman, overcoming innumerable hardships that come her way and who is finally able to find love against all odds. When first published in October, 1847, Charlotte Brontë’s novel took the reading public unawares. It became the talk of the literary world. It went into a second edition in three months and a third followed soon after. It has remained a hot favourite ever since.
Originally the novel was published under a pseudonym. The title page said Jane Eyre: An Autobiography edited by Currer Bell. It was only after the novel had gone into its third edition that Charlotte acknowledged it to be her work.
It is easy to understand the nineteenth century appeal of the novel. Cast in the form of an autobiography, it is largely based upon Charlotte’s personal experiences as a schoolgirl and governess. Besides, it gives a picture of English social life as it was in the middle of the last century. The hardships faced by the middle classes, the difficulties that lay in the path of unmarried girls that belonged to such households, the paucity of opportunities for such girls in a society which thought that marriage was their only goal and the difficulties in achieving this goal for girls who had no money to their name – all these issues are dealt with/highlighted in the novel. Jane is just such a girl. She is plain looking, has no money, no social status and being an orphan has no family support to fall back on. Fighting her circumstances spiritedly she is able to educate herself and take up the job of a governess which was the only occupation open for girls like her at that time.
Jane’s story of struggle however has not a single dull moment. With its feisty heroine, its story full of mystery and romance, Jane’s passionate love affair with Rochester, her moral dilemmas and her final self-realization, Jane Eyre has remained a favourite with readers till today. From the time that we meet the ten year old Jane who knows she is being discriminated against and is sufficiently brave to raise a voice against the injustice, to the time when an adult Jane emphatically states “Reader, I married him”, we experience all the ups and downs of her life and her final triumph of marrying her love. We as readers remain riveted and involved till the novel ends on a note of wish fulfillment with the marriage of Jane and Rochester.
Jane Eyre is however, much more than just a love story. It is a bildungsroman or a ‘coming of age’ novel and traces the growth of the protagonist from childhood to adulthood. Being an autobiography it is narrated in first person where Jane is telling us the story of her life. Thus when she recounts her childhood, she gives us the child’s point of view and narrates the events from a child’s perspective. This was something new that was seen in Victorian literature at that time. Prior to this, even in Children’s Literature, which was mostly didactic, the child’s perspective had never been taken into account. Here however we were being shown how a child actually feels. Not only that, we are also shown how a child can react to situations. Jane is bold, passionate, courageous and rebellious and is not scared of speaking plainly and demands to be treated right as is evident in her intense outburst against her aunt:
“I am glad you are no relation of mine. I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to visit you when I am grown up; and if anyone asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick….” (Jane Eyre, chapter 4).
The novel lends itself to various other interpretations. It has been seen as a gothic novel because of its various gothic features such as its atmosphere of mystery and romance; the dream sequences; the imagery; the use of the supernatural; its Byronic hero; the depiction of terrifying experiences like the red room, or the madwoman’s cackle or the fire in Rochester’s room; the exotic setting; the idea of the double being present in the figure of Bertha Mason and the burning down of Thornfield Hall. All such features and events create the gothic atmosphere in the novel. Critics have also pointed out the postcolonial element in the novel drawing attention to various parts of it where England’s colonial forays are referred to. Rochester loses in his colonial venture in the West Indies while Jane inherits from her uncle John Eyre who had made a fortune in England’s presence overseas in Madeira. St John Rivers specifically mentions his plans to go to India as a missionary. England’s imperial venture is represented in the novel through its presence in these three colonies. Racist overtones are unmistakable as these colonies are presented as being either barbaric, hence in need of being civilized, or as being a source of immense wealth, hence open to exploitation. Under the pretext of the white man’s burden, England set out to civilize the uncivilized natives of these colonies. St. John’s missionary zeal to go and educate the natives of India is a part of the same endeavour. In the context of the colonizer’s attitude towards indigenous people, the presentation and treatment of Bertha Mason becomes symbolic. She is shown to be of a mixed race, almost dehumanized, and remains locked up on the third floor and is never allowed to speak. She symbolizes the oppression and exploitation faced by the colonized races. Many years later Jean Rhys’s novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), came out as a rejoinder to Bertha’s unjust and outrageous portrayal in Jane Eyre. This novel tells the story of Bertha Mason and her marriage to Rochester where Bertha is one of the narrators and is worth a look.
What is most significant however is the freeing of the woman’s voice that we witness in the novel. Feminist readings of Jane Eyre stress on the fact that in Jane, Charlotte Brontë has created a nineteenth century heroine who for the first time actually acknowledges her desires and is not shy to speak about them. What had been kept under wraps by the Victorian code of behaviour for women, comes out into the open. Women in Victorian England were meant to be confined to their homes, not allowed to use their talents, had no freedom to express their opinions about anything and always lived in the shadow of their male counterparts. Jane Eyre challenged all of this. Dissatisfied with the existing social order, Charlotte Brontë gives us a heroine who is passionate, rebellious, demands equality and expresses her thoughts, her feelings freely and openly. At one point she 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 as much heart!” (Jane Eyre, Chapter 23).
At yet another instance she asserts
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will,’ (Jane Eyre Chapter 23).
The culmination of her love affair with Rochester is announced with the famous line ‘Reader, I married him.’ According to Victorian standards “Reader, he married me’ would have been more appropriate and acceptable. But phrasing it the way she does Jane announces that the final decision has been hers and that she is an active participant in the relationship.
Throughout the novel Jane demands to be treated and respected as an equal. We can see that through her heroine Charlotte Brontë gives a voice to the nineteenth century woman and thus subverts the patriarchal structure that dictated and expected a certain kind of behaviour from women. In her own way Jane fights for women’s independence and their rights.