Revealing female encounters in ‘Jane Eyre’

With close reference to at least two other parts of the novel, consider the view that ‘the most revealing encounters in Jane Eyre are between female characters’.

Throughout the novel, Jane encounters many characters who reveal different aspects of her as a person, both to herself and the reader. A Bildungsroman, we see these encounters developing her as a character.

Perhaps the most revealing of the encounters between females, are the ones between Jane and Bertha Mason. Whether or not Charlotte Brontё intended to create parallels between Jane and Bertha, there are certainly a number of comparable similarities between the two characters which reveal things to the reader. First and foremost, the revelations about Bertha throughout the book are perhaps also revelations about Jane herself. In Gateshead, Mrs Reed informs Jane that she ‘is passionate’. In Lowood, we see that Jane is taught to control and hide her ‘passionate’ side, denying them and their existence just like her ‘insignificant life’. Only later, in light of Bertha’s manifestation into Jane’s life, do we realise that just like Bertha, Jane has imprisoned her feelings and passions in her own ‘attic’ – herself. Whereas Bertha was locked up in an attic by Rochester, Jane ‘locked’ herself up in her own body, refusing to be anything but ‘proper’. Throughout the book, then, we see these contrasts between the two women that show their similarity: Bertha is like the unrestrained, exaggerated, unimpassioned version of Jane – a glimpse of what Jane might have been like without her Lowood experience, perhaps. Whereas Jane ‘fell sick … in the red-room with crying’, Bertha already has the ‘bloodshot eyes’. When Jane is only a ‘wild cat’, Bertha ‘grovelled on all fours’. Jane is a ‘desperate thing’, whilst Bertha is a ‘discoloured savage’. Moreover, the further Bertha is compared with Jane, the less mad she becomes, leading to the questioning of society’s treatment of her: was locking her up just the easy way out? However, denominated ‘mad’ or ‘insane’ would have most likely been taken to a mental asylum, and so it could, therefore, be argued that what Rochester did for Bertha was the lesser of two evils. Through these encounters, it’s revealed by Brontё that society at the time was simply not equipped to deal with issues like mental health.

Encounters and generally the time spent with St John, on the other hand, are revealing of the ‘docile, disinterested … very gentle’ Jane that she becomes upon spending time at the Rivers’ residence. When St John proposes to Jane for the first time, he says that in her, he ‘recognised a soul that revelled in the flame and excitement of sacrifice’. As the ‘persuasion advanced’ on Jane join him on his trip to India, we see this becoming exceedingly true. This particular encounter reveals Jane’s desire to please St John (‘He will never love me; but he shall approve me’) as a mask for losing Rochester (‘I must seek another interest in life to replace one lost’). She is willing to travel to a place that she feel will cause her ‘premature death’ and to ‘abandon half [of herself], in order to ‘satisfy’ St John.  In a way, Jane loses who she is with St John, almost consumed by her need to serve him and God: at the beginning of the book she says that ‘It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfies with tranquillity’, and that is what she is ‘condemning’ herself to is she were to travel to India. She does, however, eventually take ‘action’, prompted by the ‘telepathy’, and ‘adhere[s] to [her] resolution’ to reject his proposal.

In light of how encounters with both Bertha and St John have revealed different parts of Jane, it could perhaps be said that Rochester acts like the ‘happy medium’. When Jane first arrives at Thornfield, she is stoic and reserved towards Rochester. As their conversation progress, – although mostly in a rather rude manner – he challenges her to ‘come out of her shell’ for her believes that she is ‘not naturally austere’, and realises that ‘The Lowood constraint still clings’ onto Jane. He also does this when he orders Jane to attend to the drawing room every day of the week, and spend time with the governess-scorning Ingrams and company. Although this may seem cruel to the reader at first, later on in the book we realise that he probably did so to adjust Jane to his class, as well as make her stand up for herself and so ignite a spark of her passion. Although some people may disagree, in contrast with St John, Jane’s ‘sacrifice’ at the end of the novel was her whole-hearted choice: she chose to ‘serve[…] both for [Rochester’s] prop and guide’, rather that serve St John to fill a void in her heart. ‘Rochester offers love and a home, both of which the orphan has craved throughout the book’: he offers her the balance between the different extremes revealed by encounters with Bertha and St John. Rochester challenges her and ever-ignites the passion that Bertha depicted at an extreme, but allows her to have the almost-missionary life that she desired in India, helping people (‘for I was his vision, as I am still his right hand’).

Although every encounter in Jane’s life is revealing of either her, the character, or society in general, I feel like the most important ones are with the male characters. Involved with two men, she loves them both in different ways, but they both have enormous influence over her life. In my interpretation, her most revealing character-alterations are made by men: firstly Brocklehurst at Lowood silencing her passion with abuse, then Rochester bringing it back, followed by St John asking her to commit her life to God in a loveless marriage, with Jane eventually finding ‘what [she] love best on earth’.

 

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