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Social Inequality in “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte Essay

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Updated: Jul 18th, 2020

Introduction

Jane Eyre is a fictional character created by Charlotte Bronte. The character is the protagonist in a novel that gained commercial and critical acclaim 170 years ago. Jane Eyre’s character explored the challenges faced by a girl in a journey from childhood to adulthood. At the same time Jane Eyre symbolizes the struggle of the social classes in 19th century England.

Social Classes

It is more than a coming-of-age novel. Jane Eyre wanted to explore the world on her own. The story traced the development of the ten year old child as a hapless prey in an oppressive household, to someone who returned with the power to change her fortune. A child went out of the door and a full-grown woman came back many years later to claim what was rightfully hers.

It is both a dramatic and romantic tale that follows a familiar pattern. But Bronte was not content with a simple storyline because she interspersed it with the struggle of the social classes (Shuttleworth 148). At the same time it is a story about “upward female mobility and flagrant female rebellion (Shuttleworth 148). These are ideas not yet accepted in 19th century England.

It is also a novel that reflects the significant changes that had been occurring in 19th century England. A modern world is about to emerge from centuries of traditions. This was remarkably illustrated in Jane Eyre through the evolution of a poor girl into a woman of influence. Her success was made possible only through dogged determination and hard work as described in the following commentary: “As with the productive working-class body, the reproductive energies of the female boyd had to be fully utilized, without transgressing the fine line of regulatory social control” (Shuttleworth 160). Hence, Jane Eyre kept on pushing but at the same time she is mindful of her limitations. But this did not bother her to destroy the hurdles set before her.

Jane Eyre mirrors the changes that occur during that period in English history. Through the rapid changes in technology there emerged a new class. The middle class reared its head in the 19th century and Bronte simply wrote about its impact to society (Bell & Offen 271). The middle class are not slaves and servants. At the same time they are not part of the aristocrats. They are not rich but they have the means to improve themselves and made their existence indispensable to the wealthier members of society (Bell & Offen 271). This newfound power was the result of greater access to education. Jane Eyre’s character displayed the need not only of social mobility but to reach the ultimate goal of being a confirmed member of the gentry (Shuttleworth 150).

Jane Eyre highlighted the tension between the middle class and the upper class. In the beginning of the novel the author introduced the Reed family as part of the gentry (Peters 5). However, Bronte did not only focus on the tension between the rich and poor. She also highlighted the fact that women were treated disgracefully during her time. John Reed, his cousin, made her understand through the pain of numerous beatings that everything in the house belonged to him (Bronte 29).

Her years spent with the Reed family as well as his dealings with men also highlighted another social issue of that era. Women can never expect equal treatment in relation to members of the opposite sex. In the confrontation between Jane Eyre and her cousin the following insights can be gleaned “even at an early age, the dominance of the male heir as head of the family is never questioned” (Peters 5). This explains the reluctance of the Jane’s Aunt to discipline her son.

Jane Eyre provided a blueprint that inspired women in her time. By giving into a life of dedicated learning, she was able to change her status. She depended on no one but herself. She was an orphan and she was maltreated by those around her. She was knocked down but she refused to give up. Those who treated her kindly were few and they did not last long in the struggle towards self-independence (Shuttleworth 155).

Although she has found this new ability to take care of herself in a dignified manner, there is still one area of her life that has to be confronted before she can truly find happiness. This part of the novel is the most critical portion of Jane Eyre’s story. It seems that the servitude in the Reed’s home, the struggle to be accepted and succeed in school and the testing that comes along with being a governess pales in comparison to her final challenge (Bell & Offen 274). Her final test concerns her ability to find happiness and contentment without marriage.

She cherished her independence. She rejoiced in her newfound power to chart her own destiny because she can create wealth through hard work and self-determination. But the invisible forces of love and romance are uncharted waters for a young woman who is isolated in a society that does not know how to treat an orphan who ascended to the ranks of the middle-class. Jane Eyre was a mere reflection of the personal struggle that rages in the heart of the author. According to one biographer, Bronte desperately wanted to prove to the world that an unmarried woman can triumph in a world dominated by men “that there was no more respectable character on this earth than an unmarried woman who maker her own way through life” (Nestor 11). In the novel, Jane Eyre’s character has the strength to say no to marriage.

She was in the perfect position to marry and it was a tempting proposition because her struggle with life’s worries and unpredictability is supposed to have only one remedy. It is to marry someone with the ability to take care of her until the day she dies. But when she found out that it was dishonourable to marry the man she loves she is courageous enough to say no and left with a heavy heart. This setback is temporary because one day she is going to be reunited with the man she loves.

Women in Society

In the present time there is no denying the fact that this is a man’s world. This assertion can be supported by evidence coming from the entertainment industry up to the highest levels of political power. There are only a few women rulers and CEO’s. Women occupy different spheres but they are few and far in between. Most of the time women are seen in the bottom tier leadership roles and many are servants rather than serving in the position of influence. This is a male dominated world and more so in non-Western societies.

There are numerous horror stories coming from places like China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Middle East and Africa wherein women are treated a little higher than beasts of burden. They are treated as if they are possessions of men. In some societies their value are closely linked to their relationship to the head of the household, a male relative that is responsible for her protection and upkeep.

Although much has changed in the Western world there was a time when women are not treated with the same respect as they are treated now. The idea of gender equality was a foreign concept. However, since time immemorial, women tried to find their place seeking not only equal opportunities but also respect. Women fought for their right to work and the right to vote. In the Western world changes were accomplished but the process was very slow.

There were many contributors. The work has to be done not only by one person but the cumulative effect of a group of women linked by the desire to reach their full potential. One of the most influential voices came from women writers. They have the ability to influence society in a profound way. The pen has always been mightier than a sword. However, putting ink to paper is easier said than done. It has to be pointed out that most women were not given access to education.

Education has always been considered as a source of political and commercial power. Therefore, access to this power source has to be carefully regulated. At the same time education is an expensive endeavour and in a typical family wherein the number of children exceeded the capacity of the parents to nurture them, the wise move has always been to educate the boys and the girls are supposed to stay home.

The longing of women to break free from the stereotype accorded them was beautifully rendered in the scene where John Reed bullies Jane Eyre. John Reed is depicted as a fat boy and it contrasted heavily with the poor sad state of the young Jane Eyre. The image of a fat boy with access to expensive and tasty meal symbolizes the privilege of class and the superiority of men. They have everything that they needed and more.

The fat face means the hoarding of resources. There are so many things that can be shared but their greed drove them to overconsumption. At the same time the fat boy is overly conscious of his status. When Jane Eyre casually asked him why she was called into his presence, John Reed harshly retorted: “Say, ‘What do you want, Master Reed?’” (Bronte 8). Arrogance is part of the privileged class and they wear it as if they expected people to cheer them for doing so. Aside from the haughty behaviour of his cousin, another important feature of the character is his indifference towards education.

John Reed is supposed to be in school but instead he is home eating, playing and bullying his poor cousin. It is a powerful imagery used by the author to clarify that the degree of women’s longing to study is matched by the carefree attitude of men. They have the privilege, and instead of using it to improve themselves, men waste their potential in their indulgence of the flesh.

It is therefore important to value the work of trailblazers like Bronte who help pave the way for the expression of women’s sentiments. However, they were conscious to tone down the voice of dissent. Bronte’s talent allowed her to develop a story that concealed a powerful statement; nevertheless, it was done with utmost care.

In other words, writers like Charlotte Bronte knew that although they have the ability to challenge the status quo they can only rock the boat in such a way that people are jolted awake but not to throw them overboard. Feminists in the 21st century can point to Bronte as an early example of a woman’s courageous stand to challenge the status quo. But it is more accurate to say that she was an early pioneer and a reluctant fighter of women’s rights.

Best of Both Worlds

In real life Charlotte Bronte wanted to show the world that women need not suffer in a male-dominated world. She expressed her desire for independence and judging on her writing skills and the words that flowed from her pen it is easy to say that she burns with this desire to be free. She understood women’s rights in a time when it was not popular to talk about it. Her novel challenged the age old tradition that women can only find their value in marriage. Therefore, it is the most important thing in life. She also challenged the idea that women are supposed to live a life of servitude from the day they were born until the day they die.

In the beginning and middle part of the novel the same sentiment can be seen in the life of Jane Eyre. Readers empathise with her character and they understood that she longed to be free. Her decision to leave the oppressive household of the Reeds and her decision to transform her life by using every opportunity that came her way is a true reflection of the author’s life. Her readers cheer her every move.

The most critical part is when Jane Eyre stood in a place familiar to many women in the 19th century. A man has proposed and this man is the answer to her prayers. A marriage means eternal bliss. But when she finds out that it is a dishonourable thing to do she shunned marriage earning the praise of feminists all over the world. But all of a sudden, the story goes back to an expected ending. Jane Eyre is back in the arms of her lover.

There are certain social forces that Bronte respected. She said everything in her heart but at the end she knew that the best way to proceed is to tone down her message. It can be argued that Bronte was worried about the success of her novel. It can be argued that her success as a writer depended on a novel that is widely received. However, it can also be said that she simply wanted to enjoy the best of both worlds.

Conclusion

Bronte’s skill is remarkable in the development of a complex character like Jane Eyre. But her characterization was downplayed by the social issues that she incorporated to her novel. A woman seeking to live independently in a male-dominated society certainly raised some eyebrows. But she was determined to prove her point. Nevertheless, Bronte realized that she has to tone down her rhetoric.

Works Cited

Nestor, Pauline. Charlotte Bronte. UK: Barnes & Noble, 1987. Print.

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