Hathaway Brown School
Instructor: Scott Parsons
The Quest for Equality in a Patriarchal Society
The Quest for Equality in a Patriarchal Society
In Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre, Jane is initially subordinate to Rochester when they become engaged; however, after embarking on a journey of self-discovery, she makes a striking transformation from subservient and submissive to domineering. Brontë promotes feminism and equality of the sexes by metamorphosing Jane into the dominant figure in her marriage to Rochester. Through the character of Jane, Brontë explores both sides of the inequality/equality of the sexes debate, yet she ultimately champions feminism and gender equality by making Jane supreme over Rochester.
Brontë is an outspoken feminist and uses Jane's character to highlight the importance of equality between a husband and a wife in their marriage. As Jane settles into married life, she reflects on the unusual, equal partnership in her marriage: "I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest—blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband's life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh" (519; ch. XXXVIII). Rochester and Jane merge into one person: their "bone[s]" and "flesh" mesh together into one coherent body, making them physical equals in the newly formed body. They are each other's better half, complimenting one another and making the other complete. They are emotional equals through their shared effort and commitment to each other. Their marriage is "blest" with equality, filling Jane's life with love and happiness. Through her marriage to Rochester, Jane and Rochester are equals, demonstrating Brontë's promotion of equality between men and women.
Jane's journey of self-reflection and discovery, including expanding her definition and sense of love, reshapes her into an independent woman. During her time with the Rivers, Jane discovers that love comes in many forms, whether it be familial, romantic, or among friends. She states, "I had found a brother: one I could be proud of,—one I could love; and two sisters. . .This was wealth indeed!—wealth to the heart!—a mine of pure, genial affections" (444; ch. XXXIII). In finding love from those who care about her, without first requiring her to alter her identity, Jane learns that love does not solely need to come from a spouse, but can also come from a "brother" and "sisters." Through her expanded sense of love, Jane obtains new connections to individuals other than Rochester, gaining independence by opening herself to new people. She is no longer isolated within the confines of Thornfield and Rochester, because she has seen the world, or at least a small part of it, and has found more than one person who cares for her. Jane gains independence as a result of her new relationships because she receives love from more than one person. It is through this discovery that Jane is able to enter her marriage as an independent woman; she is no longer completely dependent on Rochester to fill her insatiable need for love. In this way, Brontë again demonstrates her endorsement of equality of the sexes.
Also during her odyssey, Jane comes to the realization that she must stay true to her beliefs. She realizes that she does not need to sacrifice her morals or principles, assertiveness, independence, or free-thinking. As St. John proposes marriage to Jane and requests that she accompany him on his mission in India, Jane recognizes that she and he have conflicting views of marriage:
'. . . we must be married. I repeat it: there is no other way; and undoubtedly enough of love would follow upon marriage to render the union right even in your eyes.' 'I scorn your idea of love,' I could not help saying, as I rose up and stood before him, leaning my back against the rock. 'I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer: yes, St. John, and I scorn you when you offer it.' (471; ch. XXXIV)
In refusing St. John's marriage proposal to marry for political purposes rather than love, Jane says, "'I scorn your idea of love,'" holding steadfastly to her belief that marriage should be based on true love between a husband and wife. She also refuses to become a missionary because she has no interest in that profession, and realizes that she must not sacrifice her own happiness in order to make others happy. Through Jane's discoveries to stay true to herself, Brontë advances equality of the sexes; Jane enters her marriage to Rochester staying true to herself and her tenets.
Brontë further challenges the traditional patriarchal views of the time by portraying Jane as the dominant partner in her marriage to Rochester. Brontë uses Rochester's emotional and physical dependence upon Jane to promote not only equality between men and women, but also a shocking reversal of women's dependence upon men. When Jane returns to Rochester, she observes that he is depressed and lacks the motivation to continue forward in his life. She remarks, "His countenance reminded one of a lamp quenched, waiting to be re-lit—and alas! it was not himself that could now kindle the lustre of animated expression: he was dependent on another for that office!" (506; ch. XXXVII). Rochester is emotionally reliant upon Jane to bring the light back into his life, acting as the "lamp" lighting the way toward a brighter future. Without her, Rochester is a "lamp" without light, thereby making him dependent upon Jane to light the way, submitting himself to her authority. After losing his vision and one of his hands, Rochester is also physically dependent on Jane to act as his eyes and hands, thereby establishing Jane as superior to Rochester due to his inability to function fully without her. Jane notes, "He saw nature—he saw books through me; and never did I weary of gazing for his behalf, and of putting into words the effect of field, tree, town, river, cloud, sunbeam—of the landscape before us; of the weather round us—and impressing by sound on his ear what light could no longer stamp on his eye" (519; ch. XXXVIII). Rochester's view of the world is reliant upon Jane's descriptions of the "landscape." "He saw nature—he saw books through me [Jane]," reinforces the idea that without Jane, Rochester's life is a colorless and endless pit of darkness. Through her descriptions, Jane "stamps" the "light" on his eye, exercising her dominance over her husband. Through Rochester's emotional and physical limitations, Brontë elevates the role of women as the dominant force in a marriage.
Jane's journey of self-discovery leads her to marry Rochester while still maintaining her independence, thereby making them equals in their marriage. Brontë's idea that women can experience the happiness of marriage while also maintaining their sovereignty is significant because it demonstrates that marriage is not an imprisonment of women. Brontë argues that women can maintain their independence while simultaneously enjoying a loving relationship with their husband. Brontë makes a bold and radical statement, particularly given the patriarchal views that were prevalent in the nineteenth century. Additionally, by making Rochester dependent on Jane to see the world beyond his imagination, Brontë not only promotes equality of the sexes, but goes one step further and endorses female dominance. Like Jane, women today still struggle to find a balance between marriage and maintaining their independence in a time where feminism is more commonplace. The search for a satisfying marriage, blending equality, love, and independence, is a struggle that women today face, and will continue to face in the future, until women are true equals to men in all aspects of life.