Hathaway Brown School
Instructor: Elizabeth Armstrong
Power Dynamics and the Institution of Marriage in Jane Eyre
Power Dynamics and the Institution of Marriage in Jane Eyre
Throughout the Victorian era, many social, political, and social advancements were made, and British society especially was developing at a rapid rate. Such circumstances are portrayed- directly and indirectly- in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, published in 1847, which follows Jane through her childhood, adolescence, and finally adulthood, chronicling her education and eventual jobs at Thornfield and Moorhouse, where she meets Mr. Rochester, her future boss and husband. Jane's interactions with him are reflective of gender roles and expectations of the Victorian era, and the subjugation of women to their husbands and other men in their life; furthermore, the way that he perceives and treats Jane directly contributes to this theme. Using the institution of marriage to subject Jane to a position of perpetual servitude throughout her relationship with a manipulative and powerful man, Charlotte Bronte doesn't promote the equality of men and women in her novel Jane Eyre, and as Mr. Rochester continually feeds into dangerously unbalanced power dynamics, a pattern of control and manipulation targeted towards her develops.
Throughout her time at both Thornfield and Moorhouse, it is evident that Jane views marriage as servitude, using it to fulfill the obligations she feels she has to the men she has relationships with and/or a higher power. Readers can infer this even from the earlier chapters of the book, as she leaves Lowood, in which she says she feels her purpose in life is servitude:
"A new servitude! There is something in that," I soliloquised (mentally, be it understood; I did not talk aloud), "I know there is, because it does not sound too sweet; it is not like such words as Liberty, Excitement, Enjoyment: delightful sounds truly; but no more than sounds for me; and so hollow and fleeting that it is mere waste of time to listen to them. But Servitude! That must be matter of fact. Any one may serve: I have served here eight years; now all I want is to serve elsewhere. Can I not get so much of my own will? Is not the thing feasible? (Brontë 102)
Here, she asserts that servitude is "all [she] wants," clearly insinuating that it is her goal in the endgame, given that it is not as "hollow and fleeting" as a different dream. Additionally, it is worth noting that the word, "Servitude," is noticeably capitalized in the text, giving it a sense of utmost significance and setting it apart from the rest of the sentence. This distinct emphasis on even the word itself only further shows Jane's intrigue and near infatuation with the idea of servitude. Furthermore, the description of servitude as "matter of fact," in contrast with things that are "delightful," but still "hollow and fleeting," associate longevity with servitude, which holds true in her case, seeing as her marriage lasts her the rest of her life by the end of the book. Readers also later see that this passage foreshadows her relationships with both Mr. Rochester and St. John, in which she feels a sense of obligation to do what is expected of her by the people in her life.
Accordingly, this pattern of servitude in her romantic relationships is rekindled after her arrival at Ferndean, in which Jane, in order to help Mr. Rochester navigate life after the fire, promises to stay by his side, saying, "'I told you I am independent, sir, as well as rich: I am my own mistress.' 'And you will stay with me?' 'Certainly—unless you object. I will be your neighbour, your nurse, your housekeeper. I find you lonely: I will be your companion—to read to you, to walk with you, to sit with you, to wait on you, to be eyes and hands to you. Cease to look so melancholy, my dear master; you shall not be left desolate, so long as I live.'" (502) The comparisons Jane makes here, using words such as "nurse" and "housekeeper," all, interestingly enough, describe positions of servitude, in which Jane is not labeling herself as Mr. Rochester's wife or partner, but rather his servant. While she does say she will be his "companion" later on in the passage, this is immediately contradicted by her promises to "sit with [him] and wait on [him]." Throughout her speech, Jane continually portrays herself and her role in their marriage through the lens of servitude, even saying she will be "eyes and hands to [Mr. Rochester]," not only pledging life-long servitude to him, but also promising to simply be an extension of Mr. Rochester and his desires. This portion of the passage shows that while there is a considerable amount of power in being one's "eyes and hands," Jane willingly gives him her upper hand, figuratively and literally. The blurred lines between marriage and servitude are also evident when Jane tells Mr. Rochester, "I don't care about being married." (503) While Jane stays semi-true to what she said to St. John earlier in the book, readers can infer from the language used in the above conversations that she is instead interested in servitude. Furthermore, the sharp contrast between Jane calling herself "[her] own mistress" and then addressing Mr. Rochester as "[her] dear master," in the same conversation suggests that her position of servitude continues into their relationship and marriage, not confined to the borders of her job as governess. Furthermore, at the very end of the book, when the loose ends from previous chapters are tied up, and Jane's positive outcomes are wrapped up into a bow and presented to readers, it is clear that her happy ending consists almost entirely of dedicating her time and life to Mr. Rochester. This is evident when Mr. Rochester proposes to Jane for a second and final time and warns her of the hardships to come with their marriage, saying:
'Because you delight in sacrifice.''Sacrifice! What do I sacrifice? Famine for food, expectation for content. To be privileged to put my arms round what I value—to press my lips to what I love—to repose on what I trust: is that to make a sacrifice? If so, then certainly I delight in sacrifice.''And to bear with my infirmities, Jane: to overlook my deficiencies.''Which are none, sir, to me. I love you better now, when I can really be useful to you, than I did in your state of proud independence, when you disdained every part but that of the giver and protector.' (513)
Here, through language such as "love," "trust," and "value," which she uses in association with her servitude, Jane implies that their relationship would in fact be more fulfilling to her now that she "can really be useful to [him]. She even outright says this, stating, "I love you better now," only strengthening the clear connections between love and servitude and giving readers more insight into her perception of marriage. Additionally, Mr. Rochester even asserts that Jane "delights in sacrifice," acknowledging the fact that she is searching for servitude in their relationship, rather than a fulfilling marriage in which both partners are on equal footing. The usage of the word "delights" implies that he not only believes she is fulfilled by servitude or "sacrifice," but also that she wholeheartedly enjoys it, and Jane only confirms this in her response. Because she views her relationships in this way, it only makes it easier for Mr. Rochester and St. John to use this to their own advantage throughout the rest of the book, gaining more and more control over their engagement or marriage.
While Jane seems to view marriage as servitude, her relationships with Mr. Rochester and St. John only perpetuate this, seeing as they continually subjugate her to nothing more than an extension of their needs and desires, time and time again treating her not as a partner, but as property. This is clearly found in the fact that they wield her sense of obligation against her and her own desires, using it to their advantage to coerce her into following their requests and orders. Such manipulative tactics are abundant in Mr. Rochester's first proposal to Jane back at Thornfield, the most overt one being when he belittles her, using her insecurities to steer her into thinking she should marry him:
"Am I a liar in your eyes?" he asked passionately. "Little sceptic, you shall be convinced. What love have I for Miss Ingram? None: and that you know. What love has she for me? None: as I have taken pains to prove: I caused a rumour to reach her that my fortune was not a third of what was supposed, and after that I presented myself to see the result; it was coldness both from her and her mother. I would not—I could not—marry Miss Ingram. You—you strange, you almost unearthly thing!—I love you as my own flesh. You—poor and obscure, and small and plain as you are—I entreat to accept me as a husband." (294)
Here, the belittling and condescending language Mr. Rochester uses to address Jane, calling her "poor," "obscure," shows that in order for her to be convinced to marry him, she must feel a sense of obligation to do so- he, supposedly not as "small and plain" as her, uses her insecurities to fulfill his own desires. Furthermore, his usage of the words "strange" and "unearthly" remove her from her own humanity, setting her apart from the norm and going out of way to emphasize that she is, to him, alien-like and foreign, removing any aspect of mortality from her being. In addition, when Mr. Rochester says "I love you as my own flesh," it implies that not only does he not see her as her own separate person, but also that he views her as an extension of his desires and wants, an outlet for his own feelings and thoughts. Furthermore, his usage of the word "own" to describe Jane evinces a sense of ownership over property- in his eyes, she belongs to him. In conclusion, it is evident throughout the passage that despite the fact that he is the one in the compromising position, waiting for an answer from Jane, he has subjugated her to him through his words, putting himself on a pedestal. Not appearing here for the first time, this dynamic is reflected throughout the rest of their relationship.
Additionally, the fact that the two never place a clear distinction between their relationship as master and servant and as husband and wife only feeds into mashing of servitude and marriage, and this is evident as Jane leaves Thornfield for the first time following their wedding. "'Little Jane's love would have been my best reward,' he answered; 'without it, my heart is broken. But Jane will give me her love: yes—nobly, generously.' 'God bless you, my dear master!' I said. 'God keep you from harm and wrong—direct you, solace you—reward you well for your past kindness to me.'" (367) Once again, readers see Mr. Rochester describe her as "little," belittling her character, effectively placing her below him in terms of power. Additionally, his repetitive usage of "Jane," speaking of her in third person, talks about her rather than to her. This deliberate wording, paired with the fact that he says she "will give him her love" and "would [be his] best reward," are largely indicative of his perception of Jane and the fact that he doesn't treat her like a person of equal footing. By using the future tense ("will" and "would"), he not only gives her orders, but also states them as if she's already decided to follow them, revealing his expectations of her immediate and unthinking obedience. Mr. Rochester also describes her actions as "noble" and "generous," evincing a sense of obligation directed towards her- thus, she is supposed to endow her kindness and servitude upon him. Furthermore, Jane's constant addressing of her now ex-husband as "[her] dear master" shows how familiar the two are with their roles as servant and boss, seeing as they easily fall right back into them, even in conversations outside of a work environment. At the same time, however, it is important to note that they never really leave said work environment- Thornfield, given that everything takes place here. This additional blurred line is representative of how there is little to no boundary or distinction between their relationship as master and servant and as husband and wife.
In conclusion, while one could argue either side of Jane's relationship- whether they actually loved each other or not and more- marriage in the novel was primarily depicted and used as a tool for servitude, endlessly subjugating Jane to a position of servitude to her suitors, particularly Mr. Rochester. He merely sees her as their property, an extension of his wants and desires, rather than a human being of equal footing, and his attitudes towards her are reflective of the treatment of women during the nineteenth century. However, these attitudes have unfortunately not been confined to the Victorian era, and the perpetuation of blurred lines between marriage and servitude and such ideologies continues to be pervasive in today's world, making it incredibly significant that we recognize and acknowledge these patterns in fiction so that they can also be realized and addressed in real life.