Social Conventions in Jane Eyre and Hedda Gabler
Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre and Henrik Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler were written within fifty years of each other in the late 1800s. Both Jane and Hedda exist within the same social contexts. They are women of the middle class in European cultures. The fact Jane is penniless through much of the novel does not exclude her from the middle class. Jane and Hedda's experiences, education and values all belong to the middle class. Therefore it should be no surprise their words echo. In detail and outcome their stories are different. However, it is the constraints of the same social conventions which drive their different destinies. It is the same confusion of social convention with morality and spirituality that pains both their existences. Confusing social convention with legal, moral, and religious codes of conduct is a phenomena not confined to the 19th century. It is this same confusion that created Jim Crow Laws, anti-gay legislation and fuels the fire of the abortion rights debate.
Social conventions of the 1800's did not allow women of the middle class to live independently. With few exceptions women moved from father's household to husband's household. It was the father's prerogative to arrange a suitable marriage. In truth there might be a carefully selected few to choose from, but any unauthorized selection would hold severe consequences for both men and women.
Jane Eyre's mother was disowned because she chose to marry an "unapproved" man. Jane would suffer because of this transgression, which occurred before she was even born. After being orphaned, Jane lives with her Aunt Reed. She is continually reminded she is a dependent and is unloved by her relations. Although hurtful, these wounds are not mortal. Jane survives life with her Aunt Reed with self-esteem intact, confident her ill treatment was undeserved. From this experience Jane learns a lack social status and funds can make you unlovable.
Banished to Lowood, a charity school, Jane befriends Helen Burns. Pious and self- disciplined, Helen becomes Jane's spiritual mentor. Helen's fundamentalist faith answers every question if not every prayer. From Helen, Jane learns not think too much of human love. Helen also advises "If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends" (Jane Eyre p. 72).
At Lowood Jane also learns she can be judged by her own merits. Mr. Brocklehurst, the administrator, announced to the entire school that by her Aunt Reed's assessment, Jane is a liar. The superintendent, Miss Temple, as well as Helen Burns, rally to Jane's support. They declare Jane, by the conduct they have observed, to be of good character. This opinion is collaborated and Jane is publicly cleared of any wrong doing.
There are codes of conduct determined by legal, moral or spiritual considerations...