Influential female characters in literature reflect the struggle for equality women have with men. Much like reality, these characters seek individualism and liberty from, or equality with, men in a society dominated by men. These seekers are called feminists and many feminists see Charlotte Bronte’s titular character Jane Eyre as a proto-feminist icon of the Victorian era. Not only does Jane Eyre show the struggle of one woman under one man it represents the struggle of women in a male-dominated society. Reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre through a feminist perspective reveals Jane’s fight for independence, individuality, and equality in a society controlled and dominated by men.
Before Jane’s situation can be dissected thoroughly, however, one has to put the Victorian era into perspective. In Victorian England the woman’s main purpose was to “serve others…please her husband and society,” (Barrera, “Etiquette of a Victorian Lady”). As well women were for years the managers of the household and, therefore, confined to it and all of its duties. Even the clothing that women wore served only to emphasize the womanly parts and the “separation from the world of work” (Abrams, “Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain”). Since women were controlled by society and men controlled society, women were forced into obedience. However, feminism was also on the rise as many women grew tired of domestic life and their place in society which caused them to seek equality with men. This theme, i.e. “the patriarchal forces that have impeded women’s efforts to achieve full equality with men,” is present in Victorian society as well as in Jane Eyre.
Early in Jane’s life women are put in a position in which exert their standards of what women should be. A perfect example of this kind of subjugation is Lowood School--the institution run by Mr. Brocklehurst. In chapter Seven Mr. Brocklehurst orders that a girl must have her hair cut off insisting “[he] desire[s] the hair to be arranged closely, modestly, plainly,” Mr. Brocklehurst punishes this girl, and all girls, who defects from his, or society’s, template of a proper woman. Mr. Brocklehurst tries to further exert his power over the girls when he confronts Miss Temple about the lunch of bread and cheese. He thinks that since they did not eat breakfast they should not get lunch; he doesn’t want to “accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence.” He continues by saying their sufferings should be comparable to those of the martyrs of Biblical times. He sets the standard at what he believes the girls, and by extension all women, should be once more. Another example is St. John and his reason for proposing to Jane. St. John outlines everything that Jane is and tells her that her life is best slated for missionary work. This is an example of the social conditioning of the Victorian time period; women are forced to follow the rules set by men and suffer punishment for their deviation.
Jane Eyre is a woman whose...