The Subtle Truth of Jane Eyre
The role of a woman in Victorian England was an unenviable one. Social demands and personal desires were often at cross-purposes. This predicament was nothing new in the 19th century, yet it was this period that would see the waters begin to stir in anticipation of the cascading changes about to shake the very foundation of an empire on the brink of global colonization and industrialization. The question of what role women would play in this transformation came to the forefront.
Charlotte Brontë's female bildungsroman, Jane Eyre, attempts to spotlight many of the issues of the "woman question" facing this period and to draw a balance between a woman's social role and her need for personal freedom. Simply stated, Jane Eyre's childhood and her transition into adulthood are characterized by two competing needs: the one to love and be loved, and the other to be somebody in her own right, a woman of achievement and integrity, with an outlet in the world for her passions and her energies.
We are frequently reminded that Jane is a passionate woman-an often dangerous quality for the Victorian female-and through her passion, Brontë delivers to us a message which, if it came by means of a sober treatise calling for a reversal of the status quo, would frighten us with its indignation, but appears softened with the venting frustration of a misfortunate orphan trying to find her station in life. The message, however, is clear to all who choose to acknowledge the truth delivered in its passion:
It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it ... Women are supposed to be very calm generally, but women feel just as men feel: they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer (114).
When we are first introduced to Jane, she is a nine-year-old girl "humbled by the consciousness of [her] physical inferiority ... [who is excluded] from privileges intended only for contented, happy little children" (7). She is a withdrawn daydreamer, ostracized dependent and unwanted ward whose only solace is herself and her penchant for books. The effect on Jane of her early trauma involving her incarceration in the red room, is significant for later developments in the novel, for it represents her vision of the society in which she is trapped: one which seeks to harness her human drive.
Critics have often noted that Brontë uses the properties of fire and ice throughout Jane Eyre to isolate the dueling drives of the novel's heroine. Jane's experiences in the red room, probably the most metaphorically vibrant in the book, shows us clearly the dilemma women of her disposition faced. That a naturally occurring drive should be deemed necessary to be contained...