A discussion of how “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte was considered an assault on Victorian morality.
In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte portrays one woman’s desperate struggle to attain her identity in the mist of temptation, isolation, and impossible odds. Although she processes a strong soul she must fight not only the forces of passion and reason within herself ,but other’s wills constantly imposed on her. In its first publication, it outraged many for its realistic portrayal of life during that time. Ultimately, the controversy of Bronte’s novel lied in its realism, challenging the role of women, religion, and mortality in the Victorian society. In essence, Bronte’s novel became a direct assault on Victorian morality. Controversy based in its realistic exposure of thoughts once considered improper for a lady of the 19th century. Emotions any respectable girl would repress. Women at this time were not to feel passion, nor were they considered sexual beings. To conceive the thought of women expressing rage and blatantly retaliating against authority was a defiance against the traditional role of women. Jane Eyre sent controversy through the literary community. For not only was it written by a woman but marked the first use of realistic characters. Jane’s complexity lied in her being neither holy good nor evil. She was poor and plain in a time when society considered “an ugly woman a blot on the face of creation.” It challenged Victorian class structure in a strictly hierachal society. A relationship between a lowly governess and a wealthy nobleman was simply unheard of. Bronte drew criticism for her attack on the aristocracy who she deemed as hypocritical “showy but … not genuine.” She assaulted individual’s already established morals by presenting a plausible case for bigamy. Notions which should have evoked disgust and outrage from its reader. Yet its most scandaless aspect was its open treatment of love. Passionate love scenes which were for their day extremely explicit but by today’s standards are less than tame. Bronte’s choice of a strong independent heroine depicted feminist ideals that would later lead to the overhaul of Victorian culture. By making Jane an educated woman, Bronte gave her impowerment in a patriarchal society that denied women education. However, Jane became a woman who demanded a say in her own destiny. During her courtship, she refutes Rochester’s need to “clasp… bracelets on her wrists” and “fasten a diamond chain around her neck.” These become symbols of female enslavement within a male dominated world. Jane’s will power and integrity prevent her from succumbing to Rochester and becoming just another of his possessions. For if she can not preserve her individuality, she “shall not be … Jane Eyre any longer, but an ape in a harlequins jacket.” With her refusal to become Rochester’s mistress, she demonstrates her inner strength. Strength that will enable her to face the possibility of hunger, poverty, and even death. It is in her decision to not marry St. John that Jane finally liberates herself from the bonds of male suppression. All this has been in effort to maintain some semblance of self- worth. “Who in the world cares for you?” “I care for myself. The more friendless … the more I will respect myself.” Even in her ultimate marriage to Rochester, she is in no way surrendering to convention, for she has entered their union not only with independence but emotional equality. If anything her actions resemble a feminist adaptation of Sleeping Beauty, one in which the woman rescues the prince. Essentially Jane has sacrificed nothing, rather gaining a loving marriage in which they are equals; equality resulting from the disfigurement that has left Rochester in equal stature with Jane. “We stood at God’s feet, equals as we are!” By making Jane the only character to gain resolution with her passion and successfully created a balance in her emotions. Bronte attempts to dispel the notion of women being emotionally unstable. Ultimately, Jane Eyre presented for the readers of that time new insight into relationships of the 19th century. Jane’s belief that “marriage without love is sacrilege” and should be based on the “mutual respect of two people entirely compatible” was quite a radical concept for the time. Ultimately, this novel spread a message of the new emerging role of the woman. Bronte implies “the importance of women having useful and creative existence.” To no longer be forced into the servitude of one man, nor enslaved to the social constrictions of the time. As Jane, so eloquently says “Women feel just as men.” Through the heretic beliefs contained in Jane Eyre, Bronte created great controversy, during a time that was firmly entrenched in the catholic faith. Much of this “anti- Christian” sentiment can be derived from Jane’s struggle with the traditional constraints that her religion imposes. Her unconscious desire to manipulate her religion for her own spiritual needs is exemplified by her rejection of the catholic doctrine of self – sacrifice. “Love your enemies ; bless them thou curse you; do good to them that hate and despise you”. Jane is unable to comprehend Helen’s example of “martyrdom.” In her perspective Helen has fallen a victim of the clergy”. Instead, Jane becomes the opposite of Helen’s compliant and passive nature, Jane adopted the belief to “resist those who punish me unjustly.” A doctrine only “heathens and savage tribes hold … but Christians and civilized nations disown.” Helen freely accepted her life of suffrage in the promise of being rewarded in Heaven. “I live in calm, looking to the end.” However Jane’s outlook is focused more on the present, receiving affirmation to live for the here and now. “How sad to be lying now on a sick-bed, and to be in danger of dying! This world is pleasant, it would be dreary to be called from it, and have to go who knows where?”(80) Jane lacks Helen’s unquestioning blind faith, and even goes to the extent of questioning the existence of an afterlife. “You are sure, then Helen, that there is such a place as heaven; and that our souls can get there when we die.” (83) Here once more Jane defies her Christian faith; a religion which demands undying faith and devotion from its followers. In her refusal to a stifling existence under St. John, Jane rears her selfish nature once again by expressing her desire to indulge in a few earthly pleasures. By believing that “denying the body kills the soul”, Jane articulates her belief in a mind/body connection. Although Jane believes it is healthiest to possess a balance of these two, her religion has labeled her approach to life as “animalistic”. Yet, it is Jane’s return to Rochester that marks the novel’s greatest controversy. By doing so, she has gone against the Church’s doctrine of accepting life’s lot. By Jane refusing to be satisfied with her present, she has decided to follow the belief of making “ourselves as happy as possible on earth. “Her religion refutes this notion, by saying “It is weak and silly to say you can not bear what is your fate to be required to bear.” But Jane is unable to place her trust in a “God’s love when he sends so much suffering.