Female emancipation in Charlotte Bronte's JANE EYRE

Term Paper, 2002

20 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)



1. Introduction
1.1. Description of the theme chosen
1.2. Social background
1.3. The profession of the governess
1.4. The publication of the novel and its innovative meaning

2. Interpretation
2.1. “Jane Eyre” as a journey
2.1.1. Love
2.1.2. Education
2.1.3. Social position
2.1.4. Physical appearance
2.2. Male dominance as obstruction
2.3. Unconventional Jane

3. Conclusion: Jane´s final triumph

1. Introduction

1.1. Description of the theme chosen

At a first reading Jane Eyre may appear a conventional love story, where the two lovers have to overcome many obstacles in order to live together in perfect union. Yet the reader may find himself confused by Jane’s rational attitude or by the not very usual happy ending. The book should consequently be read a second time to understand its importance in the context of female emancipation. Through Charlotte Bronte’s fiction the heroines carry out their struggle for self-definition and identity, nevertheless at the same time their language and thought mirror the contradictions of Victorian opinion on femininity. The aim of this writing is to underline this aspect of the novel, pointig out precise references to emancipation contained in the book. Therefore the text will be used as a resource for the following reasoning, since it contains hidden explicit declarations of independence.

1.2. Social background

At this point it is important to know the social background in which the novel was written, i.e.: Victorian England. At the time when it was first published, in 1847, the working classes were organizing political protests in England, asking for rights (vote for working men, a shorter work week and a secret ballot), thus threatening government. Political revolution mirrored another kind of revolution: female emancipation. Victorian novels were imbued with feminist concepts, inherited by Mary Wallstoncraft and her “Vindication of the Rights of Women”, published at the time of the French Revolution.

Theories of gender division took on in the 19th century a great power, projecting social contradictions. The ideological separation of public and private, work and home, which accompanied the rise of the Victorian middle class, was mirrored by a clear-cut division between male and female spheres. House was considered women’s sphere, together with family, so that they were addressed to as “the Angel in the House”. They should have been passive and powerless, sympathetic and self-sacrificing, submitted to their husbands and especially pure. To this conception belongs Coventry Patmore’s poem[1], where his angel-wife was to be taken as a model for all women. Anyway, the conventional definition of women was to be found in Cahrles William Day’s Hints on Etiquette[2], where he states that “a true lady is sweet and delicate and refined (…) her sphere is to cheer , to refine, to beautify, to bless. The opportunities and influence she may acquire (by beahving thus), she may turn to the noblest and holiest purposes”. Women were considered servile figures to provide entertainment for males, i.e.: playing the piano, sewing, singing and, above all, being able to look pretty. This submission was justified on the grounds of the supposed intellectual inferiority of women.

1.3. The profession of the governess

Even though the Industrial Revolution brought advantages for lower-class women, offering them new factory employment instead of household works, there was for the middle class only one option for respectable employment: working as a governess. Feminine idleness and boredom was restricted to women in upper and middle-class families, while the ones from the same classes whose families had lost their fortunes, were obliged work as governesses.

Struggle for independence in Victorian England changed remarkably the status of women, offering a great variety of professional opportunities. Philantropy was the first feminist movement to be noticed at that time. In 1850 missions belonging to this current offered an occupation to those middle-class women, who felt their life was futile. A second philantropical phase sees remunerated working women, and special schools were created to train women in working as missionaries in hospitals, in schools and in charitable institutions. At the same time a Female Improvement Society for “the benefit of young women connected with factories”[3] was founded and the Association for the Promotion of the Employment of Women supported the profession of the governess, which until that moment was typical of lower-class women.

The Industrial Revolution paradoxically limited women’s alternatives in working: “The only occupation at which an unmarried middle-class woman could earn a living and mantain some claim to gentility was that of a governess, but a governess could expect no security of employment, minimal wages and an ambiguous status, somewhere between servant and family memeber”[4]. Moreover Bonnie Smith in her Changing Lives added that “the governess personified a life of intense misery. She was also that most unfortunate individual; the single, middle-class woman, who had to earn her own living (…). The psychological situation of the governess made her position unenviable”. There was difficulty in tracking her position, since “she was from the social level of the family, but the fact that she was paid a salary put her at the economic level of the sevants”.

Charlotte Bronte knew that, even if working as a teacher or a governess was a “bondage”, it was the only source of income for impoverished young women. Marriage was a solution, but an idependent woman would marry only a man she could respect. Excluding marriage and family support, a governess was obliged to keep her position all her life. Charlotte writes in defence of the suffering inflicted to governesses: “ A governess’ s experience is frequently indeed bitter, but its results are precious: the mind, feeling, temper are subjected to a disipline equally painful and priceless”[5], since discipline and regulation were the recurrent cultural features of her time.

Some passages in the novel may help us to understand the way governesses were seen at that time: when Jane first arrives at Thornfield, she is astonished by the warm welcome she receives: “This is not like what I have heard of the treatment of governesses”[6]. A bad view on governesses is provided by Miss Ingram’s experience: she states, referring to the governesses she had when a child, that “half of them were detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi”[7]. Mrs Ingram adds: “The word governess makes me nervous. I have suffered a martyrdom from the incopetency and caprice”[8]. Yet the most repulsive statement is referred to the union between a tutor and the governess, who “took the liberty of falling in love each other”[9], being this “an immoral tendency”, which can be a “bad example to innocence of childhood” and may lead to “mutiny and general blow-up”[10].

Even tohugh “Jane Eyre” is not “a regular autobiography”[11], Charlotte Bronte well knew the feelings of governesses, since she worked too for short periods, directly experiencing the difficulties.

1.4. The publication of the novel and its innovative meaning

When Jane Eyre was published in 1847, the reviwers were favourable and they were in doubt whether the author was a man or a woman, since the pseudonym Charlotte adopted (Currer Bell) to hide her sex was ambiguous. Still it was the only way to get her work published because women’s works were not usually received with sufficent seriousness by reviewers. When it became known that a woman had written the novel, the reviewers became harder. Charlotte asked Robert Southey, the poet laureate, for his opinion about the novel and his response was demoralizing: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be, the more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation”. What Currer Bell had done, was to recognise the equality of the sexes concerning passion. Charlotte Bronte suffered deeply about the condition of oppressed women, especially of those, whose only fault was to own no fortune or to be no pretty girls, like herself, but whose intelligence was evident. She expressed her opinion writing about a governess with a mind definitely superior to her master’s and whose subordinate position is necessary only to stress this mental gap. Though a true lady does not, according to that time, freely express her own feelings, Jane does not follow the rules.

Other writers before her had introduced women in love into their novels, but Richardson’s heroines were only instruments for didactic purposes and Jane Austen’s women, who looked at marriage as their only goal, seemed to ignore the torments of a passionate soul. As for her sister Emily, she also had depicted a “great passion”, but she was a mystic and her love story is fascinating, but looks unreal. Charlotte, on the contrary, listened to the call of the heart and, in an age dominated by conventional morality, decided to describe women’s feelings openly. Nevertheless Jane has trouble setting into society, not just because her strong passions, but, above all, because of her gender.


[1] 1854

[2] 1843

[3] Keighley Mechanics´Institute Annual Report

[4] Norton II, 903

[5] Letter s II, to W.S.Williams, 1848

[6] Chap 11

[7] Chap 17

[8] Chap 17

[9] Chap 17

[10] Chap 17

[11] Chap 10

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Female emancipation in Charlotte Bronte's JANE EYRE
University of Leipzig  (FB Anglistics)
Romance and Realism
1,7 (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
520 KB
Female, Charlotte, Bronte, JANE, EYRE, Romance, Realism
Quote paper
Paola Bertolino (Author), 2002, Female emancipation in Charlotte Bronte's JANE EYRE, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/9244


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