Social Commentary in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has now attained an iconic status as a literary work. There are several reasons behind this achievement. The first is the inherent beauty and complexity of the novel. The twists, turns and fluctuations of fortune that comprise the plot are both original and engaging. The second most notable aspect of the novel is its authorship by a woman. Although originally published under a male pseudonym, it is evident to the scrupulous reader that the work is by a woman, as it contains numerous insights into female psychology. Finally, the novel is at once incisive and critical of the then existing social norms and customs, which were largely unfair to women and the underprivileged. Hence, Jane Eyre is a rich source of information on English society of early 19th century. It was an era when the industrial revolution was taking shape and having far-reaching impact on economic, social and cultural life. Bronte’s classic novel captures well a society caught in this transition. We can see how, despite fundamental changes to the organization of economic activity, social hierarchies (both within and outside the family) were holding on to status quo. Reading
Jane Eyre belongs to the ‘bildungsroman’ (coming of age) literary genre, in that the story starts at Ms. Eyre’s youth and narrates her development and maturity into adulthood. The growth of Jane is physical, mental and spiritual. And it is this rounded development that is the key attraction in the novel. Otherwise, it might have easily turned out into a run-of-the-mill pulp romance fiction with no lasting value. One of the main issues that Jane Eyre is concerned with is gender relations. Recognized today as a pivotal feminist text, there are several symbolic as well as concrete forays into women’s issues. One of the most striking of these symbolisms is ‘the madwoman in the attic’, describing Mr. Rochester’s first wife who is mentally ill. It is through depictions of such social situations that the emancipative narrative strategies of the work come to light, whereby, the author both conceals and reveals social and psychological truths about women’s lives. For example, “their anger at being treated as sexual objects in the marriage market, and, paradoxically, their overwhelming desire to love and be loved by men with whom they can never be equal.” (Griesinger, 2008, p.30)
The case of the madwoman is a socio-literary strategy employed by other female authors of the time as well. This way, they were hinting at deeper meanings beneath surface designs that conceal or obscure such interpretations. Like Bronte’s madwoman, “these inaccessible meanings are locked up, as it were, in the “attic” of the text.” (Griesinger, 2008, p.30) It is for this rich social commentary that Jane Eyre continues to be studied by women in contemporary era. For example, the novel excels in its treatment of women’s issues, including women’s education, the plight of the governess, and equality in marriage. It should be remembered though, that while subtle feminist messages in the novel are lauded, there are more critical interpretations that question Bronte’s implicit acceptance of racism and imperialism, which are actually subversive to the feminist cause.
Another interesting facet to Jane Eyre is its comment on spirituality and Christianity. Like many contemporary writers of hers, the salvation of the soul is one of the preoccupations of Bronte’s works. Her views on the subject varied from that of novelists like Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and George Eliot, in that, she was not overtly critical of religious faith in general and the Christian doctrine in particular. During the Victorian era, evangelical Christianity was becoming an accepted form of religious propaganda. Based on what we can glean from Jane Eyre, it is clear that she was swayed by the evangelical movement to an extent. The Victorian era was a time when complex tensions existed
“between Evangelical, Calvinist, and Methodist theologies that swept through and ultimately divided the established Church of England which Bronte loved…Gallagher is the first to identify Jane Eyre as a “Christian feminist bildungsroman”. Published in 1847 when Bronte was thirty-one, Jane Eyre is at least partly autobiographical, which opens the possibility for considering how Jane’s spiritual bildung, especially in the early sections of the novel, may reflect that of Charlotte Bronte. The influence of religion on Bronte is both obvious and obscure. It is obvious that much of what she saw, heard and read was concerned with religion. It is not obvious how she originally reacted to the variety of religious beliefs she encountered.” (Griesinger, 2008, p.31)
Another factor that adds complexity to Jane Eyre is Bronte’s mixing of genres in the work. This lends the novel to sociological study from various disciplinary perspectives. One can witness an overwhelming ideological dialectic that seems to close down toward the novel’s end to an “apparently thin monological stream. Bronte’ tremendous displacement of the domestic values toward the tragic and mythical, though it falls short of ultimate achievement, gives her work a margin of superiority over that of other Victorian novelists.” (Peters, 1996, p.59) This assessment is best exemplified in the final passages of the work, where the independent and bold Jane Eyre settles down to a life in dedication of Mr. Rochester. Is this a resignation to entrenched social norms or irrational dictates of romantic love? Further,
“Has Bronte failed to extricate her vision from the apparently downward-tending “domestic” to achieve the “tragic and mythical” and therefore failed to fulfil the vision she seemed to offer women? Or is it perhaps that Bronte is raising the domestic to the level of the mythical? An examination of Bronte’s use of the Cinderella tale in Jane Eyre points to the latter conclusion: Jane Eyre fuses the domestic to the mythical.” (Clarke, 2000, p. 695)