Sexism in Jane Eyre

The social system of the Victorian era was one that was heavily influenced by the patriarchal right of men. This social construct favored men while forcing women into submission. Sigmund Freud, in his essay entitled “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming,” articulated that women were considered capable only of having erotic wishes that dominated their “phantasies” and that even their ambitious “phantasies” were rooted in erotic wishes (177).

The prevailing thought concerning women during the Victorian era was that—due to their nature—only desired marriage. Those women who were not fortunate enough to marry (due to appearance or social status) had only one remaining position, to become a governess. Charlotte Brontë, through her protagonist Jane Eyre, clearly depicts the struggles of an indigent young woman who is forced into being a governess.

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The tale of Jane Eyre is clearly articulated by Adrienne Rich in her essay entitled “Jane Eyre: The Temptations of a Motherless Woman,” when she states that Jane wants to “choose her life with dignity, integrity, and pride” (471). Even though Brontë depicts a woman who will not be bound by the mores of her society, she is not so exuberant as to have her protagonist proclaim: “I am woman, hear me roar.” The toning down of Jane’s demeanor and actions can be attributed to satisfy the critics, but Brontë also demonstrates that the societal expectations of men (considered their patriarchal right) produced a similarly negative effect on men in addition to women.

From John Reed and his self-righteous attitude, to Rochester’s internal battle in regards to the treatment of women, Charlotte Brontë argues that sexism—something that is inherent in a patriarchal society—has an adverse effect on both men and women. 

Though the patriarchal right of men was used by men as a means to demonstrate their superiority over women, this behavior was not perpetuated strictly by men, but also from mother to daughter. In Jane Eyre, the protagonist Jane suffers abuse by her cousin John Reed. The constant assault was not only conducted by John, but also allowed by the women within the house.

As John’s father had passed away, he was left as the patriarch of the family and John understood the expectations that had been bestowed upon him. John frequently asserted his patriarchal dominance and superiority over Jane. This behavior is reflected when John proclaims that the entire house belonged to him (8). Following a fight between Jane and John, Jane is exiled to her uncle’s bedroom, the room in which he actually passed away. As Jane is being tended to, Miss Abbot informs her that she must demonstrate her respect for John by calling him “Master Reed” and that she was below the level of a servant for she did “‘nothing to earn her keep’” (9). 

While being a girl, or woman, during the Victorian era was challenging because they were always subjected to the will of men, being an indigent girl was far worse. Women were considered not capable of making their own decisions, and as such, needed guidance from a man. St. John, Jane’s cousin, frequently used his authority as a man of faith to influence Jane, and force her into submitting to his desires.

As Jane continued to maintain her integrity, St. John informs her that “‘God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not love’” (343). Even though Jane faced numerous situations where men used their position as patriarch to influence her decisions, she would not be forced, or coerced, into submission, even when they tried to use her faith against her. 

The patriarchal right of men was not strictly used as a means of obtaining what men wanted, but also as a means of forcing women into submission, by breaking their mind and will. Brocklehurst, the clergyman in charge of Lowood School, ridiculed a young Jane Eyre; quickly establishing his superiority. During the first meeting between Jane and Brocklehurst, he inquires as to whether Jane enjoys the books of Psalms.

When Jane responds that she doesn’t find Psalms to be interesting, Brocklehurst responds by saying “‘that proves you have a wicked heart’” (27). The prevailing thought during the Victorian era was that women were incapable of making their own decisions, and that should a woman, or girl, attempt to demonstrate any measure of ambition, they should be ridiculed until their will is demolished. 

Though most men took pride in their superiority, not all men were convinced of their dominance. Rochester, Jane’s employer while she was a governess at Thornfield, demonstrates this internal conflict when he orders Jane to “‘go into the library – I mean, if you please. (Excuse my tone of command; I am used to say “Do this,” and it is done. I cannot alter my customary habits for one new inmate.)’” (106).

Rochester’s clarification clearly demonstrates that the methods used by men, which have been taught throughout a man’s life, are not necessarily reflective of the man’s character. Moreover, while Rochester inspects Jane’s paintings he comments on how she had the artistic skill to give her paintings “‘full being’” yet at the same time questions how she could “‘make them look so clear, and yet not at all brilliant’” (109).

Rochester appears to be conflicted in his patriarchal superiority and an internal voice questions the validity of the current social construct. This conflict may be rooted in the fact that Rochester was not the eldest son and thus he never developed the true nature of a patriarch. Rochester does demonstrate additional selfish behavior when he tries to rush Jane into marriage and then whisk her to France. When a single gender is given sole opportunity of deciding what is right or wrong, the result is a diminishing of people’s value. 

Charlotte Brontë, while having Jane adhere to society’s expectations, she also endows Jane with a sense of integrity, ambition, and personal strength. The ambition within Jane is what causes her to find a new opportunity. However, this ambition is devalued on account that this desire was for a new “servitude” (72).

Brontë lived in a patriarchal society, one that did not allow women to have freedom, liberty, or much of an education. All of these were means of keeping women under the control of men. Though these restrictions were placed on women, men were free to decide on the course of action and direction of their life. Jane demonstrates that she has resigned herself to a position that aligns with society’s expectations when she states: “‘a new servitude! There is something in that…I know there is, because it does not sound too sweet’” (73).

Brontë understood the limits placed on women and modeled Jane accordingly. As a result of this building desire for something new, she places an advertisement seeking a household in need of a governess. While Jane continues to align herself with the established expectations, she still feels discontent and restless for something more. Jane expresses this frustration with societal expectations when she argues, “it is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex” (93).

Though Jane succumbed to what her society expected of her, she did not always act in a way that was pleasing to the men in her life. While Rochester elucidated where he would take Jane following their marriage, she asserts that she will not be treated as an angel and that he must “‘neither expect nor exact anything celestial’” of her (221). Rochester, a wealthy man, wanted to shower his bride-to-be in new clothes and jewelry.

And, while the two were out shopping, she began to develop a feeling of annoyance and degradation. The thought of being dependent on Rochester, and bringing nothing in terms of monetary support increased the annoyance that Jane felt. As her condition worsened, Jane speculated that “‘if I had but a prospect of one day bringing Mr. Rochester an accession of fortune, I could better endure to be kept by him now’” (229).

Jane did not admonish the idea of being lavished in luxury; she just wanted to contribute in such economics as necessary. Additionally, Jane understood that once she was married, any of her possessions would automatically become Rochester’s. Jane’s integrity did not always work out in her favor. As St. John pleads with Jane to join him in India, and to become a missionary (and his wife), she is placed into a situation in which she must decide if she will follow in God’s will, or her own desires. St. John uses Jane’s integrity against her as he openly conveys the desire of her heart when he states, “‘come with me to India’” (342).

Placed in the situation of having a “man of God” stating what God wants of her, Jane must decide the path that she will pursue. Charlotte Brontë took pains to ensure that her protagonist would not be viewed upon unfavorably, and as a result, Jane can be viewed as a typical woman trying to find love. Jane Eyre was more than a simple bystander; she is a struggling woman, trying to find a solution that would meet all of her desires and ambitions. 

Jane Eyre struggled to find where she fit into society while also trying to develop her own personal identity. Coming from humble beginnings, her quest for love is not necessarily indicative of women’s inability to have anything other than “erotic wishes,” once asserted by Sigmund Freud (Freud, 173). Jane was trying to fill a hole, or emptiness, that was a result of the abuse she faced as a child.

Charlotte Brontë created a complex character who never seemed content with what she had in life, and who was in a constant struggle to improve. This struggle, or restlessness, demonstrates the length women are willing to undergo in order to acquire satisfaction. Jane was not willing to compromise her integrity, or subdue her ambition in order to please the patriarchal man in her life.

She is an example of the internal strength women possess; something that was once withheld from them simply because of their gender. Moreover, a man should not be assumed capable of fulfilling societal expectations simply because of his gender. John Reed demonstrates what can happen if morals are not instilled in a child, regardless of sex. He was a young man of fourteen years who was spoiled rotten by his mother (7). Mr. Miles stated that “he would do very well if he had fewer cakes and sweetmeats sent him from home” (7).

After years of being spoiled by his mother, and not accepting the responsibility that is bestowed upon a man along with his patriarchal right, he ended up squandering his inheritance and then committing suicide. The end result is simple. The effect of a patriarchal society, and sexism that is inherent in this sort of social structure, is that there is a negative result on both men and women. Patriarchal societies that discriminate against women simply because of their perceived weakness, is no more empowering of men as it is disenfranchising of women. 

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre, An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Richard J. Dunn. 
W. W. Norton & Co Inc., 2001. Print
Freud, Sigmund. “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming.” Collected Papers Vol IV. New 
York: Basics Books, 1959. 173-183. Print.
Rich, Adrienne. “Jane Eyre: The Temptations of a Motherless Woman.” On Lies, Secrets, and 
Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. W. W. Norton, 1979. Rpt. in Jane Eyre, An 
Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Richard J. Dunn. New York: W. W. Norton 
& Co Inc., 2001. 469-83. Print.



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