Jane Eyre and the Crux of Contemporary Feminism

From the editor: Here, we offer the beginning of a deep and complex conversation.  “Jane Eyre and the Crux of Contemporary Feminism” touches on what is a many faceted conversation about history, changing definitions, changing ideals, and what is, and isn’t, steadfast in the human condition.  Stay tuned for different sides to this conversation, to come later.

By Katrina Lind

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It’s difficult to classify a piece of classical literature feminist or not feminist. When examining Jane Eyre, one has to look at the merit of a classic novel through a contemporary feminist lens.

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From the blog Suffragette Cinema

However, it is still critical to study the wide social influence such a novel has on society today. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is one of those classics largely considered a quintessential epic of a feminist novel. Yet when we evaluate the novel with a contemporary eye, things begin to get a little blurry. Twenty-first century readers can identify with Jane’s cry to be equal, “I am no bird and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.” Yes! You go girl! However, for some readers, this liberating feeling comes to a stop when approaching the end of the novel and its more traditional conclusion. Is it a contradiction for Jane to return to Rochester when she finally obtains financial security and independence, only to become a wife and a mother?

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Feminism, like a lot of social movements, comes in waves. No matter how much has changed with feminism, one thing has always stayed the same: the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.  Within the social constructs of Victorian Era England, Jane Eyre is absolutely a feminist novel, but only to an extent. In terms of feminist and not feminist to the modern reader, Jane Eyre falls into a gray area; it was considered feminist then, but not feminist now. The crux of the problems lies mainly within Jane’s relationship with Rochester. It might be argued that Jane constantly sees herself as less than equal to the man she loves, and idolizes the prospects of marriage so highly that she would throw away a better life for herself, believing that only a marital document can validate a relationship.  However, in demanding a legal marriage, the point can also be made Jane stays true to herself and to her morals.

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Back in Victorian England, I can see how this story can be viewed as a “you go girl” instance, when most other novels portray women as hopelessly in love and willing to do whatever they can to be married (I’m looking at you Jane Austen). But in today’s light, such a story might seem less “you go girl”, and rather “you’re better than this, girl.” It is clear that Jane’s journey to understanding herself is closely tied to her relationships with men. Jane’s discovery of her own self-worth and happiness is affected by the men her life. But one still has to see that in Victorian England, one’s social mobility, and way of life, was much more closely related to their romantic relationships than ours today.

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It could be said that Jane is a “bad” feminist. However, it’s impossible to suggest that a novel written in the 19th century should perfectly fit my mold of what 21st century feminism should be. Feminism is a movement powered by people, and because it is powered by people, it can be flawed. Instead, literature should function as an education in how society has evolved since the 1840s. We should look at how Jane Eyre and Charlotte Brontë fit and break the molds within that time. Maybe in a contemporary Jane Eyre, Jane would say “suck it” to Rochester and move to better herself in ways that didn’t involve marriage, but Jane Eyre and its ending can teach us the beauty of being both true to ourselves–whether we want to be an entrepreneur or a housewife/husband or both–and being a feminist.

Katrina HeadshotKatrina Lind is a graduate of Southern Oregon University with a BFA in Theatre (Performance). She has worked with such companies as Island Shakespeare Festival (2015, Miranda in The Tempest, Ensemble in The Three Musketeers), Shakespeare in the Vines and South Coast Repertory.