Feminism & Gender Roles in Jane Eyre

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  • 0:03 Feminism in ''Jane Eyre''
  • 0:58 High Society Women in…
  • 2:01 Working Class Women in…
  • 3:45 Money, Power, & Self
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

Charlotte Bronte's 1847 masterpiece ''Jane Eyre'' is more than one of the most iconic love stories in all of literature. In it, readers can find an unlikely feminist heroine, one who defies gender and class to live life on her own terms.

Feminism in Jane Eyre

What is a feminist? Is it the Wall Street mogul in her Chanel power suit and sensible pumps who can't change a diaper to save her immortal soul? Or is it the militant activist, all protest signs and shrieking indignation? What about the stay-at-home mom, who tends the baby all day but still manages to have dinner on the table when hubby gets home from work? Is she a feminist?

The truth is, there are as many definitions of feminism as there are feminists. In Charlotte Bronte's 1847 masterpiece Jane Eyre, many readers have found an unlikely feminist heroine, one who exemplifies female empowerment despite oppressive gender and social roles. Jane is a mousy little governess who falls desperately in love with her brooding employer, Mr. Rochester, who's hired her as governess for his ward, Adele. But Jane is far more than some impoverished schoolmarm pining for the rich bad boy.

High Society Women in Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre is set at the start of the Victorian era, which spanned from 1837 to 1901, and was characterized by British global dominance. It was a time of peace and prosperity, but also one marked by a tension between stark traditionalism and growing individualism. During this period, social class was as much a determining factor as gender in shaping who you were, how you were viewed by others, and what kind of life you lived.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the contrast between Jane and her chief rival for Rochester's affections, Blanche Ingram. Blanche is a pampered princess of the upper classes, schooled in all the social graces an elite woman of her time period was required to know - and not much else.

In short, Blanche is everything that a man like Mr. Rochester is expected to want in a wife. She's beautiful. She can sing and play the piano. She can host a killer party. She is a lovely ornament who would give an aristocrat with property and titles to bequeath a whole set of pretty little heirs and heiresses.

Working Class Women in Jane Eyre

Orphaned at a young age, Jane was raised until she was 10 by an aunt who despised her, who resented the burden she felt Jane placed on her shoulders. Significantly, this aunt was herself loaded, so Jane knew from an early age what the elite life looked like - and she also knew what it meant to be on the outside looking in.

This poverty does even more than mock Jane with visions of the glamorous life she is denied; her poverty also robs her of her femininity. This is because in the Victorian era, lower and working class women were scarcely thought to be women at all. A 'true' woman, in this era, was a woman like Blanche Ingram, a woman who lived a life of leisure, a woman who was beautiful and decorative, who could throw a good party and be an entertaining guest, but who had never been trained to do anything else.

A woman who worked, whether in the fields alongside her farming husband, or on her own, typically as a nurse, schoolmistress, or governess - gasp! - such a woman, in exerting herself and earning a living, was either stripping herself of her gender or was never truly a woman to begin with. This is why porcelain skin, a frail frame, and confining dress, including corsets, bustles, and elaborate skirts, were the hallmark of the upper-class woman, like Blanche Ingram: they suggest a life spent indoors and idle, a life of prosperous ease and repose.

This is also why Blanche and even Jane herself cannot, at least at first, envision a man like Mr. Rochester considering Jane as a potential mate. Jane is not an eligible bride. She is not a 'marriageable' woman. She knows that, at best, she is to Mr. Rochester little more than a tool to keep Adele from underfoot.

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