Lowood Setting in Jane Eyre

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  • 0:00 What Is Lowood?
  • 1:00 Class Hierarchies at Lowood
  • 3:25 Gender Hierarchies
  • 4:34 Religious…
  • 5:54 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.

This lesson examines the setting of Lowood in Charlotte Bronte's 1847 classic, 'Jane Eyre'. Lowood serves an important function in the novel, as a site where gender and class hierarchies are established and enforced.

What Is Lowood?

When audiences discuss Charlotte Bronte's 1847 masterpiece, Jane Eyre, the love story between the humble governess, Jane Eyre, and her brutish employer, Edward Rochester, often takes center stage. Equally important to the novel's plot, however, is the setting of Lowood School, where the orphaned Jane is sent as a young child by the aunt who despises her - Mrs. Reed.

At Lowood, Jane discovers the harsh realities of class and gender hierarchies in Victorian England while also cultivating a moral sense, independent will, and self-image that transcend the constraints of class and gender.

Jane Eyre confronting her aunt, Mrs. Reed
Jane Eyre and Mrs. Reed

Jane Eyre is a bildungsroman, or novel of development, in which the protagonist traces their growth from a young child into a fully-formed adult. Perhaps no place is more significant to the development of the adult Jane Eyre than Lowood School, where Jane is sent at the age of 10.

Class Hierarchies at Lowood

The students at Lowood School are all orphans from impoverished backgrounds, and Jane is no exception. Despite her wealth, Mrs. Reed jumps at the opportunity to rid herself of the burdensome obligation of rearing the orphaned niece she hates.

At Lowood, the headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst, employs an array of brutal techniques to enforce submission in the girls, ranging from beatings to the withholding of food, water, and rest. Most significant, however, are the emotional and spiritual abuses to which the girls, and Jane in particular, are subjected. Under Mrs. Reed's directive, Brocklehurst singles Jane out as a child with a strong will and a tendency toward deceit. She is condemned and ostracized, labeled a threat and a bad seed.

This cruel treatment reflects Victorian class ideologies in which poverty was interpreted as a sign of physical, psychological, and spiritual failure. Long before we realized that many human illnesses are caused by germs (in addition to malnutrition, poor sanitation, and improper housing), Victorian society attributed the frequent outbreak of disease in impoverished communities to a supposed intrinsic physical weakness in the poor, a vulnerability to illness that threatens the entire nation if not properly managed by the elites.

Victorian class hierarchies also presumed a related spiritual and psychological weakness in the lower classes. The rich believed the poor showed this weakness through a tendency toward addiction, especially addiction to alcohol, and toward criminality and violence, indigence and dependency, insanity and hysteria, and sexual promiscuity and moral depravity.

Only severe regulation by the upper classes could temper these dangerous tendencies in society's poor. Only the upper classes possessed the knowledge, training, and intrinsic self-mastery to determine what was best for society's unfortunates, and only they possessed the discipline and the authority to keep vigilant watch over the lower classes, enacting the laws and developing the institutions (educational, medical, legal, and social) that would contain the masses and teach them to submit to the counsel (and the command) of their social betters.

Lowood is one such school, where penniless orphans learn to yield to the Brocklehursts of the world--or else be beaten into submission by them.

Gender Hierarchies at Lowood

In Victorian England, one of the few things lower on the social scale than an impoverished man was an impoverished woman. Lowood is an all-girls school where gender norms are pitilessly enforced. In an era in which women were considered little more than property, girls who had no male protectors--no fathers, uncles, brothers, or husbands to 'claim' them--had, for all intents and purposes, no identity or value at all.

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