The Character of Jane Eyre: Analysis & Quotes

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

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

This lesson analyzes Jane Eyre's status as one of the most iconic characters in English literature, including examining conflicting interpretations of Jane: tradition-bound Victorian woman or proto-feminist?

Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte

Will the Real Jane Eyre Please Stand Up?

When Charlotte Bronte first published Jane Eyre in 1847 under the male pen name Currer Bell, she probably never imagined that she would be presenting one of the most iconic and controversial female characters in all of English literature. Initially beloved as a woman of virtue, traditional morality, and strength, Bronte's Jane Eyre has become the subject of increasing debate in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. While some view Jane as the epitome of hidebound provincialism, a woman oppressed by Victorian patriarchal ideologies, others find in her a power, self-determination, and iconoclasm that smacks of early feminism. So who is the real Jane Eyre: submissive housewife or free-thinking warrior woman? Some passages from Bronte's text may shed some light.

Illustration from early edition of Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre

Jane as 'Good Angel'

You are my sympathy--my better self--my good angel

Jane's dark paramour, Mr. Rochester, speaks these words when he is imploring Jane to stay with him after she discovers he already has a wife, Bertha Mason, the madwoman he has locked in the attic of his mansion, Thornfield Hall.

In describing Jane in this way, Rochester echoes the very ideals of the British good woman.

She is to be the Victorian image of 'angel in the house', a moral exemplar, pure and unblemished. She is to redeem her husband from any temptation or sin into which he may fall, especially as he navigates the public life of money, work, politics--and immorality.

This is because, based upon the separation of the spheres paradigm, the woman's sphere is the private sphere of the home. Here she is cloistered and protected, insulated from the debauchery of the world outside of the sanctity of the home. Her purposes, concerns, and desires are all toward her family, toward the service of her husband and children.

She is at once caregiver and moral compass, the keeper of the hearth who ensures the strength of the British commonwealth, supporting her husband as he goes about the business of making money and making laws, and raising up sons and daughters who will themselves carry on the traditions of God and country perpetually into the future.

Jane as 'Unearthly Thing'

You--you strange, you almost unearthly thing!

Time and again in Bronte's novel, Rochester describes Jane in almost supernatural terms: sprite, elf, witch. Such descriptors can be read in two contradictory ways.

On the one hand, such terminology reflects traditional images of women as enigmatic, unpredictable, otherworldly, and therefore potentially dangerous beings, especially when not held firmly in check by the training--and the authority--of the patriarch (husband, father, uncle, brother, etc.).

This reading aligns Jane with ancient views of women as potentially disruptive of the status quo, as in league with forces that are beyond the laws of man and perhaps even beyond the laws of nature.

On the other hand, however, feminist readings since the mid-twentieth century have found in such descriptions of Jane not simply a repetition of oppressive patriarchal ideologies, but instead a manifestation of Jane's power, both as a woman and as an individual.

This is where modern readings of Jane as a proto-feminist come into play. Because if she is truly a 'strangeā€¦almost unearthly thing', then that means she's not bound be the laws of man: she's not constrained by the ideals of the Victorian angel in the house. She can be who and what she wants, an autonomous (if unearthly) thing, a disruptor of norms and limits.

Jane's 'Mortal Flesh'

I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh--it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal--as we are!

Jane speaks these words to Rochester during the engagement scene, and it is just one of many passages readers cite as an example of Jane's feminist mentality. Here, Jane refuses not only gender norms, but also social and class hierarchies which would make Rochester her superior. She is a penniless orphan, he an aristocrat. And yet she declares an equality between the two of them in an era which positions the male above the female, the rich above the poor, and the aristocrat above the commoner. This is an assertion of a fierce and unapologetic individuality demanding acknowledgment and respect.

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