Jane Eyre and Modern Feminism

MV5BNjU0Mjc0NzU3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTU4OTkwNA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_If you know me, you know that Jane Eyre is my absolute favorite book.  I read it for the first time as part of my Junior year English curriculum, and I have probably read it at least five times since.  I’ve seen every movie adaptation that I know of, and back when I was in graduate school, I even had portions of the book memorized.  But if you asked me why I loved the book so much?  I wouldn’t really be able to give you a good answer, because honestly, I’m not quite sure.

I know that I love the romance.  I love that an average girl, a plain Jane as it were, can fall in love and be loved in return.  Despite the book asserting that Mr. Rochester is not a handsome man, quite a few of the film adaptations overlook that detail in casting their male lead.  Either way, it doesn’t matter to me.  For a girl that always considered herself to be plain, the fact that Jane Eyre can be loved was all that mattered.

I love both the playful banter and the philosophical conversations that take place between Jane and Mr. Rochester.  Despite her poor upbringing and lowly occupation, Mr. Rochester easily looks past these details as he comes to know Jane better.  He sees her as his equal, two brains capable of meeting on the same plane.  Even before he loves her, he respects her.  Mostly.

Obviously, I always had an issue with the fact that Mr. Rochester omits significant pieces of his history, all while trying to marry her.  Despite the fact that he draws her into this twisted world of deception on several occasions, he never mentions the cause of the odd incidents that occur at Thornfield Hall.  He never mentions that fact that his wife, to whom he is still arguably married, lives in his home under the supervision of a female servant.  He never mentions how it is that he came to be married or what became of his wife.

It also always bothered me a little bit that Jane Eyre does not marry Mr. Rochester until she has come into a small fortune, making herself financially independent, and he has been rendered blind and maimed.  I understand that she should not marry him until the situation with his wife is resolved, but I don’t see why she needed to become rich and he needed to lose a hand and his eyesight before she married him.  If those details are to be considered important in her decision making process, I’m inclined to think that she didn’t consider herself to be as equal as she would have us believe.  She didn’t need to be financially independent to be his equal, and neither did he need to lose his eyesight and his hand.  She was his equal in dignity before all that happened.

I recently re-watched the latest film adaptation of Jane Eyre, and as the movie concluded, I was struck by a new revelation.  Jane Eyre could be the poster child for modern feminism.  It’s immediately apparent that Jane Eyre is a feminist of sorts.  She believes herself to be the equal of Mr. Rochester, as all women are the equals of men.  She has developed her own opinions on philosophical matters, and can argue her positions logically and reasonably.  She believes that her mind has value, and that her thoughts have significance.  She believes in the importance of following your heart, and standing up for what you believe is right, even when it will make life difficult.  She sees the value in hard work and dedication, and she is a prime example that such traits can be found in women as well as men.

Jane Eyre is undeniably a feminist, but it could be argued that she is more akin to modern feminists than their classical forebears.  Or I guess it would be more accurate to say that Charlotte Bronte is a forerunner of the modern feminist.  She posits that men and women are equals, that Jane is the equal of Mr. Rochester, but then she blinds and maims him, just for good measure.  Because it’s not good enough to be equal.  In woman’s efforts to rise, they must squash men in the process.  It’s the only way to be seen as equals.  It’s like every modern feminist movie.  The women are all amazingly intelligent, and super strong, and drop-dead gorgeous, while the men seem to be blundering idiots, weaklings, and either vaguely effeminate or hulking behemoths.  Mr. Rochester couldn’t really be Jane’s equal until he was blind and maimed, because that’s apparently the only way that men and women can be equal.

Jane Eyre is also financially independent by the time she marries Mr. Rochester.  She has inherited a small fortune, in addition to working as a girls’ school teacher.  This only started to bother me recently.  I always thought it was nice that this girl, who has been poor her entire life, finally has become rich.  It’s your iconic rags to riches story.  But considering the book’s feminist dimension, Jane Eyre’s financial independence has just as much to do with her as it does with Mr. Rochester.  It’s not just about the poor girl becoming rich.  It’s about the woman no longer needing to be dependent on the man.  Seeing as Jane had previously been Mr. Rochester’s employee, some financial independence might be a good thing as they re-envision their lives together, but I can’t help but wonder if Charlotte Bronte was asserting that women shouldn’t be financially dependent on men.

Today, women depending on men for money is often seen as a sign of weakness, a betrayal of all that modern feminism stands for.  I shouldn’t need to depend on my husband for money for clothes and food.  I should be able to provide those things for myself.  That’s why we’re all fighting for women’s rights in the workplace.  And as I’ve said before, if a woman wants to work, good for her, but she shouldn’t feel like she needs to work because that’s the only way for her to show that she respects herself.  It’s okay to depend on men.  Men depend on us too.  But modern feminism isn’t about dependence, at least not for women.  Women should be able to do everything for themselves, and they should be able to do everything for men too, because let’s admit it, they can’t do it for themselves.  Or so the narrative goes.

I still really like Jane Eyre.  To be honest, it’s still my favorite book, if only because I haven’t found a better one yet.  After my revelation, I still went on the watch the entire BBC four-part series adaptation of Jane Eyre.  I still love the romance.  I still love the rags to riches story.  But I’ve also realized that Jane Eyre is not really the heroine that I need.  She has bought into the lies, just like so many women do.  She thinks her equality can only be purchased at the expense of man’s dignity, or in her case, at the cost of a hand and two eyes.  She thinks that she must be financially independent, that depending on another human being, particularly a male human being, somehow makes her weak.

Our dignity is not determined by the state of man.  It’s given to us by God.  It has nothing to do with what we do, or what other people do, or what we do to other people, or what other people do to us.  We have dignity because we are human.  We are equal because we are human.  And we need each other because we are human.  No human can be completely independent.  We are meant to rely on one another.  Dependence does not make us weak; it just reminds us of our humanity.  Dependence makes us strong, because two is better than one.  One person is an island.  Two is a family.  As Ecclesiastes says, “if the one falls, the other will help the fallen one.  But woe to the solitary person!  If that one should fall, there is no other to help.  So also, if two sleep together, they keep each other warm. How can one alone keep warm?  Where one alone may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken” (4:10-12).

Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!


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