There’s really nothing I love more than curling up with an excellent book, maybe even one I’ve read many times. And if the book were written by a woman during the reign of Queen Victoria and had real-world themes applicable still today, all the better.
Jane Eyre is one such book. It has everything — lyrical, beautiful structure and prose, raw and visceral characters, intrigue, mystery, passion. When my grandmother bought me my first copy when I was 11 (I now have three copies), I read it in two days and have been hooked ever since.
But the best thing about this novel isn’t the prose or the big twist in the attic (spoilers ahead, obviously). It’s the timelessness of Jane Eyre herself, and what we can learn from her even now, hundreds of years later.
Jane Eyre is anything but weak, fragile, or vulnerable because of her gender.
It’s evident that women in this society are searching for something, and very often finding it in terrible role models. Women are looking for strong influences and are often misled with the ones they choose to pour interest into. The good thing, though, is that Jane Eyre is not just an essential piece of Victorian literature. In many ways, through Jane herself, it’s a manual for our times.
Jane Eyre Isn’t a Victim
Many readers and fans of Jane know what she goes through in her early life, but for those who don’t, let’s recap.
Jane loses her parents at a young age, and then lives with her abusive Aunt Reed and cruel cousins. Her aunt makes it her mission to humiliate her and remind her that she’s an unwanted burden. Jane then moves to Lowood School, where she’s further abused — emotionally, psychologically, and physically — and lives in harsh, oppressive conditions under a religiously fanatic, almost psychopathic headmaster. She loses her only friend to tuberculosis, and continues to live there, essentially as an orphan with no home, family, or future.
The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.
She then goes on to Thornfield Hall where she teaches a young girl, whose guardian is the aloof and mercurial Mr. Rochester. As she matures at Thornfield, Jane confronts harsh truths about what’s expected of her as a woman, and a poor woman at that. She faces distinct societal and cultural expectations about her gender, her morals and principles, her romantic life, and her socioeconomic status, and is often disheartened by what she finds.
But through it all, Jane never plays the victim. She even says, “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” Jane finds her value in her independence and her abilities, not in her wealth or her spouse or her social status. She’s thoroughly realistic, almost frighteningly so, but she isn’t surprised or upset by what she finds. She has a firm grasp of her identity. We should all be so lucky.
Jane never wallows in her situation or her circumstances, never blames others or herself. Today, we’re encouraged to be nothing but victims and to lean into that mentality wholeheartedly. Jane’s avoidance of doing so makes her fundamental sense of self and her self-possession even stronger, and allows her to hold more closely to her convictions and beliefs.
Jane Eyre Is Unapologetically Herself
Perhaps my favorite part of the entire novel is Jane’s speech to Mr. Rochester. Contextually, she’s angry with him for teasing her and making her question her self-worth.
And she claps back in the most B.A. way: “Do you think I am an automaton? A machine without feelings? And can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you, and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. 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.”
Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!
Wow. Just...wow. Remember, it’s 1847, and not only is Rochester the man whom Jane loves, but he’s also her employer.
Her diction here is really important though. She describes herself as poor, obscure, plain, little. She has no delusions about what she looks like or her social standing. And not only is she okay with it, but she defends it and stands up for herself. Not only does Jane ignore cultural expectations of what she’s supposed to be, but her confidence and strength in her sense of self and her honesty are what draws Rochester to her initially.
Jane Eyre’s Core Values Are Feminist
Jane is inherently a feminist icon, but that doesn’t mean modern, third-wave feminists agree with that assessment. One opinion on the novel asserts that there’s no way Jane could be a feminist because she chooses Rochester and gets married at the end of the book.
So, essentially, Jane isn’t a third-wave feminist, nowhere near it in fact. Jane values her morals, her principles, her femininity, and even God forbid, her romantic relationship with a man, so she doesn’t belong to that classification. But in the true sense of the word — a woman who values her independence, recognizes her abilities, and has confidence in her self-worth, not in spite of being female but because she is female — she is feminist.
Women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts.
Jane asserts, “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”
Again, this is wild for the 19th century. But it’s the quintessence of who Jane is. One who affirms that she’s anything but weak, fragile, or vulnerable because of her gender, and one who stands up for herself and what she wants.
Lately, it feels like we’re searching for influences and role models in all the wrong places. If we were really finding the best of the best, we would all be happy, fulfilled, and satisfied.
Jane Eyre, for all its Gothic themes and overtones, is a timeless classic. And its heroine at the focal point of the novel is one we can look to and emulate — strong, capable, confident, unwavering, and honest.