Equal is Defined as being the same in Quantity, Size, Degree, Value or Status
“Equal is defined as being the same in quantity, size, degree, value or status (Oxford Dictionary). From this definition, it can be extended that equality is something people search for to display their status as equivalent to others. In Charlotte Bronte’s bildungsroman novel, Jane Eyre, Jane as a first-person central narrator speaks to unfair, unchallenged injustices in the world surrounding her at various points in her development and amongst various institutions in her life. As displayed through language and her position as both the experienced narrator and the growing protagonist of the novel, Jane is a self-reliant character who desires equality and justice for herself and others within relationships, economic opportunities and perceived social status.
Born an orphan, Jane endures a piteous childhood constituted by an abusive relationship with her sole parental figure and aunt, Mrs. Reed. As a narrator, Jane authorizes readers to see her conscious rejection of her sufferings, making a point to highlight her self-awareness. Additionally, she leads readers to believe that as she comes of age and grows in confidence, she values justice more than potential negative perceptions of her character. Jane relays, “speak I must: I had been trodden on severely, and must turn: but how? What strength had I to dart retaliation at my antagonist? I gathered my energies and launched them in this blunt sentence– I will never come to see you when I am grown up; and if any one asks me how I liked you, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty” (Bronte, 22).
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Now that Jane has definitive plans to move away from her aunt, she is empowered to vocalize her frustrations and intolerance for her unfair treatment, as well as expose her transgressions to the public if she were to be asked. The tone of this passage highlights the contrast between Jane’s independence as a narrator and her actual inexperience as a narrated character. Jane’s statement to her aunt is a step towards justice and equality in their relationship, however, she experiences doubt for her convictions from a lack of experience beyond what she has known growing up, using irresolute language like “how” and with “what strength”. Nevertheless, the author consistently identifies Jane as a virtuous, benevolent character, thereby permitting readers to accept her as a trustworthy narrator. Our sympathy and bias towards her position is assisted by the fact that we are given a look into Jane’s life beginning from her childhood.
Further along in the novel, Jane faces powerful figures who look down upon her for her recognition of their injustices. Jane begins schooling at Lowood, facing a series of punishments for being an untrustworthy student, as deemed by Mrs. Reed, and observing the punishments of her peers with perceptible intolerance. For example, as her close friend Helen stands bearing a punishment for untidy clothing, Jane resolves to dispel this unfair treatment, taking the pasteboard bound on her forehead and throwing it in the fire stating, “the fury of which she was incapable had been burning in my soul all day, and tears, hot and large, had continually been scalding my cheek; for the spectacle of her sad resignation gave me an intolerable pain at the heart” (48). Jane finds the power dynamics between school teachers like Brockelhurst and students like Jane and Helen to be inequitable and seeks equal ground with her intellectual counterparts. She calls Brockelhurst a hypocrite for teaching young women to be proper and virtuous while still displaying acts of un-virtuous treatment himself. Christian religion and punishment are likened at Lowood, with punishment defined as good and purification as inevitable pain. The overall goal of each student should be to live a good Christian life, suffer for one’s sins, die, and reach Heaven. Helen takes full embodiment of this perspective and on her death bed, she testifies, “by dying young, I shall escape great sufferings. I had not qualities or talents to make my way very well in the world: I should have been continually at fault” (54). This testament valorizes young death as an avoidance of further suffering; however, Jane frames this perspective as depressing and unfulfilling. She finds Helen’s patience and tolerance to be an act of resignation in a stance against unjust behavior. Though God is a central force in her life, moments of loss leave Jane feeling as if there is no equitable explanation.
From an abusive aunt to an oppressive school, facing the loss of her only friend and peer, Jane consistently confronts the injustices that are correspondent with her lower position in society. Later accepting a position as governess at Thornfield manor, she meets a man of great status and wealth, Mr. Rochester, whom she develops a strong relationship with. Ultimately, social position makes their union an unlikely and largely unaccepted act from the point of view of a Victorian society and Jane herself. Jane’s rejection of Rochester’s marriage proposal serves as a metaphor for systemic institutions and inequality between classes. Despite the fact that Jane is in a position to benefit from this marriage, her desire for equal status between her partner in both wealth and the mental confirmation of her ability to be self-sufficient outweighs the benefits of accepting his proposal. Jane takes a large step in overcoming the class inequalities that have rendered her dissatisfied throughout the novel, making sure Rochester both sees and hears her as his equal. “Do you think I can stay and become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings? …And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me…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!” ( ) The language utilized in this passage gives a severity to Jane’s commentary. Equality, in her perspective, is determined by the all-knowing power of God himself, and this relation creates a commanding position that both Rochester and readership are meant to secede to. Religion plays a central role in Jane’s character development and strongly influences her outlook on justice and equality. Additionally, she takes a strong position outside of Victorian gender standings, supporting the idea that women’s feelings exist beyond self-sacrificing love for a man and should be validated. Analogizing an automaton to the role of the female in society brings a tone of gravity to her argument and the harshness of gender inequalities to the forefront. Jane’s time spent at Thornfield manor largely shifts into a narrative commentary on gender roles, speaking directly to readership and reminding the reader that these types of inequalities must be known and brought to justice.
Not only did Jane confront unwavering social class standards, but she also struggled to attain gender equality in the perspective of the novel’s male figures, even with her partner Mr. Rochester. Despite being his intellectual equal, Jane could not find equality in social position and was often rendered unable to express her inner thoughts and feelings. “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” ( ). In this portion of the text, Jane expresses her feelings on the struggle between male and female gender roles, focusing specifically on her frustration with women being thrust into positions where they predominantly concern themselves with knitting or playing the piano. Speaking to this suppression, she believes that women have just as much of a right to express their emotions and hold meaningful positions in society as men do.
Through Jane’s character and narration, Bronte addresses the wide span of injustices in Victorian gender and social class divides. Jane, as a strong-willed, self-reliant and intellectual female role, makes a compelling narrator. In any novel with first-person narration, there will be inherent gaps in the story and selected omissions of information, however, Jane imparts the idea that in the novel there should be one person who narrates and another person who analyzes. Though we are provided a lens into the Victorian world and all of its injustices through the character of Jane Eyre, Bronte enables the reader to analyze and question the novel as it stands and individually consider the issues that it raises. Jane Eyre serves as a powerful reminder of the stances being made for gender and class inequality over the course of centuries.”