A ‘Critical’ Understanding of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
“No two people could agree in their opinion of it, so full was it of contradictions. Miss A. was delighted with it, Miss B. as much disgusted – Miss C. heard it so talked of, that she was most anxious to read it; but her married sister, Mrs. D. said, ‘No woman under thirty ought to open it. Then, it was such a strange book! Imagine a novel with a little swarthy governess for a heroine, and a middle-aged ruffian for a hero.’” (qtd. in Keen 78)
Thus, was the great controversy over Brontë’s new novel Jane Eyre. Many were struggling between distinctions over whether the novel was freeing or a cheap trick, whether it celebrated the correct woman’s role or subverted it, even the title and pseudonym it was published under became the subject of many a tea-time gossip over the mysterious origin and meanings of the novels. It’s unclear as to whether Brontë was hoping for this sort of controversy, as it definitely heightened the interest and word of mouth spread over her piece, yet it also sparked many disagreements over whether the book was appropriate reading for the era.
Jane Eyre was always a controversial book, in fact, a critic once stated, “Any logical person could find something someone would disagree with on any given page,” (qtd. In Keen 81) in an attempt to warn people from the dubious book. The book was published in the guise of an autobiography written by one ‘Jane Eyre’ and edited by the mysterious Currer Bell (a pseudonym used by Brontë) and was constantly subjected to criticism and questioning over the morality and actions of the titular character. Yet, it is obvious that the book is no longer viewed quite so extremely. It has been widely accepted as a classic and is almost thought to have been a pre-feminist piece of literature by some critics in the 20th century and onward. This drastic change of criticism and understanding of Brontë’s work is emblematic not only of the change in criticism and literary appreciation but of the growth of society’s morals as a whole.
The first major critical disagreement over the book was the hotly debated origin of the mysterious brothers Bell (the Brontë sisters psuedonymic family name). These fictitious brothers Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell had already published a book of poetry together and now the new novel from a Bell only sparked more interest on the topic of the brothers. The first and most common of these were those who doubted the pseudonym and believed the writer to be an educated woman by the style of writing and the depth and explanation of female characters that male writers struggle to find the perfect way to assess. In an issue of The Christian Remembrancer asserted in line with William Thackeray that “we cannot doubt that the book is written by a female” (Synthesized by O’Hara 2-3). A second group argued just as strongly that the piece was not. A. W. Fonblanque, while he was working for Examiner wrote an article often quoted by others in this camp. A review published in the Era even went so far to claim: “no woman could have penned ‘The Autobiography of Jane Eyre’,” likely on grounds of the ability of the writer and the actions made by women in the story being distinctly uncharacteristic for the time. The final group, and perhaps the most gullible (or perhaps trusting), took the novel’s title and authors/editors at face value saying, “The writer is evidently a woman, and unless we are deceived, new in the world of literature.” Not without grounds was this said, for contrary to Fonblanque and the Era they believed that Jane Eyre could only have been written by a female, yet, the editing by Bell was more than enough to give powerful, accurate, and moving insight into the male characters that a female writer would’ve found unattainable (O’Hara).
This first collective group of reviewers (all those questioning about Brontë’s true identity were answered by Brontë in dramatic fashion shortly after the deaths of her sisters. In a posthumous version of Wuthering Heights, Brontë wrote a preface to the piece wherein she exposed her and her sister’s true identities.
Regardless of the strange name game going on around the novel, many reviews, especially early ones, were overwhelmingly positive. They praised the first-time novelist for control and depth of action, as well as their vigor and power evident among the work, some even for the youthful energy and fresh perspective. The emotional prowess and extreme development of characters were wondered at by many and praised for its effects.
However, there were more than a few dissenters as well. These groups disliked the ‘Contrived and hollow” nature of the story and its heavy exposition within many lines that overruled the emotional growth in favor of pacing. For most reviewers these faults were worth overlooking when considering the piece as a whole, however, these small faults turned glaring
in the eyes of readers who despised the ‘immorality, un-Christian nature and anti-femininity’ of the piece (Miller).
Jane in the piece was by no means the upstanding model of femininity in Victorian England. Her raucous behavior as child peeved mothers and governesses alike who thought that she must have lacked any serious discipline (Miller). As an adult, she was even worse to many viewers. She was vagrant and traveling, always wishing for more than she had even though she already had much more than she deserved in their eyes. To them, she was thankless and waifish, never willing to accept a role and submit as a woman should.
These condemning actions only worsened upon the introduction of St. John Rivers. They believed (not wholly incorrectly) that Brontë’s characterization of the man was nothing less than a villain in the story and that through this characterization Brontë was vilifying the Church. Elizabeth Rigby almost damningly wrote in the Quarterly Review a scathing review of Jane Eyre calling it “pre-eminently anti-Christian composition” full of “murmuring against the comforts of the rich…which…is a murmuring against God’s appointment,” (Rigby). Others were not quite so devastating but coined the term ‘Jane Eyre fever’ as an obsession of having something in your house that had no business being in any respectable term. While this may have been mostly tongue-in-cheek, it still had a noticeable effect on the reputation of the book.
Overall the reception of the book in its early days was mostly positive but many had reservations about specific parts of the book not lining up with their belief systems, such as the readiness of Mr. Rochester to cheat on his wife (regardless of her condition). Many of these reservations were based around femininity and the immorality of Jane’s actions subverting their ideals of it; because of this, Martin is known for calling the essay the first feminist piece, and later correcting himself to call it a pre-feminist piece. One that is emblematic of the values they support and try to pass without ever having been part of the movement. Many believe that while never directly affiliated with the movement the piece inspired parts of it, especially when it comes to the education of young boys and girls who would one day establish it, this begins to lead us into the more modern interpretations of the piece in the mid-20th century. As the women’s suffrage movement and early feministic action already finished the 1950s-1960s brings in a completely new understanding of the piece with the New Criticism movement that followed after the World Wars.
The New Criticism was nearly opposite to the previous styles of criticism, especially so in the case of Jane Eyre. Where before the critics were fascinated with the mysterious author, the origins of the Bell brothers (and later Charlotte herself, it’s fair to say that biographical information was crucial when it came to a Victorian critic’s thought on a text. The New Criticism movement, however, requires absolutely no biographical information at all; it is a system based completely and solely on the text and what it brought to light. Biographical information was considered to be a distraction from the text rather than an aid in the interpretation of it. Therefore, under the new and harsh light of New Criticism, Jane Eyre was considered in a truly different context. The members of this new band often found Jane to be an expression of a want for freedom while tied with a sense of duty to both society and her acquaintances restraining her. This feeling is evoked only through an objective correlative and is never stated outright, this interested members of the New Criticism readers to enjoy and revel in the text’s wide emotional displays and to take on the first of many New understandings of the text.
Not all of the new understandings of Jane Eyre were quite so clean. The psychoanalysts (beginning to gain prevalence in the late 1950’s) applied Freudian theories to literature in hopes of further supporting the findings as well as attaining further insight not only to the text but using it as a tool to learn about the author’s psyche in connection to it. The psychoanalysts were more often than not unimpressed with Bronte’s works, believing them to be only suitable for children. One reviewer notes this quality, saying that “It is perhaps the index of Charlotte’s achievement, however, that she needs to be read in adolescence; come to her work after that and a considerable act of imagination is called for before she can be read with sympathy,” (Allen). The psychoanalysts (never much to consider women well) also thought of the novel in a very sexualized capacity as Freudians often do, believing that most, if not all, of the novel is a sexual expression of a frustrated Charlotte Brontë. Walter Allen, in The English Novel stated that Fundamental to all her novels is the pupil-master relationship, which is her rationalization, based on her own limited experience of life outside Haworth, of one of the commonest sexual dreams of women: the desire to be mastered, but to be mastered by a man so lofty in his scorn for women as to make the very fact of being mastered a powerful adjunct to the woman’s self-esteem.” Allen seems to have conflicting ideals on the standing of Jane Eyre as he simultaneously recommends it to children and speaks about the sexual domineering nature he finds in the book. Psychoanalytic theory, and Freudian theory in connection, are based entirely on the idea of impulse and control, in addition to the idea of the subconscious. Just as they thought Jane Eyre was an expression of Brontë’s psyche, they analyze the mind of a fictional character in the same way. This method of criticism feels out of place in reference to its contemporaries who were beginning to establish the feminist critical style, yet, both styles were popular in the time period.
Understandably, the feminists had a far different understanding of Jane Eyre than the psychoanalysts. The tenets of feminist criticism are perfectly applicable to the piece as it seems like they were almost crafted to reach it. Many use this connection to further prove that the feminist theory was partially inspired by Jane Eyre and the identifiable feminist themes within it. Feminist theory was becoming so prevalent in this period as a response to the recently found feminist power after World War 2, especially in America. Women at work was no longer a rare feat but culturally and socially acceptable, fathers are expected to take part in child-rearing and helping out around the house; all of these things contribute to the ‘second wave’ of feminism that inspired the literary criticism style (Tyson).
The first major feminist tenet is that “Women are oppressed by patriarchy economically, politically, socially, and psychologically; patriarchal ideology is the primary means by which women are oppressed,” (Tyson). This tenet is shown particularly accurately by Mr. Brocklehurst in the story. He is a male force that subjugates an entire school to his cruel will, all while doing it out of the ‘goodness of his heart’. Brocklehurst is a stereotypical patriarchal tyrant who is in charge because of an economic and social domination over Jane, the teachers and all other residents of Lowood.
The second tenet, “In every domain where patriarchy reigns, woman is other: she is marginalized, defined only by her difference from male norms and values” is shown particularly through the earlier parts of Mr. Rochester’s stay at home (Tyson). Jane is constantly compared to the patriarchal high society of Rochester’s ‘friends’ and is constantly defined as lower by the society and culture defined therein rather than as an individual, which should be regarded as an equal.
However, Brontë doesn’t simply leave these as is, else se would be just as patriarchal as those represented in her piece. Instead, Jane constantly rises to new heights and the world puts down the domineering men and raises her up instead. Mr. Brocklehurst is removed from Lowood and Rochester raises Jane’s status to new heights. Jane is not a stagnant woman as society would have her, she is powerful and makes her own decisions. She makes bold choices regardless of their daunting drawbacks in the interest of her own freedom far and away over the paltry wishes of those who would subjugate her.
This power, this truth that the feminist theory only scratches at are the true meaning of Jane Eyre. The story was never about a lonely governess making her way through the world from one man’s power to the next, settling for marriage to the men who would use her for it. The story is not about the mysterious pseudonym she had to publish under to receive the attention it deserves. It’s not about latent sexuality and the drive for a woman to find someone se deems worthy of submitting to as psychoanalysts would have you believe. We, not as a society, not as a culture, not as a people, but we in those who seek to understand ourselves have been growing. No, Jane Eyre is not the cause of this growth, neither are out countless ways of looking at a piece and critically analyzing it. We are growing, and these changes, these different ways of seeing a piece are nothing but signs and results of an improving mind, and improving understanding and an improving general psyche of approach to understanding ourselves and each other.
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Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press, 1984.
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