In Charlotte Bronte’s works, Jane Eyre and Villette, indirect commentaries on society and the repression of women can be found in the thoughts, comments, and actions of the main characters Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe.
With an understanding of the time and place the works are set in, and through an analyzation of these heroines, a reflection of the harsh and restrictive societal rules of the Victorian Era is revealed.From childhood, Jane Eyre has suffered under a system of repression. She is expected, like most young girls of her time, to be charming, pretty, polite, and passive.
Jane Eyre possesses none of these traits, and is constantly compared to her cousins Eliza and Georgiana Reed. Jane wonders, “Why could I never please? Why was it useless to try to win any one’s favour?…Georgiana… was universally indulged. Her beauty, her pink cheeks and golden curls, seemed to give delight to all who looked at her, and to purchase indemnity for every fault,” (JE 22). Jane Eyre is pushed by society to be something she is not, and one can propose that because she is so repressed as a child, and expected to live up to the stereotypical female ideals, she spends the rest of her life trying to break these rules.
As soon as she breaks free from the malevolent grips of her aunt and cousins, she pursues an education. She is noted for being a freethinker and a woman who stands for what she believes in, which many women of this time period were unable to do. Jane’s actions of educating herself is a clear display of her endless effort to break from the rigid Victorian beliefs that women should be at home, rearing children, and not thinking independent thoughts and developing strong opinions. Additionally, at the climax of the novel, when Jane discovers Mr. Rochester already has a wife, she must make a difficult decision. It is this decision that tears her apart, because it goes against everything she was taught in her upbringing. Her defiance of Mr.
Rochester’s marriage proposal is because she values herself too much to be in an illegitimate marriage. Jane Eyre flees the castle, and wanders the desolate moors for days, distraught and miserable. Jane laments, “And I thought of drear flight and homeless wandering—and oh! with agony I thought of what I left.
I could not help it. I thought of him now… What was I?… I had injured—wounded— left my master.
I was hateful in my own eyes. Still I could not turn, nor retrace one step.” (JE 613, 614). Her torment shows how instilled Victorian rules were in her mind. She mourns the loss of being with Rochester, and feels grief for leaving her ‘master,’ a word that symbolizes the obedience women felt to men during this time period.
Jane Eyre must deal with the consequence of choosing herself over him, which many women of this time could not fathom. If Victorian society had allowed women to think for themselves and not be passive creatures, Jane might not have dealt with such anguish and guilt over her decision. If it is so hard for her to break these rules, it shows how restrictive and binding they really are. Similarly to Jane Eyre, the main character of Villette is a young woman trying to navigate adulthood under the constraints of Victorian society.
She is born an orphan, leaving her alone and unable to depend on anyone. Right from the beginning of her life she is deemed as “a shadow” (V 108) and unimportant because she is an independent and intellectual young woman. Victorian ideals of a woman were passivity, dependence on men, and beauty. Lucy, like Jane Eyre, is plain looking. Where she lacks in looks, she excels in imagination and has a hunger for knowledge.
However, these traits don’t fit the stereotypical mold of the time period. Lucy often feels lonely and depressed for not being able to find a permanent place in society. She states, “Life is so constructed, that the event does not, cannot, will not, match the expectation,” (V 384).
This thought perfectly reflects her struggle with the rigid structure of Victorian life, and how she never lives up to the expectation of what a desirable Victorian woman should be. Additionally, for the majority of the book she is in love with a former childhood friend, John Graham. Despite her selfless devotion to him, he cannot see her love. He views her as plain, uncharming, just a friend.
He deems her, “a being inoffensive as a shadow,” (V 108). Instead, he is attracted to the beautiful Ginevra Fanshawe, who fits into the feminine stereotype of the time. Lucy, on the other hand, cannot be figured out by Ginevra or John. They are unable to pinpoint her or assign her a place in their neatly packaged idea of women. Lucy’s independence, lack of femininity, and mysterious past leave her to be cast as a nobody, a label she later rejects, then willingingly accepts, as it gives her the freedom to live without the constant scrutiny and expectations of society. Ultimately Lucy is able to forge her own path, but for most of the novel she is constantly challenged by people rejecting her because she doesn’t fit their normal views of Victorian women. Overall, these two books, especially Jane Eyre, were well received and successful. However, due to the setting and time period of Charlotte Bronte’s life, there were many critics that lashed out at the books’ portrayal of women.
Both books are told through a woman’s viewpoint, including their thoughts and feelings on love, which was uncommon for the time period. The character of Jane Eyre was attacked for having too much pride, not being ladylike, and ultimately for actively creating her own future. In the 19th century, most women did not have the ability or courage to speak their minds or pursue a path different from what society expected. Villette also received mixed reviews, with some even detesting the book.
Lucy Snowe, like Jane Eyre, matures and discovers herself throughout the story, and breaks free from Victorian values even more than Jane Eyre, as she does not marry and lives the rest of her life alone. The strong reactions of the time are most likely due to the strong beliefs of how women should behave, and since both works revolve around females who defy societal norms, it came as a groundbreaking shock to some critics.