Jane Eyre By Charlotte Bronte: The Evolution Of Jane’s Character In A Search For Freedom

Freedom is an influential word. To some, it can mean a night out. To others, it represents the ability to express themselves without major repercussions. In Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, the main character Jane must defy the societal standards of her time to gain a sense of freedom. The novel Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Bronte, depicts the development of a young girl named Jane Eyre, who is an orphan, and writes about her life during the Victorian Era. Jane goes from a toxic home, to an orphanage, named Lowood, to Thornfield manor as a governess, where she falls in love with a man named Mr. Rochester. She then flees to Moor House where she finds her cousins and eventually goes back to and stays with Mr. Rochester. Throughout the novel, Jane must defy the societal standards of her time to gain a sense of freedom. Firstly, Jane refuses to follow expectations set for women in the 1800s, and this defiance is mirrored with the symbol of a bird. Secondly, through her narration, readers can see that Jane follows her own quest to true spirituality instead of following the religious path that others enforce. Finally, Jane struggles but eventually finds a balance between love and autonomy which causes internal and external conflicts. Throughout the novel Jane Eyre, Jane’s character evolves as she pursues freedom from the constricting cultural barriers that were imposed on her as a Christian woman searching for a balance between love and autonomy.

One of the most defining character evolutions was Jane’s fight against sexism, which she challenges against Mr. Rochester. When Jane finds out about Mr. Rochester’s mad wife, their wedding ceremony is cancelled. Mr. Rochester then explains to Jane why he lied and that he is still in love with her, reasoning, “When I think of the thing [Bertha] which flew at my throat this morning, hanging its black and scarlet visage over the nest of my dove, my blood curdles”. Throughout the novel, Mr. Rochester refers to Jane as a dove. Although he displays a progressive mindset and says he considers Jane as an equal, his actions do not coincide with his words. The dove’s connotation is not necessarily negative, but is made apparent in their relationship. Doves naturally have a heightened willingness to be submissive and often live as voluntary captives, making Jane feel inferior. She lashes out at him and leaves, proving her real strength and power. After leaving Mr. Rochester and spending some time at Moor House with her cousins, Jane feels a supernatural connection to Mr. Rochester. Jane returns to Thornfield Manor and finds out that Bertha lit the house on fire and killed herself, disabling Mr. Rochester in the process. After Jane finally sees Mr. Rochester again she remarks to herself, 'The water stood in my eyes to hear this avowal of his dependence: just as if a royal eagle, chained to a perch, should be forced to entreat a sparrow to become its purveyor'. Mr. Rochester is described as a royal eagle, the most powerful and ravenous bird. Jane, however, describes herself as a sparrow, who is not as mighty as an eagle, but is known for its bravery. Although small, sparrows are powerful and joyful birds. They protect their community and loved ones and have a unique and loud singing voice, similar to Jane’s unorthodox views. The symbol of a bird is critical in Jane’s development because as she progresses from submissive to strong, it is mirrored as a dove progressing into a sparrow. Jane struggles with being taught to be submissive and expected to be unintelligent, causing uncertainty if she should stay true to herself. As Jane progresses, she learns to redefine these standards and fit them to her own needs. Jane is at peace knowing that although society might see Jane as a servant to a disabled, she will be appreciated and equal despite their societal gender roles. As Brontë develops these gender roles, she highlights that feminism is not challenged by Christianity, but that both work together in aiding Jane on her journey to freedom.

Despite witnessing many other types of faith, Jane is able to follow her own religious path. Jane’s narration enables readers to witness this variety, especially during her time spent at the orphanage, Lowood. She first encounters the harsh and hypocritical owner of the orphanage, Mr. Brocklehurst, who embodies religious malignancy. She later approaches a student named Helen Burns who is calm, intelligent, and most prominently has a strong faith. On her deathbed, she tells Jane, “‘I am very happy, Jane; and when you hear that I am dead you must be sure and not grieve; there is nothing to grieve about. ’. . . ‘I believe; I have faith; I am going to God. ’”. Helen Burns is a prominent religious figure in Jane Eyre. She preaches loving your enemies even if they wrong you. She follows her belief in the way that God would want her to act and teaches Jane to trust her spirituality. Despite Helen’s virtues, which Jane greatly admires, her nature is too passive. This enables Jane to begin her own religious path instead of following the path of others. As Jane goes from Lowood to Thornfield to Moor House, Jane discovers another type of religion. One of Jane’s cousins, St. John, is the clergyman to a parish in Morton. After Jane turns down his proposal, she leaves him and returns to Mr. Rochester. As Jane departs, she thinks:

I broke from St. John, who had followed, and would have detained me. It was my turn to assume ascendency . . . I mounted to my chamber, locked myself in; fell on my knees; and prayed in my way — a different way to St. John’s — but effective in its own fashion.

In St. John’s brand of religion, glory and devotion to God is valued, which Jane admires but cannot commit to because she values her emotions. Jane finally realizes that although she might pray or love God in a different way, her beliefs are still valid. Overall, Jane progresses to be free from the social constraints that all Christians must think and feel the same way. Jane eventually discovers a type of religion where she has freedom, unlike St. John’s, unsubmissive, unlike Helen’s, and loving, unlike Mr. Broklehurst’s. This suitable middle ground helps Jane’s respect God, yet respect her individuality and freedom to love. This autonomy in her spiritual judgment helps Jane in finding autonomy in her love life.

Finally, as Jane progresses into a strong woman, she experiences conflict that helps her find a balance between love and autonomy through the standard of marriage. After Jane finds out about Mr. Rochester’s wife, she makes her decision to leave, reasoning, “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man”. Jane now chooses to leave Rochester because she knows that although she is in love with him, she will be treated as a mistress. Being a mistress will significantly reduce Jane’s freedom and she would lose all of her self-respect. This is a difficult decision for Jane to make because of her love for Mr. Rochester. After leaving him, Jane finds her cousins at Moor House. St. John attempts to convince Jane to marry him so she can accompany him on a trip to India. Jane refuses because she is not in love with him, which Jane believes is a base to a marriage, and says, “I will give the missionaries my energies - it is all he wants - but not myself; that would be only adding husk and shell to the kernel. For them he has no use”. In this situation, Jane faces the opposite problems that she faced with Rochester. Jane knew that she could be in love with her husband if she was married to St. John. Although she would have more autonomy with him compared to Mr. Rochester, she cannot marry St. John because his views are still an extreme, and do not promote a balance between love and autonomy. These events shape Jane’s character because she resolves her inner conflicts with independence before marriage. She was then able to marry Mr. Rochester with no remorse because she knew that they were both in it for the right reasons. This opposes most societal standards at the time because independence in women was not a factor before getting married.

To conclude, the novel Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Bronte depicts the evolution of Jane’s character as she seeks freedom from the established cultural standards on a Christian woman, exploring a balance between love and freedom. Jane breaks sexist barriers by redefining them, mirrored through a symbol of a bird. She then paves her own spiritual path, opposing the religious constraints of others. Finally, Jane finds an equilibrium between love and autonomy, which resolves her internal and external conflicts. Freedom means different things to different people. One can only truly understand freedom when they oppose restrictions and fight for their happiness.

10 October 2020
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