Sexism Exposed in Brontë's Jane Eyre
The Victorian era in England marked a period of unprecedented technological, scientific, political, and economic advancement. By the 1840s, the English had witnessed remarkable industrial achievements including the advent of the railways and the photographic negative. They had witnessed the expansion of the Empire, and, as a result, were living in a time of great economic stability. Yet they had also seen thousands of people starving-and dying-due to the Irish potato famine and poor conditions and benefits in British factories and witnessed the entire order of society questioned as the working classes began to demand representation in Parliament. The English also experienced biological and scientific breakthroughs that challenged the once universally accepted beliefs in the authority of the Bible, the divine ordering of nature, and the gross exploitation of women and people of other races. It was a time of great achievement, yes, but it was also a time of great contradiction and uncertainty.
The Victorian era was also the age of the novel, as many English citizens now possessed the time and money to afford such a luxury. Novels at the beginning of the Victorian era reflect the growing unease of the day; writers of the 1840s in particular responded indirectly to the social upheaval, writing personal, subjective novels.
Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre, published in 1847, is an archetype of the 1840s novel. It tells the story of Jane Eyre, an orphan who eventually finds herself and happiness as a governess and, later, a wife. Although this is a "personal" story that provides escape and entertainment for its readers, Jane Eyre most certainly, if sometimes subtly, deals with a number of Victorian social issues, especially issues pertaining to women and their expected behavior in society. Women in the Victorian era were supposed to be passive, pure, and idle; were not to be well educated; and were expected to marry. Throughout Brontë's novel, Jane Eyre learns the realities of these social expectations and directly and indirectly speaks against them.
Readers learn early in the story that Jane Eyre does not fit contemporary society's idea of a proper woman. As a child, Jane stands up to her aunt, Mrs. Reed, on more than one recorded occasion when Jane feels she has been treated unjustly (Brontë 28, 37). At one point, Jane bluntly tells her aunt, "I declare, I do not love you: I dislike you the worst of anybody in the world except John Reed [Jane's cousin]" (37). This was at best improper behavior for a child in Victorian society, and it was most definitely seen as improper by Mrs. Reed who grows to hate Jane, calling her "tiresome, ill-conditioned" and "scheming" (26). But her aunt's reprimands and hatred do not deter Jane from speaking up in the face of injustice.
During the scenes at Lowood Academy, Brontë compares Jane's strong...