The journey of finding oneself was a popular topic for women’s novels throughout the 19th century and is still relevant today. Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre could be classified as such a novel. Brontë’s novel differs in that some critics don’t believe that Jane reaches her goal of selfhood. Jane is constantly being defined by the people in her life, and the novel goes through many situations in which she must overcome their definitions of her and struggle to find her own. Some readers feel that because Jane returns in the end to a man that had once tried to define her-Rochester-she has failed to define herself. However, this is not the case. Jane had always loved and wanted to be with Rochester but she knew that she had to find herself first or else he would have the power to define her. Jane could only realize this through her past experiences of battling against being defined by others and breaking out of the small places people are always trying to confine her to. Jane must first overcome the definitions that her benefactress, Mrs. Reed tries to assign to her. She believes that Jane has a bad disposition and is not worthy of her or her children. Next, Jane must struggle to overcome the reputation of “liar” that Mr. Brocklehurst tries to place on her. Lastly, Jane must leave Rochester to avoid being his mistress and treated like an object. Though Jane has to overcome the way other people try to define her and the small spaces they try to put her in, her goal of selfhood is ultimately obtained.
Jane’s first encounter with other people trying to decide who she should be occurs during her childhood. Her aunt feels burdened that she must care for Jane and believes Jane to be trouble. Mrs. Reed’s example causes her own children to treat Jane poorly, especially John Reed. He picks on Jane constantly and even tries to dehumanize her. When he can’t find her to tell her to come to lunch, he remarks, “Joan is not here: tell mama she is run out into the rain-bad animal!” (15) Jane feels like she is treated unfairly in her aunt’s household, and remarks that the Reeds equate her to a servant. However one of the servants further lowers Jane’s classification. “No; you are less than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep” (19). The culmination of this treatment takes place when John Reed hits her over the head with a book in the library. Jane flies at him in rage because she did nothing to provoke such violence and was tired of being treated unfairly. The result of this situation, however, ends in Jane being punished instead of John Reed. Her aunt orders, “Take her away to the red-room, and lock her in there” (p.18). This would be the first time, but definitely not that last, that someone has tried to place Jane in a small, restricted area, defining and confining her. However, even at the young age of ten Jane still possesses the beginnings of selfhood. She was not about to simply submit to the definitions Mrs. Reed and the rest of the household had for her. When they tried to take her away, she said, “I resisted all the way” (19). However her efforts to be free are futile and she is placed and locked in the “red-room.” Being left alone to her thoughts, Jane contemplates the unfairness of her predicament. “‘Unjust!-unjust!’ said my reason, forced by the agonizing stimulus into precious though transitory power; and Resolve, equally wrought up, instigated some strange expedient to achieve escape from insupportable oppression” (22). After a while she begins to get scared and thinks that she is seeing ghosts. She starts yelling and throwing a fit and the servants and Mrs. Reed come in. However Jane’s protests don’t do her any good and Mrs. Reed continues to try to tell Jane exactly how she must act. “You cannot succeed in getting out by these means, be assured. I abhor artifice, particularly in children; it is my duty to show you that tricks will not answer: you will now stay here an hour longer, and it is only on condition of perfect submission and stillness that I shall liberate you then” (25). Jane’s fright and anger ultimately lead to her fainting and then being taken care of by Bessie and an apothecary, Mr. Lloyd. When Jane recovers, she is infused with a newfound strength of self that allows her to express her feelings to her aunt. Her first, though unsuccessful comment is, “‘What would Uncle Reed say to you, if he were alive?’ was my scarcely voluntary demand. I say scarcely voluntary, for it seemed as if my tongue pronounced words without my will consenting to their utterance: something spoke out of me over which I had no control” (36). After a suggestion from Mr. Lloyd, Mrs. Reed looks into sending Jane away to school. She decides on Lowood School and Mr. Brocklehurst, who manages the school, comes to visit Mrs. Reed and Jane at Gateshead. Mrs. Reed tries to further define Jane by what she tells Brocklehurst. She said, “Should you admit her [Jane] into Lowood school, I should be glad if the superintendent and teachers were requested to keep a strict eye on her, and, above all, to guard against her worst fault, a tendency to deceit” (42). Mrs. Reed tries to get Brocklehurst to continue defining Jane in the same way that she herself was trying to. She said, “I should wish her to be brought up in a manner suiting her prospects, to be made useful, to be kept humble” (43). After this meeting with Brocklehurst, Jane is enraged with the behavior of Mrs. Reed. These feelings end in a final confrontation between the two. Jane begins by countering the unfair accusations Mrs. Reed had made about her to Mr. Brocklehurst. “I am not deceitful: if I were, I should say I loved you; but I declare I do not love you: I dislike you the worst of anybody in the world except John Reed; and this book about the liar, you may give to your girl, Georgiana, for it is she who tells lies, not I” (45). Jane goes on to point out the unjust way she has been treated and the faults of her benefactress while demonstrating her own personality and spunk to the readers. “People think you are a good woman, but you are bad; hardhearted. You are deceitful!” (46) Mrs. Reed is so shocked by Jane’s words and vigor that she has no choice but to submit. She tries, perhaps for the first time, to be nice to Jane before leaving her alone in the room. Jane realizes that she has in fact succeeded in making her point and sticking up for herself. She said, “Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty” (46). This victory marks an important point in Jane’s life-she had taken the first step to try to define herself. Jane no longer allowed Mrs. Reed to say whatever she wanted about her, giving her whatever definition she pleased. This success allows her to continue on her journey towards ultimate self- discovery.
Jane’s second obstacle in her voyage to self-discovery occurs when Brocklehurst tries to define her. Based on the information he received from Mrs. Reed-and combining it with his negative conceptions of children and strict (but hypocritical) religious teachings-Brocklehurst determines that Jane is, in fact, deceitful. He decides this even though he’s never witnessed it himself. Jane is aware of his opinion of her from the beginning. She said, “I saw myself transformed under Mr. Brocklehurst’s eye into an artful, noxious child, and what could I do to remedy the injury?” (p.43) Brocklehurst begins trying to define her from his first meeting with her at Gateshead. He said, “Deceit is, indeed, a sad fault in a child; it is akin to falsehood, and all liars will have their portion in the lake burning with fire and brimstone” (43). Brocklehurst continues his ‘sermon,’ trying to scare Jane out of her deceit, even though she isn’t actually even deceitful. He said, “Little girl, here is a book entitled the Child’s Guide, read it with prayer, especially that part containing ‘an account of the awfully sudden death of Martha G-, a naughty child addicted to falsehood and deceit'” (44). He believes that if he threatens her enough, she’ll comply. He decides that Jane is a liar because one person told him so, and then proceeds to treat her as if she were a completely evil child. Brocklehurst then builds on Mrs. Reed’s definition of Jane by adding that she should be made plain. He said, “Consistency, madam, is the first of Christian duties; and it has been observed in every arrangement connected with the establishment of Lowood: plain fare, simple attire, unsophisticated accommodations, hardy and active habits; such is the order of the day in the house and its inhabitants” (43). He believes that he can take away Jane’s individuality and make her into a submissive, plain worker because that is how he wants to define her. The height of Brocklehurst’s definitions, however, occurs when he calls Jane up in front of the whole school during an assembly. She had accidentally dropped her slate, causing it to break in two. He said, “A careless girl!” (77). He was again trying to define her as not trying to be what he would consider “good.” He doesn’t acknowledge the fact that it was an accident and people do in fact make mistakes and have accidents-that doesn’t make them bad people. His definition becomes stronger as he forces her to sit on a stool in front of the entire school. This is the second small area an authority figure has tried to confine Jane too. With this confinement comes Brocklehurst trying to define her. He said, “This girl, this child, the native of a Christian land, worse than many a little heathen who says its prayers to Brahma and kneels before Juggernaut-this girl is-a liar!” (78) He proceeds to order the teachers to pay particular attention to her and be especially hard on her to try and rid her of this “fault.” He also tells the students that they should shun her. He believes that they must “punish her body to save her soul (78). Brocklehurst continues to try to confine Jane as he orders, “Let her stand half an hour longer on that stool, and let no one speak to her during the remainder of the day” (79). Jane is completely mortified by this spectacle and feels that she will never be treated fairly because the whole school will believe her to be a liar. She is overcome with self-pity and sits weeping until her friend, Helen, comes up and talks to her (despite this action being forbidden). Helen answered Jane’s confusion at conversation by stating, “Mr. Brocklehurst is not a god; nor is he even a great and admired man: he is little liked here; he never took steps to make himself liked” (81). Jane slowly realizes that Brocklehurst does not have absolute power to define her with. However she is still insecure about her own definition. She demonstrated this when she said, “To gain some real affection from you, or Miss Temple, or any other whom I truly love, I would willingly submit to have the bone of my arm broken, or to let a bull toss me, or to stand behind a kicking horse, and let it dash its hoof at my chest” (81). These extreme actions for the sake of being loved show that Jane is still insecure. She would do anything just to be loved. This helps the reader to understand that, though Jane is starting to be able to define herself, she is nowhere near the end of her journey to self-discovery. To continue this journey, Jane must overcome the definitions Brocklehurst has tried to impose on her. Miss Temple brings calls Jane to her room to discuss the day’s events and Jane is allowed the chance to express her side of the story of her childhood. Miss Temple believes Jane and tries to help her overcome Brocklehurst’s definition. She said, “I know something of Mr. Lloyd; I shall write to him; if his reply agrees with your statement, you shall be publicly cleared from every imputation: to me, Jane, you are clear now” (83). Mr. Lloyd’s story matches Jane’s and so Miss Temple takes immediate action to right the situation. “Miss Temple, having assembled the whole school, announced that inquiry had been made into the charges alleged against Jane Eyre, and that she was most happy to be able to pronounce her completely cleared from every imputation” (86). This second step marks the strengthening of Jane’s sense of self because she has been able to overcome the falsehoods that other people have tried to define her by.
Jane’s final step on the road to self-discovery is also the most important. Not only must Jane stick up for herself, but she must do so against one she loves and then go on to find her own true self. Jane loves Rochester greatly, but after she has agreed to marry him, he also tries to confine her. He wants to put her into fancy clothes and jewelry, as if she were his doll. She said, “The more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation” (301). However, Jane does stick up for herself. She doesn’t allow him to buy her fancy dresses but instead insists on the grey and black colors she has always worn. She won’t allow him to confine her against her will. Rochester also tries to define her by ordering her behavior. He said, “You will give up your governessing slavery at once” (303). Jane will not submit to his requests and tells him that things will not change. However, Rochester’s attempt to define her culminate after Jane learns about his alive, yet insane, first wife-Bertha. Rochester wants Jane to still be his wife, even though they cannot legally be married. Jane stands up for her principles. “Sir, your wife is living: that is a fact acknowledged this morning by yourself. If I lived with you as you desire, I should then be your mistress: to say otherwise is sophistical-is false” (342). Despite Rochester’s promises to always love her, Jane knows what she must do, however difficult it may be. “I was experiencing an ordeal: a hand of fiery iron grasped my vitals. Terrible moment: full of struggle, blackness, burning! Not a human being that ever lived could wish to be loved better than I was loved; and him who thus loved me I absolutely worshipped: and I must renounce love and idol. One drear word comprised my intolerable duty-‘Depart!'” (354). Jane knew that the only thing she could do in such a situation was to leave Thornfield because otherwise she would allow herself to submit to Rochester. Even though Jane knows what she must do, she is still torn out of love for Rochester. She said, “‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Think of his misery; think of his danger-look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature; consider the recklessness following on despair-soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? Or who will be injured by what you do?'” (356) But her decision to leave is solidified by her response to her own argument-“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself” (356). This marks a momentous place in Jane’s journey to selfhood. She has finally realized what Helen had tried to tell her many years earlier-that loving herself was more important than any love others could give her. She realized that, for her own sake, she must leave Thornfield. She must define herself before she can be with Rochester. The great poverty Jane faces after leaving Thornfield-and her ability to survive and overcome it-helps Jane prove to herself how strong she really is. She continues her journey as she further develops her own thoughts and opinions-and ultimately her own life. Jane first lives as a schoolteacher, effectively supporting herself, teaching and even learning from her students. However, her self-discovery doesn’t end there. Two important milestones occur during this stage in her life. The first is that Jane finds that she has inherited her uncle’s fortune. She now has money of her own and will no longer have to be a dependent. The second milestone occurs when Jane realizes that St. John and his sisters are actually her cousins. She has found real family and with this discovery, a better sense of self. “This was wealth indeed!-wealth to the heart!-a mine of pure, genial affections. This was a blessing, bright, vivid, and exhilarating; -not like the ponderous gift of gold: rich and welcome enough in its way, but sobering from its weight” (430). After all of these events of self-discovery and self-sufficiency, Jane finally achieves confidence in herself. When she “hears” Rochester calling to her, she knows what she must do. She tracks him down, learns of all the horrors he has suffered, and declares her love for him. Now that she has learned who she is, she knows that never again will her character be at risk of being defined by him. This means that she can finally be with the one she loves, without being destroyed by him. Overcoming being defined by Rochester is the final step in Jane’s journey to self-hood.
Jane must overcome many obstacles to discover who she really is. From childhood, she has had other people trying to confine her to small spaces and define her in whatever way they think she should be. She has to stick up for herself and her principles in order to define herself. Ultimately, she must become independent and discover things for herself in order to reach selfhood. Though her journey has many difficult points and people will probably always try to define her, Jane finally finds herself and this allows her to face anything-or anyone.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 3rd ed. New York: Penguin Group, 2003. 13-502.