The novel Jane Eyre is not simply a romantic story. Instead, it is a novel about what was going on in Victorian England at that time in relation to changes in class and status. After digging deeper into the story, one can see that the main character Jane is trying to find her place in life (Chaurasiya).
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The Victorian era which was known for being very rigid and had a strict social order to it. People who were wealthy were at the top and those who were poor were at the bottom. Jane was educated in upper class morals. This education became her saving grace and allowed her to transition between classes.
Janes class status was obscured even before she was born. Her father was an impoverished pastor and her mother was from the middle class. The fact that they married despite being from two different social classes was considered unusual at the time. This left Jane stuck between the two social orders. After her parents died she was a left an orphan and was sent to be raised by her aunt, Mrs. Reed at Gateshead. Her aunt was very wealthy and she and her children were part of the upper social class. Janes social class was still ambiguous while living with her aunt and cousins because she was never allowed to be a real member of the family. While she was educated in the morals of the upper class she was continually reminded she did not belong there. For example, her cousin John Reed liked to torment her and always reminded her that he was more superior:
You have no business to take our books; you are a dependent, mamma says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemens children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mammas expense. Now, Ill teach you to rummage my book-shelves: for they are mine; all the house belongs to me, or will do in a few years. (Bronte 5)
John made sure to let Jane know she was lower than him and he had power over her. This was his way of justifying treating her as an outsider.
While she was at Gateshead, Jane was closer to Bessie, their maid more than anyone else. Jane based her relationship and feelings about Bessie on who she was and how she treated her instead of how much money she had. Jane preferred to spend time with Bessie instead of her wealthy family because Bessie show her more affection than they did. This is further evidence that Jane was able to move between social classes.
When Jane was finally sent away to the Lowood boarding school she was excited about it. She thought that she would not be judged based on her social class anymore but on who she was as an individual. Sadly, this was not the case. Instead, the headmaster of the school, Mr. Brocklehurst was a very mean and hateful man. He showered his wife and kids with money while neglecting and starving his students. At one point Jane was humiliated in front other entire school and called a liar (Bronte 63). Bronte was able to emphasize the social ideas and culture that a strict class system created by the difference in how Mr. Brocklehurst referred to Jane and her aunt. He used negative attributes such as dreadful and bad to describe Jane and positive ones such as charitable and pious to describe her aunt (Bronte 63). These were all based on their social class. As a result of this, Jane was forced to ward off negativity and demand that she be accepted for who she as a person, not judged by her social status. In the end, her time at Lowood was beneficial to her being able to move between social classes because she gained an education and learned about the characteristics of the aristocracy.
As a result of her education and personal experiences at Lowood, Jane gained employment as a governess at Thornfield Estate. This moved her up from lower class to lower middle-class. She taught other orphans there and eventually met the man she would marry someday. His name was Edward Rochester. After her engagement to Rochester she found out he was already married and she ran away from Thornfield. This catapulted her into homelessness. She was freezing and starved so bad at one point that she tried to trade her belongings for food:
Almost desperate, I asked for half a cake; she again refused. How could she tell where I had got the handkerchief she said. Would she take my gloves? No! What could she do with them? (Bronte 336)
When the bakery refused to help her or give her something to eat this humiliated her even more. She realized was nothing more than a beggar at the very bottom of the lower class. The only thing Jane had left to offer anyone was her willingness to work hard and this gave her a glimmer of hope:
I remembered that strangers who arrive at a place where they have no friends, and who want employment, sometimes apply to a clergyman for introduction and aid. It is the clergymans function to help at least with advice those who wished to help themselves. (Bronte 336)
Jane went to a nearby house and sought help once again. The maid Hannah answered the door and immediately judged her and made her feel like the lowly orphan she was treated like her whole life. Bronte describes this meeting as follows:
Distrust, the very feeling I dreaded, appeared in Hannahs face. Ill give you a piece of bread she said, after a pause; but we cant take in a vagrant to lodge. It isnt likely (Bronte 343). This was the climax. A pang of exquisite suffering a throe of true despair rent and heaved my heart…I wept in utter anguish. Alas, this isolation this banishment from my kind! (Bronte 344)
In this quote, Jane describes how Hannah sees her as worthless. It describes the utter despair that Jane has gone through as a result of being judged and cast out all her life due to her social class.
While at the Marsh End, the owner St. John River found Jane a job as a teacher in a small nearby town. This enabled her to at least support herself and raised her social status a little. While there, she discovered she had an uncle who died and left her an inheritance. She was instantly independently wealthy and catapulted into the upper middle social class. The released her from the chains of the strict hierarchy of the Victorian class system. She was finally free. She also discovered that the Rivers family were her cousins and she shared her newfound fortune with them. This proved that Jane was only wanting her independence and not tied to one specific social class. To her, it was more about the right to live as she pleased and not about the money at all.
Eventually, Jane decided to go back to Rochester. Now she was more mature and had a greater understanding of social classes. Before she left him, she was subordinate to him in social status. Now, she was on an equal footing and had more to offer to the relationship.She could be confident in being with him no matter what other people thought.
As a result of being educated about upper class morals, despite the fact that Jane did not fit in any specific social class, she was able to move between classes. This gave her the ability to judge people on who they were and how they acted; not on what their social class was. In the end, this gave Jane the freedom and independence she longed for and fought so hard to achieve.
Bronte, C. (1993). Jane Eyre. Barnes and Noble.
Chaurasiya, N. (2018). Socio-Economic Structures of Victorian England: A Study of Jane Eyre – Spring Magazine on English Literature. [online] Spring Magazine on English Literature. Available at: https://www.springmagazine.net/study-of-jane-eyre/ [Accessed 27 Oct. 2018].
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