Suppression and Suffocation Ambiguity in Identity in Jane Eyre

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The most notable thing in Jane Eyre is the dichotomy of the society she is surrounded in. Unlike Jane herself, the world she is surrounded in is–according to Amanda Vickery– dialectical polarity. The separation of social spheres in the novel is a direct reflection of the society in which it was written in– Victorian England. Victorian England like Jane was a period of ambiguity of womens roles in society; women were both restrained by expectations and given freedom through work.

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The ‘cult of true womanhood (Welter, 1966) that surrounded women in the early nineteenth century formed a rhetoric of what women were expected to be the ‘ideal Victorian woman. Jane doesnt fit the ‘pious and submissive role that was explicitly defined in the cult of true womanhood her lack of definitive identity in the novel is a reflection of the crippling ideology of traditional femininity that during this time period was being rebuilt due to the Industrial Era. The Industrial Era during the beginning to mid nineteenth century created a narrative of economic change and broke the social spheres of female domesticity and male work (Vickery, 1993). No longer were men seen as the only group of laborers in Englands economy– factories served as a stepping stone of women gaining financial independence (Vickery). The Victorian era took down as many walls as it built up with defining femininity. What it meant to be a woman in a time of nonpolar social and economic spheres was unwritten. And Jane Eyre is Brontes try at creating a definition. For centuries, scholars have been debating the merits of Jane Eyres feminism. Whether of not it qualifies as a truly feminist novel remains the focus of many scholars. This essay will argue that the debate is largely anachronistic. Jane Eyre is neither feminist nor anti-feminist because it is a reflection of the changing role of the female during the Victorian era. In this essay, I will argue that Bronte rewrites what it means to be a woman in such a chaotic time period using speech and gender as agents of power in the novel. Janes ambiguity–specifically in terms of her relationship to speech and to her gender– causes her to struggle to gain personal identity and power in a world with two extreme polarities, suppression and suffocation.

Janes struggle to obtain power through her speech is symbolic to her struggle of creating a personal identity (Freeman,1984). When looking at speech in the novel from a lense of polyphony and dialogism, words don’t have innate connotations or power, humans enable their power through response to these words. In literature, symbolism occurs through the actions of characters. Speech becomes an agent of power in the first chapter of the book:

I dont very well know what I did with my hands, but he called me ‘Rat! Rat! And bellowed out aloud[…] We were parted I heard the words-

‘Dear! Dear! What a fury to fly at Master John!

‘Did every anybody see such a picture of passion!

Then Mrs Reed subjoined-

‘Take her away to the red-room, and lock her in there. (Bronte, 7).

Indeed, although Jane and John attack each other which causes physical pain, the speech in this scene is more damaging. By painting Jane a ‘picture of passion for her defending herself against her bully cousin, only she (the girl) is reprimanded for being emotional. Her being shut down and sent to the red room is a physical and emotional repression of her emotions Jane is forced to be separated from people because of her passion. This sets the precedent for the remainder of the novel. The reactions of others solidifies in the eyes of the reader for the rest of the novel that in this world, women expressing their emotions is a taboo subject. Bahkin argues that Jane being sent to the red room also defines Jane to the reader as a passionate person and the other characters reactions defines passion for women in a negative matter. (The Dialogic Imagination, Bakhtin) This moment, taking place in the first chapter draws two polarities for Jane; she can either allow her passion to suffocate her, resulting in ostracization, or she can suppress her emotions to be accepted by society. Speech in the novel, though, serves as a loophole. Only after seeing a doctor in the red room, and being encouraged to express her feelings through words, is she freed from Gateshead (Freeman). Although she was still expressing her emotions, they are controlled. For the remainder of the novel, Jane struggles to obtain this medium of controlled passion. Situations where she is without power is when her voice is being imposed on her, or where she can not express her voice.

Janes struggle for ‘controlled passion is a huge element of ambiguity in the novel. As Jane struggles to find this medium of controlled passion she is in a world of polarities- women who suppress their emotions (Helen Burns) and suffocate in their own passion (Bertha Mason):

This ominous tool she presented to Miss Scatcherd with a respectful curtesy[…] the teacher instantly and sharply inflicted on her neck a dozen strokes with the bunch of twigs. Not a tear rose to Burns’ eye[ ] I looked at her […] and the trace of a tear glistened on her thin cheek)(Bronte, 53).

The readers first impression of Helen Burns is a picture of pious servitude. Burns always is horribly punished, and takes it–in the words of Jane– doctrined endurance (Bronte, 55) . She is the epitome of Brocklehursts teachings, being so humble– yet, suffers largely. This is Janes first experience seeing another person being punished, and what surprised her the most is how Helen does not put up a fight.To survive in Lowood, Helen squashes her own emotions to be what she thinks is accepting [her] fate (Bronte, 55). Her death of consumption, is symbolic to her being consumed in her repressed emotions. Bertha suffers a similar fate in the novel by committing suicide by lighting Thornfield on fire. Her death was a symbol of a woman suffocating herself in her own emotion to avoid being repressed by others around her. Janes only conscious meeting with Bertha is short-lived but clearly shows the power struggle between her and Rochester:

“She was a big woman, in stature almost equalling her husband, and corpulent besides: she showed virile force in the contest–more than once she almost throttled him, athletic as he was[…]At last he mastered her arms; Grace Poole gave him a cord, and he pinioned them behind her: with more rope, which was at hand, he bound her to a chair (Bronte, 311).

Berthas character serves as a warning to Jane of what can happen when a woman allows herself to be dictated by her emotions. Her height is a symbol of her power, and being that she equals Rochester in height, she is seen as a threat to his masculinity. Berthas physical strength is another component that makes her threatening to his masculinity. While Bertha doesnt suppress herself and allows her emotions to be expressed, the people around her do it for her. Berthas tying to the chair represents this external suppression of womens emotions. The deaths of Bertha and Helen are symbolic to the polarities Bronte claims women are forced with– suppression or suffocation. In reality, suffocation and suppression are two sides of the same coin; in the novel if there is one the other soon follows. By doing this, Bronte claims that there is no way to survive in this oppressive society.

Using speech as an agent of power is an interesting critique on womens roles in Victorian England. Janes silence in the novel is a reflection of the ‘patriarchal oppression (Demir, 2015) of Victorian aged women. Women at this time were taught to submit themselves to men, confining them to exclusively the domestic sphere of work. In that sphere, women were marginalized to tasks such as language, art and music to be ‘angels of the house (Demir, 2015). Giving women a voice at a time that womens education is culturally defined as a ‘hobby legitimizes their intellect and voice. By enabling Jane to tell her narrative, Bronte gives authority to a woman for the entire novel. She uses elements of Victorian ideals in Janes character by using elements of the angels in the house such as language and art to make her seem intelligent, but then uses these things to give her independence throughout the novel(Vickery). By going on a more traditional route by basing her intelligence in these ‘angels in the house to foster an untraditional life filled with self-independence and freedom of movement, Bronte builds this ambiguity of Janes character using her speech to show that women do not necessarily have to be extremely opposed to traditional femininity or dissociate themselves from that rhetoric completely to be a powerful woman. Janes power comes from her directing her story and her independence, which she obtains from traditionally feminine hobbies such as learning language and art.

The theme of ambiguity in the novel carries on to the physical, economic and social embodiment of Janes character. Bronte writes Jane is plain– physically she is not beautiful, though nor is she ugly;she is “no beauty” but she does “look like a lady” (Bronte, 94). Her appearance is a metaphor for the complete ambiguity that surrounds Jane- both economically and socially. Janes whole childhood is hard to define– she is raised in the home of her wealthy family members, yet is seen as less than to the servants who lived there because of her orphanage. ‘For shame! for shame!cried the lady’s-maid. ‘What shocking conduct, Miss Eyre, to strike a young gentleman, your benefactress’s son! Your young master. ‘Master! How is he my master? Am I a servant? ‘No; you are less than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep(Bronte, 8). In fact, Janes lack of parents is yet another symbol of ambiguity. In literature, orphanage is used as a metaphor to represent a characters detachment from society and lack of identity (Auerbach, 1975). In Jane Eyre, Jane not being born into an identity or home allows her to freely move from place to place in the novel. On the other hand, her not having a definitive identity predestines her to flee each community she assimilates herself to: from Gateshead , to her leaving Lowood to Thornfield. Jane doesnt find a long term home in the novel, until she creates one for herself when she goes into the woods and builds a home with Rochester: We entered the wood, and wended homeward (Bronte, 478). All of the five parts in the novel follow the same pattern; Eric Solomon said Jane comes into conflict with authority, defeats it by her inner strength and departs into exile. Peter Brooks theory on narrative analysis defines repetition in a novel as a metaphor of the binding obsessions humans have of creating a definite end to everything in their lives. Repetition is explained by Freuds death instinct, which is that people with traumatic experiences, relive these experiences.

Viewing this pattern in the novel using Brooks lense on narrative analysis, the common theme of Janes exhalation represents how despite the development she makes throughout each ‘act in the novel, she still finds herself alone, similarly to her being ostracized in the red room at the beginning of the novel. Lack of understanding who she is and her place in society, wasnt explained by her parents during her easily influenced, developmental state (Freud). This confusion turns into frustration in her that she expresses through repression of her emotions or outward aggression. Both choices wield her the same results- being alone. Jane not having parents explain to her her status and position in society results in her embracing an androgyny; both traditionally male and female phenotypes. This is supported using Judith Butlers critical theory on gender, being that gender is a learned construct. Jane not having parents, had no one to teach her gender resulting in her not feeling the pressure of complying to the traditional role of a Victorian woman.

While Janes orphanage is a component to her embracing both traditionally male and female things, her education is also another social element that gifts her her unclear identity in the novel. Janes teachings at Lowood raised her in a religious, sensible setting– a reflection to the ‘unsexting of the working class woman in this time period due to no polarization in the workplace (Godfrey, 2005). Miss Scatcherd continued to make her an object of constant notice: she was continually addressing to her such phrases as the following:–“Burns” (such it seems was her name: the girls here were all called by their surnames, as boys are elsewhere) (Bronte, 52). This detail of the last names is extremely important, because it serves as proof on the unsexting that occurs of the Lowood girls. The girls at Lowood represent the working-class and the womens androgynous identity in this class at this time. What is notable about this, is that instead of their feminity being thrown away willingly, instead it was ripped from them:

‘Julia Severn, maam! And why has she, or any other, curled hair? Why, in defiance of every precept and principle of this house, does she conform to the world so openly here in an evangelical, charitable establishment as to wear her hair one mass of curls?’

Julias hair curls naturally, returned Miss Temple, still more quietly.’

‘Naturally! Yes, but we are not to conform to nature: I wish these girls to be the children of Grace: and why that abundance? I have again and again intimated that I desire the hair to be arranged closely, modestly, plainly. Miss Temple, that girls hair must be cut off entirely’ [ ] (Bronte, 64).

Brocklehurst ripping all sources of femininity show that the androgyny that took place in this time period was forced. The unsexting of the women that takes place in Lowood is not a innovative feminist subplot because the women do not willingly submit. Instead, this unsexting is controlled by this middle class man, who unsexes them in order to legitimize the terrible treatment of these women.

On the other hand of the social sphere, Brocklehursts daughters were always dressed lavishly, and treated well: Mr. Brocklehurst was here interrupted: three other visitors, ladies, now entered the room. They ought to have come a little sooner to have heard his lecture on dress, for they were splendidly attired in velvet, silk, and furs (Bronte, 65). Brontes purpose in including Brocklehursts daughters was to highlight the contrast from the aristocratic middle class woman to the modern working woman.In this part of Janes life, she is forced to suppress her femininity due to gender polarity [being] a luxury only for the middle class (Godfrey).

Even as Janes position in society improves when she leaves Lowood to become a private governess, she still remains an outsider: I sit in the shade–if any shade there be in this brilliantly-lit apartment; the window-curtain half hides me(Bronte, 182).When Jane is surrounded by the wealthy, she hides. After living so long suppressing her femininity, Jane is now moved to a world where she is drowned in the expectations of an aristocratic woman, not only to be accepted to the women around her, but to appear desirable to Rochester. Poovey writes Janes position as a governess as a position of androgyny; her position is traditionally feminine because she takes care of a child, but also masculine due to her financial independence. Janes androgyny makes her completely stand out compared to the polarized women around her:

This I quickly was: my best dress (the silver-grey one, purchased for Miss Temple’s wedding, and never worn since) was soon put on […] Some of them were very tall; many[the women] were dressed in white.The collective appearance of the gentlemen, like that of the ladies, is very imposing: they are all costumed in black(Bronte, 178-182).

Bronte completely plays with colors to show Janes androgyny. At the dinner, Jane is the only one wearing grey; the women wear white and the men wear black. Jane, in her grey dress falls into an ambiguous territory, literally containing both black in white in her dress. Janes grey dress is a symbol of her androgynous role due to her role as governess.

Bronte, playing with Janes physical appearance, enabling her financial independence, and socially making her adopt an androgyny builds an undefined identity in the novel.Jane embodies both male and female characteristics, socially and financially. The purpose of making this ambiguity was not to have the book lean towards the polarities of feminism, or anti feminism but instead to embrace both of these polarities of current womanhood in this time. Janes androgyny is a direct reflection of the changing role in womens identity during the nineteenth century. Various Revolutions going on during the time this novel was written–notably the Industrial Revolution– helped gain way towards dismantling the ‘separate spheres that have plagued the social spheres in Victorian England at the time. Speech in the novel serves a metaphor for power and Janes relationship with it is a reflection to womens relationship with speech during this time period. While on one hand, suppression of emotion and not speaking up for oneself, can resulted in the women suffocating in their emotions– seen in Helen Burns. On the other hand, allowing yourself to be guided completely on emotion can result in social isolation and repression being forced onto them seen in Bertha Mason. Janes character in the novel is multilayered and faceted, a reflection to the complex changing role and identity of women in the western world. Bronte established this metaphor in all aspects of Janes character: in her physical appearance, and in her social interactions. Janes plainness serves as an umbrella for her lack of identity since at this time, a womans worth came from her beauty (Vickery). Socially, Janes ambiguous status–both the one she was raised in and her status as a governess– reflects the literal social development of women at this time. In Janes youth, her schooling forces her to suppress her femininity in the sake of religion, and in her job at Thornfield, she had no choice but to be suffocated in femininity, by taking a job where she was to care of a child, and to assimilate to the aristocratic society she was surrounded in. The story ends with Jane and Rochester living in a house in the wood, which is a metaphor for the social exclusion that, for Jane, was necessary to survive in the world of polarities. Her moving into the woods was her creating a new identity– and was ultimately Bronte creating a new woman. Brontes new woman is fluid she doesnt embrace the infamous femininity the Victorian Era is known for, but also is not the picture of feminism, that was created in the Industrial Revolution. This new woman is undefined, reflected in the ambiguity in Janes identity.

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Suppression and Suffocation Ambiguity in Identity in Jane Eyre. (2019, May 23). Retrieved January 31, 2023 , from

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