Set in Victorian England, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre follows the life of a young girl growing up in a challenging, and often conflicting, society. Throughout the novel, one question lingers: Should Jane do what is best for herself, or what is best for those around her? In other words, are individuals’ responsibilities to themselves, or to society? This novel appears to say that the primary responsibilities are to themselves before society as mental health, individuality, and self-confidence can only come from within rather than from others.
While under the guardianship of Mrs. Reed, Jane’s mental health was clearly deteriorating. After allegedly misbehaving, the young girl was left in the red room where a “…strange little figure [was) there gazing at [her] with a white face and arms speckling.” No one else was in that room. Additionally, “A sound filled [her] ears, which she] deemed the rushing of wings: something seemed near…” Paranoia and uncertainty filled this child’s life to the point that her mind began to expect to be in harm’s way constantly. This characteristic can also be seen in combatants who now suffer from PTSD. They had put their society above themselves and now live with a weakened mind state. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder affects a large portion of combatants which contributes to the nation’s unemployed veteran population. Paranoia, bipolar disorder, and disillusionment are just a few of the common symptoms associated with this disorder. There is no cure for it. Had these men and women decided not to contribute a personal sacrifice, they would not suffer from these horrible symptoms of a disorder without a cure.
The protagonist fluctuates on her beliefs and cannot identify herself as an individual. Her view on religion is doubtful overall, yet she was, at one point, certain. Helen had perhaps the most persistent effect on Jane, managing to convince her “…that there is such as place as heaven; and that our souls can get to it when we die.” Later, with St. John, she rejects religion as a whole. At Lowood, she did not know who needed to be respected by her nor how to go about doing so. The confusion with authority left her in a state of misunderstanding around new people. Student, teacher, governess, wife, and friend are all roles she fills but she is not able to fully live them out as she is constantly trying to put others before herself.
Self-confidence falters in Ms. Eyre as society oppressed her and didn’t fully develop until her mid-20’s. Unsure of her role as a governess, she agrees, then disagrees, to a marriage with Mr. Rochester. She once again agrees then disagrees to a different marriage with St. John because she is unsure of what else to do with herself. It isn’t until she discovers who she is a person and what she is capable of that she has confidence in herself. Once she discovers this, she returns to Mr. Rochester and agrees to be his wife. This example is commonly seen in impoverished countries. Young girls are married at a young age because that is what they believe is expected of them. Because they are so young, they only understand what their spouse teaches them about the world and their role within it. These young girls often face domestic abuse because they aren’t comfortable as an individual to stand up for themselves.
Charlotte Brontë provides clear evidence to support individuals as priorities above society through her novel: Jane Eyre. Individuals need to be prioritized as mental health, self-confidence, and sense of self can only be developed from within. Those who constantly put society first often face sacrifice in either or all of those three areas.
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