The novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë explores the life of a young girl and her journey through adolescence and maturation in a patriarchal society. Brontë wrote this novel during the Victorian Era where a patriarchal society was a reality for her, thus making this novel more authentic. Brontë shows how patriarchal dominance can affect a woman’s identity through the main protagonist, Jane Eyre, and her relationships with the male characters. Through Jane, the readers get an insight into her journey to developing her own identity and independence in a male-dominated society.
From the start of the novel, Brontë depicts young Jane’s character as a lonely girl who lacks love. Her time in Gateshead is where her identity begins to form as she experiences injustice by her first encounter of male dominance from her cousin, John Reed. Brontë establishes John as a despicable character for his cruelness towards Jane that includes physical and verbal abuse. John is the only male present in the house giving him the idea that everyone is accustomed to abide by him simply because he is the ‘man of the house’. An instance where John tries to torment Jane and she asks what he wants, he replies, “Say, ‘what do you want, Master Reed”, John clearly thinks he rules the household and that Jane needs to be submissive to male authority or else there will be consequences.
When Jane finally reaches her limit from John’s abuse, Jane’s narration says, “my terror had passed its climax and other feelings succeeded” (5), which means that her feelings of rage and injustice have surpassed the limit that she can no longer stay compliant. Jane fights back with words which reflects the idea that during the Victorian Era, words were a woman’s only weapon. However, Jane learns from this outburst that a woman cannot fight back when Mrs. Reed sends her to the red room. This experience greatly impacts Jane’s identity because this is the moment she understands the feeling of injustice. This realization forms the part of her personality that desires to retaliate to mistreatment. John Reed is the first male character that teaches Jane that she needs to be independent and to fend for herself.
Once Jane grows up and blossoms into a mature young woman, she begins to show her independence by earning a job as a governess. During the Victorian Era, women had limited options for their future other than becoming a wife. Jane as a governess represents great independence she longs to achieve because by having this occupation, she is able to financially support herself without relying on a man. The topic of marriage becomes apparent when Jane meets the owner of Thornfield Hall, Mr. Rochester. Jane’s relationship with Rochester tests her independence because now she faces the desire for emotional fulfillment which collides with her desire to hold onto her autonomy.
When Jane plans to resign after Rochester announces his marriage with Ingram, she says to him, ‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will”. This quote shows that Jane does not allow love to blind and trap her from staying true to her morals. She establishes that she is an independent person that can make choices that do not damage her self-respect. When she ascertains that Rochester is a married man, this prompts her to leave him and says, “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself”. This quote shows that Jane values her self-respect over love. She knows that by being labelled a mistress causes her to sacrifice her own integrity for the sake of love which harms her independence. Mr. Rochester is the male character that teaches Jane to value her self-worth and enhances her confidence as an independent woman.
The next chapter of Jane’s life after Thornfield Hall is where she finally proves her self-sufficiency to herself. Jane’s desire to prove to herself first that she is truly independent and does not have to rely on a man is ultimately the reason why she leaves Rochester. Jane boldly leaving Thornfield Hall despite not having anywhere else to go exhibits an act of braveness that shows how independent she is at this point of her life. When Jane says, “Yes; I feel now that I was right when I adhered to principle and law”, this assesssment she makes about her decision proves that she is coming into terms of being self-reliant. This is because she makes this choice with no regrets and knows this decision stays true to her morals.
Jane’s relationship with St. John Rivers in Marsh End is what makes Jane finally see she is truly independent. The word ‘end’ is present in the name of the house implying the end to Jane’s long journey of gaining her independence. St. John’s persuasive and insistent character allows Jane to be put in a position where she makes decisions after deliberately thinking about them which in this case is marrying St. John. Jane’s relationship with St. John makes her determine what type of life she wants to live. She understands that with Rochester comes the sacrifice of surrendering her principles for love. While with St. John comes the scarifice of surrendering her desires for true love to act on her principles. St. John is the last male character that makes Jane truly know what she wants for herself and what is right for her.
Overall, Jane’s extensive journey proves how resilient and strong-willed of a person she is. Brontë uses many male characters to not only demonstrate the patriarchal society evident throughout the novel, but also to pose as catalysts that help Jane discover and develop her own identity. The way Brontë depicts the male characters in Jane’s life shows how they act as obstacles but are ultimately there to empower and strengthen her moral character.