A Free Bird at Last
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will” (Bronte, 378). Jane Eyre was a revolutionary woman for her time period. She asserted her independence from a young age. Proclaiming that she had a right to make her own choices in life regardless of her gender, her character is also a model for feminism and equality in all things, including love. Her romance with Mr. Rochester at Thornfield introduced her to a haven where women’s ideas were valued and considered. But Jane’s rejection of men trying to control her drove her away from Rochester. Her time with St. John Rivers showed her what actual independence was like. Jane achieved both economic independence and some self-realization that enabled her to understand that she was able to make the choice on which life and which husband she wanted. The ability to have that choice and independence is not one that many women had. Jane’s experiences with the contrasting characters of St. John and Mr. Rochester help her discover true independence; Charlotte Bronte wants to prove that women do have the choice to control their own lives and be treated as equals to men.
“Jane’s relationship with Rochester is marked by these ambiguities of equality, servitude and independence” (Eagleton, 42). Jane and Rochester have a long romance; they are separated at times, but never broken from each other. Their budding romance begins at Thornfield where their banter and intellectual exchanges bring them to the realization that they were capable of being equals in love. But Jane has a strong character, which she is not afraid to show Rochester, and it is a deterrent for their love. “From the very beginning, Jane’s wariness, her sometimes prickly independence, her bantering replies to Rochester, and her refusal to accept his gifts establish power as a key issue between them”(Clarke, 84). It goes against her nature to be controlled by others. During their time together at Thornfield, Jane is constantly trying to show Rochester that she is capable of being someone he can consider his equal, but Rochester insists of thinking of her as a little creature that is still his inferior servant. Women in this time period were repetitively showing men that they deserved to be on an equal standing. But men’s reluctance to have women step out of their place as delicate creatures and domestic servants prevented women from achieving that equality. As Rochester tries to pamper her and be the “master” in their relationship, Jane only tries to make him see that she is fine the way she is, his love is enough, “I don’t think you have the right to command me, merely because you are older than I or because you have seen more of the world than I have” (Bronte, 198). Jane’s mistrust of men is also a problem in their beginning relationship. “Although Jane Eyre is attracted to Rochester’s strength of character, she fears it in a world where men are encouraged to misuse their power” (Clarke, 84). Her past experiences with men have been with those who are condescending and commanding with women, and she finds it hard not to believe that Rochester will turn out the same. Rochester’s pleading for Jane to stay after she finds out about Bertha shows his moderately selfish nature as well. Rochester almost tries to bully her into being his mistress and staying. His stories of his past with Bertha, and his past mistresses that were meant to convince Jane to pity him and to stay, but only cement Jane’s decision to leave him. “If I were…to become the successor of these poor girls, he would one day regard me with the same feeling which now in his mind desecrated their memory” (Bronte, 467). Through all Rochester’s self-wallowing narrative of his past wrongs, Jane becomes more and more convinced that she will never be truly happy to stay with him and not be married. She sees that he is attempting to convince her to live a life of sin with him. She rejects men controlling her and as much as she loves him, she sees that he will continue to try to control her if she stays.
To then make their love work, time apart and growth was necessary. When Jane returns to Rochester, she has come back on her own terms and in full realization of her independence. “If you won’t let me live with you, I can build a house of my own close up to your door” (Bronte, 655). Even if Rochester refuses her, she will still be able to survive on her own with her new found independence; and that is what gives her the confidence to be able to return to him. This new, confident Jane is a shock for Rochester. “I told you I am independent, sir, as well as rich: I am my own mistress” (Bronte, 655). He has a hard time accepting her news that she is not his dependent servant anymore, but a whole new person. Rochester’s continuous unbelief and constant questioning is Bronte exemplifying men’s reactions and feelings of the idea of an independent woman. “Rochester’s mutilation is, in the terms of this nascent feminist myth, the necessary counterpart of Jane’s independence; the terrible condition of a relationship of equality” (Moglen, 58). Instead of the controlling “master” she left, Jane finds a subdued and wiser Rochester at Ferndean. The tables have turned though and Rochester is partially dependent on Jane because of his physical handicaps. As Jane becomes his nurse and he learns to rely on her, he finally comes to accept the fact that they are equals. During their time apart, they both have truly gone through hardships, but have become wiser and more mature versions of themselves because of it. Their passions have been subdued now, and they can finally face each other clearly. Rochester now sees the confident and independent Jane, grown up and more mature, and he sees what he couldn’t see before: someone who can be his equal in all things. “Rochester emerges at the end of the novel as considerable more than the mere lover of the central character; he is her complement, filling out her vision of the world” (Martin, 100). Now that they have accepted each other as equals in love, Jane finally feels like she has succeeded in her journey of equality and independence.
St. John Rivers is a cold man. Jane describes him as a column of stone, “A cold, cumbrous column, gloomy and out of place” (Bronte, 591). But his attraction to Jane is his passionless life and over control of emotions. St. John is there after the excitement of being with Rochester and is there to help her forget him and learn to control herself. “He offers Jane a model of self-control and regulation, claiming, accurately that ‘reason and not feeling, is my guide’” (Berg, 95). St. John is the first man, as of yet, to show Jane that she has an equal place among men. He encourages her to be economically self-sufficient by working in the village. He completely expects her to earn her keep in Moor House by earning her own living, which is completely different from the pampering, dependent, experience of being with Rochester. St. John shows Jane that instead of men being omnipotent and having more intelligence than women, there can be an intellectual reciprocity between men and women. These new discoveries of the possibilities offered to women are what spur her to the realization of her own independence. “Significantly, it is St. John who pushes her to further recognition of possibility; to further discoveries of herself. He must be her agent of her liberation” (Moglen, 52). And yet, St. John is just like the controlling man Jane just ran away from. But St. John’s controlling is different from Rochester’s. While Rochester’s motives are for love and true passion of the heart, St. John only sees Jane as a pawn he can use to help himself achieve his goals in life. This ultimately is the reason Jane leaves again. “Jane finds him an even more over bearing ‘master’ than her last: submitting to rational pursuits is for Jane as false to her true self as surrendering wholly to imagination had been” (Berg, 95). Jane refuses to surrender to the control of either man, instead, choosing to decide her own fate.
When Jane chose to stay with the Rivers’ at Moor House, she decided that she would use this new life to forget Rochester. Her attraction to St. John resulted from how he helped her to control her thoughts and emotions. But while St. John’s character supports indifference and rational thinking, Jane’s rejects them. ”As for me, I daily wished more to please him: but to do so, I felt daily more and more that I must disown half my nature.”(Bronte, 599-600). She cannot stay with St. John forever she realizes, he has become too overbearing. But Jane is constantly questioning their relationship. “Since Providence has brought them together, it is difficult for Jane to be sure that it has not also intended her as the wife of St. John” (Martin, 86). Jane ‘s life would be so much simpler if she did what most women do and accept any marriage offer, regardless of love. But for a woman to walk away from a possible marriage offer was senseless, she might never get one again. Leaving St. John would be just as hard a decision as leaving Rochester.
Jane sees a dead, passionless future ahead if she accepts St. John. With St. John as her husband, Jane will have failed in her life’s journey of not being controlled by others. “She will be entering into a union even more unequal than that proposed by Rochester, a marriage reflecting, once again, her absolute exclusion from the life of wholeness toward which her pilgrimage has been directed” (Gilbert, 91). Jane, who has wanted to travel the world for her entire life, has the chance to travel with St. John. But she refuses the chance to finally leave England because the time spent traveling in India with him would be unhappy, she would always be under his control. “In India, however, she would have the worst of all worlds: homelessness, lovelessness and subjugation. She rejects Rivers not only because his demands violate her identity, but because of his imperious masculinity” (Eagleton, 35). St. John is almost as much of a bully as Rochester was in trying to convince Jane to stay. But while Rochester only wanted Jane to stay out of his own love, St. John’s motives are purely selfish. Rochester’s offer included Jane and him living as brother and sister, only enjoying each other’s company. Rochester would accept that less than adequate life if only to see and live with Jane. But St. John insists on marriage with Jane. In fact, he demands marriage as a term for them traveling together. Even though they are already like brother and sister, St. John cannot think to live the way Rochester suggested, just enjoying her company. This fact makes Jane furious, “I repeat: I freely consent to go with you as your fellow missionary; nut not as your wife; I cannot marry you and become part of you” (Bronte, 613). So Jane has now rejected two men in favor of controlling herself. “The decision to leave Rochester is repeated and reversed by the decision to leave St. John…Both times Jane interrupts and seizes power over her lover, angering him with her intractability, asserting her right to determine her own life” (Berg, 113-14). Jane finally understands that even though she is a woman, she can still have the independent life she wants and doesn’t need a man beside her to live.
Jane’s realization of this new independence is first brought on by the receiving of her inheritance. For her whole life, like many women in that time, Jane has been held back by the confines of being dependent on someone. From being dependent on the Reeds at Gateshead as a child, to needing the Rivers’ help to restart her life, she has never had full control of her life until now. “It is this inheritance that gives Jane the freedom to make her own choices and to choose to never be dependent on anyone again” (Markley, 350). Sadly, Bronte’s purpose is to show that women can’t really have full control of themselves until there is some self-sufficient, economic dependence. Jane’s confidence in her own philosophies increases after she receives her inheritance. She now has no problem rejecting St. John’s loveless offer of marriage to attain her own happiness. “I broke from St. John; who had followed, and would have detained me. It was my time to assume ascendency. My powers were in play, and in force” (Bronte, 633). This symbolic realization from Jane is Bronte exemplifying Jane and St. Johns relationship and current situation. Jane was given many choices regarding marriage and love, but with her new economic independence and confidence she knows how to make a choice that is true to her. “But the choice she makes is to return to the man she loves, who…is at last able to enter into the kind of spiritual relationship of equality that Jane desires as an independent woman and a strong woman who has always managed to remain true to herself” (Markley, 37). When Jane returns to Rochester, she is finally sure of her true self. Rochester can’t control or be her master now that Jane doesn’t need or depend on him like she did before. Jane returns to him not because she must, or feels indebted to him, but she knows she will be happy in her life with him as an equal.
“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do” (Bronte, 161). Jane Eyre was considered one of the first feminist novels. Jane Eyre, as a character, does everything a woman of that time period shouldn’t be doing. Jane thinks, she shows her emotion, she makes her own choices and she questions men and their ideas. The novel was assumed to be written by a man because Bronte originally wrote under a pseudonym. When it was found out that a woman actually wrote about Jane’s experiences, and shared the ideas she put into her character, society was scandalized. Bronte wanted to prove that women could be free thinking individuals as well, and had the choice to determine the route of their lives. The book isn’t an advocate for political rights for women, or for suffrage, but Bronte stresses feminism in an ideological way. “Jane Eyre claims a need for women to have equal experiences with men- not the same, but equal in quality and depth of meaning” (Teachman, 23). Bronte takes her ideas and transfers them to Jane, who is constantly stressing to her male counterparts that women are individuals that can think for themselves and they need to man to guide them. Jane also follows “an independent, self-governing existence” (Evans, 687), just like Bronte. Jane shows women that it is possible to live a comfortable, self-sufficient, life and not be dependent on a man. Bronte also tries to show that there is equality in love as well. Women, like Jane, can have just as much feeling and emotions in love as men do. “Miss Bronte asks only for the simple recognition that the same heart and the same spirit animate both men and women, and that love is the pairing of equals in these spheres” (Martin, 93). Jane and Rochester have found equality in love by the end of the book; they respect and trust each other equally. Their love is a model for readers, showing us that men do not have the right to control women in love. Rochester is dependent on Jane at the end of the novel as well, a situation never found in novels in that time period. Jane expresses to women that they can be the one who decide their life. They can make choices that will make themselves happy. Women do not always have to please others, but can finally start living for themselves and do what they please.
“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself” (Bronte, 475). Jane has been a solitary person for the majority of her life, and she is perfectly fine surviving like that. She had many temporary friends, from Helen Burns to Rochester, but they continued to not be a permanent part of her life. This convinces her in the end that her decisions needed to reflect what she wanted, not needing to please others. Rochester begged her to stay, and it would have been so easy to accept his propositions. But Jane has too much self-respect to give up the control of her life to a man she knows does not see her as a complete equal. Leaving Rochester was an intensely hard thing to do, for even though she knew she loved him, she realized that their love couldn’t work and would only end in failure if she stayed. “In deciding to leave Rochester, Jane takes the first crucial step towards independence. She has discovered there is, after all, something more important to her than pleasing those whom she loves, or giving satisfaction to those who love her” (Moglen, 47). Jane starts her journey of realizing she can live for herself and find independence when she leaves Rochester. Jane had two offers of marriage, which is more than some women ever have. So many women chase after marriage, desperately trying to find a partner because they believe that’s when life will start. Jane is content with being solitary. She thinks marriage will just be an added happiness, not a necessary component to having a good life. For this reason, she waits until she knows she will have absolute equality in a marriage before she accepts. Jane has the luxury of being confident enough in her independence to pursue what she really wants in marriage. “Jane Claims independence and rejects subservience. She will consent only to a marriage which is the union of equals in independence…in which the woman is not just the object of pursuit or desire, but is recognized as an active contributor” (Yuen, 189). She eventually finds this person in the changed and subdued Rochester.
Jane’s Experiences with the contrasting characters of St. John and Mr. Rochester help her discover true independence; Charlotte Bronte wants to prove that women do have the choice to control their own lives and be treated as equals to men. Jane realized happiness when she found independence. She was restless all her life without knowing why until she finally was able to support herself and became content with her life. Jane needed Rochester’s whirlwind romance and passion to show her that it was possible for someone to love someone as “poor, obscure, plain and little” (Bronte378), as herself. She also needed the wakeup call of leaving Rochester to open her eyes on the truth of their relationship. St. John provided her with self-control and a time to mature into an independent woman confident in her choices. At the end of her experiences with the two men, Jane found herself a complete woman. She was able to dictate the choices in her life and knew that marriage was not going to complete her, but only add to her happiness. The new, independent, and mature Jane found her equal in love with Rochester again. Returning to him by her own choice, she was able to make him see that a woman and man could rely on each other equally in love. Bronte makes Jane a model for women everywhere by showing how even a disowned orphan can find independence and make the choices on how to live her own life.