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What Did Jane Eyre Do? Ideology, Agency, Class and the Novel

From: Narrative
Volume 13, Number 1, January 2005
pp. 46-66 | 10.1353/nar.2005.0001

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What Did Jane Eyre Do? Ideology, Agency, Class and the Novel

What does Jane Eyre do? Does it produce a class subject? What does Jane Eyre do? Does she achieve a class consciousness? If so, what class are we talking about? The middle class, the gentry, the upper class? One critic answers these questions with the assertion that "each time" we read Jane Eyre, "we reproduce the bourgeois subject of personal experience" (Levy 94-95).1 This statement employs a vocabulary ("reproduce," "bourgeois," "subject") that links together several key concepts through which we understand what a novel does. In particular, it invokes the concept of ideology, which in its classic formulation is understood to "reproduce" the relation to production. In accord with theories of ideology it treats class as a fundamental category of identity, making the interpellated subject a classed subject, and accepts the attendant assumption that the bourgeoisie, or middle class, was hegemonic in the nineteenth century. Finally, the assertion that this middle-class subject is reproduced "every time" we read the novel derives from theories of ideological interpellation. The difficulty with this conception of what Jane Eyre does is that it assumes that the novel embodies a fixed ideology represented in the subjectivity of its heroine and inexorably produced in the reading subject, a view that obscures the involvement of the text in producing—not just reproducing—ideologies and identities as well as the variety of uses to which reading subjects can put this textual material.

In the discussion that follows, I will argue that literary criticism has tended to treat ideology in economistic terms as a fixed, normative field of discourse that represses social reality, a conception that underlies the now commonplace characterization of Victorian texts as both subverting and supporting ideology. Jane Eyre in particular invites such readings precisely because its heroine rebels against social exclusion [End Page 46] yet ultimately does not seek to overturn the existing social order; her narrative begins with her rebellion against the Reeds, who seek to "exclude" her "from privileges intended only for contented, happy, little children," and ends with her social inclusion as a cousin of the Rivers siblings and wife of Edward Rochester (7). Correspondingly, Jane begins as an angry narrator, but then learns to repress this anger, telling her story with "less of gall and wormwood" than in her initial narrations (71). These oppositions have led a variety of critics to regard the novel as moving sequentially "from revolted marginality to quiescent socialization," from expression to repression (Politi 56). In so far as Jane Eyre is found to subvert ideology, it is conceived as an act of resistance and agency, but it is a resistance neutralized by an opposing movement toward repression that reinforces ideology and absorbs critique back into itself.

However, because ideology is always being produced in time, we should see the novel as producing, not merely reproducing, ideology. If Jane's rebellion ends when she learns to tell her story with "less of gall and wormwood," then the remainder of her story, from the time of her arrival at Lowood until its conclusion, would, indeed, represent submission to established cultural institutions. Yet she continues to rebel, against being labeled a liar by Brocklehurst, against the tedium of her career as governess, against being made a mistress by Rochester, against being sacrificed to St. John Rivers's ambitions. As Lisa Sternlieb points out, the fact that Jane feels compelled to write this narrative ten years after marrying Rochester suggests that the events narrated therein do not bring her to a state of quiescence in which she has nothing more to say, that there is still some "gall" left over at its conclusion (454). The question is not whether the novel supports or subverts class ideology, but rather how it deploys the languages of class in order to confront a series of social situations, each of which threatens to delimit Jane Eyre's social agency.

Jane Eyre repeatedly shifts positions within class discourse, not in order to move towards a final class identity but in response to economic dependence, social exclusion, personal isolation, and other circumstances. It is not that...