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J A N E E Y R E : T H E D E V E L O P M E N T O F A F E M A L E C O N S C I O U S N E S S E. MARGARET FU LTO N Mount Saint Vincent University I f ever a woman divined a purpose for herself, it was Charlotte Bronte. All her novels, read in the light of the changes that have occurred for women in the last two decades, illuminate her discontent with the feminine stereotypes reinforced by fictional characters like Pamela, Moll Flanders, Little Nell, and even Cathy Earnshaw or Agnes Grey. After failing to publish The Professor, she aired her mind on the subject of women. According to Mrs. Gaskell, she disagreed with her sisters’ opinion that heroines should be beauti­ ful and she “determined to make her heroine plain, small and unattractive, in defiance of the accepted canon.” 1 On the surface, Charlotte Bronte’s pur­ pose seems clear enough, but the complexity of that purpose has escaped many readers. A critical view of Jane Eyre still commonly held was established by those eminent Freudian critics Richard Chase2 and Mark Schorer.3 While Schorer faults the novel mainly for its absurdities of plot and melodramatic Gothic elements, Chase focusses attention solely on the love relationship and casti­ gates the frigid heroine Jane for castrating the Byronic hero, Rochester. Jane’s more important spiritual and social quest is ignored, as is the social criticism directed against the family and other sacred Victorian institutions. In fact, Charlotte Bronte has not followed the pattern of a Gothic romance, but insofar as she works within a standard literary tradition she is modifying the picaresque or episodic novel form. The real purpose and uniqueness of the novel is the attempt to delineate the pilgrimage of a woman from the insecurity and dependence of childhood to the maturity and independence of adulthood. The goal to be achieved is that of the New Testament concept of a “ new creation,” and for Charlotte Bronte this “ new creation” implied both a new woman, as well as a new man; it meant a new person with a higher consciousness. Jane Eyre has less in common with the eighteenth-century pilgrims like Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, and Robinson Crusoe (although Barbara Hardy sees a clear comparison with Crusoe)4 than she has with the heroes of the spiritual autobiographies so common in nine­ teenth-century literature. Closer in every way to Jane’s search than that of E n g l is h St u d ie s in C a n a d a , v , 4, Winter 1979 earlier fictional characters is the experience of Diogenes Teufelsdrockh. Bronte’s heroine shares with Carlyle’s hero the duality of being both Godborn and yet rooted in earth or human reality. Bronte chooses a less preten­ tious name and circumstances for her heroine, but the similarities and sym­ bolism surrounding Jane Eyre are unmistakable. Orphaned, Jane is plain and practical, but she is also air and spirit. Her task, like Teufelsdrockh’s, is to reconcile the opposites within and without. She must bring into balance the logical, rational, reasoning, or so-called masculine side of her being with the intuitive, instinctive, spiritual, or so-called feminine side. She must achieve a spiritual dimension in her life! and yet learn to work in the world. Jane’s task is of a more difficult order than Teufelsdrockh’s; for in order to har­ monize the two opposites within her being to achieve the wholeness or one­ ness of selfhood, Jane must carry out her search for herself as a woman in a male-dominated society. Richard Chase, in his article “The Brontes, or Myth Domesticated,” be­ littles the whole theme of female self-determination as a mere “ feminist tract, an argument for the social betterment of governesses and equal rights for women.” 5 In Chase’s view of cosmic drama, woman has only one role — to submit to the male hero. Failure to do so should bring about tragic con­ sequences. If Charlotte Bronte had really known what she was about...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1913-4835
Print ISSN
0317-0802
Pages
pp. 432-447
Launched on MUSE
2019-04-03
Open Access
No
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