In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the characters Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason are both oppressed by the patriarchal system of the nineteenth century Britain. Each woman refuses to conform to a patriarchal society, but the manner by which each rebel against culture determine a very different future. By depicting opposing reactions to the oppression, Bronte successfully depicts the plight of women in the nineteenth century. By the time Jane Eyre is nine years old, she has built up a great deal of resentment of the injustice she receives at Gateshead Hall. She decides to rebel against the harsh treatment that she receives from her family.
They consider her desire to learn and her independent thoughts to be disobedient and her punishment becomes so intolerable that she could no longer restrain herself. She attacks the rich and spoiled John Reed, behaving “like a mad cat” (475) and is locked away in a remote, haunting chamber known as the red room. At Lowood Institution, under strict rules and regulations, and with the help of another orphan, Helen Burns, Jane learns that it is wrong to rebel against society. Helen states, “It is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required to bear (506)….
It is not violence that best overcomes hate-nor vengeance that most certainly heals injury”(508). Jane learns to conform to society’s rules while still maintaining her sense of independence. In the nineteenth century, women do not have a great deal of personal freedom. There are few options available for them other than marrying and having children. Jane’s occupation as a governess represents one of the only ways a respectable woman could support herself. As an educated and employed woman, she uses her intelligence to earn a living for herself, rather than relying on a man. She is independent and does not need a man to survive.
Even after Rochester proposes to Jane, she still demands that she continue to be Adele’s governess, earn her own boarding, and pay for her own clothing. The entire novel portrays some women as strong, intelligent, and yet still feminine. Jane is ultimately convinced that strictly adhering to the rules will assist her in achieving what she wants. Bertha is depicted in a totally different manner. She has no interest in social acceptance or self-respect. Unlike Jane, she has not learned the consequences of disobedience and ultimately the value of conforming to the expectations of others.
She is brought up in extravagance, as her family is wealthy. By adulthood, her father realizes that her behavior is not acceptable and cannot be tolerated in a woman. Although he has reared her, he now realizes that she is beginning to show tendencies exhibited by her mother, who was locked up in an insane asylum. He quickly decides that she must be married off as soon as possible. Rochester’s own family rushes the marriage as well, for their own financial gain. Bertha is hurriedly wed to Rochester, and it is not until after the wedding that Rochester learns of his mother-in-law’s “illness” and of his wife’s “appetite. ”
Bronte reinforces the restrictive sexual values of Victorian society through Bertha being confined for her display of excess passion. In the nineteenth century, excesses in sexuality, especially those of females, are considered signs of insanity. Bertha is therefore hidden away. Her very existence is deemed a threat. Rochester considers Bertha’s lusty sexual appetites improper and deviant. Her tastes were obnoxious to Rochester, her “cast of mind common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher… whatever topic I started immediately received from her a turn at once course and trite, perverse and imbecile… er excesses had prematurely developed into germs of insanity… no professed harlot ever had a fouler vocabulary than she. ”
It is obvious that Bertha does not have intent to operate within the arrangement of a traditional marriage or to conform to the expectations of her husband, much less society. Rochester ultimately decides to confine her, as a member of the patriarchy he has the power and authority to judge and punish her. He imprisons her for unladylike, aggressive sexuality and the refusal to kowtow to the patriarchal expectations of women.
After being locked up for ten years, Rochester admits, “she [Bertha] had lucid intervals of days, sometimes weeks. ” This confinement aggravates Bertha’s condition, and she attempts to escape from her prison. On separate occasions, she stabs her brother, attempts to burn Rochester in his bed, and visits Jane in her room while she is sleeping, destroying Jane’s wedding veil. Rochester’s confinement of Bertha ultimately becomes the motivation for her final escape, resulting in the destruction of everything that symbolized her oppression, including her prison within Thornfield Hall.
Because she refuses to submit to her husband and the oppression of a patriarchal society, the only way for Bertha to escape is in death; she kills herself by jumping off the roof of Thornfield Hall. To the end, Bertha refuses to be controlled by her husband or to submit to society’s opinion of proper female behavior. “We heard him call ‘Bertha! ‘ We saw him approach her; and then ma’am, she yelled, and gave a spring, and the next minute she lay smashed on the pavement. ” Bertha’s death allows Jane to marry Rochester.
As long as Bertha was still alive, Jane refused to deviate from what society deemed right by living with Rochester as his mistress. Jane effectively uses her conformity not only to maintain her own self-respect, but her compliance with society’s rules for a woman allows her to achieve her most desired goal. Jane was a model for women readers in the Victorian period. She encouraged them to make their own choices in living their lives, to develop respect for themselves, and to become individuals.
Bronte allows Jane to remain acceptable to society as well as true to her own self. As an orphan left with a family who did not really love her, her survival depended upon her complying with the wishes of those in charge. However, even in an oppressed state, she was able to take advantage of the benefits of living with people who were privileged, like reading available books and learning social graces. Bertha, on the other hand, was not subjected to restrictions as a child and has not learned to channel her energies into more conforming ways.
She was oppressed due to the social customs of the time; however, she was also without direction or instructions as to how to act like a responsible adult. In conclusion, by presenting two opposing reactions to oppression, Bronte is more effectively able to detail the plight of women in the nineteenth century. She states that strong, directed women can make the most of their situations, even in an oppressed society, if they remain focused. No doubt such a mindset contributed to women eventually becoming more purpose-driven and educated, which empowered them to have some control over their own lives.
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