Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as a Coming of Age Story Essay
Charlotte Bronte’s classic, Jane Eyre, is a ‘coming of age’ story. The main character, Jane, travels from the innocence of childhood through the maturity of adulthood. During this journey, Jane goes through the battle of education vs. containment, where she attempts to learn about herself and about the world. She must constantly battle a containment of sorts, however, whether it be a true physical containment or a mental one. This battle of education vs. containment can be seen by following Jane through her different places of residence, including Gateshead Hall, Lowood Institution, Thornfield, Moor House and Morton, and Ferndean Manor, where she is, finally, fully educated and escapes the feeling of containment which she held throughout the novel.
The story begins as Jane lives with the Reed family in their home at Gateshead Hall. Here, the theme of education vs. containment develops immediately, as Jane is kept confined indoors on a cold winter day. The other children (Eliza, John, and Giorgiana) are ‘clustered round their mamma in the drawing-room’ (Bronte: 39) being educated, as Jane had been excluded from the group. Jane tries to educate herself by reading from Berwick’s History of British Birds, but once again, she is held back from her attempt at enlightenment by the abuse of John Reed, who castigates her and throws the heavy book at her. In anger, Jane cries out, ‘You are like a murderer – you are like a slave-driver – you are like the Roman emperors’ (Bronte: 43). In this passage, Jane compares John Reed to a slave-driver because, like a slave-driver, he deprives Jane of her attempt at education and keeps her suppressed. Afterwards, Jane is blamed for the entire incident and experiences true physical containment as she is locked up in the ‘red-room.’ The room not only binds her physically, by its walls and locked doors, but also mentally, as it haunts her. The ‘red-room’ is where Mr. Reed had died. ‘It was in this chamber he breathed his last…and, since that day, a sense of dreary consecration had guarded it from frequent intrusion.’ (Bronte: 46). Nobody wanted to enter the room for long, in fear that the same ‘containment’ might be put upon them. Jane, however, was thrust into the room and feared that the she would be constrained by the chains of death the same way that Mr. Reed was. The events at Gateshead begin the ever present battle between education and containment in Jane Eyre.
Jane is sent away by Mrs. Reed to Lowood Institution, a boarding school for orphaned girls where the next battle of education vs. containment would occur. At Lowood, which was ‘surrounded with walls so high as to exclude every glimpse of prospect’ (Bronte: 80), Jane receives a scholastic education, but is very much contained by the strict discipline and lifestyle as well as the harshness of certain prominent figures there, such as Miss Scatcherd and Mr. Brocklehurst. Jane sees that here, like at Gateshead, the movement towards progress and knowledge is contained. She sees this as her friend, Helen Burns, gives a near perfect recital of her history lesson, ‘ready with answers on every point’ (Bronte: 86), but is still disciplined by Miss Scatcherd for having dirty fingernails, which she could not clean because the water had been frozen that morning. She sees that Mr. Brocklehurst takes part in this same restraining of progress as he reprimands Julia Severn, the girl with naturally curled red hair, and commands that her curls be cut off because he wants to teach the girls ‘to clothe themselves with shamefacedness and sobriety, not with braided hair and costly apparel’ (Bronte: 96). Ironically, his own wife and daughters ‘were splendidly attired in velvet, silk, and furs’ and his wife wore ‘a false front of French curls’ (Bronte: 97). Through these examples, as well as, the scolding and false accusations Jane, herself, receives from Mr. Brocklehurst, one can see that the entire purpose of Lowood Institution is to educate but constrain. Its purpose is not to further these orphaned girls by truly educating them and giving them the same opportunities as everyone else, but merely to educate them to serve, not to amount to anything but an underclass to serve the wealthy. Jane will not settle for this as she tells Helen, ‘I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly’ (Bronte: 90).
Jane’s next battle occurs at Thornfield, after she has graduated from Lowood and has, herself, taught there. At Thornfield, Jane becomes educated about the more worldly aspects of life and she is actually an educator, herself, of Adele Varnes, the young ward of the master of Thornfield, Edward Rochester. For the first time Jane experiences the pleasures of love and caring for a man when she slowly falls in love with Rochester. She often daydreams of Rochester and the ‘hopes, wishes, sentiments’ (Bronte: 190) she has been cherishing. However, the strict upbringing that she has received constrain her education of love as she concludes, ‘It does good to no woman to be flattered by her superior, who cannot possibly intend to marry her; and its madness in all women to let secret love kindle within them’ (Bronte: 190). Lowood’s influence on Jane to be plain, to be an underclass to serve, holds true in her mind as she compares herself to Blanche Ingram by saying, ‘Mr. Rochester might probably win that noble lady’s love, if he chose to strive for it; is it likely he would waste a serious thought on this indigent and insignificant plebeian?’ (Bronte: 191). Later, it seems that Jane has found true happiness, as both, her and Rochester, express their tremendous love for one another. However, her further education of love is, once more, hindered by the strict moral code instilled upon her at school as she refuses to have anything to do with her beloved Rochester following the break up of their marriage with accusations of bigamy. The dreams Jane has the night before she flees Thornfield represent her containment, as she ‘dreamt [she] lay in the red-room at Gateshead’ (Bronte: 346). The feud between education and containment is very prevalent at Thornfield as Jane is now contained by her conscience and what she was taught to believe in her youth. As she leaves Thornfield, Jane summarizes, ‘God must have led me on’ (Bronte: 348).
This brings Jane to her next trial, at Moor House and the school at Morton. Here, Jane becomes enlightened in the spirituality she lacked at Thornfield. She feels that she has made the right decision by leaving Thornfield as she contemplates, ‘Whether is it better, I ask, to be a slave in a fool’s paradise at Marseilles…suffocating with the bitterest tears of remorse and shame…or to be a village schoolmistress, free and honest’ (Bronte: 386). However, Jane is contained from her spiritual happiness as she sees what a life of total spirituality and no worldly pleasures can do to a person, which is what she sees in St. John Rivers. St. John is a ‘cold, hard man’ (Bronte: 400) with ‘reason, and not feelings’ (Bronte: 401) as his guide, who is ‘inexorable as death’ (Bronte: 391). He is completely bound by his Christian philosophies and will not allow himself the pleasure of loving the beautiful Rosamond Oliver because ‘she would not make a good wife’ for his vocation of being a missionary, his ‘great work,’ his ‘foundation laid on Earth for a mansion in heaven’ (Bronte: 399-400). At the same time Jane has ‘dreams many-coloured…charged with adventure, with agitating risk and romantic chance’ (Bronte: 393) about Edward Rochester and life at Thornfield. Life on the moors has the opposite effect on Jane that life at Thornfield has. Here, Jane is contained from spiritual development by her emotions, desires, and love for Rochester. This leads to her leaving Moor House and returning to Rochester who now lives at Ferndean Manor.
Jane, finally, breaks away from her containment as she realizes that life with Rochester was her best option and that a life of total spirituality, like that of St. John, is impossible for her. With Rochester at Ferndean, Jane finds the balance between spiritual and worldly happiness, as Rochester, finally, ‘began to see and acknowledge the hand of God’ (Bronte: 471). Jane is an ‘independent woman now’ (Bronte: 459) as she has broken free from her constrains and is fully educated on life. The battle of education vs. containment has, ultimately, ended, as Jane has achieved happiness in every way. She summarizes her satisfaction with her life married to Rochester as she states, ‘All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character – perfect concord is the result’ (Bronte: 476).
Jane Eyre, certainly, does come of age in Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel. At the beginning of the book, Jane is a lonely dependent orphan girl, but she battles the constraints of her harsh upbringing and becomes educated, not only intellectually, but socially and spiritually, as well. She develops into a strong, confident and independent woman. She neither has to give up her spiritual beliefs nor her normal human desires for love to be genuinely happy. Jane becomes the epitome of the modern woman, as she manages a perfect balance between both, the spiritual and the physical, which is what she really wanted in life.
Works Cited and Consulted
- Beaty, Jerome. Misreading Jane Eyre. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1996.
- Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1991
- Bronte, Charlotte. ‘Charlotte Bronte’s Letters’. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971.
- Dowta, Dr. Allyson. Women and the Written Word. Trenton: Prentice Hall, 1992.
- Fraser, Rebecca. The Brontes. 1st ed. New York: Crown Publishers, 1988.
- Gates, Barbara Timm, ed. Critical Essays on Charlotte Bronte. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
- Jane Eyre. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. Perf. William Hurt, Charlotte Gainsborough, and Anna Paquin. 1996
- Jane Eyre. Dir. Julian Aymes. Perf. Timothy Dalton, Zelah Clarke. 1983
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