Class Structure and Morality in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

April 29, 2019 by Essay Writer

At first glance, Jane Eyre might be seen as simply a skillfully written Gothic romance. A closer look reveals layers of gender criticism and feminism. Yet, one of the most interesting readings focuses on the layers of class and Marxist commentary in the novel, especially from a deconstructionist perspective, with a careful watch for contradictions and complexities. While confusing and somewhat inconclusive, this style of analysis nevertheless produces some very interesting insights into the character of Jane Eyre and the possible intentions of the implied narrator. However, an even more baffling aspect of this novel is the role of religion, which arises in inorganic and complex ways. The solution, then, is to view the synthesis of the two aspects, and to look at how class structure relates to morality. It then becomes possible to see that the instances of class commentary and social structure are really references to morality, at least in Jane’s mind, if not in the mind of the implied narrator. Thus, while it seems that Jane’s class position varies – as does her judgment of her class – the reader is never encouraged to change his or her opinion of Jane. Because Jane’s morality has been carefully developed and established, her morality is what truly indicates her place in society. Jane’s awareness of her own class status changes often in the novel, but her own sense of intrinsic self-worth never falters. As a child, Jane professes that she “was not heroic enough to purchase liberty at the price of caste” (36), meaning she would rather live as a prisoner at Gateshead then as someone free but destitute. However, the older, narrating Jane shows not only self-awareness of this judgment, but also an indication of a change of thinking. She reflects, saying “poverty looks grim to grown people; still more so to children: they have not much idea of industrious, working, respectable poverty” (36). This passage ties in the aspect of morality, implying that the only acceptable poverty is the “working, respectable” kind. Later, as a pupil at Lowood, Jane becomes a member of the “respectable” poor, by enduring hunger and deprivation, and working her way through the classes to the position of teacher. In this phase of her life, Jane’s thoughts about her status and her motivations (as well as her morals) never change. She simply grows into a more mature, established member of the working class, seen again through her self-confidence in her ability to find work as a governess. For example, in the beginning of her communications with Ms. Fairfax, she appears quite confident that she has more than enough talent and education to be a respectable governess for Thornfield. Later, even though debased to the level of a beggar, Jane’s confidence in her ability to find work still does not falter. While this phase of utter poverty should have been the most debasing and demoralizing experience of her life, Jane seems to retain an inherent knowledge of her self worth. She even somewhat assumes the air of a martyr, willing to die of destitution before she sacrifices her morals to be Mr. Rochester’s mistress.The other characters are also constructed in a way that relates their class structure to their morality. Blanche Ingram and the Reeds are naturally wealthy, but impossibly haughty and rude. They do not have to work, having been simply handed their money, and are thus deprived from the morality of working for one’s living. Characters such as Bessie and Miss Temple, however, are seen as virtuous and even physically attractive, possibly as a result of their working class status. They both have to work to establish their place in society, so therefore they are admired by the narrator, consciously or not, and are definitively moral. Mary and Diana are governesses as well, and are consequently seen as sweet and attractive. Even St. John consciously casts aside wealth and position in exchange for morality and piety, very clearly equating impoverishment with virtue. He extols, “I hold that the more arid and unreclaimed the soil where the Christian labourer’s task of tillage is appointed him – the scantier the meed his toil brings – the higher the honor” (347). However, the novel ends curiously with the martyr-like death of St. John, expressed in a strikingly religious (and inorganic) way, leaving the reader to wonder if the implied narrator either admires or mocks St. John’s view. While this seems to be a relatively conclusive argument, equally prevalent are the instances which do not suit this perspective. Indeed, Jane frequently struggles against this class (or morality-based) status which society has placed herself in, yet in other instances it appears she tries to fit in with her given status. For example, as a child, Jane associates herself with Bessie and the servants, as opposed to the oppressive and cruel Reeds. However, aware that she does not completely fit in with the servants, Jane often times rejects such a position. In one instance she cries, “Master! How is he my master? Am I a servant?” to which she is told, “No; you are less than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep” (24). This again enforces the virtue of working for one’s position in society, something reinforced by her days at Lowood. It is possible, therefore, to view the Lowood stage as not only necessary for Jane’s formation of both a personal and class-conscious character, but also as possibly a punishment for her behavior at Gateshead, for trying to reject her natural class and status.In addition, the aspect of class ambiguity that historically corresponds to the status of governess is a crucial element in understanding class structure in the novel, for it allows a little more room for Jane to grapple with her conception of her place in society. This ambiguity allows the novel (and the character of Jane) to develop, as the reader watches Jane both embrace and reject different phases of self-consciousness and class-consciousness. The actual ambiguity of Jane’s status makes the aforementioned feasible, as does the fact that Jane has an orphan background (and therefore an ambiguous origin), and yet has an education. The ambiguity also applies to Jane’s physical appearance, one constantly described as plain and not handsome. However, to those who love her, Jane becomes more generally attractive, because of her morality, her intelligence, and her other positive characteristics. This dimension again testifies to the theory that morality and personal virtue matter more than the conditions into which one is born (i.e. attractiveness and class). Furthermore, by possessing the former, the latter is influenced as well.One of the most puzzling questions, however, lies in the conclusion of the novel. As Susan Fraiman writes, “the role Jane proceeds to play as caretaker to her crippled husband bears an odd resemblance to the maternal role conventionally played in relation to men and servants in relation to masters” (630). It remains unclear whether Jane feels naturally suited to serving Mr. Rochester, whether she pities him, whether she serves him out of love, whether she serves him out a feeling of obligation, or whether she serves him because she needs to do so to feel virtuous. The question then becomes the following: does the passage seem contradictory because Jane’s morality frees her from having to be subservient? Or does it mean that Jane’s morality results from her subservience? It is also unclear whether Jane ends up associating herself with the servant role, or with the role of the rich and respectable bourgeois wife. Or perhaps, in homage to the complexity of her character, Jane can be both.The reader then has to wonder what kind of a statement the implied narrator (and by extension, Brontë) is trying to make through the layers of class consciousness in the novel. Is it a criticism of the rigid, caste-like British society which, at least in formality, disregards Jane’s morality and defines her in terms of her natural-born class? Does it show an agreement with the class structure, as evidenced by the fact that Jane never truly rises above her natural-born class, despite all of her work, and in the end remains somewhat of a servant? Or perhaps the aspects of religion, morality, and even love interact as if to eschew all class structure, not in protest, but in favor of more important characteristics. The readers may choose the interpretation which suits them best, but the question remains as to what Brontë intended… and that we may never know. WORKS CITEDBrontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996.Fraiman, Susan. A Marxist Perspective – Jane Eyre’s Fall From Grace. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996. 614-631.

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