More than a century and a half ago, in 1847, the novel – once believed auto-biography – Jane Eyre was first released. As we know now, it is a fictional story in which the title character, Jane, is loosely based on the experiences of the books eventually unveiled author, Charlotte Bronte. In its time, the novel challenged many Victorian values and brought rise to numerous questions as to what was proper and improper conduct within society. With its release began a landslide of discussion and opinions, from peasant to princess, about the books’ many controversial issues. One of the most pressing of these issues put forth by Bronte was the injustice in labeling a person based on the amount of wealth of which they are born into. It is clear that Bronte recognizes the existence of this type of discrimination and takes a stand against it in her story of the endearing Jane Eyre. In Bronte’s tale, Jane is an ideal example of how a person’s economical situation, in Victorian times as well most other points in history, can be the defining limit of their potential instead of – as it should be – their ability of body and mind.
From early childhood up until the day Jane receives word of her coincidental inheritance she is very literally constrained by her financial condition. Although she possesses such a brilliant mind and a strong will to thrive she can not even so much as leave her residence for a week without absolute permission and a financial allowance. When Jane receives word of her Aunt Reed’s imminent death, she seeks – as she must – her Master Rochester’s consent to take the trip to Gateshead. After a short inquiry, he replies: “Well, you must have some money; you can’t travel without money, and I daresay you have not much…”. This response is evocative of the state of affairs in Jane’s time and shows just how limited a dependant’s freedom truly was. Not by lack of intelligence, “a wicked heart” or stray ambitions was Jane confined to the “hardships” of Lowood and the desolate nights at Thornfield Hall. These oppressive situations were her only choice and only reality simply because Jane was poor and couldn’t finance her own desires.
Although Jane’s love for her eventual husband, Mr. Rochester, is perpetual, there is a point where she must deny him and leave him due to the financial separation between the two. Jane recognizes that her original attempt to marry Rochester would have been a grave mistake: for at the time, his wealth was considerable and hers non-existent. She recognizes that if she were to have married him then that she would have been become more of a possession than the loving wife she intended to be. Rochester entertains the notion that since they are to be wed, Jane will no longer appear as she does now: simple and modest. He expresses his intent to adorn Jane with “…diamond chains…”, “…certain jewels…”, and “…satin and lace…”. Jane, being the self-respecting martyr she is, revolts against these intentions of Rochester’s. “Why Jane, what would you have?” asks Rochester, offering her even the most treasured of material possessions. Her reply: “I only want an easy mind, sir; not crushed by crowded obligations…”. This response shows Jane’s acknowledgement and disapproval of the way people are classified by their wealth. By entering into a marriage with Rochester at that point would have meant to give up any chance of true freedom and would have left Jane as nothing more than “…Fairfax Rochester’s girl bride”. Even though Jane loves Rochester she decides she must leave him in fear of falling victim to the evil of currency. Jane’s honorable ways triumph again, but her heart and mind will continue to suffer: all due to her meager economic circumstances.
Despite the fact that Jane displays such a noble intellect and revolutionary outlook for most of her life: for her to actually advance in the world to the point where she could readily see to her own desires, it took but one single moment of absurd coincidence in which she inherited a fortune of twenty-thousand pounds. As a young girl, an older girl, and even as a married woman Jane is of the most honorable and self-respecting of characters: always defiant of anyone – St. John Rivers, Rochester, or her Aunt Reed – she believes to be in the wrong. Paul Schacht makes a convincing argument in his paper titled “Jane Eyre and the History of Self-Respect,” that honor and self-respect, are traits directly related to either one’s strength of character or their social rank (427). Jane inarguably possesses these invaluable traits regardless of her lesser rank within the Victorian class system. Even though she epitomizes an exceptional citizen for most of her existence, it is not until the single moment she becomes worth five thousand pounds that she is entirely in control of her own destiny. Upon her return to Mr. Rochester, even he – the love of her life who knows her inner beauty and strength better than anyone else – is surprised by her well-being. “And you do not lie dead in some ditch, under some stream? And you are not a pining outcast amongst strangers?”. After Jane tells him of her independence due to coincidental fortune he replies, “Ah! This is practical – this is real!”, as if her explanation makes it clear to him how Jane has survived in the malice world abroad: not by her abilities and selfless traits, but by her inheritance. By this, Jane exemplifies how some people may never be considered for the same prospect as another merely based on their monetary assets.
While Jane is but a fictional character in a novel, the reality of her situation is far from fantasy. Discrimination based on wealth or lack thereof has taken place since the introduction of currency. Some of the world’s most talented people exist in “…too absolute a stagnation…”, living mindless lives with no means of liberation while, for example, some of the most selfish and in-ambitious people attend some of the most expensive educational institutes in the world – ungratefully taking up seats that others yearn for constantly. Moreover, the range of this prejudice extends far beyond the educational structure: from athletics and industry, to politics and business, to the simple moments of everyday life that nourish the very roots of society. How do you see it? Is Jane full of desirable ambition or “…ungodly discontent” (Rigby 174)? Is the way in which members of society judge others based on their assets instead of their good will and capability immoral? Or is Jane Eyre’s defiance “…against the comforts of the rich and…the privations of the poor,” in the wrong? In today’s society, I find it hard to believe that anyone competent enough to have read Jane Eyre could opt with the latter.
This is a slightly updated version of an essay I wrote for first year university English in 2007. Funny how 1200 words seemed like such a big task at other times in my life!