by Charlotte Knopf
Throughout literature and history, there are stories known of powerful women. Some have reached their power through marrying an influential man. Others have had the money to sustain their influence. In all of literature’s works, there is one book that takes sources of power to a new level. The novel Jane Eyre was written by Charlotte Brontë and published in 1874. The story is centered on the life of an orphaned girl. Jane Eyre seems to be powerless due to her social rank, lack of fortune, and being a female. However, Jane’s life story shapes her and at a young age, she has already reached a sense of intellectual maturity that is quite impressive. Jane has different sites of power negotiation that form the base for the power she exerts in the novel. She derives it from three sources – body, language, and sense.
The first component of body that will be looked at is how her physicality gives Jane power. In Jane’s upbringing, she struggled with her cousin John Reed who never missed a chance of reminding her about her inferior status. In the opening scene of the book, John is bullying her. However, for a moment Jane seems to be superior: “I knew he would soon strike, and while dreading the blow, I mused on the disgusting and ugly appearance of him who would presently deal it” (8). John then hits her and comments on “the look you had in your eyes two minutes since” (8). Even though Jane is not the physically stronger person, her amusement of John is known to the reader. John also sees the defiance in Jane’s eyes. In Peter J. Bellis’s words, Jane “asserts her visual independence” (641). The incident with John is probably the earliest occasion the reader becomes introduced to a source of power from Jane. In this scene, it is body combined with wit that gives Jane at least a little power. Moments after, John strikes her again; Jane’s reaction is different. When she feels the blood trickling down on her forehead “[the] sensations for the time predominated over fear, and I received him in frantic sort” (9). She retaliates and physically defeats him. Here, Jane demonstrates physical violence that makes her equal to John in physicality. Physicality gives Jane a certain kind of power, especially over John, who then resorts to only calling her names.
Furthermore, Jane’s physical violence is countered with physicality on Bessie’s and Miss Abbot’s behalf. After her fight with John, “two pairs of hands arrested [her] instantly” (9). The dominance exercised by the two ladies shows Jane’s inferior role in the household. When she is brought to the red room, she tells Miss Abbot to not tie her down to the chair and that she will not move (9). Jane describes how she “attache[s] [herself] to [her] seat by [her] hands” (10). Jane’s behavior allows her to exercise a little bit of power over the two women who then decide to not tie her to the chair. After the two leave, Jane is alone in the room. Her reflection on the circumstances she lives in is foreshadowing her behavior in the future. When she talks about “the reproach of [her] dependence” (10), the reader understands how much she hates being powerless. Later on, she asks herself why she is the one “always suffering, always browbeaten, always accused” (11). The fact that she is questioning the circumstances and then states that her reason says they are “Unjust! – unjust!” (12) illustrates her further need for power. Jane recognizes the unfairness that is dictating her life. Therefore, early on in the story, her will to achieve control over her circumstances is established.
As Jane matures through the story, so does her connection with her body. She uses the control she has over what she wears and how she adorns her body to exercise power. A subject that is related to this specific control over body is Jane’s and Rochester’s conversation about the jewels he is having sent to them. They have gotten engaged and Rochester is saying how soon she will be called Jane Rochester. The thought of a name change is called “strange” by Jane, (220) who compares her situation to a day-dream, to which Rochester responds he will realize it. Then he starts talking about the jewels that his banker will send to him for Jane. Here, Jane strongly states that she doesn’t want them, because jewels for Jane Eyre (she doesn’t use Jane Rochester) seem unnatural. Rochester’s description of how he will put the “diamond chain around [her] neck” and “clasp the bracelet around these fine wrists” (220) sounds like imprisonment. In response to that, Jane’s resistance grows even stronger. She alone wants to keep the power over her body. Denying the jewels is denying Rochester control over her. He wants to turn her into a beauty by giving her jewels, dressing her in fine clothes, travelling with her, and making other people acknowledge her beauty. In this scene, it is also Jane’s awareness of her body that keeps her down to earth. She doesn’t fantasize with Rochester, but asks him to not compliment her on something not real. She even says “I don’t call you handsome, sir, though I love you most dearly: far too dearly to flatter you. Don’t flatter me” (221). Here, it is argued that she states that she loves him more than he her, because she clearly implies that if you love someone very dearly, you won’t flatter them like Rochester is doing. This scene shows how Jane’s awareness of her body keeps her powerful because it demonstrates some healthy skepticism towards the marriage.
The conversation that takes place between Jane and Rochester after the failed marriage ceremony shows how Jane exercises sexual power over Rochester in terms of body. Rochester comes towards Jane making an attempt to kiss her. Jane “remember[s] that caresses were now forbidden” (255), so she turns away her head and also actively turns away Rochester’s face. The reader knows Jane’s inner feelings about the situation; it seems like she would want nothing more than to kiss Rochester, since at this point she has already forgiven him for not telling her about Bertha. Nevertheless, Jane is suppressing her instinct of showing physical passion to Rochester. Firstly, because in this moment it is simply not appropriate anymore. Secondly, it gives her power that she exercises over Rochester who then bursts out more emotion to demonstrate his suffering.
Even though Jane is denying him affectionate touch to her body, she still physically stays with him. When he asks her to listen to him so he can explain, she replies that she will listen hours if he needs her to (260). At this point, she has already subconsciously made her decision to leave Thornfield; however, because of Rochester she takes the time to listen to his story. Here, she isn’t aware of the effect her presence has on Rochester. He is already begging her to stay by telling her his story, hoping that it will change her mind. Her presence tortures him because he is aware she will leave. Consequentially, in this situation it is not just the fact that Jane is denying Rochester her body but showing him what he can’t have that makes her powerful.
After Rochester tells Jane about the marriage with Bertha and his life after that, she is silent and when he asks her to promise to be his, she denies him the promise. Then, he attempts to exercise power over her body – first by embracing her, then by kissing her forehead and cheek (269). In this scene, she lets him, but she remains in control over his affectionate actions since she doesn’t let his actions change her mind. She doesn’t let him influence her through physical touch, remaining in control of her body, which in return gives her power over Rochester.
In addition to the mentioned instances of power negotiation, an important aspect of considering her body as a power source is the age difference between Jane and Rochester. When they meet, he is twenty years older. In the relationship, that puts her in the role of a child, while giving Rochester a fatherly role, and therefore more power. In the course of the book, however, the relationship changes. As Ester Godfrey puts it so eloquently: “The dynamic quality of age difference shifts in power that coincide with the […] dramatic reversals of fortune” (865). At the beginning of their relationship, Rochester is clearly in the power position. With more time, Jane comes to the height of her womanliness and suddenly becomes an heiress, while Rochester ages, and loses his arm and sight due to Bertha burning down Thornfield. The power has shifted from Rochester to Jane. She also uses her newly acquired power to play with Rochester. When she is talking to him about St. John’s proposal, she makes a remark about St. John’s age, how St. John was “only twenty-nine, sir” (375). Then, Rochester asks if Jane would rather not sit on his knee anymore, to which she replies with “Why not, Mr. Rochester?” (375). Esther Godfrey notes that “throughout this conversation, [Jane] is aware the advantages and power that her body gives her over Rochester; that is clearly illustrated since Rochester attempts to degrade St. John and feels threatened” (867).
Another important and effective power source for Jane is her language. What she says and how she says it is the reason she is taken seriously. In this site of power negotiation, Jane also develops more qualities from childhood to adulthood. In her childhood, the most impressive scene is when she decides to speak up to Mrs. Reed who uses a tone to speak to Jane as “an opponent of adult age” rather than “a child” (30). The treatment of Jane by her aunt shows how Jane is forced to grow up faster than a child normally would. Jane’s answer to Mrs. Reed’s question is strong and rational:
I am glad that you are of no relation of mine: I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to see you when I am grown up; and if any one asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treat me with miserable cruelty. (30)
Mrs. Reed responds by asking how Jane dare say this. In the first sentence of her explanation, Jane says “because it is the truth” (30). Her reaction is an outburst of emotions, and Jane’s language allows her to make known how she feels. Even though it might seem like rage, it has characteristics of a calculated statement. The reader gets a hint early on that as a means of power, Jane will develop reason.
Another scene in which Jane uses her language as power is one of the evenings after she has been formally introduced to Rochester. That evening, he asks Jane to sit with him, and draw her chair a little closer to his so he can look at her without moving from his comfortable position. Even though she doesn’t like his order, she obeys. She looks at him for a while, which causes him to ask if she thinks him handsome; she replies “no sir” (112). She tells the reader: “I should, if I deliberated, have replied to this question by something conventionally vague and polite; the answer somehow slipped from my tongue before I was aware” (112). Her reflection shows that even if she hadn’t wanted to give this answer, it is honest. Her honesty through her words gives her great power. She further then elaborates when Rochester asks what she meant. She says that “beauty is of little consequence (112) and that tastes differ. This direct answer makes her very interesting to Rochester who compares the effect of her blunt answer to “sticking a sly penknife under [his] ear” (112) instead of trying to smooth out the situation. Jane’s spoken language makes her interesting to Rochester and he speaks to her as more of an equal because of her honesty. Her language exposes her knowledge, education, and sense in a powerful way that makes social rank less important.
Of course, one of most powerful ways to look at the language Jane uses is how she talks to the reader. When she has left Thornfield, she sleeps outside and has to beg for food. She finally finds a house that she walks towards, in hope that the people living there might be able to help her. Interestingly, she uses the word “inmates” (282) to describe the people living in the house. With the usage of the word, she suggests that the house is like a prison, maybe even how she saw Thornfield if she had stayed there. If “inmates” suggests ‘imprisoned’, then she illustrates herself as free. The comparison suddenly makes her equal to inhabitants of the house, even though they are of better social rank. She continues using the term “inmates” even after she stayed with them for a while. The ongoing use illustrates how Jane, even though she is physically weak and not well, still manages to create an equality between her and the Rivers siblings using language.
Another scene that is interesting to look at in terms of language is when Rochester plays the piano and the song to accompany the music is sung. The scene is described as very romantic with a lot of tenderness and passion. Instead of being swept off her feet, Jane decides that “a weapon of defense must be prepared” (233). Her choice of words shows how to Jane her feelings sometimes seem like a weakness. The word “weapon” connotes violence. Since she says “weapon of defense,” she is comparing the situation with her being attacked by Rochester. She manages to confuse him and destroy the romance of the scene. It is not just language that makes her powerful here; it is interweaved with her sense and thought process, and even body. Rochester asks if he can kiss her and she responds with no; Rochester then describes her as “hard little thing” (233) which shows how she exercised power over him and he is frustrated as a result of that. Here, Jane’s inner thoughts are shown to the reader. She states Rochester should know the “bargain” (233) he made. Bargain relates to taking and giving, not a one-sided relationship. Applying the concept of the word to Jane’s relationship with Rochester, she puts herself on the same level as he is. With this, Jane acts against the traditional concept of the inferior female gender role in society. She is aware of the power she has over him and even though she might not have a fortune and is of lower social rank, there is still bargaining in this relationship.
Jane’s most important site of power negotiation is her rationality. She is able to look at events in a calm way; she doesn’t let her feelings distract her. She doesn’t generally repress her feelings, she chooses when she feels like it is appropriate for her to show them or not. There are many strong examples of her sense in the novel.
The significance of Jane’s thought process is already demonstrated during her childhood. In the beginning of the book after her fight with John Reed, she is being brought to the red room by Bessie and Miss Abbot. The latter states how shocking it is that Jane hit her “young master” (9). Jane responds with “How is he my master? Am I a servant?” (9). Then, she is being told that she is even less than that. Even though her logic does not help her much, it is already shown how she ties words together and draws rational conclusions.
The strongest example is how Jane reflects on the unsuccessful marriage ceremony and her new knowledge about Bertha. She goes to her room and shuts herself in. Here, she specifies that she is not shutting herself in to cry or to mourn the situation (252), but to think about it. First, she says she feels weak and tired, but when she sits down to think about the situation, it seems like she is above it all – strong enough to handle it. She even explicitly says that she feels like she has only been watching event after event happen that day, but “now [she] thought” (252). Then, she repeats the events for herself. Her almost emotionless and distant way of describing the situation is achieved by her talking about herself in the third person. For example, she states “Jane Eyre, who had been an ardent, expectant women – almost bride – was a cold solitary girl again: her life was pale, her prospects desolate” (252). The reader gets a hint at Jane’s inner feelings when she describes the midsummer that has been overcome by a Christmas frost. Here, Jane’s power through her words plays a role again. She doesn’t just say “frost” but “Christmas frost.” Since Christmas is something to look forward to, here she might even be indicating that the change in the situation is nothing that will cause her to show an unreasonable amount of sensibility but something she might even look forward to. After that, she then goes back to talking about herself in the “I” form. Rochester’s behavior is also analyzed by her; the conclusion she makes is that his feelings were never sincere but only a “fitful passion” (253). Then, she even criticizes herself, arguing how blind she was and how weak she acted. A little later, she makes the decision to leave Thornfield. She does not let herself get carried away by her feelings. This scene shows how Jane’s way of thinking allows her to view the situation rationally. She derives power from this ability – rationally acknowledging the circumstances and making a calculated decision. It lets her make the right decision, one that she won’t regret because it was carefully thought through.
Once she starts talking to Rochester who is trying to convince her to stay with him, she describes feeling a sense of power that helped her in this difficult situation (258). Seconds later, she chooses to not repress her feelings anymore, but to let them show. She assumes that Rochester will be annoyed by her tears, which is one of the reasons she chooses to cry. He reacts in the way she predicts and tells her to stop. How Jane lets herself show her feelings in this instance suggests that she is not just controlling and suppressing her feelings at all times, but only when she feels it is appropriate to show them.
Later on, another situation in which Jane’s sense is clearly illustrated is when she finds out that she is to inherit a fortune. She does characterize it as a good thing to happen to someone, but immediately states that one cannot ”jump, and spring, and shout hurrah!” (325) but has to consider the responsibilities that come with this inheritance. She is more thrilled to find out that she is related to the Rivers siblings later on in the same conversation with St. John. She claps her hand and exclaims “I am glad” (328). Her sense is her guide to what she values or not. Her reactions clearly show that the family she now has is more important to her than the money. Her values give her a certain amount of power because she will not let something material run her life. Her sense also protects her in multiple aspects. Instead of being overemotional and showing her vulnerability, Jane logically thinks about the issue to then reacts in a way that seems to suit the situation.
In the beginning of the novel, Jane Eyre has nothing – no family, no people she is loved by, fortune, or social rank. With the help of the power she derives from sense, she is able to seek an education and strive for a job as a governess. Her ability to express herself and her language make her loved by Rochester and give her power over him. In addition to language and reason, she uses her body as a source of power negotiation. Jane Eyre, the poor little girl, grows up to be a powerful woman who experiences all the joys of life she thought she wouldn’t.
Bellis, Peter J. “In the Window-Seat: Vision and Power in Jane Eyre.” ELH 54.3 (1987): 639-52. ProQuest. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.
Brontë Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Norton, 1987. Print.
Godfrey, Esther. “Jane Eyre, from Governess to Girl Bride.” SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 45.4 (2005): 853-71. ProQuest. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.