By Shrutakirti Dutta
The Victorians took their code of morality very seriously, going by the scathing comment on Jane Eyre published in The Quarterly Review in 1849 which reads as follows:
“We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre”.
The seemingly ‘unchristian’ description of desire and sexuality in Charlotte Brontë’s novel challenged the norms of repressed desire in Victorian society. The intimate first person narration allowed readers to be privy to the private thoughts of the protagonist who had heretofore boasted no more than a sometimes severe, sometimes formal relationship with its reader.
The general oppressive surveillance of Victorian society aside, Jane starts off under the stern gaze of her aunt and later the surveillance of Lowood School while forever under the gaze of an all-powerful God who proves an impediment to her ‘baser’ inclinations. The constant battle between a higher moral code and a perhaps deeper personal longing for love plays itself out in this bildungsroman. Through my paper I will explore the extent to which the author problematizes the gaze of contemporary Victorian society while challenging staccato Victorian ideas of love, desire, and intimacy through her proto-feminist, if slightly conflicted, protagonist.
The concept of the Gaze has been around since the beginning of the 19th century, although it was only formalised in the 20th century. Gaze, as Jacques Lacan theorises, is the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed. The psychological effect, Lacan argues, is that the subject loses a degree of autonomy upon realising that he or she is a visible object. This concept is bound with his theory of the mirror stage, in which a child encountering a mirror realises that he or she has an external appearance. By viewing himself in the mirror, the subject at the mirror stage enters into the realm of culture and language by establishing his own subjectivity through the fantasy image inside the mirror, an image that the subject can aspire towards. This is not to say that the object behaves optically as a mirror; instead it means that the awareness of any object can induce an awareness of also being an object. From Sartre to Foucault, the concept of the gaze has had a long and contested critical history, with the artist often cast both as the gazer and the gazed-upon. In Jane Eyre (1847), Brontë formulates her own concept of the gaze, and highlights the role of gazing and the idea of being gazed upon through her narrator Jane.
Through my paper I would like to propose that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre can be seen as a literary work that is fighting the permeating, critical gaze of its immediate society. This claim is not without its problems. I refer to the confidential tone of the novel, and the obvious familiarity with which Jane addresses her readers. Jane Eyre is not an epistolary novel but its intense tone is suited to one such. The novel (first published as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography), reads like a tell-all open letter, one that looks to set records straight by ‘merely telling the truth.’ The narrative itself is structured carefully to give it the feel of a confession. The reader is addressed directly by Jane on numerous occasions, often appealed to, hoping for sympathy or empathy or even plain understanding. In doing so, Jane seems to be welcoming the gaze of the reader, and often reveling in the knowledge of that gaze, which again emphasises the duality of the protagonist’s character. It is an intimate novel in the fact that it takes its reader completely into confidence and makes him privy to its heroine’s every thought and desire, however scandalous. The addressing of the reader makes for a direct engagement with the content. We become intimate with Jane (and, through some removal, possibly even Brontë ) without being given a choice.
This unusually frank discourse is surprising because it stands out glaringly against the recurring and contradictory motif of ‘curtaining’ prevalent in the novel. Jane hides from her cousins by physically drawing the curtain around the window seat where she prefers to read in isolation – an act she repeats several times in the presence of Mr. Rochester and his guests at Thornfield Hall. Jane is introduced to us as an anomaly from the beginning; a ‘little, roving, solitary thing,’ a social pariah more comfortable drawing the curtains around her protective lair than being held up for public scrutiny. However, it is exactly this continual self-cloaking which draws the attention she so wishes to avoid. After a point, we may even question as to whether there is some perversion of Jane’s desire to be seen that results in such a strong antipathy, and, indeed, fear, of the same. The novel is strewn with instances of Jane drawing attention to herself despite evidence of her deep anxiety at being in the line of observation. This is seen quite literally in the scene from Lowood where Jane, desperate to hide from Mr. Brocklehurts’s untoward attention, cloaks herself amidst a crowd of uniformed women only to drop her slate onto the floor with a crashing noise, thus defeating the entire process:
Hitherto, while gathering up the discourse of Mr. Brocklehurst and Miss Temple, I had not, at the same time, neglected precautions to secure my personal safety; which I thought would be effected, if I could only elude observation. To this end, I had sat well back on the form, and while seeming to be busy with my sum, had held my slate in such a manner as to conceal my face: I might have escaped notice, had not my treacherous slate somehow happened to slip from my hand, and falling with an obtrusive crash, directly drawn every eye upon me . . .
Similar scenes are played out repeatedly in various ways throughout the novel The motif of Jane ‘cloaking’ her true thoughts against any immediate audience leads to its own paradox, where Jane the narrator forcibly pulls the reader into her world and yet hides herself from the people willing to know her. Her impulse for candidness is constantly at war with her almost masochistic impulse for self-erasure: ‘Being pushed unceremoniously to one side – which was precisely what I wished.’
Although by her own admission she is ‘weary of an existence all passive,’ she vehemently chooses to be the looker-on, observing feverishly the subjects of her gaze:
[…] that I might gaze without being observed . . . I looked and had an acute pleasure in looking.
Her self-cloaking, self-erasure, and her love for oblivion extend even to her name; Jane is constantly made to look, and indeed believe she looks ‘plain.’ So much so, that there is apocryphal believing that the term ‘Plain Jane’ itself, first reliably recorded in 1912, may have originated from the novel. Indeed the novel seems constructed in a way where Jane goes out of her way through its course to live up to this name, as it were. Thus, it is made evident throughout the narrative that Jane struggles with the several different gazes on her within the context of the novel. ‘Were I in her place it seems to me I should wish the earth to open and swallow me up,’ she says of Helen Burns’ public humiliation at Lowood School. It must be noted that the women around her do not seem as concerned by the gaze as she is (notably Blanche Ingram who actively seeks out Mr. Rochester’s gaze), nor do they exhibit fear and apprehension at its possibility. Helen Burns takes her punishment with equanimity but Jane cannot:
I, who had said I could not bear the shame of standing on my natural feet in the middle of the room, was now exposed to general view on a pedestal of infamy. What my sensations were no language can describe; but just as they all rose, stifling my breath and constricting my throat . . .
Jane’s portrayal as an anomaly serves a second purpose. It sets the stage for the novel which in the context of its contemporary literary scene was just as much of an anomaly in its own right. In a literary landscape that set precedence on a masculinist idea of success, Jane Eyre uniquely portrayed the upward mobility of a female (as opposed to a man) on her own terms and without the aid of marriage. Unfavourable reviews of the book followed:
We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.
[Whoever Currer Bell may be], it is a person who, with great mental powers, combines a total ignorance of the habits of society, a great coarseness of taste, and a heathenish doctrine of religion.
There was widespread censure of the novel on social and moral grounds due to its critical representation of religious sentiment, its easy acceptance of a love which transcends class and because of the protagonist’s uninhibited interaction with her readers. Thus, in the 1840s, Jane Eyre was a revolutionary text. Victorian critics did not like Jane’s strong-minded independence and many thought that the novel was coarse. The novel was blamed for the corruption of contemporary tastes and morality, in both life and art. Most contemporary critics felt that there was something dangerous in the novel’s underlying message, while Jane Eyre herself was seen as godless and unrestrained. Others thought that Charlotte Brontë’s personality was reflected in the novel and that personality was irredeemably vulgar and alien. Such a view was changed only after the publication of Mrs. Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. Even Charlotte Brontë herself worked hard at rescuing the reputation of the book.
Charlotte Brontë is transparent in her use of Jane Eyre as a spokesperson. She deliberately inserts long-winded speeches within the novel which speak out against gross inequalities of treatment of the sexes:
Women are supposed to be very calm generally, but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.
There is a reason as to why Brontë lashes out, especially when placed in the context of her actual socio-political reality. One must keep in mind the acute marginalisation faced by women in early to mid-nineteenth century England. Brontë herself remained vocal in her displeasure of laws against women’s right to own property (a law that would not be amended before 1870). Women’s economic solvency remained compromised until well after the Industrial Revolution. However, the prevalent myth that the general expectancy from their sex was solely marriage, (and subsequently, children) was factually incorrect. Professor John Burnett states:
What has, in fact, changed is that more married women and more middle-class women now work than formerly. Given the huge size of the Victorian working class (at least 80 per cent of the population if we take the ‘manual’ definition of class), the demographic consideration that because of the unequal sex ratio one in three women were ‘doomed’ to spinsterhood anyway, and the fact that the wages of many semi-skilled and unskilled male workers were so low or so uncertain that they would not support a family unless supplemented by the earnings of wives and children, it cannot be doubted that a high proportion of Victorian women, both single and married, regularly engaged in paid work.
Since the Victorian woman was never granted personal freedom, Jane Eyre’s appointment as a governess and the groundbreaking notion that a woman could have paid occupation was considered independence, even if only financial. Typically, a Victorian woman was expected to get married and raise children. In these circumstances, Jane’s working, even in a menial position, underlined her desire for emotional and economic independence. Such an independence however, did not dispel the common prejudices that existed against women at that time. In a review of Jane Eyre, a critic quickly dismisses the possibility of Currer Bell being a female on the grounds of his heroines being accounted for so ‘favourably.’ However, the passage practically reeks of misogyny. The review said:
[…] We cannot pronounce that it appertains to a real Mr. Currer Bell and to no other, yet that it appertains to a man, and not, as many assert, to a woman, we are strongly inclined to affirm. Without entering into the question whether the power of the writing be above her, or the vulgarity below her, there are, we believe, minutiae of circumstantial evidence which at once acquit the feminine hand. No woman–a lady friend, whom we are always happy to consult, assures us–makes mistakes in her own métier–no woman trusses game and garnishes dessert-dishes with the same hands, or talks of so doing in the same breath. Above all, no woman attires another in such fancy dresses as Jane’s ladies assume.
There remained strict binaries in the roles assigned to women, generally typified as ‘The Angel in the House’ and its antithesis, the ‘Fallen Woman’. Jane differs from the general conception of Victorian women in many ways. Most women at that time did not get the opportunity to read and write but Jane as a little girl started instructing herself in both, and took matters into her own hands when it came to her own educational and financial independence. She is represented as a strong-willed woman with her own personal convictions. She does not depend on a man to provide shelter and food for her because she is a modern day working woman capable of fending for herself. From the outset of the novel, Jane demonstrates her rebellious nature and is duly imprisoned for her less than angelic behaviour. Ironically, Jane’s lack of restraint causes Mrs. Reed to shame her into submission and make her essentially the ‘Angel in the House’, who was expected to be devoted and submissive to her husband. The Angel was passive and powerless, meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all – pure. The phrase ‘Angel in the House’ originally comes from the title of an immensely popular poem by Coventry Patmore, in which he holds his angel-wife up as a model for all women.
Brontë resolutely steers clear of this stereotype and strips Jane of all the conventional trappings of the Victorian heroine – that of beauty, lineage, or sparkling wit, and perhaps more crudely put, the ability to make a pastry. Thus quite naturally and in accordance with Brontë’s plan, she refuses to be dressed in plumes and silks or play the stereotype of the Victorian ideal. Notably, in her power struggle with Rochester prior to her wedding date, she refuses to be called an ‘angel’: ‘… and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself.
She struggles in the latter part of the novel to secure an equal footing with Mr. Rochester, shunning monetary or material favours from him which she herself cannot afford:
“I only want an easy mind, sir; not crushed by crowded obligations. Do you remember what you said of Céline Varens?—of the diamonds, the cashmeres you gave her? I will not be your English Céline Varens. I shall continue to act as Adèle’s governess; by that I shall earn my board and lodging, and thirty pounds a year besides. I’ll furnish my own wardrobe out of that money, and you shall give me nothing but – ”
“Well, but what?”
“Your regard; and if I give you mine in return, that debt will be quit.”
There always remains in Jane, as in Brontë, an anxiety to assert independence which was difficult to achieve within the confines of their social realities. Education was a privilege of the moneyed; women were taught languages, music, sewing, and housekeeping—skills that would help them to be responsible, but agreeable wives. Transgressions from these rigid, social paradigms were considered taboo. Perhaps naturally then, a woman’s conduct was put under continuous scrutiny and a resultant verdict passed on her character. This is seen clearly in the Bertha-Jane contrast where the former, a Creole, is stereotyped as being a sexual, sensual predator driven to the edge of insanity through a life of indulgence. This depiction is further problematised by Bertha’s Jamaican lineage which ties in with the Victorian idea of the other. It:
[…] draws on a range of specifically Victorian discourses for demarcating otherness: gendered notions of inherited insanity; racially inflected ideas about self-indulgence and excess; constructions of colonial identity and England’s relations with her colonies in the early to mid-1800s.
Bertha Mason is the embodiment of the Victorian ‘Mad Woman’ whose unleashed passion represents a deadly threat to respectable British society. Bertha’s crimes are associated with heat and passion and are portrayed as a manifestation of her madness – she sets fire to Rochester’s bed, and later to Thornfield’s, stabs and bites her brother and tears Jane’s veil in half when she finds out about her relationship with Rochester. Some criticism suggests a connection between the cultural history of insomnia and that of moral insanity in women. Brontë’s text pairs Bertha’s persistent wakefulness to her insanity, nearly equating the two. She emphasises the dishonour shared by both thirst for sexual deviance and pathological criminality. In stark contrast is Jane who lives a life of deprivation and modesty. In the obvious glorification of one binary over the other lies proof of society’s deep-rooted prejudice against women.
The societal gaze on the female figure that strove to configure her movements, thought processes, and ideologies in order to make it fit a common rubric, is a near-constant fixture in the Victorian works. Protagonists shape their discourses through its influence; their choices and actions are guided by this disapproving presence. Young Cathy is made to exclude herself from the company of Heathcliff, and is groomed into becoming the less spirited Catherine Linton through marriage and familial pressures in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Esther Summerson, Dickens’ only female narrator, constantly undercuts her authorial voice by drawing the reader’s attention to her narratorial inefficacies and lack of ‘cleverness’ in Bleak House.Jane Eyre cuts against this grain with its disarming frankness and sense of receiving the story as it is. In an increasingly artificial society riddled with religious and moral oppression, honesty becomes rebellion. But although she rebels against the conventional gaze of society, choosing instead to carefully paint a picture of independence through her writing, and trying to remain true to it, she is not entirely devoid of an often half-apologetic, mostly defensive tone that is all too acutely aware of societal prohibitions. She is mortified of her actions or attitude being misconstrued by those that watch. Interestingly, there is no shortage of such watchers throughout the novel. Mrs. Reed and later Mr. Brocklehurst watch Jane disapprovingly. Mr. Rochester is watched by Bertha in the dead of night. Jane needs to turn Mr. Rochester towards the moonlight to watch his expressions and determine their sincerity. As an artist it is a part of Jane’s curriculum to ‘watch’ the subjects of her painting. This raises the question as to how much Jane herself was watching the watchers. Does she see with the desire to be seen (a desire we have posited previously)? Does she see with a paranoid eye? Does she see with a voyeuristic gaze, and hence frightened at the thought of a similar gaze being upon her? These are difficult questions to answer, all things considered, with very little material to go upon save for the text, which in itself is suspect because we know Jane is manipulating our gaze from the start. At best we can depend on surmise. On top of a broader societal struggle there is in her an internal struggle trying to come to terms with her self-image, and her too unforgiving a gaze on herself. Perhaps, at the end of it all, it is not a single gaze she fears, because she also gazes inwards. Perhaps it is a multiplicity of gazes, uncomfortable in their exteriority. It is not necessary that this manipulation is depicted only through Jane herself. For example, when Rochester scrutinises the artwork, he opines that Jane had been accompanied by someone in the process of creating that piece of art because according to Rochester’s analysis of Jane’s gaze, the work depicted a quality that was beyond Jane herself. This is perhaps what had led Rochester to feel that Jane had had an accomplice. This exploration of Jane’s psyche by Rochester is a representation of him gazing into the abyss of her being and realising that the artwork had a quality that, while he was scrutinising Jane’s psyche, had eluded his gaze. It might, thus, seem that Jane has once again been limited to the patriarchal gaze of the male being, where Rochester suggests that if he has not found a quality present in the painting to be present in Jane, it is probably not her own quality. However, the truth lies in the paradoxical notion that Jane has chosen to keep herself hidden from Rochester’s gaze, denying him the right of complete understanding. While Rochester is assured that he has discovered Jane’s real self, Jane passively keeps herself hidden and creates an opaque shield against Rochester’s gaze. Says an unwitting Mr. Rochester of Jane: ‘Know, that in the course of your future life you will often find yourself elected the involuntary confidant of your acquaintances’ secrets: people will instinctively find out, as I have done, that it is not your forte to tell of yourself, but to listen while others talk of themselves . . .’. Indeed, Jane’s redeeming features to Mr. Rochester, Mrs. Fairfax and even Eliza in the later years seem to be her unending modesty, sensible nature, and a constant self-erasing—conventional traits expected of a ‘woman of character,’ which again is subsequently condemned by Jane in her solitary musings.
There are marked inconsistencies in Jane and her narrative rebellion, and this dichotomy persists throughout the novel. Jane advocates women’s liberty to speak their minds and yet is aware of, and shrewdly plays to orchestrated manoeuvres to ‘win over the man,’ so to speak: ‘It seems to me that she might, by merely sitting quietly at his side saying little and looking less, get nigher to his heart,’ Jane says of Blanche Ingram and her coquetry. Having elucidated previously about the marginalisation of the Victorian women, Jane’s statement carries a certain degree of truth. Women had to strike a delicate balance between society and the self and this often resulted in a strained relationship with the self as well as with society. The only way to maintain one’s chaste reputation was to follow the conventional codes of conduct. Jane understands that Blanche Ingram is representative of this code that required women not only to speak less but also to look less. Jane Eyre, as established earlier in this paper, rejects certain ostentatious, stereotyped characteristics of the Victorian female. However, she is the one who moves out of the restricted boundaries of the space allotted to women and yet understands the need to be confined within those defined limits. On the one hand, this can be perceived as an anomaly in her character: a sort of dichotomy that runs throughout the text; and, on the other hand, it is a rather calculated move on the author’s part to instill in her protagonist a blend of the conventional and the rebellious. This may be viewed as a replication of Brontë herself, breaking the norms by writing but using the male identity: the pen name of Currer Bell. Thus, both the writer and the protagonist share a common instinct to manipulate gender codes as they choose.
The question of religion is dealt with much in the same way. She is unable to reconcile entirely with the religious beliefs and showmanship of her times, (she markedly asks blasphemous question: about faith and the rigid concepts of heaven and hell) but keeps going back to a God she is uncertain about, unwilling to completely disregard a faith so deep-rooted in the fabric of her immediate society. But society is severe and watchful, both of which is best exemplified through an exchange between St. John and Jane:
“. . . Jane, I shall watch you closely and anxiously—I warn you of that. And try to restrain the disproportionate fervour with which you throw yourself into commonplace home pleasures. Don’t cling so tenaciously to ties of the flesh; save your constancy and ardour for an adequate cause; forbear to waste them on trite transient objects. Do you hear, Jane?”
“Yes; just as if you were speaking Greek. I feel I have adequate cause to be happy, and I will be happy. Goodbye!”
It is interesting to note that for Jane, it is always a mutually exclusive choice between happiness and societal and religious approval. After considerable deliberation and despite St. John’s warning to resist temptation, Jane returns to Rochester. But she is not accorded the status of a fallen woman because of the mode of narrative cleverly chosen by her. The time of her return to Mr. Rochester is significant in the novel. In a morbid turn of events, it is only after he has been blinded, thus losing the ability to ‘gaze’ at her that she is able to return to him, this time surer of herself and of her grounding.
Jane claims to speak to Mr. Rochester, ‘not through the medium of custom or conventionalities but from the spirit.’ Critic Lisa Sternlieb says,
Jane is not completely satisfied with any of the benefits of marriage that she mentions—acting as Rochester’s amanuensis, talking with him all day, caring for him, or raising his children. She must write, and the act of writing itself belies her claims to ultimate happiness in marriage. 
Thus it is only when she is able to reclaim control over herself and is able to self-fashion on her own terms, away from the dictates of contemporary Victorian society that she is finally at peace. Jane cleverly negotiates the many gazes she is subjected to and uses it to her advantage. The novel is a bildungsroman in the sense that by the end of the novel Jane has been furnished with the capacity to draw aside her curtains and volubly speak her mind, not as part of some soliloquy but to a perceivable audience. Knowing that we are now in the same situation as Jane was, where we are her confidante as she had been to Rochester, our situation created by Jane makes for a strange, resonating sympathy, the harmony of which is hampered when we realise that Jane is aware of us, subverting the voyeuristic pleasure of a first person narrative.
Brontë uses her novel to construct the different paradigms of gaze and successfully shows how Jane can be financially, emotionally and intellectually secure irrespective of the collective gazes. No doubt Jane Eyre was a courageous step forward in the trajectory of the female protagonist, but one could perhaps argue that the very force and recurrence with which the novel strives to establish its heroine as an unconventional free spirit, reveals its deep-rooted insecurity in the faith of its heroine’s unorthodoxy. Jane’s constant duality and self-contradiction throughout the novel, and to some extent the incongruity of writer’s belief and action appear to be convincing enough as Jane represents the confusing transition of the educated middle class female of the times, one placed on the unstable fence between familiar customs and (following the industrial revolution and its resultant proto-feminist awakening) a scandalously rebellious worldview.
Charlotte Brontë , Jane Eyre (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996), p. 76
Ibid., p. 291
Ibid., p. 190
Ibid., p. 61
Ibid., p. 78
Elizabeth Rigby, The London Quarterly Review, No. CLXVII (December, 1848), p. 82-99
Brontë , Jane Eyre, p. 123
 John Burnett, Victorian Working Women: Sweated Labour, (http://www.victorianweb.org/history/work/burnett2.html, accessed 2 January, 2015)
 Rigby, The London Quarterly Review, pp. 82-99
Brontë , Jane Eyre, p. 280
Ibid., p. 290
 Jill Matus, ‘Jane Eyre and the Tenant of Wildfell Hall,’ The Cambridge Companion to the Brontës, editor Heather Glen (Cambridge University Press, 2002)
 Emily Brontë , Wuthering Heights (London: Thomas Cautley Newby, 1847)
 Charles Dickens, Bleak House (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1853)
Ibid., p. 150
Ibid., p. 203
Ibid., p. 418
 Lisa Sternlieb, Jane Eyre: Hazarding Confidences, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Mar., 1999), 452-479, University of California Press (http://www.jstor.org/stable/2903027?seq=3, accessed 14 October, 2014)
Shrutakirti Dutta is a postgraduate student pursuing her Master’s degree in English Literature from Jadavpur University after receiving her Bachelor’s degree from the same institution. She remains consistently interested in Victorian literary and culture studies, Post Colonial Literature, and American Modernism. Like a true post-graduate however, she is conflicted about her areas of interest but hopes to one day specialize in the cross-cultural study of culinary traditions in art and literature. Currently though, she prefers to eat and call it research.