By Pooja Sanyal

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in “The Buried Life of Lucy Snowe: Villette”, introduce the concept of the “ghostly” intimate in Bronte’s text: “‘When We Dead Awaken,’ Adrienne Rich explains, ‘everything outside our skins is an image of this affliction.’” Indeed, within the passive, silent Lucy Snowe of Villette, the “dead awakens”, through a growing association with the supernatural. Is this an extension of her inert fantasies of attaining an independent selfhood? For Bronte, who was writing in an age of patriarchal dogmas, intimacy with this dark, mysterious “other” world is a direct suggestion of the breaking away tendencies rising within the initially cold and accepting exterior of women. As her heroine, Lucy, increasingly feels the supernatural penetrating her being, sometimes through the terrifying “hag-raven” body of Madame Walravens, sometimes through a sick, invalid cretin or sometimes through the nun “buried alive” in the garden, the whole experience becomes a fitful, nightmarish experience. Intimacy with the deathly becomes a way of raising her own “dead” self; of resurrecting her own voice and stifled desires. Her supernatural dreams are her very own, personal necromancy; achieved by an acute, sensitive connection with the depths of her soul. The question which this paper seeks to ask is, in what ways does Bronte use intimacy with the “ghostly” as a language for Lucy’s own death-in-life? Moreover, how does this intense, enigmatic and uncanny fantasy become a thought-provoking representation of gender politics, sexuality and the figure of the shrouded woman of that era?   



The Victorian era is a time when the Gothic world is still explored and experimented upon, although Gothic literature had already come into existence from the mid-eighteenth century when works like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto or Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Romance of the Forest were produced. Critics have questioned as to why the Gothic genre is studied so intensively in the Victorian age and also, to some extent, consciously, like never before.[1] Stephanie Craig identifies two major themes which led to the creation of Gothic literature: the supernatural and madness. A review of Gothic texts has shown that inexplicable events, ghosts, apparitions and eerie feelings are as much important as hallucinations, anxiety attacks and mental breakdowns.[2]


The question to be asked here is what are the cultural implications of the Gothic works that were being produced at this time? Also, how do they become voices of criticism against certain aspects of society? Written in an age when theories on psychoanalysis and the nature of the human mind were gradually coming into existence, works bearing intimate connections to the supernatural suggest something more, something beyond the apparent—the oppressed, domesticated condition of women—a state capable of inducing claustrophobia, suffocation, hallucination, insanity—all forms of desire to escape the reality in which they had been placed.[3] In this context, a text like Villette by Charlotte Brontë becomes important, in which the heroine, Lucy Snowe, struggling under the pressure of her own death-in-life existence, finds herself increasingly fascinated by the ‘other world.’ Her awareness of the supernatural around herself and sometimes, even within herself, is her own, personal resurrection; a tendency to cross the stifling boundaries of ‘this’ world by a movement into an ‘other’ realm of emancipation.


The narrative begins with Lucy at the home of the Brettons: a cold, detached, young girl, what she likes most about this house is its calm, settled exterior: ‘The large, peaceful rooms, the well-arranged furniture, the clear wide windows, the balcony outside, looking down on a fine antique street . . . so quiet was atmosphere, so clean it’s pavement –these things please me well.’[4] She is aware of silence, conscious of shadows; there lurks a deep desire to connect with the world which is not a part of daily, active life. It could be a sign of her melancholic disposition, dissociation from the external world of reality and a retreat into the self.[5] This kind of withdrawal was increasingly being noticed in women of that time, the cause of which was identified as a range of complex physiological processes; however, medical doctors would later begin to distinguish the causes separately as physiological and psychological.[6] Psychology becomes important here as the narrow world of household life to which women were subjected often resulted in mental breakdown; Lucy, in her melancholia, represents these women of her time, who, tired of an absence of active life, would wither away; would gradually die within themselves.


This silent revolt against all things rational leads to the formation of Lucy’s Gothic world, a world which represents everything ‘other’ than the present reality surrounding her. She can sense this dark, unknown realm she is about to enter from an early stage when she is living with the Brettons: ‘In the autumn of the year—I was staying at Bretton; my Godmother having come in person to claim me of the kinsfolk with whom was at that time fixed my permanent residence. I believe she plainly saw events coming, whose very shadow I scarcely guessed; yet of which the faint suspicion sufficed to impart unsettled sadness . . .’ This is perhaps, a foreboding not only of her moving away from the Brettons but also, perhaps, of the turns that her mind is about to take; towards hallucinations, away from the world of common sense as defined by the orthodox, patriarchal order of her time.[7] This surreal, Gothic world of her fantasies receives its most explicit, physical expression when she is journeying towards Villette and her voyage becomes a nightmarish blackness: ‘Black was the river, as a torrent of ink: lights glanced on it from piles of buildings round, ships rocked on its bosom . . . Down the sable flood we glided.’ Evoking the aura surrounding a Gothic fiction, Lucy’s trip builds the supernatural space in which her narrative will be situated; where the controlled roots of her reality will drown under the irrepressible supernatural world unleashed within her.


After this misty, enigmatic journey, Lucy steps into the darkness of a new city; her imaginary Gothic now thickens as she comes across dark alleyways, unknown faces and an unknown language; in short, for Lucy, it is like a phase between death and eternity; she does not know whether this strange place where she is trapped is heaven or hell. Wandering like an invisible apparition, she arrives at the gate of Villette; a large house with ‘light burning over the door’ and with a brass plate over it, a Gothic mansion full of dark secrets and also, perhaps the ideal home for Lucy’s other-worldly imagination. Why create such a strong and tangible supernatural realm for Lucy? Is Brontë, then experimenting with her heroine’s imaginative power? Imagination, in the Victorian context, has a socio-political significance: the female mind and its imaginative capacities were considered as dangerous to social order.[8] Therefore, clearly, Brontë is challenging this notion; her heroine’s imagination can reach any extent. It can defy conventions and enter a world of ghosts, witches and hags, all of which were considered subversive aspects of a woman’s identity.


In ‘The Buried Life of Lucy Snowe,’ Gilbert and Gubar talk about how the different female characters represent Lucy’s buried self.[9] Out of all these characters, the two most interesting representations are probably that of Vashti and Madame Walravens or Malevola: both symbols of violence, rage, disorder and destruction. Vashti, in her fiery performance, represents the seething fury within the suppressed female mind, evident from Lucy’s description of her: ‘I found something upon her neither of woman nor of man: in each of her eyes sat a devil. These evil forces bore her through the tragedy, kept up her feeble strength . . . Hate and Murder and Madness incarnate, she stood.’ Lucy can immediately connect her own desires and longings to this radical figure of the Biblical queen. Walravens, however, is the old witch figure evoking a sense of the terrifying in Lucy: ‘She might be three feet high, but she had no shape; her skinny hands rested upon each other . . . Her face was large set, not upon her shoulders, but before her breast; she seemed to have no neck: I should have said there were a hundred years in her features. And more perhaps in her eyes—her malign, unfriendly eyes, with thick gray brows above and livid lids all round.’ The striking feature of two female figures is that they inspire an overwhelming horror, best expressed, perhaps, in her vivid observation of the revolutionary zeal of the actress portraying Vashti: ‘. . . she rends her woes, shivers them in convulsed abhorrence . . . Wicked, perhaps, she is, but also she is strong . . . Fallen, insurgent, banished, she remembers the heaven where she rebelled. Heaven’s light, piercing its confines, and discloses their forlorn remoteness.’ This horror is a figment of the dark world within Lucy; her own ghost; rising from her suppressed anger, desires and passions.


Throughout the narrative, Lucy describes other characters; however, she never describes herself; never gives the reader an insight into her thoughts. ‘Who are you?’ Ginevra Fanshawe asks her, and reflecting upon the question, she realizes that she herself does not know who she is: ‘Who am I indeed? Perhaps a personage in disguise.’ What lies underneath this disguise is a mystery; her true self is one which is never unmasked. Perhaps, the ghostliness she experiences, the hallucinatory phases she passes through are parts of her uncanny, puzzling inner self: when she looks at herself in the mirror, it is as if she is glancing at the reflection of a stranger, as if the mirror is a gateway for her to reach out to some other world where her soul is trapped. Therefore, although she lives her life through other women around her, they are not her path to freedom; in fact, they may just be yet another disguise for her.  Lucy’s soul, imprisoned in a netherworld, can only be freed when she is raised from her death-in-life existence; when the nun, buried alive in the garden and inside her, is finally released.


With the passage of time, the supernatural starts moving from the outside to the body of Lucy; it is observed when she feels disgust and fear towards the body of an invalid with whom she is left during the holidays; the room becomes a death-bed for her: ‘The coronal of each became a deathshead, huge and sun-bleached—dead dreams of an earlier world and mightier race lay frozen in their wide gaping eyeholes.’ This is her own death that she visualises: while still alive, she imagines herself as a dead body, filled with stench, gloom and an awful stillness. In an age when women were turned into vessels of chastity, when their sexuality was curbed in the name of religion, when their desires faded away into the walls of domesticity, they perished under the burden of their physical non-existence; much like Lucy, they were living, walking dead bodies.[10] The body becomes a site of agony, privation and oppression; the world of Lucy’s horror is now a part of her body, as it were, ‘crushing’ her like the ‘slab of a tomb.’


What is the mode of Lucy’s exorcism? Will she ever rise to life again from her prolonged death? She herself seems hopeful: ‘I believe in some blending of hope and sunshine sweetening the worst lot . . . I believe while I tremble, I trust while I weep.’ However, the death of her old ghost and the birth of her new self, her re-incarnation, are not in romantic love for a man as was the expected destiny of a woman at that time.[11] Her love for Dr. John Bretton is a lost cause; she buries his letters, lays her love to rest and realises that she was never ready to be a part of this ‘love drama’ since she feels that in lovers, ‘there is a certain infatuation of egotism.’ Her resurrection would not be into a conventional domestic role but rather into freedom, as she says: ‘I believe that this life is not all; neither the beginning, nor the end.’ She desires a space beyond the ordinary space reserved for women of her time; her rebirth requires a larger realm, away from social dogmas, into infinite possibilities, manifested best in her inner supernatural – the unknown territory of her dreams.


The narrative does provide a romantic resolution in the life of Lucy through her engagement to Paul Emmanuel, but if she is a Gothic heroine of the ‘other’ world, she could have an alternative ending to her story. This hint of ending is hidden in the text, not given as the final episode but present towards the finale: this is, the scene at the park where Lucy, under the effect of a sleeping potion, has a hallucinatory vision of the world around her: ‘every shape was wavering, every movement floating, every voice echo-like—half-mocking, half-uncertain.’ It is almost like a night of conjuring for her, when every character, every image rises like the dead before her: ‘the whole conjuration . . . they outnumbered me and I was worsted and under their feet; but, as yet, I was not dead.’ Although it is a strange world for Lucy, she does not want to return to the narrow spaces of her real life: ‘Surely the spirit of restlessness was by this time appeased? Had I not enough of adventure? Did I not begin to flag, quail, and wish for safety under a roof? Not so. I still loathed my bed in the school dormitory more than words can express: I clung to whatever could distract thought.’ Roused from her dead self not into reality but into yet another hallucination, she has been transported from the frightening world of death to one of lively enchantment: ‘In the land of enchantment, a garden most gorgeous, a plain sprinkled with coloured meteors, a forest with sparks of purple and ruby and golden fire gemming the foliage.’


Interestingly, Lucy’s fantasy, starting with that of the dark ghostly world, has ended up with that of a happier fairy realm. Here, Brontë is testing the stretches of female imagination which was a forbidden forest for conservative Victorians; if Lucy Snowe’s narrative had ended here, the narrative would have become an open rebellion against women’s status in contemporary society. Lucy’s life would have been a cycle of un-reality formed by her unhindered fancies. However, a reason behind not ending the novel with this fantasy realm could be that this desired world has not yet been created in the author’s time. By keeping it submerged as a possible ending but not the real one, Brontë suggests that maybe not at present, but in future, the female mind will become free – soaring high with its fantasies and desires – as foreseen by the half-asleep half-awake Lucy at the moonlit park: ‘Somehow I felt, that the night’s drama was but begun, that the prologue was scarce spoken: throughout this woody and turfy theatre reigned a shadow of mystery; actors and incidents unlooked for, waited behind the scenes: I thought so foreboding told me much.’







[1] Stephanie F. Craig, Ghosts of the Mind: The Supernatural and Madness in Victorian Gothic Literature (Honours Theses, The University of Southern Mississippi, 2012), p. 7.


[2] Ibid., p. 8.


[3] Julianne E. Fleenor, The Female Gothic (Montreal: Eden Press, 1983), p. 15.


[4]Charlotte Brontë, Villette (London: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 7.


[5]Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology  and Other Works, trans. James Strachey, Anna Freud, Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson, vol. XIV, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1914-1916), p. 244.


[6] Andrew Smith and Diana Wallace, ‘The Female Gothic: Then and Now’ (University of Glamorgan, 2004), pp. 1-2.


[7] Ibid., p. 4.


[8] Craig, Ghosts of the Mind, p. 3.


[9] Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, ‘The Buried Life of Lucy Snowe,’ The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 400.


[10] Smith and Wallace, ‘The Female Gothic: Then and Now,’ p. 5.


[11] Ibid., p. 5.



Pooja Sanyal is currently in the second year of her Masters in English Literature from the Department of English, Jadavpur University. Her interest area spans nineteenth century literature, gender studies, post colonialism and popular culture. Her specific interest lies in the field of Victorianism and gender and how the two have interacted throughout history; gender politics, sexuality and subversions in nineteenth century literature. She is interested in looking at women writers of the period, the construction of “modernities” through their works, and a comparison of Oriental women characters with that of the overarching Victorian New Woman. She is also interested in studying gender from the perspective of popular culture, mainly cinema; her focus broadly lies upon Indian films and the field of performativity and gender.











By Oishani Sengupta

This paper aims to explore the problem of friendship in Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel, Shirley by taking a more detailed look at the relationship between the novel’s two young female protagonists, Caroline and Shirley.


Somewhere in the middle of Charlotte Brontë’s novel the two female protagonists, Caroline and Shirley, decide to forego an evening in church in favour of Nature-worship. One thing leads to another, and soon they fall upon the subject of Eve, when suddenly Shirley explodes with a burst of powerful feeling:

Milton tried to see the first woman; but, Cary, he saw her not…  It was his cook that he saw; or it was Mrs. Gill, as I have seen her, making custards, in the heat of summer, in the cool dairy, with rose-trees and nasturtiums about the latticed window, preparing a cold collation for the Rectors,–– preserves, and ‘dulcet creams’––puzzled ‘what choice to choose for delicacy best; what order so contrived as not to mix tastes, not well-joined, inelegant; but bring taste after taste, upheld with kindliest change.[1]


Shirley’s outburst underlines concepts with which the novel engages – the inherent frailty of woman and her subsequent confinement within the home. The Victorian era saw the gradual replacement of the Pauline conception of woman as positively pernicious by an image of gentle virtuousness, full of spirituality but bereft of agency, designed entirely to provide comfort and succor to all. Francoise Basch differentiates between the notions of woman as the ‘soul’ of the house and man as its ‘architect’.[2] The home was a protected space, specifically suited to woman’s natural aptitudes, as opposed to the troublesome, materialistic outdoors, where man was meant to exercise his strength and intellect. Contemporary best-selling advice-books and manuals of etiquette, such as Sarah Ellis’ The Women of England[3], described the role of the wife as being the centre of emotion and influence within the Victorian family.


Shirley’s critique of this ideology is not new. Harriet Martineau, George Eliot and others considered it preposterous to speak of woman’s narrow domestic sphere while depriving her of social and political rights. In fact, there was ample evidence of women financially supporting themselves and even entire families, turning this notion on its head. Shirley not only asserts the inadequacy of Milton’s ability to envision the first woman, but claims validity for her own interpretation of Eve. Men, in her opinion, are singularly incapable of understanding the nature of women, whether in fiction or in reality. ‘Their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.’[4] Women are able to understand each other better, and consequently they influence each other’s identities in ways that either subvert or reinforce the existing paradigm of patriarchy. In this paper, I intend to investigate Shirley’s influence on her social circumstances and how it relates to the novel’s abrupt and much dissected end.


The Victorian period saw a rise in the readership of historical narratives. Historical writing and fiction negotiated between themselves the terrain of past events, contesting to claim the right of providing reassuring explanations of the course of human life in terms that the reading public of the Victorian age would comprehend and trust. Although the traditional historian had the support of authority, the fiction writer was often able to impress deeply upon the reader certain scenes, moments and feelings from the past that created a much more immediate impact than factual accounts. Since contemporary historiography prioritized the representation of wars, courts and kings over the experiences of domestic life among common people, the struggle between history and fiction for representational supremacy over important social and political events became a gendered one. History required training in classical language and history, disciplines traditionally denied to women, whereas fiction was linked with births and deaths of children, marriages, domestic conflicts and alliances between families and social classes, all of which was located in the interior. The popularity of these fictional interpretations of the past led to a revaluation of the role of women in shaping the course of human civilization, as central characters in the drama, rather than mere embellishments that rendered palatable the lives of men.


According to Rohan Amanda Maitzen, the predominance of male historiography was challenged in the Victorian period by the publication of innumerable biographies of women, whose authors contested the proposition that men were the sole determinants in the historical process and offered a revision of the biased narratives that had hitherto excluded the lives and efforts of women[5]. Through the representation of powerful and tremendously popular women-figures such as Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots, the female historiography of the Victorian age attempted to reconstruct the traditional approach to gender and power in terms of the notion of ‘queenliness’[6], the property of certain egregious women who participated in the affairs of both the interior and the exterior space, combining the power of political action with the domestic virtues of kindness and generosity. Maitzen adds that Victorian women often considered aristocratic, ‘queenly’ women as idealized versions of themselves, and translated their relative independence into middle-class conceptions of virtue and femininity, thus creating a conflicted space where the possibility of political freedom of women was continuously subverted by the repressive stereotype of the ‘angel in the house’. But in Shirley the two female protagonists, whose friendship is the theme of the novel, are redeemed from falling into either of these stereotypes even though the men around them are much more true to their historical type.

Shirley is set during the Luddite riots of 1811-12; working-class unrest, combined with the widespread economic depression that followed the Napoleonic Wars, forms the anxious background of the novel. The deadly competition of the market percolates into the interior of the home, infecting the natural warmth of friendship and affection. The three curates of the opening scene continually drink, eat and chat in each other’s company, all the while insulting one and competing for the same women. Reverend Helstone is unwilling to partake of food at Hiram Yorke’s house, in case that implies cordiality, and Roger Moore pronounces the last word – the very mention of friendship irritates him.


The crisis of men is the absence of work, the complete stagnation of the means to exercise their agency; that of women is entirely different. Unable to do anything but grace the domestic hearth, the women in the novel face the same condition as the cloth that is uselessly stored in Moore’s warehouse and the hundreds of hands that are ‘famished and furious’ – they cannot find a buyer in the market. In fact, Brontë herself states the problem in these exact terms

The matrimonial market is overstocked.[7]

This statement not only begs a comparison between women and commodities, but also indicates a problem of women peculiar to Victorian society. The women who function as anything other than mothers and wives are considered defective goods, like Miss Ainley or Miss Mann, whose unattractive features or temper have rendered them undesirable to men. Hortense Moore, who remains outside the system, serves only to reinforce it in her attempts to model Caroline into someone ‘sufficiently girlish and submissive’[8].


Caroline, though generally timid and compliant, has a firm opinion about everything. She prefers Shakespeare to Corneille, reading to sewing and Robert’s intelligent conversation to Hortense’s gendered moralizing. Standing between the mystical realm of Elf-land and the harsh, yet inviting shores of Reality, she feels dissatisfied with her vocation as niece and housekeeper to her uncle, and wishes to enter a new life. Her briefly reciprocated attraction to Robert Moore affords her such a dream. The existing Victorian ideal of the companionate marriage allows Caroline to imagine for herself an exclusive identity – to be the sole partner of her beloved. Yet unfortunately, this identity is not available to her, since Robert is too absorbed in his ambition of bettering his financial position to entertain romantic thoughts. All her hopes of future dashed in an instant, Caroline realizes that she cannot inhabit the roles that society encourages her to imagine for herself.


Caroline cannot entirely bury her subjectivity, nor can she pretend to assimilate herself with all the young women around her, whose aggressively normative behavior alienates her completely. The Misses Sykes are models of provincial propriety – they castigate Caroline for not being sufficiently religious or knowledgeable in country gossip. The men around her, who demonstrate their good sense in practical and political matters, cherish such notions of the feminine that exclude an intelligent woman who questions, if not disobeys, accepted social codes. Reverend Helstone and Hiram Yorke, who are both affectionate towards her, prefer women to be silly and frivolous, or silent and pale, or even tyrannical and gloomy, but they cannot abide sense in women.


Susan Gubar states that Caroline finds no succour in her arid environment, and thus she slowly begins to wither. Undesired as her thoughts are, they exist nonetheless, and due to her restricted condition, they turn against her, converting the lonely interior into a space of dread[9]. Freud, in his essay ‘The Uncanny’, explores the mystery of things that are both familiar and terrifying to us[10]. The home, which is comfortable and safe, is paradoxically also the tomb where the woman is buried alive, and thus becomes the source of terror and apathy for its prisoners. The interiority of the hearth, which is traditionally the woman’s place, thus becomes the most threatening realm where she may be immolated in silence – without the knowledge of anyone in the outside world. Shirley explores that moment of terror when all connection between the domestic world and outside is severed, and thus the relationship of support and succor between the two ceases to exist. Lyn Pykett argues that in locating the supernatural experiences of heroines within middle-class English homes rather than faraway Italian castles like Udolpho, the Brontës create a powerful, psychological version of gothic fiction[11].


Charlotte Brontë explores the intertwining of this feeling of imprisonment with the impression of the supernatural in almost all her major works. Jane feels the presence of her uncle’s ghost when Mrs. Reed locks her in the Red Room, and Lucy Snowe conjures up a ghostly nun, buried alive in the medieval times, as her repressed double. In Shirley, we have the imaginary ghost of Mary Cave, an example of the Victorian ‘angel in the house’ who has been buried within the four walls by persistent indifference. In fact, Caroline, seeking an appropriate feminine role model, unconsciously toys with the idea of becoming a silent haunting presence, keeping vigil over Hollow’s Mill from afar, but never expressing her indescribable suffering.


The character of Shirley completely contrasts with the lives of the other women in novel. Armed with a good education, money and property of her own, and with no hindrance of a legal guardian, she creates formidable ripples in the societies of Whinbury, Briarfield and Nunnely. She flaunts her masculine position, delighting in the nickname of Captain Keeldar. Through her enterprise, Robert is able to improve his situation, and the poor of Yorkshire receive well-deserved financial aid. Instead of suffering in seclusion, Shirley enjoys traveling and she even prefers worshipping Nature outdoors than imprisoning herself in a claustrophobic church.  The narrative links her exceptional character to the unconventional nature of her upbringing. In the absence of a son, her parents gave her a man’s name and allowed her to hold a man’s social position. Once in possession of them, Shirley uses them not only to secure her own happiness, but others’ as well. Unlike Dorothea Casaubon, whose potential is continuously restricted by the norms and expectations of society, Shirley’s fortunate circumstance allows her to realize her potential of ‘queenliness’ in an unrestricted manner, like a Theresa or an Antigone of the past.

Shirley provides a brilliant infusion of imperious energy into the narrative. Achieving what men cannot, she refashions Caroline’s life and self in unexpected ways. Despite Caroline’s belief that it is not a woman’s place to force a man into anything, Shirley drags her along in a mad chase to demand a good-night from the forgetful Robert. Her imperious nature counteracts Caroline’s timidity and adjusts circumstances to grant her friend’s wishes. It is she who solves the mystery of Robert’s secretive behavior and takes Caroline to witness the attack of the rioters on Hollow’s Mill in the middle of the night. In her company, Caroline becomes an active, creative self- exploring, arguing, challenging and sharing woman – compared to her silent, haunting presence in the Rectory. Furthermore, Shirley is instrumental in reuniting Caroline with her mother, thus fulfilling her desire of a loving, maternal figure in her life.


Sarah Ellis considers female intimacy fundamental to a heteronormative social organization because it creates marriageable women by reinforcing the difference between the sexes[12]. Through extensive interaction with each other, women learn their difference from men, and are better equipped to deal with the hierarchical institution of marriage. Even though female intimacy in Shirley does facilitate the marriage plot, the interaction between the two friends opens up a space for free interaction for Caroline, which would clearly be impossible in her relationship with the much older and more authoritative Robert Moore.


In Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England, Sharon Marcus writes about the intense and elastic homosocial relationships that, in the Victorian period, allowed women to take part in activities that were forbidden to them in heterosexual interaction. Apart from debating about their unorthodox beliefs or exploring their sexuality, women also engaged in competitive or aggressive behavior with their intimate companions, free from the control exercised by figures of authority. Marcus points out that the vast amount of written material that exists from the 19th Century onwards shows us that Victorian women were not like the submissive and idealized images that are thrust on us by many contemporary accounts of feminine behavior, but active and vigorous participants in the ‘masculine’ discourses of religion, politics and sexual enjoyment[13].

Marcus also examines the writings by women on matters of fashion, social behavior and the rearing of children, which render these topics the site of intense involvement and interest for the women of the time. Relationships between mothers and daughters, sisters, friends, governesses and students, which are considered by Ellis to be a way of reinforcing the divide between men and women as well as nurturing marriageable women, are often openly sexualized, revealing a realm of intimate activity within the home that defies any notion of simplistic confinement and deprivation. In Shirley, the change in the environment inhabited by the two women is not just due to Shirley’s efficient handling of her property, but also due to her deep involvement in Caroline’s life and her identification with a girl apparently so different from herself. Shirley helps Robert not only because he is her tenant, but because Caroline is deeply in love with him and troubled by his unhappiness. Their friendship fulfills another intimate relationship that had seemed impossible – the meeting of Caroline and her long-lost mother. In the narrative, then, it is the imperiled interior that is reclaimed as a site of enjoyment, solidarity and power – an exclusive space in which women can act together and implement their choice. This choice does not have consequences for them alone, but for the society as a whole.


The intimacy between women does not only further their ambitions and allow them the freedom to express themselves, but changes both of them fundamentally. While Caroline gains confidence in herself and her abilities through her proximity with Shirley’s independent nature, Shirley becomes more accustomed to the social behavior considered proper to a woman rather than that of a wealthy young squire. Men are not worth competing between the two friends; in fact, their intrusion is unwanted. Referring to Robert, Shirley says that she prefers Caroline’s company without the ‘six feet of puppyhood’. Instead of being a bone of contention, Robert is a topic of discussion that binds the two even closer by allowing Caroline to talk discreetly of her affections and Shirley to encourage her. Friendship, as well as pride, leads Shirley to reject Robert’s proposal. Though she disdains the idea of being courted for money, she equally despises the idea of being ‘a traitor to all my sisters’. Her refusal opens up the arena for Robert’s acknowledgement of the narrowness of his ambitions, and the eventual resolution of the Robert-Caroline marriage plot. Marcus draws our attention to the ‘reciprocity’ that is repeatedly foregrounded in the novel – the existence of Robert cements the friendship of the two women, just as the friendship acts as a catalyst in the romantic relationship[14].


The problems of industrial management that cripple the novel at the beginning are slowly resolved at the end, not only through the sudden, almost fairy tale ending of the Napoleonic wars, but also the change in Robert’s views about the welfare of his workers – a change that is possible only due to the tireless efforts of both Caroline and Shirley. The fictional narrative of the novel reveals to us the hidden spaces of everyday life that the masterful discourse of history ignores, spaces that are witness to the decisions that define an age. Shirley’s rejection of the depiction of Eve as a mere cook is important again in this context. She contends that masculine historiography has effaced the efforts of ‘queenly’ women in order to deny them their fair share in the historical process and depict them as pretty ornaments that play only a decorative role in social and political events. By linking the political fates of the mill-owners with their emotional relationships, and drawing attention to the way in which female friendships channeled the agency of women at a time when they were disallowed active participation in civic matters, Brontë emphasizes the role of fiction in exploring the intertwined lives of women, children and the poor which contemporary historical writings rarely paid attention to.

In this context, the problem that Shirley poses is that of its violent end, which the author self-consciously titles ‘The Winding-Up’. Most critics believe that the sudden arrival of Louis Moore, leading to the effacement of Shirley’s powerful, subversive voice from the tale and its replacement by Louis’ assumption of authority, as well as her final acknowledgement of him as her unquestionable superior – her lord and master, suggest that neither the novel, nor the society, can finally accommodate Shirley as she is. The author has to dispatch her off in a sudden and unceremonious manner. The idea that Shirley’s queenliness is repressed by a patriarchal narrative of history arises, to a certain extent, from the suggestion that Caroline and Shirley hope to maintain an exclusive friendship that rivals marriage, outside of those narrative constraints.


In her conclusion to Middlemarch, George Eliot differentiates between the heroines of the past and her protagonist, Dorothea Casaubon. Eliot writes that Dorothea cannot become like her predecessors mainly because her circumstances do not afford her the opportunity of expressing herself through grand acts of political or religious significance. The queenliness of Dorothea, finding no way of expressing itself untrammeled by society’s repressive rules and regulations, finally expends itself in providing a comfortable home for a man who rises high in political affairs. Shirley on the other hand has enjoyed too much freedom in her early life, and thus the effective transplantation of her independent persona from the sphere of public affairs into the home is not quite as smooth. The difficulty that she experiences in accepting the change in her role is evident in the fact that Brontë does not instantaneously convert Shirley into the compliant and submissive wife, but shows her depressed at her ‘vanquished and restricted’[15] state. By openly removing Shirley from her authoritative position in the narrative, the narrator returns our attention to acts of appropriation by patriarchal history, which the novelist attempt to reverse  through different strategies, up to the point of the protagonists’ marriage.







[1] Charlotte Brontë, Shirley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 270.


[2] Francoise Basch, Relative Creatures: Victorian Women in Society and the Novel (New York: Schocken
Books, 1974), p. 5.


[3] Sarah Ellis, The Women of England: Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits (London: Fisher, Son & Co.,
1839), p.47.


[4]Brontë , Shirley, p. 296.


[5] Rohan Amanda Maitzen, Gender, Genre and Victorian Historical Writing (New York: Garland Pub., 1998), p.


[6] Maitzen, Gender, Genre and Victorian Historical Writing, p. 157.


[7]Brontë , Shirley, p. 329.


[8]Ibid., p. 58.


[9] Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth
Century Literary Imagination,
2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 376.


[10] Sigmund Freud, David McLintock and Hugh Haughton, The Uncanny (New York: Penguin, 2003).


[11] Lyn Pykett, ‘Sensation and the Fantastic in the Victorian Novel’, The Cambridge Companion to the
Victorian Novel
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 198.


[12] Ellis, The Women of England, p.75.


[13] Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 26.


[14] Marcus, Between Women, p. 98.


[15]Brontë , Shirley, p. 534.

Oishani Sengupta is presently in the final year of her postgraduate degree at the Department of English, Jadavpur University. She has previously received her Bachelor’s degree from the same department.


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 . . .[1]

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.’[2]

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.[3]

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,’[4] 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 . . .[5]

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.[6]

[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.[7]


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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

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.”[12]

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.[13]

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.[14] 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.[15]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 . . .’[16]. 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,’[17] 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!”[18]

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. [19]

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.








[1]Charlotte Brontë , Jane Eyre (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996), p. 76

[2]Ibid., p. 291

[3]Ibid.,  p. 190

[4]Ibid., p. 61

[5]Ibid.,  p. 78

[6]Elizabeth Rigby, The London Quarterly Review, No. CLXVII (December, 1848), p. 82-99


[8]Brontë , Jane Eyre, p. 123

[9]  John Burnett, Victorian Working Women: Sweated Labour, (http://www.victorianweb.org/history/work/burnett2.html, accessed 2 January, 2015)

[10] Rigby, The London Quarterly Review, pp. 82-99

[11]Brontë , Jane Eyre, p. 280

[12]Ibid., p. 290

[13] Jill Matus, ‘Jane Eyre and the Tenant of Wildfell Hall,’ The Cambridge Companion to the Brontës, editor Heather Glen (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

[14] Emily Brontë , Wuthering Heights (London: Thomas Cautley Newby, 1847)

[15] Charles Dickens, Bleak House (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1853)

[16]Ibid., p. 150

[17]Ibid., p. 203

[18]Ibid., p. 418

[19] 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.