Sonja Mayer MA, Instructor, English and Communications, The Art Institute of New York City
Why did so many contemporary critics think Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) a shocking book? A strong reason lies within the narrative strategy employed in this novel of the Victorian period (1832-1901). The first-person narrator, Jane Eyre, is a governess in Victorian England. Orienting the point of view so closely to a governess was a remarkable strategy in its time. It was even considered shocking because it contrasted with the normal connotations and status of a governess in that period. Giving a governess — even a fictitious one — such a strong voice ran against common views of the proper role of such a woman. Indeed, Brontë’s narrative strategy could have been seen as having ramifications for society at large by changing people’s ways of thinking about gender and class. No doubt, such currents of thought would have shocked many in Victorian England.
This essay begins with some examples of critics’ shock at Jane Eyre and negative criticism of the novel followed by a brief explanation of the status of governesses in the nineteenth century, and then ends with a detailed analysis of the narrative strategy of Jane Eyre in relation to its apparent ability to disturb readers. According to the Quarterly Review, Jane Eyre exemplified the “tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine.” Additionally, The Westminster Review expressed a desire to stop “the daughters direct of Miss Jane Eyre.” Finally, Matthew Arnold wrote, “Miss Brontë has written a hideous, undelightful, convulsed, constricted novel . . . one of the most utterly disagreeable books I’ve ever read . . . [because] the writer’s mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion and rage and therefore that is all she can, in fact, put in her book” (Krasne). These criticisms all revolve around similar ideas: breaking societal rules, using one’s mind, and being defiant. These concepts are expressed in the novel by a first-person narrator who is a governess. This “governess-narrator” brings us to the heart of the controversy. Before exploring the narrative strategy and its shock value in further depth, it is necessary to consider the identity of a typical Victorian governess.
A Victorian governess was a marginalized figure for two basic reasons: gender and class. As to gender, women generally had fewer rights than men did. For one, no woman was allowed to vote, whereas rich men could vote, and even lower-middle-class men could vote after passage of the 1832 Reform Bill (Abrams 920). Additionally, women had fewer educational opportunities than those available to men. Furthermore, unmarried middle-class women had far fewer respectable job options than men did, with the title of governess being virtually the only choice (Abrams 931). These are just three examples of the limited status of Victorian women.
The second marginalizing factor of a governess was that of ambiguous class status. A Victorian governess was usually in an awkward class position within her employer’s household. She was not exactly a servant, but she was not a member of the family, either. This made her social position very uncertain, as she was not fully accepted by either the servants or family (Smith, B.G., qtd. in Wells). Therefore, narrating Jane Eyre from this marginalized figure’s point of view is powerful and even shocking in the Victorian context. Weighed against contemporary norms and expectations concerning governesses, Jane Eyre‘s narrative made a strong statement about society itself. Perhaps the novel, with its strong point of view coming from a governess, was so harshly criticized by some because it represented a very real threat to the order of things regarding gender and class.
As previously stated, the narrative strategy of Jane Eyre is a first-person point of view. Events and dialogues — even those primarily involving other people — are always related back to the “governess-narrator” herself. The focus is constantly on the narrator’s feelings and attitudes. According to George P. Landow, “Despite the fact that Jane Eyre relies upon the moral growth and maturation of both Jane and Rochester, the point of view remains that of Jane alone, and everything is told solely from her point of view.” In addition, R. B. Martin states that
one sees all the action and characters through [Jane’s] eyes. . . Even when she is the apparently passive recipient of information from other characters, we never forget what Jane is feeling. When, for example, Rochester is telling her of his trio of Continental mistresses, we are less absorbed with his narration and his own feelings of remorse than we are with Jane’s reactions to the necessary finitude of relationships based on passion alone. To put the matter another way, the narrative of the mistresses is really important at this point only so far as it relates to Jane, and we feel no shock that she takes it as an object lesson to herself, when, instead of worrying about Rochester’s excesses, she says to his protestation of remorse over past dissipation: “I felt the truth of these words; and I drew from them the certain inference, that if I were so far to forget myself and all the teaching that had ever been instilled into me, as under any pretext — with any justification — through any temptation — to become the successor of these poor girls, he would one day regard me with the same feeling which now in his mind desecrated their memory” (qtd. in Landow).
This and other instances in the novel show us that not only does Jane Eyre take the form of a first-person narrative but its focus rests firmly on the narrator’s thoughts, attitudes, and personal growth. Since the narrator’s identity is that of a governess in Victorian society, this is a bold point of view indeed.
Another shocking aspect of the narrative style involves the depiction of the initial encounter between Jane and Rochester. Brontë has written the scene with definite emphasis on Jane’s point of view by including assertive statements, frequent use of the pronoun “I,” and a focus on Jane’s moods and feelings. For example, Jane (as narrator) states the following: “…I would not be driven quite away till I saw the event,” “I was in the mood for being useful, or at least officious, I think, for I now drew near him again,” and “I felt no fear of him, and but little shyness” (Brontë 104-105). This constant focus on Jane’s feelings and perceptions is significant. The governess-narrator who offers so much of her own mind in the narrative would surely startle certain contemporary readers.
Finally, the strong narrative voice also pervades in the expression of Jane’s decision to marry Rochester. “Reader, I married him” is seen by some as the pivotal, quintessential Jane Eyre line (Brontë 429). It demonstrates the bold point of view held by the governess-narrator. Women of Jane’s time typically did not “call the shots” when it came to marriage. The mainstream view was that a woman should consider herself lucky and privileged to be chosen by a man for marriage, and that she should repay him by dutifully serving him at all times (Calder 125). Contrastingly, Jane’s narrative declaration shows autonomy and self-determination. This narrative style presents a challenge to the status quo of Victorian society.
In conclusion, Jane Eyre uses a first-person narrative strategy strongly emphasizing the correctness of the narrator’s views. Since this narrator is a governess, the focus on her feelings is very significant, given the male-dominated and class-conscious society in which she would have lived. Females had fewer freedoms than males did, and governesses had uncertain class and social status. Lending a strong voice to such an otherwise marginalized narrator makes a statement vis-à-vis the contemporary society. However, instead of greeting this narrative strategy as a victory in terms of feminism and a challenge to class rigidity, some prominent Victorian reviewers harshly criticized the novel. It is possible that these criticisms grew out of an ulterior motive, that being the perceived sense of threat to gender and class roles.