Jane Eyre is about power, specifically the dynamics between an object and its beholder. Throughout Jane’s development both she and the men she meets will objectify her, and only at the end does she become a person. It is less a novel about romance, and more how Jane navigates the power dynamics in her life.
Charlotte Brontë’s novel addresses this explicitly when addressing the Victorian taboo of idolatry, alongside subtle allusions. Power is the ability to define the situation/ reality for yourself and others, and throughout most of Jane Eyre Jane lacks the ability to define herself. When Jane does, she defines herself as a doll whose power is an illusion. The powerlessness Jane feels and her struggle to assert herself is a powerful theme, which readers over centuries have been able to relate to. The novel’s climax is the moment she asserts power and defines herself. Jane’s romance with Mr Rochester and her path to independence is not Jane Eyre’s core conceit, rather it is the story of a doll who becomes a person; a theme of power which will always be relevant and resonate within any society.
Jane begins life as an object, one with inclinations to become a person but without power to do so. Jane is an unwanted child, and is not a blood relative of Mrs Reed’s family which segregates her in a specific way: she spends her early years likened to and surrounded by property. Jane finds solace with other objects, notably her book in the first chapter. When John Reed interrupts and orders her to sit in his lap, and humiliates her, he is showing Jane that (like everything else in the Reed household) he has power over her. He tells her: “You have no business to take our books; you are a dependant… Now I’ll teach you to rummage my book-shelves: for they are mine; all the house belongs to me, or will do in a few years.” (Brontë 10; ch. 1). When he takes Jane’s book and harms her with it, it symbolizes his power to alter Jane’s reality. He takes something which gave Jane pleasure and uses it to inflict pain, just as he commanded/ directed her body to make her suffer (Armstrong 108). Jane is further dehumanized when she is told: “… you are less than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep.” (Brontë 12; ch. 2). Jane is an object within the Reed household, used for John Reed’s gratification and later discarded by Mrs Reed, who sends her to Lowood with no concern for her wellbeing.
At Lowood Jane learns about idolatry, and is taught how one should never idolize someone or seek to be one themselves. Idolatry was a moral concern for Victorian Protestants and meant “… more than simply the worship of graven images; it became the privileged term for denoting any devotion to a person, thing, or idea that hinders or supplants one’s relation to God.” (Vejvoda 241). To worship an idol is to imply that you serve something or someone other than God. Mr Brocklehurst instills a pervasive sense of shame of idolatry in Jane, one that will hound her until the end of the novel (Bennett 301). Jane’s reality continues to be defined by other people, and Mr Brocklehurst’s prescribed definition even conflicts with Jane’s self. Even when Mr Brocklehurst is disposed, his influence remains. Mr Rochester immediately idolizes Jane, making her his object of worship which makes her shameful. Jane falls in love with Mr Rochester and yearns to be with him despite becoming his idol, while idolizing him herself. “My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven… I could not, in those days, see God for his creature: of whom I had made an idol.” (Brontë 257; ch. 24). Jane’s attempts to resist Mr Brocklehurst’s influence, and find a balance between serving God and loving Mr Rochester becomes an explicit conflict. Jane loves Mr Rochester enough to fight against Mr Brocklehurst’s influence, but she is still not powerful. As an idol Jane has some control over Mr Rochester’s actions, but never the true power of a Goddess to completely influence her follower because there is another dimension to her objectification.
Despite Rochester’s worship of Jane there is never doubt about his power over her, because Jane Eyre conflates ‘idol’ with ‘doll’. A doll is (expectedly) a woman’s likeness that is completely passive and at anyone’s mercy, and highly sexualized especially in the Victorian era (Marcus 112). As much as Jane wants him, when Mr Rochester says they are equals she cannot accept it. Jane is his doll, but is aware of this dynamic stating: “… [It would be a relief] if I had ever so small an independency; I never can bear can bear being dressed like a doll by Mr Rochester…” (Brontë 252; ch. 24). She knows she will be at Mr Rochester’s mercy unless she has the money/ power to be independent. Whatever power Jane does have in denying Rochester her full affections, she knows that power is not substantive. Even as Mr Rochester claims he is at Jane’s mercy, he threatens to clasp bracelets around her wrists, unintentionally alluding to Jane’s painting of a cormorant holding a bracelet beside a drowned woman (Vejvoda 250; Brontë 118; ch. 13). The act is also a symbol of one taking command over another. Rochester never calls her a doll, but Jane views dolls and idols as one and the same. The two concepts were conflated when Jane describes her affection for the doll she had as a child. “I contrived to find a pleasure in loving and cherishing a faded graven image…” (Brontë 28; ch. 4). While knowing who has true power over her is vital to Jane’s development, when she decides to marry Mr Rochester (for the first time) she knows she will be treated as an idol/ doll and not a person.
Despite some resistance to authority throughout her life, Jane will resign herself to the status of a doll until the day she rejects St John’s proposal. That is the moment where her rebellious nature convalesces with the lessons she learned, allowing her to fully assert her independence. Despite her hatred of John Reed, she still obeyed his commands (Brontë 10; ch. 1). Despite having no means of independence, and knowing Rochester’s idolization of her, she was still prepared to marry him (270; ch. 25). Arguably discovering Rochester’s prior marriage to Bertha Mason is when Jane fully realized the true dangers of becoming one’s doll, and leaving him was a sign Jane could care for herself (Vejvoda 245). However she still has St John’s influence to overcome, and she nearly falls prey to it (252). St John takes the grieving, starving, shivering Jane into his home and becomes her provider. While Jane is working as a schoolteacher, St John becomes her mentor who praises or punishes her depending on her actions (Brontë 383; ch. 35). However St John believes in complete submission to God, to the point where all personal pleasure is yielded in service to him. St John eventually demands that Jane marry him, saying it is her duty as a servant of God (379; ch. 34). When Jane refuses she states: “If I were to marry you, you would kill me. You are killing me now.” (385; ch. 35). In stark contrast to resigning herself to become Mr Rochester’s doll (and the symbolic death that would bring), she refuses to let St John define her. She recognizes that being someone’s property would be her spiritual death. That is the moment when Jane becomes a person, because nothing which happens after involves Jane becoming defined by someone else.
While Jane goes on to be idolized again by Rochester, she is no longer his doll. The second time she commits to marrying him is within a completely different context: Jane has her independence, from everyone. John Reed’s influence is gone, and the man is dead. She gives herself to a man who idolizes her, which offends Mr Brocklehurst’s teachings. While Mr Brocklehurst instilled a shame within her that persisted throughout the novel, at its end Jane is in control of that emotion (Bennett 318). Not only is Jane independent, but Mr Rochester now depends on her physically and emotionally, and caring for and loving him is akin to the doll she had in her youth. She is in control of the object, instead of being one. Obviously there are differences, but the novel comes full circle beginning with Jane caring for something she loves, and ending with her caring for someone she loves. Someone, because the novel ends with Jane around other people and not objects. She cares for a person, instead of a doll. She is worshiped, but not objectified. Jane’s circumstances at the end are of her choosing, she is liberated from the dehumanizing experiences of her past, and no longer anyone’s plaything.
Throughout Jane Eyre, Jane becomes a woman in more ways than one. Through both explicit and subtle ways, Jane Eyre examines the relationship between a doll and its owner, and an idol and its worshiper. This could be interpreted as a feminist reading, as men are largely the ones objectifying Jane who gains her independence at the end. However most important and interesting is discovering how Jane navigates the religious and cultural implications of her status as object, while slowly attaining power to assert herself as a person. Jane becomes powerful, her reality exists because she made it so, and she enjoys power in relation to Mr Rochester that she never could before. This power is important whether discussing feminism, identity, race, class relations, intimate relationships, or any other topic involving personhood. Jane Eyre’s exploration of power is one that will always be relevant to our society, and is but one of many reasons why it is rightfully considered a timeless literary classic.
Armstrong, Mary A. “Reading A Head: Jane Eyre, Phrenology, and the Homoerotics of Legibility.” Victorian Literature and Culture 33.1 (2005): 107-32. Print.
Bennett, Ashly. “Shameful Signification: Narrative and Feeling in Jane Eyre.” Narrative 18.3 (2010): 300-23. Print.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Mineola: Dover, 2002. Print.
Cast, Alicia D. “Power and the Ability to Define the Situation.” Social Psychology Quarterly 66.3 (2003): 185-201. Print.
Marcus, Sharon. Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. Print.
Vejvoda, Kathleen. “Idolatry in Jane Eyre.” Victorian Literature and Culture 31.1 (2003): 241-61. Print.
This article was originally written July 28th, 2014 as part of my university degree.