By Amanda Silberling, Blog Editor
This week, I’m reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (go pick it up—it’s awesome), so I’ve been thinking a lot about how feminism manifests itself in literature. I think it’s hard for any modern female writer not to wonder how literature has historically represented her gender. So that’s why at the Adroit blog, we’re launching the Feminist Fridays series. We want to talk about what makes a character, writer, or piece of writing feminist, and how the evolution of society impacts the way that we write about women in literature.
To start, I would like to point out that the feminist criticism of literature isn’t about playing the “Feminist or Not Feminist?” game. Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether or not we can bang a gavel and definitively call a piece of literature feminist. But it’s important to be able to determine the feminist merits of literature because of the implications and social influence that literature can have. After all, do we want a teen girl in her high school English class to learn from her reading material that her purpose in life is to serve her husband? I sure hope not. But sometimes, I find it hard to look at the women of classic literature and think, “Yes! This is the kind of woman that I want to be.”
When literary scholarship is so ingrained in older works, how do we evaluate literature through a modern feminist lens?
Before examining the feminist merit of a novel, we need to define what feminism means. I think that feminism is about having complete and total agency over our lifestyle and choices, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and any other facet of our being.
Let’s talk Charlotte Brontë. If you’ve never read Jane Eyre, this is the part where you go read the SparkNotes summary.
Jane Eyre is widely considered to be one of the first feminist novels, but I’ve never been sold on the idea. I do believe, though, that within the context of Victorian England, Jane Eyre could be considered feminist, but only to an extent. This is the crux of the problem, though—society has (thankfully) grown enough in the past couple hundred of years that what may have seemed incredibly feminist in the nineteenth century is antithetical to twenty-first century feminism. Jane’s actions are deeply rooted in her moral beliefs, and the ability to make conscious lifestyle choices for herself is inarguably feminist. But when I look at Jane’s choices through a contemporary lens, I can’t help but feel that, despite her moral character, she fails to fully liberate herself from an oppressive, marriage-obsessed culture.
Jane Eyre focuses largely on the gothic, mysterious relationship between Jane and Rochester, the man who owns the estate where Jane is a governess. As I flip through my copy of Jane Eyre, I notice an uncomfortable trend: from chapters thirteen through eighteen, each chapter’s opening sentence centers on Mr. Rochester. It's okay to be boy-crazy (and still feminist!), but come on, Jane, seriously? Get it together.
On her wedding day, Jane finds out that Rochester is already married to a manic woman trapped in the attic of the estate (Okay, Rochester. Totally not creepy.). After the wedding is called off, Brontë writes that Jane “was a cold, solitary girl again: her life was pale; her prospects were desolate.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not too keen on the message that life is “desolate” without a man to marry.
Shortly after the reveal, Rochester implores Jane to begin their life together far away in a romantic French villa. Although Jane is in love with Rochester and admits that she would enjoy life with him in France, she chooses not to go with him because she is afraid of being considered his mistress, since they aren’t married. Instead, Jane tries to support herself by working various jobs around the countryside until she faints on a doorstep.
Jane’s decision not to go to France is often considered to be The Pinnacle of Feminism—she refuses to be anything less than Rochester’s wife. While the choice to put her self-esteem above a man is admirable, I can’t help but feel frustrated that Jane would throw away the prospect of a happy, romantic life in a French villa just because she prizes the institution of marriage enough to believe that only a legal document can validate her relationship.
Marriage has its place in modern society, but it’s hard to deny that its origins were inherently patriarchal. Still, I would find it more appealing if Jane decided that she cared more about her personal happiness than whether she would potentially be considered a mistress… But of course, what’s a good book without some heart-breaking conflict?
Fast-forward a bit in the plot. A man named St. John asks Jane to marry him and work as a missionary in India. Jane declines because she does not love him. This time, I’ll go ahead and cheer Jane on. She knows that she won’t truly be happy if she marries a man for the sake of convenience, and the fact that she has the right to make this decision is a step in the right direction. Good for you, Jane.
Later, Jane returns to Rochester’s estate, only to find out that a fire killed his wife—in other words, Rochester is no longer married. He is, however, physically handicapped and blind. Only after Rochester’s physical state deteriorates can Jane feel like his equal. Jane says, “perhaps it was that circumstance that drew us so very near--that knit us so very close: for I was then his vision, as I am still his right hand.” Jane derives happiness from her ability to service Rochester; the relationship brings her joy because she feels useful, and only from her utility can she feel loved and respected.
Brontë portrays this as a happy ending, but from a feminist perspective, I’m not happy.
Let’s start with the flawed concept that a man and a woman aren’t equal until the man is maimed by a giant fire. From Brontë’s perspective, Jane and Rochester can’t have a functional marriage until their relationship is mutually beneficial. Love and respect are not enough—Rochester must benefit when Jane takes care of him in his weakened physical state, and Jane must benefit when she elevates her social status by marrying a rich man.
I reject the idea that Jane was inferior to Rochester to begin with. Sure, he is of a much higher social class (Jane was a governess in his estate, remember?), but if they are in a truly healthy relationship, this shouldn’t matter.
I think this is what makes me feel so uncomfortable when Jane Eyre is referred to as a major feminist novel. Let’s stop insisting that the ideal woman is a morally-guided Christ figure and start giving women the power to make life choices that don’t depend on marriage and child-rearing. Let’s separate our self-worth from our relationship status, and when we do find a suitable partner, let’s consider them our equals on the simple basis that we are human beings who respect each other, and not on the basis of codependency.
Although Jane Eyre bordered on radical at the time of its publication—so radical that Brontë published it under a male name—I don’t think that we can consider Jane a feminist role model in the twenty-first century. Instead, literature should function as an education in how society has evolved since the 1840s, and how Jane Eyre and Charlotte Brontë lacked the social mobility to fit my mold—my twenty-first century American mold—of what a modern feminist role model should be. Jane’s journey towards understanding herself and finding peace is lodged in her relationships with men, and I don’t think that the novel can send a holistically feminist message when Jane’s self-worth and happiness are so strongly affected by the men in her life.
But in Victorian England, a woman’s social mobility was closely related with her romantic relationships. As Roxane Gay writes in Bad Feminist, “feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed.” So maybe Jane is a “bad feminist.” Maybe in a modern Jane Eyre, Jane would have had an option to better herself and her life in ways that didn’t involve marriage.
I don’t blame Charlotte Brontë for living when she lived, but I still wish that Jane Eyre wasn’t so widely considered to be the quintessential feminist novel. Morality is great and all, Jane, but I think that there are other protagonists out there who can more effectively prove to women that they are people who matter outside of their reproductive and marital abilities.
Amanda Silberling is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, originally from South Florida. Recently, her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK Blog, SOFTBLOW, The Fat City Review, The Louisville Review, and The Los Angeles Times. She is the Blog Editor and Director of Social Media Relations for The Adroit Journal, and also works for BOAAT Press and Dzanc Books.