he following passage from Jane Eyre emphasizes Jane's desire for equality in love, and marriage, regardless of social status: "I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom. conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; — it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal, — as we are" (Brontë, 252). Equality cannot exist, however, until Jane reaches a level of independence and self identity. She is participating in a Bildungsroman model of the novel, only she is putting a new twist on the model because she is a woman. According to Suzanne Hader, "The term Bildungsroman denotes a novel of all-around self-development... A Bildungsroman is, most generally, the story of a single individual's growth and development within the context of a defined social order" (The Bildungsroman Genre"). In the passage quoted above, Jane clearly struggles to define herself by her own terms. Yet her desire to also be able to participate as a part of the "defined social order" keeps her from simply being able to define herself on her own terms. As in Hader's model, Jane is searching for a "meaningful existence within society."
After being "jar[red]" away from "home" at an early age, only to be put in a series of miserable settings, Jane begins to fight a "long, arduous, and gradual" battle towards maturity, a battle that places her between her own needs and desires and the "views and judgments enforced by an unbending social order." She is trying to find a story to live by. When Jane first leaves the Reed home, she simply wants freedom, the freedom to be herself without condemnation. Later on, she is looking for love and approval. But, as we, the readers, soon realize, she is really looking for a parent figure, not simply love in any form. Her relationship with Rochester is originally a form of parent/ child relationship. Rochester tells Jane at one point in the novel "I claim only such superiority as must result from twenty years' difference in age and a century's advance in experience" (Brontë, 139). He asks to examine her drawings and educates her with stories of and encounters with the larger world. It does not, then, come as a surprise when their marriage plans are thwarted. Although Jane is tempted by subservience, she knows that she must have her own identity, as she asserts to Rochester:
"I tell you I must go...Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?-- a machine without feelings? And can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong" (Brontë, 252)Jane soon fills her need for parentage with the Rivers, who turn out to be her real relations. With this connection established, and with her newly discovered inheritance, Jane finds the independence that she needs in order for her to return to Rochester and live in an equal marriage. The marriage is only equal, however, because Jane is independent and independently supported.
Thus in the end, Jane does not challenge, but upholds, the 'spirit and values of societal order" (Hader). She conforms to society's desire for marriage to be entered into by two people of the same social class. As a result of her inheritance, Jane is now Rochester's financial equal. Yet to simply say that Jane does not challenge the social order is not entirely true. The very fact that she participates as a woman in this Bildungsroman and that she requires an equality in marriage are new challenges. In order for her to truly be equal to Rochester in a society that gives power to men, somehow his power must be taken away. The maiming that occurs in the fire at Thornfield is a challenge to phallic power in the novel. She tells Rochester "I love you better now, when I can really be useful to you, than I did in your state of proud independence, when you disdained every part but that of giver and protector" (Brontë, 434), thereby asserting that it is only with his diminished power that she is willing to stay and marry him.
Although Jane Eyre was written before the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857), Jane's independence certainly anticipates such an act. This act declared that women who were legally separated from their husbands had a right to keep the money they earn. Previously, the concept of marriage required the woman to give up her money and property to her husband. Husband and wife were perceived as a legal entity of one person. Many people felt that passing the Matrimonial Causes Act into law worked to destroy the moral fiber of society by giving women too much power. By creating a relationship of equals, Brontë posed a serious challenge to societal gender norms. She creates her own version of this law by maiming the husband so that even if he technically has the power and control, the wife is the real one in control.
Despite the fact that in some ways, Jane continues to conform to the values of societal order, upholding notions of class in marriage and outside of marriage, she also challenges these values by posing challenges to societal concepts of gender. In The Pickwick Papers, Dickens does not really address issues of gender (or rather, gender is addressed but in a way that simply normalizes the dominant masculine gaze). The marriages that take place near the end of Pickwick conform to the standards already produced by the medieval romance. As in Jane Eyre, there are no marriages across class lines. Every marriage in The Pickwick Papers follows a conventional form. Dickens writes with a characteristically masculine gaze, placing women as absurdly manipulated beings who have no authority over their own ideas (as with Mrs. Weller's manipulation by Mr. Stiggins and the church) or objects of love.
Last modified 1996