In the following passage Charlotte Brontë argues for the intellectual education of women, if their minds have any intellectual capacity for learning something more than a vocational trade such as knitting:
It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it...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 much 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 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. [Jane Eyre 96]
Brontë bases her argument both on the notion that women and men share similar temperaments and that idolatry may produce ill effects on moral character. The most striking example of men and women sharing similar temperaments is in the character development of Jane Eyre and St. John Rivers.
Jane recognizes instantly that St. John, while calm and quiet externally, exhibits "elements within either restless, or hard, or eager" (304-305) in his eyes. His restless nature is quelled with the prospect of missionary work. Jane also has a restless nature, but a more romantic, less religious one than of St. John. When Jane first appears at Thornfield, she is yearning for intellectual stimulation. She finds intellectual stimulation in her nightly conversations with Rochester. At the local school in Morton she yearns for her lover again, even when she finds the comforts of family and monetary independence. Although their restlessness stems from different passions, both Jane and St. John need action other than the simple tasks of worldly middle-class existence, such as Jane teasing Rochester and St. John wishing to do more than care for his English parishioners.
Throughout her portrayal of St. John and Jane's similar personalities, Brontë also shows the beneficial consequences of the education of women, in the progress of Jane's peasant students at Morton. With intellectual stimulation, some of the students, 'showed themselves most obliging...amongst them not a few examples of natural politeness and innate self-respect, as well as excellent capacity...[and] characters desirous of information, and disposed for improvement (322)." Brontë further explores the benefits of education towards a more moral character, in creating contrasts between the two middle class families of the Rivers and the Reeds.
Both families live comfortably, yet John Reed dissipates and Georgiana Reed lives a completely worthless existence as a showpiece for a former dandy, for want of moral or monetary discipline. In contrast, the Rivers spend their leisure learning, such as teaching themselves foreign languages. Both families at one point during their lives lacked money, but the children handled their losses differently. John Reed squandered his mother's money and Georgiana Reed married for money. Diana and Mary Rivers became as independent as women in their society could, working as governesses. Though Eliza Reed became a nun, she had showed no compassion towards her Jane or her sister, investing her money instead of sharing.
Morality and intellectuality transcend the division between sexes; both men and women are subject to the same vices and virtues. Therefore, Brontë argues, men and women should be subject to the same advantages of education, so as both sexes may exercise their minds, and maintain themselves morally.
Last modified May 1994