In Jane Eyre, Mr. Brocklehurst attempts to control the bodies of his female students, bodies that he views as "vile" (53). As he explains to the headmistress,

"You are aware that my plan in bringing up these girls is, not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying. Should any little accidental disappointment of the appetite occur, such as the spoiling of a meal, the under or over dressing of a dish, the incident ought not to be neutralized by replacing with something more delicate the comfort lost, thus pampering the body and obviating the aim of the institution. . . Oh, madam, when you put bread and cheese, instead of burnt porridge, into these children's mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls" [53]

From setting students on stools to be examples of evil, or demanding that they shear off their hair, Mr. Brocklehurst moves towards mastering the bodies of his pupils. Beyond his notions of mastery, he also draws clear distinctions between the body and the soul. The body, as he sees it, is a vehicle that carries the "immortal soul" within it: this is its only importance. As Mr. Brocklehurst attempts to humiliate and control Jane, however, she finds strength from fellow students, and will not let her body be taken from her. In a moment one might call spiritual Jane is able to silently triumph over her "master": it is when Mr. Brocklehurst thinks he is most humiliating Jane and controlling her that she is most triumphant and in control of her body.

Further, in this novel punishment and loss of control of the body are closely linked. The second passage below depicts Jane's punishment at the hands of Mr. Brocklehurst: this is the second instance (the first being the scene leading to her placement in the red room) in which Jane is taken by another person and punished by being placed somewhere. In this scene at Lowood, she is hoisted by unknown people onto a pedestal as an example of what the other pupils should not be. She is spoken of but not to, chastised and called an "interloper and an alien" (56). With this language, Mr. Brocklehurst denies Jane's humanness, as he does by denying the appetites and importance the bodies of all the students at his institution. He orders all the teachers to "punish her [Jane's] body to save her soul" (56). As she is humiliated, her body manipulated and displayed, Jane finds a moment of solace and empowerment when body and soul unite rather than remain separate entities:

There was I, then, mounted aloft: I, who had said I could not bear the shame of standing on my natural feet in the middle of the room, was now exposed to the general view of the room, was now exposed to general view on a pedestal of infamy. What my sensations were, no language can describe: but just as they all rose, stifling breath and constricting my throat, a girl came up and passed me: in passing, she lifted her eyes. What a strange light inspired them! What an extraordinary sensation that ray sent through me! How the new feeling bore me up! It was as if a martyr, a hero, had passed a slave or victim, and imparted strength in the transit. I mastered the rising hysteria, lifted up my head, and took a firm stand on the stool.

Questions

How does the expected (starved) shape of the body mirror the shape of the life a woman should have? How does Brontë confirm what we already know about Victorian notions of women's bodies, but more importantly, how does Jane defy these notions? As we know from previous points in this book, Jane likes food, needs it and looks forward to it: what does this say about her, and about her place within Victorian culture?

How does Jane's way of "coping" with the situation at Lowood contrast with Helen's, best exemplified on page 59? What does she gain my triumphing silently in this passage, and does this have implications for her as a character in the rest of the novel? How is Jane fortified: is it a spiritual fortification, or something that comes from within her? Is she a "victim" despite her triumph? How does the passing girl also triumph over the mechanisms of control that Brocklehurst has established at Lowood?


Victorian Overview Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre Discussion questions for Jane Eyre

Last modified 5 February 2004