Mrs. Hale's death brings out several subjects common to both North and South and Jane Eyre — responsibility, feminine strength of character, and masculine dependency on women, among others. An interesting, different nuance in the authors' points of view is revealed, however, in the way they present their respective heroines dealing with loss. Gaskell advocates self-control and at least a superficial attempt to subjugate emotions (perhaps reflecting her upbringing as a respectable middle-class woman.) Brontë definitely feels that one must have control of one's actions, but while Margaret tries to carry on with a stiff upper lip, Jane allows herself fits of passionate despair and heart-rending spasms of tormenting agony before setting off on the straight and narrow path.
After her mother dies, Margaret, though her eyes are "continually blinded by tears," knows that she must not break down, because she has "no time for regular crying." She must keep her chin up, for while the rest of the family is "giving way to grief she must be working, planning, considering." Gaskell shows here that a strong, admirable woman does not surrender to displays of feeling, but faces and meets immediately the challenges with which her difficult situation has presented her.
Jane, although she certainly faces and meets various challenges throughout her life, does so after deep reaction. The most glaring example of this conflict is her discovery that Rochester has been lying to her, already has a wife and therefore cannot marry Jane. Her love for him had been the best part of her life, but now
My hopes were all dead — struck with a subtle doom, such as, in one night, fell on all the firstborn in the land of Egypt. I looked on my cherished wishes, yesterday so blooming and glowing; They lay stark, chill, livid, corpses, they could never revive. I looked at my love: that feeling which was my master's — which he had created; it shivered in my heart, like a suffering child in a cold cradle.
Jane examines at length all the damage her heart is suffering, even feeling physically her emotional pain — "a hand of fiery iron grasped my vitals." She, like Margaret, is at first loath to cry — "I had been struggling with tears for some time; I had taken great pains to repress them" but when Rochester annoys her she decides to forget about repression, and "I considered it well to let (my tears) flow as freely and as long as they liked . . . So I gave way and cried heartily." Brontë does enjoy exploring tempests of the heart, but in the end she agrees with Gaskell that the truly strong woman must know her duty and perform it, even when that means putting one's own feelings second. "I do love you," says Jane to Rochester, echoing Margaret, "more than ever, but I must not show it or indulge the feeling: and this is the last time I must ever express it."
The two authors reflect contemporary mores in their attitudes toward feminine conduct. In Hints on Etiquette (1843), Charles William Day states that
a true lady is . . . sweet and delicate and refined. . . her sphere is to cheer, to refine, to beautify, to bless. The opportunities and influence she may acquire (by behaving thus), she may turn to the noblest and holiest purposes.
A true lady certainly does not, according to Day, give free rein to her feelings — "Though her heart may bound with happiness, she must no more show it than she can show the antipathies and disgusts excited by others." Thus Jane is breaking from the expected standard when she storms at Rochester, and Margaret conforms to it when she tries to fulfill her supposedly proper role. Although their immediate actions are influenced by societal demands, both of the characters' adherence to a higher duty is a deeper and more personally moral choice than etiquette can address.
Created October 1992; last modified: 26 March 2000