This is Part I of the author's "Masculinity in Charlotte Brontë, E. B. Browning, and Thomas Carlyle."
hough many texts often attempt to define femininity, few do the same for masculinity. Looking at the way Victorian women depict contrasts with the way men see themselves. Jane Eyre and Aurora Leigh both clearly represent men as both deficient in morality and dependent on women to be their spiritual and moral guides. Carlyle offers quite a different view, one in which women are not even mentioned. Instead Carlyle sees a true man as a sincere and spiritual person who functions as guide for the rest of the world — much like the roles of women in contemporary novels by women.
In Brontë's Jane Eyre, we first see the interaction between Jane and Rochester in a completely different setting than the house that they both come to inhabit. When Jane first encounters her soon-to-be-master, he has fallen off his horse in the middle of the woods and is completely helpless. She comes to his assistence with no idea who he is. Even in their very first encounter, Jane appears in a position to help the fallen Rochester, foreshadowing the form their relationship will come to take: Rochester as fallen and helpless, and Jane as his capable savior. From this moment on she is figured as helping him back on his moral horse, guiding him to the correct path from which he has wandered in so many ways.
When she describes their first encounter, his gruffness, she tells us, drew her to him for help. If he had been "handsome" or "heroic", she would have passed him by without assistance.
Had he been a handsome, heroic-looking young gentleman, I should not have dared to stand thus questioning him against his will, and offering my services unasked . . . I had a theoretical reverence and homage for beauty, elegance, gallantry, fascination; but had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape, I should have known instinctively that they neither had nor could have sympathy with anything in me, and should have shunned them as one would fire, lightning, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic.
If even this stranger had smiled and been good-humoured to me when I addressed him; if he had put off my offer of assistance gaily and with thanks, I should have gone on my way and not felt any vocation to renew inquiries: but the frown, the roughness of the traveler, set me at my ease. [Brontë, p. 97]
Here, Brontë depicts the masculine not as something heroic or beautiful, but gruff, mysterious, and ill-tempered. Men are not supposed to possess "beauty, elegance, gallantry, fascination"; they are meant to be mean, rough about the edges, a challenge to unravel. To be beautiful, elegant, and a male is to be "antipathetic", to cause dismay, not t be masculine. Brontë does not value heroism in a man; instead she wishes him to be rough around the edges, misshapen and ready to be reformed. Men are not beautiful and righteous; it is the women who must be so, as counterpart to the men.
Rochester finds in Jane a willing ear ready to hear about all of his past and present miseries; he tells her, "it is not your forte to tell of yourself, but to listen while others talk of themselves" (p. 116). Jane is a patient, if somber, listener and falls into the role of Rochester's moral conscience, listening quietly to every gripe and responding with advice as to the path he should take to become morally upright. Rochester, who appears to have no innate moral guidance of his own, must look to the closest woman nearby, Jane, to discover the correct way to solve his problems. Brontë portrays Jane as the religious, moral, persuasive force that keeps erring Rochester on the righteous path from which he seems so willing to stray.
"You would say, I should have been superior to circumstances; so I should — so I should; but you see I was not. When fate wronged me, I had not the wisdom to remain cool: I turned desperate; then I degenerated . . . I wish I had stood firm — God knows I do! . . . I have a right to get pleasure out of life: and I will get it, cost what it may."
"Then you will degenerate still more, sir."
" . . . How do you know? . . . You have no right to preach to me, you neophyte, that have not passed the porch of life, and are absolutely unacquainted with its mysteries."
" . . . Only one thing I know: you said you were not as good as you should like to be, and that you regretted your own imperfection; — one thing I can comprehend: you intimated that to have a sullied memory was a perpetual bane. It seems to me, that if you tried hard, you would in time find it possible to become what you yourself would approve; and that if from this day you began with resolution to correct your thoughts and actions, you would in a few years have laid up a new and stainless store of recollections, to which you might revert with pleasure."
" . . . You seem to doubt me; I don't doubt myself: I know what my aim is, what my motives are; and at this moment I pass a law, unalterable as that of the Medes and Persians, that both are right."
"They cannot be, sir, if they require a new statue to legalise them."
"They are, Miss Eyre, though they absolutely require a new statute; unheard-of combinations of circumstances demand unheard-of rules."
" . . . You are human and fallible."
"I am; so are you — what then?"
"The human and fallible should not arrogate a power with which the divine and perfect alone can be safely entrusted . . . May it be right then,' I said, as I rose, deeming it useless to continue." [Brontë, pp. 116-18]
Rochester seems unable to follow the correct path on his own, leading himself hither and thither, unable to see clearly. Telling him what to do is an easy task for Jane; she has no problem cutting directly through his stories and showing him where he has erred and how he should go about fixing himself. In this passage Rochester sees where he has gone wrong in his past, but he is unable to see that he has the power to change his ways. Only Jane can show him where he needs to reform his life, and she reminds him that he is "human and fallible" and therefore cannot go about doing anything he wishes and claiming it to be right. Jane possesses all the correct answers to the questions that daily assault Rochester; for him, "to live . . . is to stand on a crater-crust which may crack and spue fire any day" (p. 184), but Jane can steady it by her clear perception and strict advice. Rochester is at every turn tempted into doing the wrong thing. Jane stands next to him as a barrier against temptation, a stoic, righteous wall against which he can lean when in the tempest of the enticements of the world. She is confident that everything she does is just: "I know my Maker sanctions what I do. For the world's judgment — I wash my hands thereof. For man's opinion — I defy it" (Brontë , p. 218). Jane possesses no moral doubt, whereas that is all that Rochester seems to possess. But she does assert: "I am not an angel . . . and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself" (Brontë, p. 221), and later on, "I had rather be a thing than an angel" (Brontë, p. 223). She refuses to deem herself divine; she is only a follower of the divine, a disciple, and a guide.
Though Brontë allows Jane to view all of Rochester's faults in plain light, she still perceives something good in him, perceiving a kernel of his true nature hidden behind his mask of gruff persona. She adheres to the belief that he is just a victim of fate and circumstance and that underneath his rough appearance and crooked morality he is naturally a good person.
I believed that his moodiness, his harshness, and his former faults of morality (I say former, for now he seemed corrected of them) had their source in some cruel cross of fate. I believed he was naturally a man of better tendencies, higher principles, and purer tastes than such as circumstances had developed, education instilled, or destiny encouraged. I thought there were excellent materials in him; though for the present they hung together somewhat spoiled and tangled. [Brontë, p. 125]
She sees a man with a naturally good soul corrupted by the world, and therefore she finds that she must take the responsibility to correct him. She views human nature as fundamentally good; it is "circumstances", "education", and "destiny" that are to be blamed. Men are basically good; it is the job of a morally just woman, such as herself, to guide such a wandering lamb back onto the right path.
Rochester recognizes the changes that Jane is bringing about in him. He responds to her encouragement to become a better person, believes that she is guiding him to a better existence, and, in his gratitude, wishes to marry her. He attempts to describe to her what she does for him by asking her to place herself in his position.
[I]n this stranger [are] much of the good and bright qualities which you have sought for twenty years, and never before encountered; and they are all fresh, healthy, without soil and without taint. Such society revives, regenerates: you feel better days come back — higher wishes, purer feelings; you desire to recommence your life, and to spend what remains to you of days in a way more worthy of an immortal being. [Brontë, p. 186]
For him, Jane represents all that is good in the world, all that he searched for. She is free of the taint of the world that has so blighted his naturally good character; she is immune to the soiling of her soul. She rises above the baseness of the world as a beacon of his salvation.
The novel ends with Jane returning to the blinded, disfigured, and penniless Rochester. His house has been burned, and he blinded, symbolizing the cleansing of his past and his character. She returns to him, her heart full of pity, and taunts him about her return. "'It is time some one undertook to rehumanise you,' said I, parting his thick and long uncut locks; 'for I see you are being metamorphosed into a lion, or something of that sort'" (Brontë, p. 371). Though she is commenting on his appearance, it really is Jane's job to "rehumanise" Rochester, to remake him into a moral human being from the ashes that he has come to be. He becomes finally cleansed by the fire and his blinding, but has also become completely helpless and is left completely at the mercy of Jane. This vision of a man is that of one who must be reborn from his corruption, but once this is done must rely entirely on a woman for his salvation.
Masculinity in Charlotte Brontë, E. B. Browning, and Thomas Carlyle
- Masculinity in Jane Eyre
- Masculinity in Aurora Leigh
- Masculinity in Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre: an authoritative text. Ed. Richard J. Dunn. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Last modified 22 May 2004