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Theme of the Orphan in Charlotte Bronte's 'Jane Eyre'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1729 words Published: 17th Sep 2021

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Charlotte Bronte wrote ‘Jane Eyre’ in 1847, it is a novel which tells the story of Jane who is a young orphan being raised by her aunty. Narrated by the protagonist of the young orphan herself, this novel tells the story of the characters internal development as she undergoes encounters with the outside world. The theme of the orphan in Bronte’s novel is evidently the stem from which all the other themes lead from. Jane’s alienation in being an orphan means that she faces struggles throughout her life which she has to overcome in her childhood, relationships with authority figures, and battling to find her own identity.

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After Jane becomes orphaned she is sent to live with her cruel, wealthy aunt Mrs Reed. Mrs Reed has a servant named Bessie who connects with Jane and provides her with part of the small amount of kindness she encounters throughout the novel, Bessie tells Jane stories and sings to her because of this Jane explains that even for her “life had its gleams of sunshine” [pp.32]. Towards the beginning Mrs Reed punishes Jane after a fight with her bully cousin John Reed, exclaiming that it is “shocking conduct, Miss Eyre, to strike a young gentleman…. your master” [pp.11] the fact that she describes him as Jane’s master and not her cousin immediately defines the relationship between Mrs Reed and Jane, Jane is not treated like a relative but more like a “slave” [pp.11], from her own point of view. Jane is imprisoned in the red room; Jane is terrified of this room because it is the room in which her Uncle Reed died. This is the beginning of what will become an ongoing symbol throughout the rest of the novel, the red room can be viewed as a symbol for something Jane must overcome in her battling to find freedom, happiness and defeat her feeling of isolation. The red room’s importance as a symbol continues as a symbol throughout the novel. It reappears as a memory whenever Jane makes a connection with the place she is at now and the first time she felt ridiculed. Therefore she recalls the experience when she is embarrassed at her new School.

Moreover, Jane attends Lowood School, when she initially arrives we strongly recognise her sense of isolation as she instinctively separates herself from the rest of the pupils. That being said, Jane does become intrigued by one girl, Helen Burns who she notices reading a book with an interesting title. Jane later witnesses Miss Scratcherd punishing Helen for having dirty finger nails; Jane is confused that Helen does not defend herself. Jane exclaims “When we are struck at without reason, we should strike back again very hard” [pp.80], at this point it is made apparent that Jane does not understand authority and the power that her teachers have over her and her fellow classmates. At this point Bronte sets a moral dilemma for Jane, Jane holds great anger towards those who punish her and believes that they should be punished too for doing so. In contrast Helen puts forward the idea that “Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine; but Christians and civilised nations disown it.” [pp.80], her argument is that people should be passive and forgiving, an idea that is taught in the New Testament. The moral dilemma that Bronte introduces outlines a new battle for Jane to overcome, should you love your enemy or should you wish them harm? More importantly to Jane’s current status, should she respect or dismiss the power of authority, particularly the authority of the teachers that are above her now? Jane’s development is central to the novel; at this point we witness Jane possessing a strong sense of self worth and dignity, a commitment to justice and principles. Lyndall Gordon wrote “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.”[1] It is hard to define how individual Bronte was in her views today. However, the fact that Bronte created the character of Jane with such a strong personality and passionate nature, conjured up much controversy amongst critics in the sense that at the time females were expected to be calm and gentle, perhaps Jane is a representation of Bronte herself. This mirrors yet another struggle Jane has to overcome, her battling with herself and battling with others over gender roles.

Throughout the novel we witness Jane continually struggling to reach equality, Jane needs to fight with those who believe women to be less than men to overcome this constant feeling of oppression. Bronte’s theme of Jane trying to find her own identity within her gender role, introduces us to two main male characters who threaten Jane’s battle to find equality and desire to maintain her dignity. The first of these characters is Mr Brocklehurst who is the head teacher of Lowood School. Mr Brocklehurst is a cruel, hypocritical character who explains that “Deceit is, indeed, a sad fault in a child” [pp.27], Mr Brocklehurst teaches a principle of privation while secretly stealing from the School. Jane goes onto describe seeing herself as “transformed under Mr Brocklehurt’s eye into an artful, noxious child, and what could I do to remedy the injury?” [pp.27], once again Jane is being prevented from being herself, she is unable to express herself and her feelings under the power of yet another authority figure. It reaches ten years and Jane describes herself as having an “insignificant existence” [pp.71] she later decides that the only way she can escape this oppression and the feeling of being ostracized is to escape. In her escape she turns to the second of these characters St John Rivers, who along with his sisters provides her with food and shelter. St John is cold and largely controlling in his interactions with others, meaning that yet again Jane is unable to feel free. St John’s controlling nature is witnessed through the actions of the females that surround him, and it is clear that he too believes women to be inferior to men. On Jane’s arrival she is greeted by Miss Varen’s who explains she will be happy to have Jane staying with them as “Leah is a nice girl to be sure, and John and his wife are very decent people; but… they are only servants, and one can’t converse with them on terms of equality….” [pp.83], if St John and his family were to talk to their servants the same way they talk to each other then, they would lose their authority. This conversation allows the reader to anticipate Jane’s future living in Thornfiled, although discussing servants, we instantly imagine that Jane will not find the freedom she had hoped for living under the care of St John. As the story continues Jane is faced with a dilemma when she can choose to marry St John. Each male character in Jane’s life appears to keep her in a submissive position, in her search for independence, self knowledge and freedom Jane must reject St John.

Jane values intellectual and emotional fulfilment, her strong belief in gender and social equality challenges the Victorian prejudices against women and the poor. Jane Eyre is considered to be one of the first realistic exposures of a woman’s thoughts that were at the time considered to be wrong for a lady in the 19th century. That being said other criticism argues that this writing is “a tradition of feminist discourse that originated fifty five years before Jane Eyre appeared, when Mary Wollstonecroft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).” [2]. Moreover, whilst being sheltered by St John, Rochester is introduced to us; he is Jane’s employer and the master of Thornfield. St John serves as a foil to Rochester, while Rochester is passionate John is austere and ambitious. Rochester “is considered a just and liberal landlord by his tenants…. he has travelled a great deal, and seen a great deal of the world” [pp.91] he has travelled in an attempt to avoid youthful indiscretions, Rochester’s problems are partly a result of his own recklessness. Jane must reject John and come to Rochester after ensuring that they may marry as equals. This condition is met after Jane proves herself able to be independant, she does not want to depend on Rochester solely for love and she can be independent financially. The battle then lies in the offers she receives from both John and Rochester, Rochester initially offers Jane a chance to liberate her passions; however Jane realises that this kind of freedom could also mean enslavement, by living as his mistress she would be giving away her dignity as a sacrifice for her feelings. On the other hand, John offers Jane a different type of freedom, the freedom to act on her values, he offers her the opportunity to live and work with him in India. However Jane again decides this would also act as a form of enslavement, in the sense that she would be forced to keep her feelings and her own passions hidden, as John does himself. Like the red room, Johns proposal dangers Jane’s emotional and intellectual feelings and would form further isolation for her. After Jane gains financial independence and asserts herself she can marry Rochester and find freedom in marriage. Jane does not want to depend of Rochester for love and the ending appears ironic, Rochester is blind and therefore it is he that becomes dependant on her.

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The fact that Jane Eyre is an orphan can undeniably take blame for the battles Jane faces throughout her life. This novel is very much a story about a quest for love, because Jane was an orphan she searches for more than romantic love. Jane has a quest to find acceptance, the feeling of being valued and of belonging. Jane does not want to lose her dignity and therefore struggles with her decision on who to marry, she needs to be independent and find equality in her relationship. Jane’s obsession with equality clearly stems from her being an orphan, and the fact that she was ill treated by her Aunt Reed. Moreover, her struggles with morality and authority also relate back to her Aunt, she fails to understand at home and at School why she should respect a figure that treats her badly and because of this she struggles with her own morality. Bronte’s novel appears highly controversial to its time in the sense that it raises feminist issues, that being said, its issues tackle what can be a reality of the effects of a child becoming an orphan, and therefore can still hold relevance to today’s society.


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