Gender roles in Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 1997 22 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents


1. Social and Economic Conditions in Great Britain in the 19th century
1.1 The Industrial Development
1.2 Emergence of a Working Class
1.3 A Growing Middle Class
1.4 The Upper Classes

2. Male Characters in "Jane Eyre"
2.1 The Upper Class Heir: John Reed
2.2 The Medical Profession: Mr. Lloyd
2.3 Education and the Clergy: Mr Brocklehurst
2.4 The Upper Class Missionary: St. John Rivers
2.5 A Flawed Hero: Mr. Rochester

3. Female Characters in "Jane Eyre"
3.1 The English Gentlewoman: Eliza and Georgiana Reed
3.2 A Shining Example: Diana and Mary Rivers
3.3 The Governess: Jane Eyre

4. Charlotte Brontë and the start of a feminine tradition

Primary Literature

Secondary Literature


In order to gain a broader understanding of Charlotte Brontë's description of her characters in "Jane Eyre", I consider it necessary to take a close look at the social and economic conditions in Great Britain in the 19th century. Charlotte's objectives and their realisation can only be understood against the framework of outer conditions and limitations the author as well as her characters were exposed to. Writing about people of her own time naturally gives an author first-hand authenticity and a close insight into contemporary views. However, it may also limit her point of view to her own personal sphere which may be, as in the case of CharlotteBrontë, influenced by her upbringing and limited by many material and social restraints. Therefore, a look at the overall conditions of life in Great Britain during the Early Victorian Age may make the author's choice of characters and events as well as any omissions she intentionally or unintentionally made, more understandable.

1. Social and Economic Conditions in Great Britain during the First Half of the 19th Century

1.1 The Industrial Development

Charlotte Brontë's novel "Jane Eyre“" appeared in October of 1847 during a period which was marked by fundamental economic and social change. Before the turn of the century, major inventions such as the mechanical loom, the water-powered spinning frame and above all the multiple use of the steam engine had already brought about a steep increase of profit in the coal, iron and textile industries. During the early nineteenth century, this development accelerated at a remarkable speed. Besides wool, a traditional British speciality, cotton became more and more marketable due to its adaptability to machine production and the rapid increase in the supply of raw material that slavery in the American south made possible. Coal production increased with the use of steam pumps and more effective mining methods, which in turn boosted the iron industry, engineering and metal construction. The steady rise in commerce and trade required further changes that improved social mobility: The country's roads were repaired and regulated, river navigation promoted and an extensive canal system was built. By 1840, nearly 2,400 miles of railway track connected London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.[1] In the Yorkshire district, Charlotte Brontë's home, railway lines linked Darlington and Stockton by 1838. The connections from Leeds to York as well as from Darlington to York were completed between 1838 and 1848.

1.2 Emergence of a Working Class

Industrial development was accompanied by a shift of population from the agricultural regions to the growing industrial towns, seaports and regional centres. Population figures increased drastically in Great Britain, from 15.74 million in 1801 to 27.39 million in 1851[2]. The rising demand of manpower created factory jobs for women and also made children a valuable source of income. They were widely employed in mines, cotton mills and other manufacturing plants. If the breadwinner of the family died or was incapacitated due to unhealthy working conditions or accidents, child labour was often the sole chance of survival for the entire family.

As towns grew rapidly, living conditions became worse. The new industrial towns were densely populated, dirty and unhealthy. Housing conditions for the working class were often appalling, sanitation even worse. Water and sewerage systems remained for a long time the privilege of slowly developing middle class residential areas. In 1832, a cholera epidemic swept through Britain, killing 31,000 people. Scarlet fever, cholera, diphtheria and tuberculosis spread at an alarming rate, not only in overpopulated areas but also in the country. In 1831, the government forced local notables to serve on boards of health in order to combat typhus and cholera.[3]

1.3 A Growing Middle Class

During the first part of the century, the middle class was a rather small group. It consisted of bankers, large shopkeepers, business men, doctors, lawyers and the clergy. There was a strict separation between this group and the working classes. With the change of commercial and industrial society, this class gradually grew larger and more influential. A new group of manufacturers and a large number of white collar workers in the sectors of accounting, retailing, advertising and trading appeared. Predominantly conservative in their political opinions, middle class members valued principles like respectability, efficiency, money and hierarchy. Traditional domestic virtues determined the narrow field of female activity in a patriarchal society, even more so during the economic depression of the 1840s, when more educated and self-confident women would have acted as rivals to men in the competition for economic and professional power.

1.4 The Upper Classes

The aristocracy and gentry were only slightly affected by all these changes. They continued to hold most of the political power, occupying almost all upper posts in the empire, running local government in the counties and furnishing officer ranks in the army. With the rise of industrialisation, the British aristocracy became strongly involved in the development of mining, canals and railways. As landowners, they controlled most of the country's agriculture as well.

During these times of fundamental change, Charlotte Brontë and her family lead a very secluded life in the desolate moors of Yorkshire. We can safely assume that she was not much exposed to industrial progress and urban growth with all its social implications. Her childhood and most of her adult life were spent in a rural area, with the exception of a few years in Belgium and some trips to London. Charlotte Brontë's novels do not aim at criticising the plight of the working classes or improving urban life, the way Charles Dickens does in his very popular contemporary novels. Her subject is the moral progress of the individual, its very personal conflicts and battles in the face of adverse circumstances. However, her characters live and act in their time. They give us an authentic view of the roles occupied by men and women of certain social strata and of their way of thinking during the early 19th century.

2. Male Characters in "Jane Eyre"

2.1 The Upper Class Heir: John Reed

On the very first pages of "Jane Eyre", we are introduced to Mrs. Sarah Reed and her three children John, Elise and Georgiana. Jane's aunt had to promise her dying husband that she would take care of their orphaned niece after his death. Through Jane's description of her childhood days at Gateshead and of her visit to the family nine years later we gain an insight into the life of an upper class family of the early Victorian times. The Reed family is part of the English gentry, characterised as lower aristocracy and land owners. Jane's mother, the favourite sister of Mr. Reed, fell in love with a poor curate and was consequently disowned after the wedding. This detail in itself shows the strict barriers Victorian society maintained between the social groups. Not only was it intolerable for a young woman to choose a husband against the advice of her family, but it was punished by drastic measures which resulted in the young couple's poverty and probably their death.

Jane Eyre is brought up in her uncle's family until she leaves for the boarding school of Lowood, nine years later. During these years of early childhood she is raised with her cousins John, Elise and Georgiana Reed. However, her place in the family is that of an unwanted intruder, a burden with a much lower status than the Reed children, "less than a servant"[4]. We get to know John Reed as a extremely arrogant, cruel young man. He is well aware of his position as heir to the title and property. However, he uses these privileges not in a gentlemanly way, but to torture and suppress his cousin Jane. Obviously, even at an early age, the dominance of the male heir as head of the family is never questioned. John's mother accepts his accusations towards Jane as gospel truth and would never dream of doubting his integrity.

As a result of his position, John Reed is spoilt and pampered by his mother. It is customary for a young man of his class to attend a "public school ", an exclusive boarding school for wealthy people. However, even early in the book we get the feeling that John will not fulfil his mother's expectations. He is described as "not quick either of vision or conception"[5], of unpleasant looks and little ambition. Mrs. Reed allows him to escape the rigid discipline of school on account of "his delicate health"[6] Later on, he is dispelled from university where he was to study the law and prepare for a career as a barrister. After severe gambling debts the family fortune is lost, and John finds an early end committing suicide. This development is particularly unfortunate for an upper class family where the male heir is designed to support the family, in particular his mother and two unmarried sisters, and to secure the material and social position of the family.

John Reed's fate most likely draws from Charlotte Brontë's own experience with her brother. Being denied any professional training and access to the business world, it was in Branwell that the Brontë sisters placed all their hopes for a socially and financially secure future. Although Branwell was a pleasant, talented young man, he did not live up to these high expectations. His life was characterised by instability, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, and an early death.

2.2 The Medical Profession: Mr. Lloyd

Another male figure Jane Eyre meets in the Reed family is Mr. Lloyd, the apothecary. He is sometimes called in by Mrs. Reed "when the servants are ailing: for herself and the children she employed a physician."[7] Again, the strict separation of classes becomes obvious. The physician, a person of much higher professional status, treats members of the upper classes, while a mere apothecary is sufficient for the lower class people. In the early 19th century, the medical profession in Britain was highly stratified, consisting of a division into physicians, surgeons and apothecaries. This changed in 1853 with the foundation of the British Medical Association (BMA), followed by a move towards establishing a Medical Register of Doctors who were united in their interests by specific notions of professional conduct, and the introduction of the term "General Practitioner" in 1858[8].


[1] Morgan, Kenneth O. (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. (London, 1992), p. 452

[2] Morgan, Kenneth O., p. 425

[3] Morgan , Kenneth O., p. 446

[4] Brontë, Charlotte, Jane Eyre (Oxford 1993), p. 12 (Alle Seitenangaben im Text beziehen sich auf diese Ausgabe.)

[5] Brontë, Charlotte, p. 9

[6] Brontë, Charlotte, p. 10

[7] Brontë, Charlotte, p. 19

[8] Swindells, Julia, Victorian Writing and Working Women (Oxford, 1985) p. 27


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
507 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Koblenz-Landau – Anglistics
1,0 (A)
Gender Charlotte Brontë Jane Eyre Emily Wuthering Heights




Title: Gender roles in Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre"