In the mid-nineteenth century, the only way a woman could achieve a dignified and safe place in society was still through marriage. Girls were carefully brought up to that purpose and if they wanted to marry well, they needed to have many cards in their sleeves in order to reach the goal: beauty, social status, connections, fortune and many “accomplishments” as Caroline Bingley elucidated to Elizabeth Bennet :
A(n accomplished) woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved “.
(Pride and Prejudice Chapter VIII)
Mr Darcy will also add to the list :
All this she must possess, and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
(Pride and Prejudice Chapter VIII)
No wonder Charlotte Bronte‘s best known character, Jane Eyre, has often been considered as a feminist forerunner, because she defies all those cultural standards. Plain, reserved, she has neither connections, nor fortune to offer but her determination and dignity. She has been brought up to rely on herself only and not on a male figure. In fact, she refuses matrimony twice (Mr Rochester’s first attempt and John Reeves) or she feels mortified when Mr Rochester wants to lavish her with expensive gifts in occasion of the imminent wedding:
the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation.”
(Jane Eyre Chapter XXIV)
But what kind of man in Mr Rochester? If Jane cannot be considered a Cinderella type, certainly Edward Rochester is no Prince Charming . He is rude, arrogant, twice her age, sometimes violent and not even particularly handsome as Jane will notice the first time they meet:
middle height and considerable breadth of chest. He had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth, but had not reached middle-age; perhaps he might be thirty-five. I felt no fear of him, and but little shyness. Had he been a handsome, heroic-looking young , I should not have dared to stand thus questioning him against his will, and offering my services unasked..”
(Jane Eyre Chapter XII)
Once he is back at Thornfield, he starts toying with Jane’s feeling, he tests and teases her encouraging our heroine to believe he is going to marry a woman of his rank more deserving than her: beautiful Blanche Ingram. He is a liar: he deliberately omits his married status. He is selfish: because he considers bigamy the only reasonable option to ensure HIS happiness. He is definitely unreliable but at the same time he is warm, seductive, passionate, well….. the kind of man women like, even if we profess the opposite. Women never fall head over heels for the John Reeves of the Edgar lintons that people the real world. We like the fire and inevitably we get burnt. But this suicidal attraction for dangerous men is generated by an impulse or better by a syndrome – the “I will save you syndrome” – which affects each of us with no exception, Charlotte Bronte included. What does it mean? We deliberately fall in the trap of this kind of men, because we are convinced we are good enough to change them and turn them into “better” persons, weakening their strongest and most dangerous drives. That is: we are seduced by the Heathcliff type only to turn him into a more controllable Edgar Linton type, a living oxymoron. We already know, it is impossible, in fact, Catherine Earnshaw, the heroine of Wuthering Heights, who had already tried to make this experiment, dies tragically before both of them. Charlotte Bronte’s malice is, therefore, clear: she had created a super macho man, one of the strongest male characters of the literature of the age, only to humiliate and destroy him both physically and psychically, without even hiding a certain sadism. So, while he tragically sinks among the ruins of Thornfield, Charlotte Bronte endows her heroine with a fortune, a family and connections so when she finally makes her homecoming as an independent woman, Mr Rochester and Jane are even. And now that he has become weak and needy because of his blindness (even a little bit too pathetic), she will save him, marrying him and nursing him for the rest of her life. Every woman’s desire…….bah! Only at the end of the novel Charlotte Bronte seems to have mercy upon Mr Rochester (or maybe Jane), making him partially regain his sight:
He had the advice of an eminent oculist; and he eventually recovered the sight of that one eye. He cannot now see very distinctly: he cannot read or write much; but he can find his way without being led by the hand: the sky is no longer a blank to him—the earth no longer a void. When his first-born was put into his arms, he could see that the boy had inherited his own eyes, as they once were—large, brilliant, and black. On that occasion, he again, with a full heart, acknowledged that God had tempered judgment with mercy.
(Jane Eyre Chapter XXXVIII)
Can this be considered a feminist victory? I really don’t think so.