The Flaws of Society – Shiwunan, Grade 12

This literary essay is written by one of my grade 12 students. He has presented a very enlightening thesis statement, stating the three of the biggest flaws of our society. He has critically analyzed Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, extracting some of the most important messages that the author has tried to convey in her novel. He has included very clear quotes from the novel and provided accurate explanations and conclusions

The Flaws of Society

Victorian England was a difficult time for women; gender inequality was the norm, and women were expected to conform to the wishes and whims of men. This injustice can be seen in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in which the main character, Jane Eyre, recounts her life as a poor woman in Victorian England. Due to her social status and her gender, she is continually subjected to unfair treatment from her peers and superiors. However, following her moral compass for guidance, Jane Eyre protests against such instances of oppression and injustice, a trait that was rare among women living in Victorian England. By portraying a character who stands up against religious indoctrination, power of authority, and male oppression of the female gender, Charlotte Brontë sheds light on the flaws of societal norms and religious beliefs, helping future generations extricate themselves from bigotry and prejudice.

By showing Jane Eyre stand up against religious indoctrination, Charlotte Brontë sheds light on the flaws of societal norms and religious beliefs. Christianity was widespread in Victorian England as the Church had influence in all ranks of life, from the Monarchy to mendicants on the streets. However, swift advances in science and technology were causing many traditional religious beliefs, which had been prevalent for hundreds of years, to come into question. Jane Eyre represents the progressiveness of this era, as she questions many of the religious beliefs. This can be seen during Jane’s first conversation with Helen Burns at Lowood. When Jane questions Helen about why she does not oppose Miss Scatcherd, Helen simply states that “the Bible bids us return good for evil,” (101) whereas Jane claims that “if [Miss Scatcherd] struck [her] with that rod, [she] should get it from her hand; [she] should break it under her nose” (101). This highlights Jane’s strong belief in justice and breaks the stereotype that religion is always fair. This is an important flaw of religious teachings, for returning good for evil will only encourage more evil in society. Jane exhibits her decision to value her own moral compass above religion, something that is taken for granted in today’s society. In many ways, Jane can be seen as having a modern take on religion in the 19th century, as people rarely follow religious teachings to the letter in the modern society. Furthermore, Jane rejects the religious reasoning used to persuade her to submit to unreasonable demands. Some time after the departure of Diana and Mary Rivers, St. John Rivers, the missionary, proposes to Jane, which she rejects. Having been rejected, St. John attempts to persuade Jane by using his religious standing: “it is not the insignificant private individual—the mere man, with the man’s selfish senses— I wish to mate: it is the missionary” (225). Despite this, Jane still does not accept his proposal, showing that she does not believe in the use of religion as a tool for persuasion. Jane Eyre’s rejection of religious indoctrination reveals the weakness of religious teachings in society.

Furthermore, Charlotte Brontë shows the flaws of societal norms by having Jane Eyre stand up against the power of authority. Jane spends much of her life under the direction of an authority figure. While Jane usually follows the direction of her superiors, there are moments when she stands up for herself. One such moment is when Mrs. Reed falsely accuses her of being a liar, to which Jane retorts, “I am not deceitful: if I were, I should say I loved you; but I declare I do not love you” (101), a very bold statement for someone in the position of Jane. It is these moments of defiance that portray Jane as a character that does not blindly follow the orders of her superiors but consults her moral compass first. This is a lesson that many people in the real world should learn as many war crimes are committed on the basis of “just following orders.” In fact, the lack of moral judgement is often used as a defence in trials for war crimes and is referred to as the Nuremberg defence. Just because an authority figure gives an order does not mean that it is morally just. This comes into play when Mr. Rochester, who is already married to Bertha, tries to guilt-trip Jane into marrying him. Despite being employed by Mr. Rochester, Jane refuses to marry him, again due to moral reasons. Even though she could lose her job, Jane decides to take the morally correct action and refuses to marry Mr. Rochester. In the Victorian era, this would have been unheard of, as marriages like this would be a fantasy for a woman in her position. Marrying a man of Mr. Rochester’s wealth and status would instantly lift women of the lower class to a higher rung on the social ladder. However, a marriage like that would almost certainly ruin a woman’s mental health in the long run, as one would become a mistress, as Jane says. Thus, society’s abuse of power is exposed by Jane’s defiance of authority.

Additionally, through Jane’s resistance against male oppression and domination, Charlotte Brontë highlights the misogynistic nature of society. The oppression of the female gender is not a new topic that began in the 19th century; in fact, the oppression of women has occurred throughout history. This was true in the Victorian era, as women had a cut and dried role in society, and were strongly discouraged from deviating from their role. The oppression of females is evident in Mr. Rochester’s misogynistic attitude towards Jane when he claims that he has “a right to be a little masterful, abrupt, perhaps exacting” (253). However, when Mr. Rochester attempts to convince Jane to marry him, Jane rejects his misogynistic behaviour, saying, “do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? …  it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!” (482) The problem of gender inequality was widespread during the Victorian Era, and unfortunately, even 200 years later, society still has not managed to address this issue. While strides have been made to remove the oppression of females, certain countries in the world still practise traditions similar to Mr. Rochester’s attempted manipulation of Jane. Through characters like Jane, more people are able to come to the realization that women are being oppressed, and that society must purge itself of behaviours like this in order to progress. Jane herself points out the oppression of females in the novel: “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do” (207). Clearly Jane is aware of the oppression that surrounds her and acknowledges that something needs to be done about it. The awareness of being oppressed is an important tool to have in order to fight against oppression. Thus, Jane’s resistance to male oppression of the female gender helps Charlotte Bronte expose male chauvinism in the society.

Through Jane Eyre’s resistance against religious indoctrination, power of authority, and male oppression of the female gender, Charlotte Brontë shows the flaws of societal norms and religious beliefs. Despite the 200 years since the Victorian era, many of the issues broached in Jane Eyre are still problems we face in the modern world. In many countries, women are continuously forced into marriages which result in abuse or even death of the wife. However, if they refuse, these women are almost always killed to preserve the “honour” of the family. Despite the 200-year-old context, many of the ways in which Jane deals with conflicts is shockingly relevant in today’s world.