Social Commentary in Charlotte Brontes Jane Eyre

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Hence, Jane Eyre is a rich source of information on English society of early 19th century. It was an era when the industrial revolution was taking shape and having far-reaching impact on economic, social and cultural life. Bronte’s classic novel captures well a society caught in this transition. We can see how, despite fundamental changes to the organization of economic activity, social hierarchies (both within and outside the family) were holding on to status quo. Reading Jane Eyre in this backdrop offers the reader interesting perspectives on sociological issues facing the England of early 19th century. Jane Eyre belongs to the ‘bildungsroman’ (coming of age) literary genre, in that the story starts at Ms. Eyre’s youth and narrates her development and maturity into adulthood. The growth of Jane is physical, mental and spiritual. And it is this rounded development that is the key attraction in the novel. Otherwise, it might have easily turned out into a run-of-the-mill pulp romance fiction with no lasting value. One of the main issues that Jane Eyre is concerned with is gender relations. Recognized today as a pivotal feminist text, there are several symbolic as well as concrete forays into women’s issues. One of the most striking of these symbolisms is ‘the madwoman in the attic’, describing Mr. Rochester’s first wife who is mentally ill. It is through depictions of such social situations that the emancipative narrative strategies of the work come to light, whereby, the author both conceals and reveals social and psychological truths about women’s lives. For example, their anger at being treated as sexual objects in the marriage market, and, paradoxically, their overwhelming desire to love and be loved by men with whom they can never be equal. (Griesinger, 2008, p.30) The case of the madwoman is a socio-literary strategy employed by other female authors of the time as well. This way, they were hinting at deeper meanings beneath surface designs that conceal or obscure such interpretations. Like Bronte’s madwoman, these inaccessible meanings are locked up, as it were, in the attic of the text. (Griesinger, 2008, p.30) It is for this rich social commentary that Jane Eyre continues to be studied by women in contemporary era. For example, the novel excels in its treatment of women’s issues, including women’s education, the plight of the governess, and equality in marriage. It should be remembered though, that while subtle feminist messages in the novel are lauded, there are more critical interpretations that question Bronte’s implicit acceptance of racism and imperialism, which are actually subversive to the feminist cause. Another interesting facet to Jane Eyre is its comment on spirituality and Christianity. Like many contemporary writers of hers, the salvation of the soul is one of the preoccupations of Bronte’s works. Her views on the subject varied from that of novelists like Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and George Eliot, in that, she was not overtly critical of religious faith in general and the Christian doctrine in particular. During the Victorian era, evangelical Christianity was becoming an accepted form of religious propaganda.