Class Status in Jane Eyre

by , 2004

In her novel Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë explores the possibility that class relationships have no absolute boundaries that cannot be crossed. Her protagonist Jane is placed in between economic classes and drifts among the lower, middle, and upper classes of Victorian England. Jane's flexible class status allows her to evaluate other characters on their actions and personalities rather than on their economic status and physical appearance. She forms deep relationships with members of the other classes and holds animosity towards individuals that others might respect based on their achievements in life but who did not act appropriately to Jane. Other characters in the novel judge Jane in much the same way as she judges them; they note her class status and physical appearance at first but then learn to appreciate her for her behavior and thoughts. Brontë ends the novel on a dramatic turn of events that completely flip Jane's class status. Yet, Jane still remains the same character that we have seen throughout the entire novel. Charlotte Brontë uses Jane Eyre as an example that class boundaries are not finite and that individuals can transcend them.

Throughout Jane Eyre, the protagonist Jane occupies an ambiguous class position. She travels the entire spectrum of class status from homeless vagabond to upper class married woman. He status does not progressively incline or decline, but rather oscillates between the two ends of the social scale. Even before birth, her class status was somewhat ambiguous. As Susan Fraiman writes, both Jane's mother and father were "socially ambiguous, and this ambiguity is part of their legacy to Jane" (616). Because Jane's father, a poor clergyman, married Jane's mother, a middle-class woman, they were situated somewhere between the two classes as a couple. Her father's education helped him to elevate himself slightly from the masses of poor people and her mother's marrying down lowered her from the class she had been born into. Therefore, when Jane was born she also occupied this socially ambiguous spot. Jane's class status becomes even more indefinable when her parents die and leave her as an orphan to be brought up by her wealthy Aunt Reed. Jane grows up in the Reeds' sizeable estate Gateshead, but not as a fully acknowledged member of the Reed family. She is not one of the working class servants, nor is she one of the spoiled Reed children. Instead, she occupies a social space in between the two. Jane's class status remains low as she travels to study at the boarding school Lowood. She is mixed with a mass of other poor girls and forced to live in a harsh environment. At the time she leaves the school, Jane has experienced nothing but the dreary existence of a working class girl. However, her education is able to propel her up into the lower middle class when she accepts a job as governess at the Thornfield estate. There, she earns her income through by educating another orphan and meets her future husband, Edward Rochester. Complications arising from an engagement to Rochester force Jane to flee Thornfield and live the most destitute portion of her life as a homeless runaway. She is so cold and hungry that she tries to barter her handkerchief and gloves for a roll or cake at one point. "Almost desperate," Jane tells us, "I asked for half a cake" (323) and then she asks, "Would she take my gloves?" (323). She is refused the food by the bakery worker and further humiliated. Her class status in this portion of the novel is very near the bottom of the spectrum. She has become a beggar woman. Again, however, Jane's status changes significantly when she is taken in by St. John River's and given a job as a schoolmistress in a small town. Although she is no longer teaching an aristocratic child, she is still teaching and supporting herself with her education. Finally, in a dramatic turn of events, Jane inherits a large sum of money from a deceased uncle and rockets into the upper middle class. With the money, she goes back to her lover Rochester with a superior class standing, an event that I will discuss in more detail later. As Fraiman describes it, Jane represents, at the same time, "the happy, rich, and conventionally respectable lady and the overworked, always potentially irate nurse" (630). Throughout her entire life, Jane Eyre drifted in and out of different economic classes and remained locked in a state of social ambiguity.

Perhaps because she does not belong to a set class herself, Jane tends not to evaluate other people based on their class status. Instead, she evaluates people's superiority or inferiority based on their behavior and forms either deep friendship or animosity based on it. During her childhood at Gateshead, Jane is more emotionally attached to the servant Bessie than to any of her wealthy family members. She bases her adoration on Bessie's personal characteristics rather than her economic status. Fraiman tells us that during Christmastime, "instead of yearning toward the genteel company, [Jane] would rather spend a quiet evening with Bessie" (617) because of the motherly characteristics that Bessie displays towards Jane. Jane longs for the affection of a motherly woman rather than the glamorous company of her rich family. At Lowood, Jane again attaches herself to a poor, humbly, motherly woman and scorns the wealthy, this time in the form of Mr. Brocklehurst. Jane describes Miss Temple with much adoration. She cherishes the time that she spends with her teacher, although she is not a woman that could be considered wealthy by any means. More important to Jane is the affection that Miss Temple shows towards her. On the other hand, Mr. Brocklehurst, who is described by Miss Temple herself as "not a god; nor is he even a great and admired man: he is little liked here" (78) is described by Jane as a cold-hearted, greedy man. Jane is not impressed by his standing in the school or in society, but bases her opinions of him on his actions. She criticizes him for dressing his wife and daughters in such pomp while explaining that he was teaching the schoolgirls to be more Christ-like by nearly starving them and dressing them poorly. Jane sees through his hypocrisy and refuses to judge him on his economic achievements.

Although Jane is able to look past economics to form deep friendships with members of the other classes, she still is acutely aware of class status. Jane tells Mr. Lloyd that she would rather stay with the wealthy, abusive and neglectful Reed family than go to live with her poorer relatives. She says, "I should not like to belong to poor people" (36) and "I should not like to go a-begging" (36). To Jane, at least as a child, it is better to live in a wealthy household as an unwanted outsider than to be part of a poor family. It is interesting to note that Jane does not associate herself with her poor relations. Instead of saying that she would not like to be a poor person, she says that she would not like to 'belong to poor people.' She would retain her outsider status even in a different economic level. It should also be noted that Jane eventually does 'go a-begging' and shortly thereafter lives with her poor relations and enjoys living with them a great deal. Although she says that she would not like to beg or live with poor family, she eventually ends up doing both. Additionally, Jane's descriptions of nearly every character in the book include their economic status near the first mention of them. Just a few of the many examples are when Jane describes Rochester's wealth before she describes his physical features or personality, she displays St. John River's house and belongings before mentioning him, and then continually reminds him of Miss Oliver's wealth. So, although Jane does not judge people by their economic status, she does notice it and use it as a feature to describe them.

Other characters in the novel tend to judge Jane in much the same way as she judges others; at first they notice her external features such as her economic status and her physical appearance but then, after getting to know her, they often judge her by her personality and behavior. Rochester serves as a prime example of this. When he first meets Jane, he quickly inquires into her employment at Thornfield and says, "You are not a servant at the hall, of course" (121). He recognizes that Jane is not a lady but not a servant either. In order to evaluate her, he needs to know exactly what her job and corresponding class status is. Simultaneously, he evaluates her based on her appearance. He takes mental note of her rather unattractive face that St. John later describes as some that "would always be plain. The grace and harmony of beauty are quite wanting in those features" (333). Jane's lower economic status and her unattractive features at first distance Rochester from Jane. Their relationship at first is strictly professional. However, as time goes on, Rochester learns to enjoy the company and quick intellect of Jane. He becomes more and more fond of her and eventually asks her to marry him. The marriage proposal is a significant move on his part. First, it shows that he has evaluated Jane on characteristics other than her economic status and appearance. Second, it puts him in a position where others may criticize him for marrying outside of his class. However, Rochester's attraction to Jane is stronger than his fear of other people's opinions.

Because of Jane's class ambiguity, she does not possess the discrimination towards other classes that many other characters do. For example, Mrs. Fairfax, a servant of Rochester, speaks harshly about members of the upper class, such as Blanche Ingram, simply because they are of another class and she does not understand them. She says of Blanche, "she did not know the sensations of sympathy and pity; tenderness and truth were not in her" (188). To Mrs. Fairfax, Blanche is just a heartless, rich woman who has no concern for anyone else around her. However, Jane describes Blanche as a beautiful woman who would suit Rochester better than Jane herself. She may not like her as a friend, but she still recognizes her achievements and qualities more than Mrs. Fairfax was able to do. Jane's ability to judge Blanche in a more unbiased fashion probably results from the fact that she is able to relate to her more. Whereas Mrs. Fairfax is just a servant serving Rochester, Jane is on a more equal plane with him and admires him as Blanche does. Because she has more in common with the upper class than the servant Mrs. Fairfax, she is able to evaluate them in a more favorable manner. Conversely, Jane is able to evaluate members of the lower classes more favorably than the upper class characters in the novel do. An example of this comes when Rochester is dressed up as a poor gypsy woman. Blanche and the other ladies are all afraid of speaking to the old, poor woman, but Jane "was glad of the unexpected opportunity to gratify [her] much-excited curiosity" (197). The ladies were all skeptical of the gypsy because they evaluated her based on her external appearances, but Jane was able to look past that because she had at times been poor herself. She evaluated the gypsy based on her actions rather than her appearance and, therefore, realized that she was really just Rochester in disguise while none of the superficial ladies did.

In the end, Jane inherits twenty thousand pounds from her uncle and, as Terry Eagleton writes, "comes to have power over Rochester" (30) because when she agrees to marry him, "she comes to him on her own terms, financially self-sufficient" (30). He claims that the ambiguous nature of class status and relationships that has carried throughout the novel takes a final twist as Jane is suddenly elevated socially above her former master. After reading Brontë's entire novel, we are not surprised to see another blending of the normally distinct class lines. It is understandable, perhaps even expected, that she would change Jane's class status in order to release her from the harsh class confinements. Another reading, which Eagleton provides, sees the ending as Brontë's revenge upon the aristocratic Rochester: "Revenge does not, in fact, seem too strong a word for what happens at the end of Jane Eyre" (31-32). He believes that Brontë intentionally lowered Rochester beneath Jane economically and socially in order to promote the hardworking, proletariat character over the idle bourgeoisie one. By doing so, says Eagleton, "bourgeois initiative and genteel settlement... can be merged into mythical unity" (32). The only way for the unity of marriage to be possible between the working class Jane and the gentleman Rochester is through the extraordinary circumstances that take place, elevating Jane above Rochester.

Jane remains essentially the same character throughout the novel even though her class status changes dramatically. By doing so, Charlotte Brontë shows that economic classes were not as concrete as certain people wanted them to be and that individuals should not be defined solely by their economic class.

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996.

Eagleton, Terry. Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës. London: Macmillan Press, 1975.

Fraiman, Susan. "Jane Eyre's Fall from Grace." Jane Eyre. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996. 614-631.