Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has now attained an iconic status as a literary work. There are several reasons behind this achievement. The first is the inherent beauty and complexity of the novel. The twists, turns and fluctuations of fortune that comprise the plot are both original and engaging. The second most notable aspect of the novel is its authorship by a woman. Although originally published under a male pseudonym, it is evident to the scrupulous reader that the work is by a woman, as it contains numerous insights into female psychology. Finally, the novel is at once incisive and critical of the then existing social norms and customs, which were largely unfair to women and the underprivileged. 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.