‘I should have been a careless shepherd if I had left a lamb-my pet lamb- so near a wolf’s den.’
-Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 216.
In its historical entity, the term slavery often invokes images associated with the horrific atrocities committed during the transatlantic slave trade of the imperial British Empire. However, nineteenth-century literature also utilized this discourse to exemplify the oppression of the domestic female worker through both their social position and in their ideology. It is in the latter use of the term that Charlotte Brontë carefully crafts a discourse of metaphorical slavery within her highly renowned female bildungsroman Jane Eyre, using the narrative of oppression to highlight Jane’s experiences as a lower-class woman.
From the very beginning of the novel, Brontë clearly deploys a discourse of metaphorical slavery to highlight Jane’s entrapment and enslavement to her cruel aunt Mrs. Reed. Forced by her social status as penniless orphan to live at Gateshead and under the continual tyranny of her cousin John Reed, Jane suffers cruelly under the families ‘reign’; she is forced to obey orders and is subjected to both physical and psychological torment. From these early years, Jane is instilled with the notion that her lower-class social status will hinder her progression in life; she is essentially informed that her penniless state will forever leave her a metaphorical slave to the upper-classes that she must serve and rely on to keep her alive through income and position. This is exemplified in Bessie’s warning to young Jane, who tells her that ‘you ought to be aware, Miss, that you are under obligations to Mrs. Reed: she keeps you; if she were to turn you off, you would have to go to the poor-house’.1 From the beginning of her life, then, Jane is subjected to adversity and metaphorical enslavement by her own relatives.
However, Jane refuses to remain in this subservient position, instead resisting the shackles emplaced on her through her lowly social position and her reliance on Mrs. Reed’s benefaction. This resistance is first displayed in her courageous outburst of anger towards her aunt, in which she declares:
‘I am glad you are no relation of mine: I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to see you when I am grown up; and if anyone asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty.’
Here, this resistance to her own oppression as a young woman reinforces the powerful female character Bronte desperately wanted to portray to her Victorian audience. Through Jane’s resistance, Bronte bestows a sense of empowerment within her heroine as no longer a prisoner to her social class and gender:
‘My soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty.’
Eyre’s defiance is a salient milestone within this bildungsroman; a step from girlhood to woman. The reader witnesses this act of insubordination to Mrs. Reed again during her final visit to Gateshead, as Jane tells her dying aunt: ‘Love me then, or hate me, as you will [..] you have my full and free forgiveness’ (p. 240). Through these displays of resistance to her early social enslavement, it is worth noting how Jane’s ill temper ceases to exist after her departure from the tyrannous rule of Mrs Reed at Gateshead. In her defiance of her aunt on her deathbed, Jane appears to free herself of the torment of her past life.
It is in Jane’s removal from Gateshead, and her later instatement at Thornfield Hall, that appears to at least superficially mark the beginning of Jane’s freedom from domestic enslavement. The blossoming romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester, which defies the opposing factions against the merging of distinct social classes, appears to suggest a transcendence of social constriction and cruelty. However, the once fiery and courageous personality possessed by Jane is almost immediately replaced by her sudden change into the trope of the submissive damsel; despite freeing herself from her past masters, Mrs. Reed and later the headmaster of the girl’s school she is educated in, Jane appears to replace these tyrannous figures with Rochester. Despite her position as Rochester’s love interest, Jane remains in the position of vulnerability and inferiority afforded to her by her lower-class working woman status; she remains indebted to Rochester for both her economic stability and emotional happiness. Examples of Jane’s metaphorical slavery to Thornfield are shown through an excerpt of dialogue between Rochester and Jane; as Rochester remarks to Jane that his ‘house is a mere dungeon: don’t you feel it so?’, Jane replies that ‘It seems to me a splendid mansion, sir?’ (p. 215). Here, Jane appears oblivious to her entrapment, remains entirely enchanted with Rochester’s privilege of wealth and class which ultimately leaves her unable to view her new life as little more than a different form of captivity.
Infatuated by Mr. Rochester, Jane’s perspective is ultimately hindered. She fails to recognize her hindered position within Thornfield as a domestic help, as well as her changed behaviour aligning her more to the position of slave and servant than a free and equal agent. As Bette London critiques, ‘instead of the exhilaration of freedom, the novel offers the pleasures of submission’; this essentially supports the concept that Jane’s enslavement to both her herself and Rochester hinders the notion of the novel being a progressive feminist text.2 Jane’s naivety results in her unable to recognize her enslavement even in Rochester’s most obvious comparisons. As Rochester remarks ‘I should have been a careless shepherd if I had left a lamb-my pet lamb- so near a wolf’s den’ (p. 216). In the comparison of Jane to a ‘lamb’, kept as a ‘pet’ and essentially enslaved to the tyranny of the deadly ‘wolf’s den’ (p.126), Jane is essentially depicted as feeble and vulnerable prey to Rochester’s tyranny. Rochester’s use of the possessive determiner ‘my’ further enables the reader to fathom an understanding of Jane’s submissive position to Rochester’s dominance as the ‘shepherd’, a relationship that further mimics the relationship between slave and slave owner.
It is only in Rochester’s attempts to stop her attempts to visit Mrs Reed that Jane finally begins to resist her enslaved position; she declares ‘I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you’ (p. 251). This speech marks the first act of resistance to her master; she exerts a liberating sense of power to define herself as a servant and not just a slave. This seed of resistance, planted in her visit to her dying aunt, evolves and spreads into her greatest act of revolt; upon discovering Rochester’s falsehood concerning his married status, Jane states that ‘I must leave Adele and Thornfield. I must part with you for my whole life: I must begin a new existence’ (p.303). This decision, which marks a considerably poignant part of the novel for the heroine, results in Jane abandoning Rochester’s love and her life at Thornfield Hall; she frees herself from the metaphorical chains of wealth and social standing, ‘Mr. Rochester, I will not be yours’ (p.316).
Featured Image- Illustration taken from Volume One of the 1890 edition of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, as published by Thomas Crowell in New York.
1. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 12. All further references to Brontë’s text are to this edition and will be given parenthetically.
2. Bette London, ‘The Pleasures of Submission: Jane Eyre and the Production of the text’, English Literary History, 58 (1991), 195-213 (p. 199).
Written by Ashleigh Edwards.
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