|Charlotte Bronte’s Biography and Jane Eyre Discussion Guide
Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855), English writer noted for her novel Jane Eyre (1847), sister of Anne Bronte and Emily Bronte. The three sisters are almost as famous for their short, tragic lives as for their novels. In the past 40 years Charlotte Brontë's reputation has risen rapidly, and feminist criticism has done much to show that she was speaking up for oppressed women of every age.
Charlotte was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, in the north of England, the daughter of an Anglican clergyman who moved with his family to Haworth amid the Yorkshire moors in 1820. After their mother and two eldest children died, Charlotte was left with her sisters Emily and Anne and brother Branwell to the care of their father, and their strict, religious aunt, Elisabeth Branwell. The children created imaginary kingdoms, which were built around Branwell's toy soldiers, and which inspired them to write continuing sagas about the fantasylands of Angria and Gondal.
Charlotte attended the Clergy Daughter's School at Cowan Bridge in 1824. She returned home next year because of the harsh conditions. In 1831 she went to school at Roe Head, where she later worked as a teacher. However, she fell ill, suffered from melancholia, and gave up this post. Charlotte's attempts to earn her living as a governess were hindered by her disabling shyness, her ignorance of normal children, and her yearning to be with her sisters.
The collection of poems, Poems By Currer, Ellis And Acton Bell (1846), which Charlotte wrote with her sisters, sold only two copies. By this time she had finished a novel; THE PROFESSOR, but it never found a publisher during her lifetime. Undeterred by this rejection, Charlotte began Jane Eyre, which appeared in 1847 and became an immediate success. Charlotte dedicated the book to William Makepeace Thackeray. The heroine is a penniless orphan who becomes a teacher, obtains a post as a governess, inherits money from an uncle, and marries the Byronic hero in the end.
Branwell and Emily died in 1848 and Anne died the following year. Although her identity was now well known, Charlotte continued to publish as Currer Bell. Jane Eyre was followed by Shirley (1848) and Vilette (1853). In Jane Eyre Charlotte used her experiences at the Evangelical school and as governess. The novel severely criticized the limited options open to educated but impoverished women. The title character from Shirley was an attempted ideal portrait of Emily. . Shirley was one of the first fully developed independent, brave, outspoken heroines in English literature.
In 1854 Charlotte Bronte married her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. She died during her pregnancy on March 31, 1855 in Haworth, Yorkshire. The Professor was posthumously published in 1857.
1. Helen Burns, Jane's friend at Lowood School, serves as a foil to Mr. Brockehurst well as to Jane. Describe what this difference is between the two people.
Possible Answer. While Mr. Brocklehurst embodies an evangelical form of religion that seeks to strip others of their excessive pride or of their ability to take pleasure in worldly things, Helen represents a mode of Christianity that stresses tolerance and acceptance. Brocklehurst uses religion to gain power and to control others; Helen ascetically trusts her own faith and turns the other cheek to Lowood's harsh policies.
Although Helen manifests a certain strength and intellectual maturity, her efforts involve self-negation rather than self-assertion, and Helen's submissive and ascetic nature highlights Jane's more headstrong character. Like Jane, Helen is an orphan who longs for a home, but Helen believes that she will find this home in Heaven rather than Northern England. And while Helen is not oblivious to the injustices the girls suffer at Lowood, she believes that justice will be found in God's ultimate judgment—God will reward the good and punish the evil. Jane, on the other hand, is unable have such blind faith. Her quest is for love and happiness in this world. Nevertheless, she counts on God for support and guidance in her search.
Mr. Brocklehurst illustrates the dangers and hypocrisies that Charlotte Brontë perceived in the nineteenth-century Evangelical movement. Mr. Brocklehurst adopts the rhetoric of Evangelicalism when he claims to be purging his students of pride, but his method of subjecting them to various privations and humiliations, like when he orders that the naturally curly hair of one of Jane's classmates be cut so as to lie straight, is entirely un-Christian. Of course, Brocklehurst's proscriptions are difficult to follow, and his hypocritical support of his own luxuriously wealthy family at the expense of the Lowood students shows Brontë's wariness of the Evangelical movement. Helen Burns's meek and forbearing mode of Christianity, on the other hand, is too passive for Jane to adopt as her own, although she loves and admires Helen for it.
2. Charlotte Brontë may have created the character of Jane Eyre as a means of coming to terms with elements of her own life. Much evidence suggests that Brontë, too, struggled to find a balance between love and freedom and to find others who understood her. At many points in the book, Jane voices the author's then-radical opinions on religion, social class, and gender. Do you see scenes in the novel that indicate the concerns for a balance between love and freedom?
3. The development of Jane Eyre character is central to the novel. From the beginning, Jane possesses a sense of her self-worth and dignity, a commitment to justice and principle, a trust in God, and a passionate disposition. Her integrity is continually tested over the course of the novel, and Jane must learn to balance the frequently conflicting aspects of herself so as to find contentment.. Yet, over the course of the book, Jane must learn how to gain love without sacrificing and harming herself in the process. What are some of the conflicting aspects of Jane and how does the author describe them starting from the beginning of the book to the conclusion?
4. Charlotte Bronte has created the main male character, Rochester, as a man who regrets his former libertinism and lustfulness; and one who has proven himself to be weaker in many ways than Jane. Why doesn’t Jane simply choose to become Rochester’s mistress?
Possibly Answer. Jane feels that living with Rochester as his mistress would mean the loss of her dignity. Ultimately, she would become degraded and dependent upon Rochester for love, while unprotected by any true marriage bond. Jane will only enter into marriage with Rochester after she has gained a fortune and a family, and after she has been on the verge of abandoning passion altogether. She waits until she is not unduly influenced by her own poverty, loneliness, psychological vulnerability, or passion. Additionally, because Rochester has been blinded by the fire and has lost his manor house at the end of the novel, he has become weaker while Jane has grown in strength—Jane claims that they are equals, but has the marriage dynamic has actually tipped in her favor?
5. What are the author’s intentions in creating two men for Jane to choose between?
Whereas Rochester is passionate, St. John is austere and ambitious. Jane often describes Rochester's eyes as flashing and flaming, whereas she constantly associates St. John with rock, ice, and snow. Marriage with Rochester represents the abandonment of principle for the consummation of passion, but marriage to St. John would mean sacrificing passion for principle. When he invites her to come to India with him as a missionary, St. John offers Jane the chance to make a more meaningful contribution to society than she would as a housewife. At the same time, life with St. John would mean life without true love, in which Jane's need for spiritual solace would be filled only by retreat into the recesses of her own soul. Independence would be accompanied by loneliness, and joining St. John would require Jane to neglect her own legitimate needs for love and emotional support. Her consideration of St. John's proposal leads Jane to understand that, paradoxically, a large part of one's personal freedom is found in a relationship of mutual emotional dependence.
St. John Rivers provides another model of Christian behavior. His is a Christianity of ambition, glory, and extreme self-importance. St. John urges Jane to sacrifice her emotional deeds for the fulfillment of her moral duty, offering her a way of life that would require her to be disloyal to her own self.
Although Jane ends up rejecting all three models of religion, she does not abandon morality, spiritualism, or a belief in a Christian God. When her wedding is interrupted, she prays to God for solace (Chapter 26). As she wanders the heath, poor and starving, she puts her survival in the hands of God (Chapter 28).
6. Rochester's disastrous marriage to Bertha was based on passion. What is Brontë saying about the role passion should play in marriage?
7. What does St. John feel for Jane? Why does Jane end her story with his prayer?
8. Jane asserts her equality to Rochester (p. 284), and St. John (p. 452). What does Jane mean by equality, and why is it so important to her?
9. When Jane first appears at Moor House, Hannah assumes she is a prostitute, but St. John and his sisters do not. What distinguishes the characters who misjudge Jane from those who recognize her true nature?
10. When Jane hears Rochester's voice calling while he is miles away, she says the phenomenon "is the work of nature" (p. 467). What does she mean by this? What are we intended to conclude about the meaning of this experience?
11. Brontë populates the novel with many female characters roughly the same age as Jane—Georgiana and Eliza Reed, Helen Burns, Blanche Ingram, Mary and Diana Rivers, and Rosamund Oliver. How do comparisons with these characters shape the reader's understanding of Jane's character?
12. What is the balance of power between Jane and Rochester when they marry? Does this balance change from the beginning of the marriage to the time ten years later that Jane describes at the end of the novel?
13. Discuss Jane as a narrator and as a character. What sort of voice does she have? How does she represent her own actions? Does she seem to be a trustworthy storyteller, or does Brontë require us to read between the lines of her narrative? In light of the fact that people who treat Jane cruelly (John Reed, Mrs. Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst) all seem to come to unhappy endings, what role does Jane play as the novel's moral center?
14. In what ways might Jane Eyre be considered a feminist novel? What points does the novel make about the treatment and position of women in Victorian society? With particular attention to the book's treatment of marriage, is there any way in which it might be considered anti-feminist?
15. What role does Jane's ambiguous social position play in determining the conflict of her story? What larger points, if any, does the novel make about social class? Does the book criticize or reinforce existing Victorian social prejudices? Consider the treatment of Jane as a governess, but also of the other servants in the book, along with Jane's attitude toward her impoverished students at Morton.
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Suggestions for Further Reading
Barker, Juliet R. V. The Brontës. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Berg, Maggie. Jane Eyre: Portrait of a Life. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Criticism. Richard J. Dunn, ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1971.
Fraser, Rebecca. The Brontës: Charlotte Brontë and her Family. New York: Crown Publishers, 1988.
Gates, Barbara Timm, ed. Critical Essays on Charlotte Brontë. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1990.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar, eds. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.
Gregor, Ian, ed. The Brontës. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1970.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999.
Vicinus, Martha, ed. Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.
Winnifrith, Tom. The Brontës and their Background: Romance and Reality. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1988.
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