Initially Jane Eyre had no choices at all. Orphaned, she was left to an aunt by marriage who did not care for her at all. The opinion in the house: “If she were a nice, pretty child, one might compasionate her forlornness; but one really cannot care for such a little toad as that.”
Even with that unpromising beginning, she asserts her own opinion, when she meets with the domineering Mr. Brocklehurst who threatens her with hell:
“And what is hell? Can you tell me that?”
“A pit full of fire.”
“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?”
“What must you do to avoid it?”
I deliberated for a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: “I must keep in good health and not die.”
Again and again, Jane exercises her power to judge and to choose based on her own views of herself and others. She does not shirk her obligations, but she understands their limits. When her hateful aunt dies, she goes to assist her and her cousins.
It is true, that while I worked, she would idle; and I thought to myself, “If you and I were destined to live always together, cousin, we would commence matters on a different footing, I would not settle tamely down into being the forbearing party; I should assign you your share of labour and compel you to accomplish it, or else it should be left undone….”
After the marriage with Rochester is broken off, she flees. St. John Rivers — another domineering but more tactful clergyman — offers her marriage along with the opportunity to serve in the East. She tries to negotiate with him for service without the marriage. The pressures are great, but she turns him down.
Every reader remembers the proud declaration at the end of the book: “Reader, I married him.” She wasn’t pressured, she wasn’t swept up, she chose to be Rochester’s wife and support.
At A Year of Feminist Classics, we are discussing Jane Eyre this month. Some readers find in Charlotte Bronte’s novel only a thrilling romance, but few romances persist in our imaginations for over 150 years. Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, thought Jane was too angry and it did not become her. Woolf herself admits to considerable annoyance with the male establishment, so it is strange that she begrudges it to Bronte who wrote in an even more restricted time.
I don’t think the strength of the book is in the romance or in the anger, but in the Jame’s clear-headed knowledge that she had the right to have her own opinions and to act upon them, to make the choices that matter.