Repressive Patriarchs of Jane Eyre
“The men in the novel are all repressive patriarchs. For them, male supremacy must be absolute. ” In the light of this comment, discuss Bronte’s presentation of male characters in ‘Jane Eyre’.
Throughout the novel of Jane Eyre, there seems to be a common sense of patriarchal dominance, as possessed by the male characters. Bronte shows male supremacy through four key characters that Jane encounters throughout her life. Each character differs hugely, though this sense of a higher and more powerful individual, over Jane, remains prevalent in each – they are all repressive patriarchs in some way, though of varying magnitudes.
The Victorian society was a completely different society to the one we live in now and it was well-known to be male-dominated and one in which women had almost no rights at all. The fact that Bronte wrote Jane Eyre during this period in time is clearly reflected in the male characters in the novel. It is evident that Bronte herself may have experienced or been put in some of the situations that she portrays Jane to be in by some oppressive male character in her own life.
Nevertheless, it is seen that these characters do change as the novel progresses as Bronte seems to give them a chance to withdraw themselves as a repressive force, and show a little more consideration and compassion towards others and women in particular. John Reed is the first of Bronte’s repressive patriarchs in the novel. He is placed at the beginning of the novel and is introduced to us almost immediately. He is in fact the very first oppressive force to Jane in her life and in this way is very significant.
At first, John does not seem to be a huge threat to Jane, merely branding her a “bad animal” and a “rat”. This juvenile name-calling behaviour, as expressed by John, is still oppressive in that he uses these names to assert a higher power over Jane, subsequent to pronouncing all the books in the house as his property. He reminds Jane that she is in a highly precarious position in society and that she has no class due to the fact that she is living with them. She is classified as “less than a servant” according to him because she does “nothing for [her] keep”.
John taunts Jane proclaiming that she “ought to beg” to even live. He continuously reminds Jane that she is a “dependent”; somewhat indicating that she is dependent on him due to the fact that he is the only male in the household, and therefore the master by birth. Furthermore, John demands obedience of Jane, even though he is only but four years older than her. He exercises what he feels is his power as a male over her physically, as can be seen when he hits Jane with a book as the “volume was flung”.
This physical abuse is indicative of Bronte expressing that John Reed believes that male supremacy must be absolute. The regularity of his bullying as a demand for obedience of Jane, not “once or twice in a day, but continually” is also characteristic of a repressive patriarch who would feel more secure in continuous rather than periodic abuse. John Reed’s appearance may even be said to be one of a typical oppressive male character. Being “large and stout” with “heavy limbs and large extremities” indicate that he is quite a large boy for his age and automatically an intimidating individual.
His actions towards Jane are also somewhat animalistic such as “thrusting out his tongue at [her] as far as he could without damaging the roots”, suggesting his belief in a primal sense of alpha male dominance over a shrewdness of apes. He is quite grotesque as well and he does not just exert his power over Jane, but he “twisted the necks of the pigeons, [and] killed the little pea-chicks. ” It is clear that Bronte is extremely disgusted with his manner of indulging in animal cruelty as a means to show his masculinity.
John is also disagreeable towards his mother and acts without respect towards her, emphasising his belief that he is of a higher status than all women, not just Jane. He “called his mother ‘old girl’ too; sometimes reviled her for her dark skin, similar to his own; bluntly disregarded her wishes, [and] not infrequently tore and spoiled her silk attire. ” These aspects of John Reed, with no doubt, express Bronte’s strong feelings about the fact that all men thought that they were superior to a woman. Her disapproval and abhorrence of male supremacy is clear. Mr Brocklehurst is the second tormenting force that Jane is exposed to in her life.
He differs to John Reed in the fact that whilst John Reed is a form of physical oppression towards Jane, Brocklehurst is a form of religious oppression. Nevertheless, both of the two characters are similar in appearance as can be seen by Bronte’s description of them, reinforcing this idea that male characters of oppression have a certain appearance to express their power. When Jane first meets Brocklehurst, the first description she ever gives him is one with negative connotations – “a black pillar” that was “standing erect on the rug; the grim face at the top was like a carved mask, placed above the shaft by way of capital. Immediately we are given the sense that he is an imposing and unbending character who is just plain frightening, especially to a young Jane. Brocklehurst seems to be a gothic villain in a sense and as a “stony stranger”, the sibilance emphasises the fact that he is extremely unapproachable, hard and unforgiving. Bronte also gives Brocklehurst a “bass voice” which emphasises his masculinity, as well as large features that are “harsh and prim” to highlight his unyielding disposition.
We soon find out that Brocklehurst is in fact a religious hypocrite who uses religion as a vehicle for his repressive force that he exerts on the pupils at his school. However, we are not on first introduction immediately shown his hypocrisy by Bronte until a little later in the novel when Jane is at his school. Upon Jane and Brocklehurst’s first meeting, he pointedly asks Jane if she should like to “fall into that pit [full of fire] and be burning there for ever”. In an oppressive manner, Brocklehurst uses these implications of hell as such to scare and terrify Jane into obedience.
If we read into Brocklehurst’s language, his hypocrisy is revealed to us. He states to Jane that she would burn in hell “for ever. ” The fact that he says “for ever” is key in that he particularly twists the Christian ideas. When he mentions hell to Jane he ignores a key Christian idea that you may be saved from hell in an effort to frighten her into submission. Brocklehurst does not know for a fact that Jane will go to hell, but he is threatening her with the idea of hell, as he does with all the girls at Lowood School. Bronte writes the first conversation between Brocklehurst in a way that puts our sympathies, as a reader, with Jane. You must pray to God to change it: to give you a new and clean one: to take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” was the advice given to Jane by Brocklehurst – this is ironic in that Brocklehurst is described by Bronte as being “stony” himself, emphasising Bronte’s effort to sway the audience’s opinions to side with Jane. At Lowood, Brocklehurst firmly preaches the idea that God wants women to devote themselves to domesticity in order to please Him. He states that “humility is a Christian grace and one peculiarly appropriate to the pupils of Lowood” and that he brings the girls up in a way so as to cultivate this.
Brocklehurst reveals his own hypocrisy and effectively shoots himself in the foot and shows that he clearly does not practice what he preaches with his own children when he tells the story of his daughter Augusta and her trip to Lowood. Augusta comments on “how quiet and plain all the girls at Lowood look”, “almost like poor people’s children”, in comparison to herself in a “silk gown. ” Augusta and her sisters also actually arrive at Lowood, as seen by Jane, in velvet shawls, ostrich plume and such.
In this way, Bronte shows her belief that Brocklehurst is all that is wrong with the males of Victorian society as well as many of the rich people who also state that “consistency, is the first of Christian duties”, without fully committing and believing in what they say themselves. Brocklehurst is in fact an extremely inconsistent person in his day to day life. Mr Brocklehurst is a representation of what Bronte believes is wrong with society and its males with regards to religious oppression, as John Reed is a representation of her beliefs with regard to males in society with regards to physical oppression.
In a stark contrast to Mr Brocklehurst is St John Rivers, who is in fact a non-stereotypical patriarch. He is a contrast to Brocklehurst because he firmly does not believe that women like Jane should dedicate and devote themselves to domesticity but instead to God. Brocklehurst is also a hypocrite in this way as he should be preaching the idea of devotion to God but instead teaches his pupils to devote themselves to domesticity. However, there are also some ways in which St John is similar to Brocklehurst, and there is a key link between them in their ideologies.
St John has extremely congruent ideologies; however he is not a hypocrite, unlike Brocklehurst. It is important to mention that St John is an aesthetic model, an extremely problematic one at that. He is constantly living for his ideals and with his perfectionist nature, these ideals are almost unattainable. He is deeply religious and self-sacrificing when it comes to fulfilling his religious duties, and in this way, he tries forcefully to get Jane to comply with his approach to life and to go to India with him.
To get her to come with him and marry him, he uses language such as “a part of me you must become”, asserting his authority and power as a male over her. He seems to be sacrificing of both Jane’s happiness and health for others, but he applies this to himself as well. St John attempts to dictate Jane’s life in that he seemingly wants her to reject his job offer as a school mistress for village children. He wants her to hold this job for a while but not permanently as he believes that she “cannot be content to pass [her] leisure in solitude, and to devote [her] working hours to a monotonous labour” in a place where her skills are made useless.
He acknowledges that Jane is destined by God to do greater things, and though he may be wrong, he seems to be hinting to her this fact and that she is fit for a missionary’s wife, in what could be seen as a passive oppressive act. St John is also deeply unhappy with the fact that all Jane seems to want is a happy family life and would use all her money that she inherited to secure it. At Christmas, she is set on revelling in domesticity and St John is very much bothered and despairing of this and tries to convince her to become more like him, albeit in a repressive manner. I excuse you for the present: two months’ grace I allow you for the full enjoyment of your new position” – in this authoritative language St John displays that he does not want Jane to remain the position that she is in and to “begin to look beyond Moor House and Morton… and the selfish calm and sensual comfort of civilised affluence. ” He wants Jane to sacrifice herself to God and I believe that in this way St John is more dangerous than Brocklehurst because he can is oppressive with reason, and he is not a hypocrite and willing to do all he preaches.
I have decided to leave discussion of Mr Rochester to the end as I believe that he is by far the most complicated of the male characters throughout the novel, due to the fact that he undergoes a change in which he becomes less of a repressive patriarch and therefore a more suitable husband for Jane. The character at the beginning of the novel is vastly different to the Rochester that we see at the end, in more ways than one. However, the change in his oppressive nature towards Jane is especially significant. Jane did meet Rochester by chance, but even though he did not know who she was, he was still oppressive and authoritative towards her.
He commands her to lead him his horse and when she is unable, he states that “necessity compels [him] to make [her] useful”, laying a heavy hand on her shoulder which is a significant action that demonstrates his sense of authority. This attitude becomes less apparent as he gets to know her though further into their relationship, this dominant side of him reappears as he seemingly tries to force her to stay with him, though deep down he knows he cannot keep her. Jane feels that she is equal to Rochester as he is the first male not to out rightly exercise and force his patriarchal dominance over her.
Jane is comfortable to speak out and give her opinion directly, though this is only after he asks. She pointedly states that she does not think that he has “a right to command [her] merely because [he] is older that her” and in this way she has stated that the fact that he is male also does not play a part, though she does not actually say this. However, as their relationship progresses, this equality is warped and some of it is lost as Rochester seemingly becomes more desperate to have Jane for himself. This gradual increase in commands directed at Jane can be seen when Jane asks to leave him to see Mrs Reed.
He commands her to “promise [him] one thing”, that being “not to advertise: and to trust this quest of a situation to me. I’ll find you one in time. ” His desperation for her to come back as soon as possible is evident in the fact that he orders her not to advertise so that she will definitely come back to him. When Jane tries to leave Rochester for good, upon finding out that he does indeed have a wife, in the form of Bertha Mason, Rochester threatens violence in order to get her to stay. He is desperate to get through to her and to convince her to stay and it is interesting that he seems to want to resort to this.
The fact that he threatens this shows us that he is at an end and this is what a male character would do in order to get someone to comply with their wishes. Rochester is interesting in that he does try to give Jane a lot of freedom as a woman to do as she wishes, and is comfortable being an equal with her, but when it comes down to it, he always finally resorts to his dominance as a male. Jane, however, does finally return to Rochester at the end of the novel. She makes her way back to Thornfield only to find it burned to the ground and she seeks out Rochester whom she finds disabled following the great fire started by Bertha.
This loss of an arm and his sight his key to making Rochester a suitable husband for Jane. The disability means that Rochester is now physically an equal to Jane, and does not have to suppress his opinions and will never have the opportunity to be dominant over her any more. Before he was disabled, Rochester never exercised his power over Jane, out of choice, this disability means that even if he wanted and chose to utilise his male dominance over her, he cannot. The fact that Bronte decides to take away from Rochester so that he becomes less oppressive is interesting.
She seems to be giving Jane a chance to have power in the Victorian society that she lives in, possibly reflecting a wish for herself as a woman. Not all the male characters of Jane Eyre are always patriarchal and some, like Rochester, choose not to exercise their power over the woman. It is important to note that all the characters do it in different ways: physical, religious and only in desperation. However, the distressing reality that Bronte is trying to express is that the majority of the men in society do believe in absolute male supremacy.
Nevertheless, she does give the example of Mrs Reed as a female oppressor who demands submission of Jane as a child, and took revenge when not obeyed. I believe that Bronte wanted the male characters to be a strong repressive force so as to reflect her feelings of society and the imbalance between the males and females. It is possible that Bronte was trying to send a message to society through this novel in an effort to provoke a change in society, which would have been met with dispute from male readers and agreement from a female audience.