The impact of trauma on decision-making: Jane Eyre’s journey from abuse to agency in the Victorian era

In the year 1847, a book titled, Jane Eyre, was published – it was a relevant publication at the time because the book dealt with many worrying issues facing Victorians at the time, such as gender inequality, classism, abuse and trauma. The United Kingdom was experiencing great transformation during the Victorian era, which resulted in many types of abuse and trauma. Jane Eyre deals with the stark issues of abuse and trauma in an entertaining yet serious way. Though it is a fictional narrative, the story focuses on themes affecting real-life Victorians. According to Poplawski (2008:369), there were increases in industrialisation, urbanisation, capitalism and imperialism. The socio-economic, political and spiritual changes led to many multifaceted cases of trauma. Trauma resulted from cases of gender-based abuse, child abuse, spiritual abuse, and institutional abuse (Poplawski 2008:372-376). In this research paper, I will closely analyse the character traits of the downtrodden protagonist, Jane Eyre, to ascertain how she reaches empowerment in adulthood after a childhood of abuse, trauma, grief and neglect in Victorian England. In particular, I will pay attention to Jane’s decision-making processes, as this is the key to understanding her journey to freedom and empowerment. As a female, Jane experiences gender-based abuse on a societal level, and as a destitute orphan, she experiences physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse on a personal level. With abuse being predominant in every stage of Jane’s life, she is tasked with the heavy burden of overcoming trauma if she is to make a success of her life and to live happily. Jane must make wise and informed, life-altering decisions to avoid lifelong suffering. Each major decision that Janes makes will be examined in this essay to track Jane’s progress from a vulnerable, hot-tempered, abused child to a strong, independent and morally upright human being. The character analysis of this literary figure will include the investigation of her intelligence, spirituality, relationships and experiences.         

By first looking at the circumstances of the author Charlotte Brontë, one can already see a bias in English society against women. Brontë wrote Jane Eyre under the pseudonym, Currer Bell (Gaskell 1997:18). She had to write using a male pen name because women writers were discouraged and limited in the 19th century. There were only a few publishers who accepted manuscripts from women. Female writers were not afforded equal rights as male writers. This indicates the type of patriarchal society in which the character Jane Eyre lives as a girl and later, as a woman. These circumstances reduce Jane’s autonomy for decision-making in her own life. 

Gender roles were clearly defined – women were not expected to work in the aristocracy, and women did not have the right to vote (Poplawski 2008: 369). Men were landowners, workers, artists, soldiers, entrepreneurs, imperialists and travellers. Men held the power and wealth in the aristocracy. Jane Eyre is faced with many challenges related to gender inequality in the workforce. I will demonstrate in this paper how Jane is limited with career choices, and dependent on her male relatives for financial support. I will further demonstrate how gender oppression leads to Jane’s vulnerability and temporary destitution, which forces her into the hands of St. John Rivers who tries to take advantage of her vulnerable position for his personal agenda. St. John’s expectations of Jane are an example of patriarchal command and female subordination in families.   

Within family units, women were expected to be in support roles to their fathers and husbands. They were expected to be talented house managers and healthy child-bearers (Poplawski 2008:512). Extra-marital affairs were commonplace as men often kept mistresses. This paper will examine Edward Rochester’s intention to make Jane Eyre his mistress, as well as St. John Rivers’ intention to make Jane his perfect missionary wife. Illegitimate children were referred to as ‘bastards’, and usually disowned. However, in some cases, illegitimate children were kept in the family but under the guise of being a ward. This is portrayed by Edward’s unclear relationship with little Adele. Orphans were treated as outcasts and sent to orphanages when possible, so as not to be a burden on relatives. This will be made evident by the way Mrs. Reed sends Jane off to the boarding school for orphaned girls. Within marriages and families, abuse was treated as if it did not happen. Abuse was hidden away and kept secret, or it was considered acceptable to ill-treat others based on gender, age, class, nationality, and religion during the 19th century. This is evidenced through Bertha’s confinement in the novel, where she, as a mentally ill Creole woman, is locked away in an inhumane way. . 

Biblical scriptures were used to condone the abuse of women, children, workers, and even colonised countries. England was largely conservative and Christian, though secularisation was growing. Institutional abuse was taking place in government, businesses, schools, and churches. Cities were expanding beyond their capacities as a result of increased industrialization, urbanisation, capitalism and imperialism. This resulted in living and working conditions which were dirty and diseased. Labourers (including children) were expected to work long hours and paid low wages. The cost of food was high, and many lived in poverty, which caused an increase in crime (Poplawski 2008:496-498). During Jane’s short period of destitution on the streets, she encounters these dreadful circumstances. These conditions eventually led to a series of reform laws to improve working conditions for labourers, and educational facilities for children. The aristocracy was under threat, as the working class began to rise up in revolt against class divisions and unequal rights (Poplawski 2008:496-498). By the end of the novel, these changes in society begin to show by Edward and Jane’s non-traditional living arrangements at Ferndean, where they break away from society’s conventions.

It is possible that Brontë’s intention was to use Jane’s story to expose the issues facing Victorians on social, spiritual, and economic levels. Jane moves through a country with many hidden flaws, and Brontë brings these issues to light by using Jane’s experiences as a representation of Victorian society. Brontë had dared to mention the unmentionable about Victorian England in Jane Eyre. 

There are many notable works written about Jane Eyre as it is a book that has fascinated readers for centuries. The complexity of the novel opens up many questions for scholars to explore. However, for the most part, the novel has been viewed from the feminist, psychoanalytical, postcolonial, and religious perspectives. There has been limited discourse about trauma theory, which is the focus and purpose of this paper. The next section will examine a sample of scholarship done on the novel. 

Gilbert and Gubar (1979) are possibly the most renowned literary critics with regards to analysing Jane Eyre. Their commentary is documented in their book, The Mad Woman in the Attic, which places Jane Eyre within the context of other works (novels and poems) written by female authors over different centuries, from different places in the world, and at different ages in their lives. They noticed that all these women writers had a similar message which pointed to feminist theory. They believed that Charlotte Brontë, Emily Dickenson, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath all wrote about the theme of enclosure and escape (Gilbert & Gubar 1984: XI). Gilbert and Gubar claim that these female authors craved freedom from patriarchy, thus wrote about women characters who overcame the boundaries imposed on them by patriarchal societies. This finds resonance with my research paper, as escaping from enclosure, requires astute planning and decision-making which Jane epitomises in her thinking processes and actions. Most of the abuse which Jane endures, comes at the hands of male oppressors and abusers. Jane is mentally trapped in her trauma from abuse, and has to escape this mindset to be free from past wounds which threaten to jeopardise her future happiness. 

Gilbert and Gubar include a psychoanalytical perspective in their book as well. The most striking example being their theory that Bertha Mason is Jane’s alter ego or darker side (Gilbert and Gubar 1984:348). Bertha represents the darkness inside Jane from abuse and trauma, which Jane has to expel before she can reach her goal of freedom and happiness . Psychologically, this represented Jane overcoming darkness to be in the light. They believe that Jane’s repressed self is symbolised in Bertha, and that Jane’s encounters with Bertha are more transformational for her growth than her encounters with Edward. 

Interestingly, Gilbert and Gubar also note that Bertha appears whenever Jane is angry (Gilbert and Gubar 1984:360). It would seem that Jane externalises her anger in order for it not to overcome her. If her anger is external, she is able to view it as an enemy to be fought, rather than as a part of her to be suppressed or extinguished. As Jane’s alter ego, Bertha is big and beautiful, whereas Jane is small and elfish-looking. In order to release her repressed self, Jane has to first let go of the one thing which she loves more than herself, that being Edward Rochester. Jane has to prioritise her love for herself above others, before she is able to extinguish the dark remnants of abuse and trauma from her psyche. She must increase her self-worth to flourish as an independent woman. 

The Mad Woman in the Attic is widely appreciated for its contribution to feminist literature. However, some readers criticise the book for its exclusion of postcolonial and queer theories. Annette Federico took it upon herself to defend Gilbert and Gubar’s views in her book, titled The Mad Woman in the Attic After Thirty Years. Federico points out that at the time of the first publication of The Mad Woman in Attic, in 1979, postcolonial and queer theories were not widely discussed (Federico 2009:33). Federico builds on Gilbert on Gubar’s theories about the psychoanalytical and feminist approaches. She also includes spiritual and postcolonial approaches to understanding the text. This paper will add to Federico’s theories by including trauma theory to the analysis. 

Federico believes the red room (where Jane is confined and traumatised as a girl) is symbolic of female enclosure in a patriarchal society. She holds a different view of Bertha from Gilbert and Gubar – she does not believe Bertha to be Jane’s alter ego. Instead, she believes that Bertha represented the Reed family (which is associated with Jane’s childhood abuse and trauma). Federico uses Edward Said’s theory of the ‘self and other’ to explain the dynamic between Jane and Bertha.  Federico views Jane as the ‘self’, while Bertha is the ‘other’ which Jane has to wrestle with. For Federico, this is important because Jane represents the white coloniser who tries to take the Creole woman’s place at Thornfield Hall. Federico writes that Bertha’s existence has to be removed for Jane to take her rightful place in Edward’s life. The two cannot coexist at the same time. I however disagree with Federico’s idea that ‘the others’ have to be expelled for Jane to survive and thrive. As I will demonstrate, Jane attains peace and victory over her suffering by forgiving her abusers. This allows Jane’s conflicting parts to come together: the moral and Christian Jane reconciles with the angry and hurt Jane to make peace and move forward, away from the past traumas. Jane’s decision to exercise forgiveness, rather than vengeance is what sets her free. 

Federico also points to Jane’s need to find a father figure in her life (Federico 2009:95). The men in Jane’s life mostly play the roles of providers, which represents both Jane’s need for a father, and the system of patriarchy in Victorian England where women were dependent on men for provision. The male characters mentioned are Uncle Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, Edward Rochester, St. John Rivers and John Eyre. All of these male characters make provision for Jane in one way or the other. While some of them show her love, others abuse her. Federico has reiterated the power of the patriarchy and how it stripped women of the rights to make decisions for themselves, and to provide for themselves financially. The gender oppression which Federico highlights is emphasised in the part of the novel where Jane’s dependence on the Reeds only relinquishes after she receives an inheritance from her dead uncle, John Eyre. There are other ways in which the British patriarchy gained wealth and that was from dowries from their betrothed’s parents. An author, named Jean Rhys, covers this type of scenario in her novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1982). In missing a father figure in her life, Jane is vulnerable to men who wish to exploit women. 

Rhys’s book highlights the liberties taken by the British empire in their colonies. This story is based on the fictional life of Bertha Mason, as Rhys imagines it to be during colonialism in the Caribbean. Rhys uses the novel to highlight Bertha’s childhood trauma. She imagines a fair deal about Edward Rochester, and his marriage to Bertha, too. Edward’s circumstances surrounding his financial situation, and his relationship with his father, are made up to provide background information about his life, which was not written about in Jane Eyre. Wide Sargasso Sea offers a valuable perspective, in that it challenges readers to consider the reasons for “madness.” In doing so, readers learn about the effects of abuse and trauma on mental health. Rather than labelling someone as mad, understanding and consideration can be offered to the survivor of abuse and trauma. This gives clearer insight into both Bertha and Jane’s mental health challenges. Reading about the effects of trauma on these characters, creates empathy towards them, which reduces the likelihood of victim-blaming which usually occurs when people are considered mentally unwell. As an example, Bertha is judged by Edward in Jane Eyre with inhumane terms. 

Edward’s insults towards Bertha in Jane Eyre, reveals his lack of education about trauma.  Edward describes Bertha and her family with derogatory terms by saying, “Bertha Mason is mad; and she came from a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard!” (Brontë 1848: 269). Bertha is not shown compassion nor given proper medical attention for mental illness. Instead, she is caged like an animal, which represented the way the British empire viewed natives of Africa and the Caribbean Islands. Jane, herself, describes Bertha with inhumane words such as savage and vampire (Brontë 1848: 262), just as she describes native Indians as savage tribes (Brontë 1848:374). Bringing attention to Bertha’s circumstances and adding value to her life, is important in revealing the stigmas attached to mental illness in the Victorian era. Bertha is humanised and given the dignity she deserves as a human being in Wide Sargasso Sea, as opposed to Jane Eyre where she is villainized for being mentally ill. A comparison can be drawn between Jane’s trauma and Bertha’s trauma. One’s life ends in suicide and the other’s life ends in happiness. Comparing the choices and decisions of these two women reveals a lot about the surrounding circumstances of female oppression, trauma treatment, and mental wellbeing. Similarly, a comparison can be made between the author herself and Jane Eyre. These comparisons offer valuable avenues for research, however in this paper, I will focus specifically on Jane and her decision-making.  

Literary critics, such as Elizabeth Gaskell (1857), have made comparisons between Brontë’s real life and Jane’s fictional life. Some of the noteworthy observations made by Gaskell are: Brontë’s mother died during her childhood and she was raised by her aunt, her father was a strict Wesleyan Methodist Minister who was harsh on his children and denied them luxuries, two of her sisters died at school, she grew up on biblical principles, was intelligent, creative, and respected at her high school. Brontë’s Christian beliefs were important to her. Griesinger (2008:30) wrote, “Charlotte Brontë was deeply concerned about religious and spiritual matters.” These personal experiences shaped the character of Jane Eyre, and parts of the storyline in Jane Eyre. In Gaskell’s biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, it is evident that Brontë dealt with a fair amount of abuse, grief, and trauma in her life. Similarly, Jane’s story is about overcoming abuse, grief, and trauma. 

There are several scholars who are in agreement with my view that Jane has healed from abuse, and overcome trauma, to reach empowerment. Poplawski (2012:440) makes an interesting observation about an important aspect in Jane’s journey to agency – he mentions the need for Jane to express her voice as a form of liberation. He writes, “Brontë’s emphasis conveys not simply the urgency of Jane’s felt emotions, but also what is arguably the novel’s dominant motif and theme – the function of voice, the need for expression, the power of utterance and their connection to the idea and ideal of autonomy.” Leggatt and Parkes (2006: 169-170) also write about Jane’s agency, as they view Ferndean as a place where Jane is able to exercise her freedom as a woman away from social conventions due to her sudden change in financial status. Similarly, Morris (2013:162) believes that Jane has found happiness at Ferndean, and is not living under any form of oppression and abuse with Edward. Morris writes: “Finally Jane finds love again with the crippled Rochester and her contentment and bliss are obvious… She has found love and security but on her own terms and as an active agent – it is she who goes to Ferndean and finds Rochester.” Mizel (2016) writes about Jane’s determination to break social conventions about Victorian women. These scholars’ views support my argument that Jane reaches her goal of agency in Victorian England, despite the gender oppression, poverty, and abuse which she endured through different ways in her childhood and early adult life. 

Jane’s attitude of defiance to social conventions surrounding females and orphans, sets her apart from victims who never leave the cycle of abuse. Jane’s defiant nature brings judgement into her life as some characters in the novel find Jane to be too unruly and outspoken for a Victorian Christian female. They are taken aback by her passionate and outspoken nature . Such characters include Miss Abbott, Helen Burns, Mr. Brocklehust, and St. John Rivers. Miss Abbott exclaims, “What shocking conduct, Miss Eyre, to strike a young gentleman, your benefactress’s son! Your young master” (Brontë 1848:11). However, in dealing with these critics, Jane is made stronger, as she learns not to worry about what people may say about her. She always stands by herself and her convictions when she is opposed by people or society as a whole.  

In analysing trauma in Jane Eyre, I will track the abuse of Jane from childhood to adulthood. Domestic abuse begins in Jane’s childhood – as an orphan, Jane starts her life in the care of her uncle and aunt, and after her uncle passes away, her aunt abuses Jane, and so does her cousin, John Reed. Jane lives in fear in the Reed household. John taunts Jane, and his sisters (Eliza and Georgiana) exclude Jane from their circle. Jane explains the way John makes her feel: “He bullied and punished me; not two or three times in the week, nor once or twice in the day, but continually: every nerve I had feared him, and every morsel of flesh in my bones shrank when he came near” (Brontë 1848:8). The most startling event Jane experiences at Gateshead Hall is when Mrs. Reed locks her up in the red room at the age of ten. This childhood trauma haunts Jane through-out her life, as she regularly has flashbacks of it. During her conversation with Mr. Lloyd, she lets him know that the red room still haunts her by saying, “I never forgot the, to me, frightful episode of the red-room” (Brontë 1848:67). After her failed wedding day, Jane yet again recalls the horror of the red room incident; she writes, “That night I never thought to sleep; but a slumber fell on me as soon as I lay down in bed. I was transported in thought to the scenes of childhood: I dreamt I lay in the red-room at Gateshead; that the night was dark, and my mind impressed with strange fears” (Brontë 1848: 294). These traumatic flashbacks cause Jane to be hypervigilant as her fears resurface in her adult life when she experiences something new. The flashbacks could be read as a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Though these symptoms cause panic, the hypervigilance sharpens Jane’s senses to danger, which enables her to make wise decisions that avert destruction.  

Self-doubt, self-blame and low self-esteem are symptoms found in Jane as an abuse survivor. In the red room while being afraid and alone, Jane questions her innocence, and begins to self-doubt and self-blame. She says, “I grew by degrees cold as a stone, and then my courage sank. My habitual mood of humiliation, self-doubt, forlorn depression, fell damp on the embers of my decaying ire. All said I was wicked, and perhaps I might be so…” (Brontë 1848: 14). Jane internalises the words of her abusers (Mrs. Reed and John Reed) and becomes a critic of herself. She judges herself harshly for a little girl of only ten years old. Morris (2013: 158) agrees by saying, “Jane begins to doubt herself, questioning whether she really does deserve all the humiliation she has been subjected to.” The confinement in the red room is a result of a confrontation between Jane and John. He throws a book at Jane and dehumanises her by calling her a rat; the book causes Jane to fall, get cut on her head and bleed. This episode drives Jane to angrily scream at John. Mrs. Reed, who always favours her son, blames Jane for the incident, and asks the maids to lock Jane up in the red room (Brontë 1848:8). Mrs. Reed victim-blames Jane in her effort to release her son from guilt. This guilt embeds itself in her subconscious mind from a young age, and emerges during her interactions with others. Guilt is a feeling which Jane has to continually eradicate from her mind during her adult life, and she learns to do this by consciously making room for self-love. When overcome with feelings of guilt, Jane rationalises to remind herself of her self-worth. She does this when Mr. Brocklehurst implies that she is deserving of hell (Brontë 1848: 30), and she does it again when Helen Burns implores her to accept abuse (Brontë 1848: 53-54).  Jane refuses to accept injustice, and seeks fairness in all circumstances. 

The red room is a turning point in Jane’s life. This experience is the breaking point for Jane after years of being complacent through abuse and neglect under Mrs. Reed’s care. This is the moment in which Jane chooses, in her anger, pain and frustration to take action. This is the first time in her life that Jane stands up for herself, and fights for her dignity. This happens when she shouts out to John Reed, “Wicked and cruel boy! You are like a murderer – you are like a slave driver – you are like the Roman emperors!” (Brontë 1848:9). This is Jane’s first act of defiance to authority, and first act of agency. This incident also leads to Jane developing a closer bond with her nursemaid, Bessie Lee. She feels no acceptance, love or compassion in the Reed household, apart from the affection she receives from Bessie. Jane describes Bessie as being “the best, prettiest, kindest being in the world” (Brontë 1848: 27). This relationship helps to strengthen Jane as Bessie soothes her during distress, when she struggles to regulate her emotions.  Jane’s inner power begins to take shape. This shows us that Jane is a fighter – she does not accept defeat, and she is capable of making decisions which protect her dignity.  

A new Jane has emerged, one that is not quiet and submissive anymore. From this point on, Jane begins to speak her thoughts, and express her emotions. She does not hold back in telling Mr. Lloyd what she truly thinks about Gateshead: “If I had anywhere else to go, I should be glad to leave it…” (Brontë 1848: 22). Jane challenges Mrs. Reed’s moral conscience by asking, “What would Uncle Reed say to you, if he were alive?” (Brontë 1848:26). Jane then goes on to explain how she feels about expressing her emotions and speaking her mind, “… for it seemed as if [her] tongue pronounced words without [her] will consenting to their utterance: something spoke out of [her] over which [she] had no control” (Brontë 1848:26). In this quote, it is evident that Jane’s emotions control her. She is overrun by her emotions, rather than her rational mind, therefore she speaks everything that is on her mind without any filter, whether it be appropriate in her society or not. This demonstrates the way in which Jane stood up to her abusers. 

As an example of Jane’s defiance to abusers and conditioned society, her conversation with Mr. Brocklehurst stands out. When Mr. Brocklehurst interviews Jane, she says something unexpected which is not considered appropriate for a little girl: When questioned about eternity in hell, Jane responds with defiance to biblical doctrines. Jane smartly replies that if she should want to avoid hell, then she should keep in good health and not die (Brontë 1848:30). Jane outwits Mr. Brocklehurst at the age of ten. Her bravery to stand up to a grown male figure in a position of power is both commendable and surprising. Jane, being observant and perceptive, could assess the character of Mr. Brocklehurst through their dialogue. Her past experiences with abusers like Mrs. Reed and cousin John, had made her vigilant, and a good judge of character. This ensures that Jane is able to identify abusers quickly when she encounters them. 

Mr. Brocklehurst later proves to be the abuser Jane suspects him to be. He neglects the children’s needs and starves them at Lowood School (Brontë 1848: 59). Girls are publicly humiliated (Brontë 1848: 59) and denied proper medical care when sick. The school practices child labour by making the children sew their own clothes (Brontë 1848: 47). Mr. Brocklehurst is a physical, emotional, and spiritual abuser. He manipulates biblical teachings to justify his harshness towards the girls (Brontë 1848: 60). He behaves like a dictator, who uses religion to shame the students, and put fear into them. Leggatt and Parkes (2006: 173) describe the motivation behind Brocklehurst’s abuse by saying, “Brocklehurst’s control over how Julia Severn wears her hair is an instance of a human ‘entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it.’” If not for Miss Temple and Helen Burns’ kindness and advice, Jane’s experience at Lowood would be entirely damaging to her on a psychological level. According to Poplawski (2008: 414), during the Victorian era, London was full of crime, disease, pauperism and misery. This resulted in new reform laws such as the Education Act and Factory Reform Act. The Education Act was enforced from 1870 onwards, which was after Brontë wrote Jane Eyre in 1847. Lowood is therefore a prime example of the living conditions of orphaned children in charity-funded boarding schools. Jane’s torment continues from the Reed household to Lowood School; it does not subside when she leaves the Reed family. However, there are benefits to being at Lowood as well. These advantages aid in building up Jane to be an empowered yet humble woman later in life. 

At Lowood, Jane undergoes change – she progresses in maturity and responsibility . Bolat and Gulustur (2018:84) are of the view that, “…although Lowood seems as a troublesome tool, we can deduce that it may also be an instrument of progress and improvement. Lowood stands for Jane, not only to grow up, but also to be known, honoured, valued for the future.” Their opinion notes that Jane shows ambition and personal growth at Lowood. She moves from being an angry, defiant student to being a responsible and respected teacher at the institution. At Lowood, Jane goes through a post traumatic transitional phase, where she learns restraint while still exercising her self-respect. She learns to control the words, which once used to control her. The advice of Helen Burns and the kindness of Miss Temple guide Jane through this healing process. These characters could be considered the loving family she does not have. Jane’s review of her time at Lowood says, 

During these eight years my life was uniform: but not unhappy, because it was not inactive. I had the means of an excellent education placed within my reach; a fondness for some of my studies, and a desire to excel in all, together with a great delight in pleasing my teachers, especially such as I loved, urged me on: I availed myself fully of the advantages offered me. In time I rose to be the first girl of the first class; then I was invested with the office of teacher; which I discharged with zeal for two years: but at the end of that time I altered. Miss Temple, through all changes, had thus far continued superintendent of the seminary: to her instruction I owed the best part of my acquirements; her friendship and society had been my continual solace; she had stood me in the stead of mother, governess, and, latterly, companion (Brontë 1848:78-79). 

In Jane’s own words she describes Lowood as beneficial to her academic achievements. She values the education which she receives at Lowood, as well as the teachers who inspire her. She respects the institution for its academic merits, despite its shortfalls in welfare. Through education, and the right guidance from teachers (especially Miss Temple), Jane learns to control her anger, and to choose her words wisely. These skills aid Jane in making the tough decisions which lie ahead of her at Thornfield Hall, Moor House, and Ferndean. 

The hardships at Gateshead and Lowood aid in building Jane’s character. Jane deals with grief on two occasions: when Helen Burns dies, and when Miss Temple leaves the school. Yet despite the trauma and grief at Lowood, she finds a moral compass, she finds strength, and she finds a desire for more of life inside of her. Jane says, “I longed to go where there was life and movement” (Brontë 1848:83). The abuse, trauma and grief of her childhood does not stop her from wanting to live and to enjoy life to its fullest. At Lowood Jane matures, and trusts in her own agency to seek out a job outside of the school, as a governess in another part of the country. One could say that Jane becomes self-aware at Lowood; she is able to recognise her needs and wants as she learns more about herself. Her independence begins with her decision to leave Lowood. Lowood is not a place that Jane chooses for herself, instead it is somewhere chosen for her by Mrs. Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst. Jane’s decision to leave Lowood and move to Thornfield Hall is the first time Jane chooses for herself where to live. To use Gilbert and Gubar’s (1984:14) idea, this can be viewed as Jane’s escape from enclosure. It is a point of maturity where Jane feels confident in her abilities to be independent. 

In Jane’s next phase of life, which takes place at Thornfield Hall, Moor House and Ferndean, Jane experiences instances of grief, shame, poverty, and abuse again. A cycle is repeated which Jane has to work through. Her unhealed wounds from childhood are addressed again in life, and she is prompted once again to make careful decisions which could affect the outcome of her life. Jane shows that she is a logical person, who also believes in God and the spiritual. Bessie even notices Jane’s intelligence and compliments her, “I dare say you are clever, though” (Brontë 1848:85). When her post-traumatic stress symptoms are triggered on several occasions, she relies on her wisdom and intuition to guide her through the decision-making process. Experience has taught her how to control her mind and behaviour during moments of instability and uncertainty.

On arrival at Thornfield Hall, Jane is still haunted by past fears. When she meets the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, she thinks to herself, “I pray God Mrs. Fairfax may not turn out a second Mrs. Reed; but if she does, I am not bound to stay with her! let the worst come to the worst, I can advertise again” (Brontë 1848: 89). This type of thinking confirms that past fears still plague Jane, but she does not let those fears get in her way. She believes in herself enough to know that she can find a new job, if this one does not work out. She is not willing to tolerate abusers in her life any longer; she has drawn healthy boundaries in interpersonal relationships. 

Jane’s hypervigilance at Thornfield, also presents itself when she meets new people. During parties and guest visits, she keenly observes everyone and makes judgements about them. At times, she is critical of people, and may even lean towards prejudice. At Thornfield, she has her first opportunity to socialise with aristocrats. Her attitude towards them is a mixture of reservation and intrigue. She is suspicious of them, and eavesdrops on their conversations from the secluded spot where she sits alone (Brontë 1848:176-180). She proves to be highly perceptive in social settings, which enables her to read people’s characters, and to be selective about the company which she keeps. This caution prevents Jane from repeating a cycle of abuse in life, as she has learned to avoid abusers. 

Jane’s progress is noted in her last meeting with Mrs. Reed. During her time at Thornfield Hall she is called to her aunt’s deathbed. In their time of saying goodbye, Jane exemplifies the biblical teachings which Helen Burns counselled her on. Despite her aunt’s unforgiving heart and hatred, Jane chooses to forgive her aunt for all the years of abuse and trauma. Jane extends an offer for peace and reconciliation to her aunt. This is a breakthrough moment for Jane in her healing process, even though her inner child still craves her aunt’s love. At her aunt’s deathbed, Jane tries to make amends, and exchange affection with her aunt, but Mrs. Reed does not respond with the same kindness:

I approached my cheek to her lips: she would not touch it. She said I oppressed her by leaning over the bed, and again demanded water. As I laid her down  -for I raised her and supported her on my arm while she drank – I covered her ice-cold and clammy hand with mine: the feeble fingers shrank from my touch – the glazing eyes shunned my gaze.

“Love me, then, or hate me, as you will,” I said at last, “you have my full and free forgiveness: ask now for God’s, and be at peace” (Brontë 1848:221). 

Finding out that her cousin John is ruined, brings out a feeling of compassion for him in her, which she has not felt for him before (Brontë 1848:219-222). In a sense, justice is served, as John declines in life, while Jane makes progress.   

The biggest test of sound judgement in Jane’s life would come from her relationship with her employer at Thornfield Hall, Mr. Edward Rochester. Through her interactions with Edward, Jane is faced with dilemmas which could compromise her moral and spiritual beliefs,  as well as her reputation as a respectable woman. From the moment Jane meets Edward, she is enraptured by him, and later in the novel he reveals that he feels the same way about her (Brontë 1848: 235-236). Once their love affair begins, Jane fights hard to maintain her composure and rational thinking. The intensity of their love de-stabilises her. As a person who has been starved of love her whole life, Jane finds her love for Edward to be overwhelming. Jane also has to deal with many more emotions during her time at Thornfield. There are times when she is terrified by Bertha’s appearances, and Mr. Mason’s attack. Jane goes through grief and sorrow when Mrs. Reed dies without forgiving her. She has to face the judgement of society for her decision to marry a man of nobility whilst she is working class. Class consciousness was rife in the Victorian period (Poplawski 2008:415). Generally, the aristocrats shamed the working class, and looked down on them with condescension, which was a form of emotional abuse towards the less privileged and disadvantaged in society. The working class was othered, and not considered to be appropriate company for the aristocracy. Based on class divisions, Jane and Edward’s relationship was taboo. 

For the reader, there are also points of concern regarding Edward, as he shows sides of himself which could be considered abusive. He is manipulative and deceitful at times. He pretends to be a gypsy to get information from his unsuspecting guests (Brontë 1848:180-188). He pretends to be marrying Miss Ingram in order to test Jane and make her jealous (Brontë 1848:231-237). He conceals his marriage to Bertha from Jane, and he has Bertha enclosed in the room (Brontë 1848:269-270). His relationship with Adele and her mother is suspicious because it seems that Adele is his illegitimate daughter from his former French lover, yet he calls Adele his ward. His reasons and motives might be justifiable to some, but to others they are red flags of domestic abuse. Deceit, manipulation, mind games, gaslighting, promiscuity, and adultery, are all signs of an abusive partner. One could justify Edward’s behaviour by claiming that he does not know any better due to the lack of mental health awareness in his culture and environment. Given the time period in which the novel is set, mental health was largely misunderstood and stigmatised. Patients were not given humane treatment in some cases. His choices could also be excused given the circumstances surrounding his past, with his father and brother’s deviousness. Whether Edward, being an older, worldly man, manipulated young, innocent Jane is a valid question to ask. With Jane’s history of abuse and trauma, she is a likely target to fall prey to an abuser in marriage. However, at the end of the novel, Jane makes it clear to the reader that she and Edward are a happy family by saying, 

I have now been married ten years. I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest — blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together. To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character – perfect concord is the result (Brontë 1848:413-415). 

This dispels any worry about Jane’s future with Edward. It seems that he learns many lessons from his mistakes about being dishonest, and changes to be a more trustworthy partner. 

Edward starts off their relationship with his own insecurities, which involves mind games, deceit, and secrets. However, he seems to change by the end of the novel after his own traumatic experience. Federico (2009:102) points out foreshadowing in the story: When Edward first meets Jane, he falls off his high horse; this foreshadows his fall from pride later in life, when his life fell apart. After Bertha sets Thornfield on fire, and commits suicide, Edward loses his eyesight and home. Edward relocates to Ferndean where he has to face his life decisions and process everything that has happened as a result of his decisions. Gilbert and Gubar (1979:369) quote Robert Bernard Martin by saying that Ferndean is to Edward, what Lowood is to Jane, “a school of life”. It is a place of self-reflection, transformation, growth and maturity for Edward, which makes him a better and safer partner for Jane. Edward’s growth mirrors that of Jane’s. By having both partners in the novel experience trauma and recovery, it shows that trauma-based relationships have a chance at being successful, and do not necessarily have to be destructive. Both Jane and Edward’s commitment to love and respect each other, overrides their past trauma-based patterns which involved insecurities, mindgames, and lies. This enables them to move forward in a healthier relationship after processing the pains of their past. 

On the other hand, there is a clearer form of abuse which Jane experiences in her adulthood, and that manifests in her relationship with St. John Rivers. Unlike the spiritual abuser Mr. Brocklehurst, St. John is an abuser of a different kind. His abuse is less overt, and more covert. He holds strongly to biblical principles about self-denial, servanthood, and missionary work. His intentions in wanting Jane to join him on his mission to India is well-intentioned, however he lacks the emotional intelligence to realise that a marriage should include romantic love. St. John’s view of marriage seems almost business-like. He excludes love from the marriage, and only wishes to fulfil his Christian ambitions as a missionary couple. He finds Jane to be the most suitable workhorse given her hardworking and intelligent nature. He tries to control her destiny and impose his plans and beliefs on her. St. John states matter-of-factly, “God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must — shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you – not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service” (Brontë 1848:370). Jane’s refusal to accept his marriage proposal is yet another act of agency. Jane knows what it feels like to be loved (as she has experienced love from Edward), and she knows what it feels like to be unloved (by the Reeds at Gateshead). She uses these past experiences and her gut instincts to determine that a marriage to St. John could never give her the life which he wants for herself. Jane allows herself the freedom to choose for herself, and she frees herself from her fear of St. John (Brontë 1848:373). 

It is possible that Jane feels obliged to St. John for his generosity in housing her, yet she does not allow this to affect her decision-making process. She evaluates the advantages and disadvantages of life with St. John in India, before finalising her decision. Jane approaches her options with a balanced and open-minded perspective, and ultimately makes a decision that best serves her interests. She does not allow obligation or guilt to sway her rational thinking. Mizel (2016: 176) notes in her article about Charles Dickens’ character Louisa in Hard Times, and Charlotte Brontë’s character Jane in Jane Eyre

Tragically, as in all projects of mandated self-denial, the potential for abuse and legalism loomed large. While partially true and well-intentioned, these exhortations to personal restraint for both men and women had a dark side — a fact acknowledged and explored by Dickens and Brontë. By analysing Hard Times and Jane Eyre, we find that neither complete self-indulgence (the tendency of modern Western culture) nor total self-mortification (a hallmark of the Victorians) is desirable: instead, a balance between freedom and restraint is rewarded in characters’ lives, a balance in which principle and circumstance serve as primary mediators. The blessing of such a balance is perhaps nowhere more clearly seen than in Louisa and Jane’s expression of their passions – especially when it comes to their anger.

Jane exemplifies the balance which Mizel is talking about, because she finds ways to maintain her boundaries and self-respect, without being selfish or arrogant. She maintains respect for others, and is considerate, yet she does not allow herself to suffer for it. Jane’s decision to decline St. John’s marriage proposal, and her decision about her inheritance resembles this balance between self-denial and self-indulgence. 

Whilst at Moor House, Jane’s decision to decline St. John’s marriage proposal is not the only life-altering decision that she makes. Jane chooses, of her own free will, to split her inherited money with the Rivers siblings. It may seem impulsive that Jane gives most of her inheritance away. She does not hesitate in her decision and makes the decision quickly, despite the River family objecting to it. However, this decision is not rash at all. Jane lives in obligation to the Reed’s as a child so when she receives the inheritance from her dead uncle, she does not hesitate to give it away, to relieve herself from the feeling of obligation. It is a feeling which she is used to, something she is already familiar with. It is a feeling of obligation which she wants to be free from. The Rivers provide shelter and food for Jane when she is destitute, so she feels it is right to share her inheritance with them. This decision demonstrates Jane’s need for freedom on all levels – she wants to be free from all financial obligations that are placed on her. She desires to be a free, independent woman whose moral conscience is free of all debt. 

The time period between Jane’s failed wedding day and her refusal to marry to St. John, is the most traumatic experience of her adult life (Brontë 1848:302). Jane’s discovery of Edward’s hidden, mentally ill, and violent wife devastates Jane (Brontë 1848:298). Jane leans heavily on her moral conscience to leave Edward and Thornfield. Jane could not in good conscience allow herself to be a mistress (Brontë 1848:292). This shows her self-worth and self-respect, which is a commendable achievement for a survivor of childhood abuse. Jane’s decision to leave Thornfield leads her to destitution but she does not give up, and fights against the elements and starvation for survival. There is a moment while being homeless that she considers begging for food but she wrestles with this decision because, as a self-respecting person, she feels ashamed to ask for charity (Brontë 1848:300). She tries to maintain her dignity, and even after the Rivers take her in, she quickly starts to ask for work after recovering from poor physical health (Brontë 1848:321). She desires to be independent, and not to be a burden on anyone else. 

Throughout the novel, especially during times of difficult decision-making, Jane prays and seeks guidance from the spiritual realm. Jane’s Christian faith seems to aid her with decision-making as she reverts back to the biblical advice which Helen Burns gives her. She uses her spirituality as a moral compass. This is shown in her reflective thoughts, “God directed me to a correct choice: I thank His providence for the guidance!” (Brontë 1848:331). During her separation from Edward and her period of homelessness, she leans heavily on her faith to get through the despair surrounding her. She also experiences testing of her faith, by encountering people, such as Mr. Rochester and St. John, who manipulate the scriptures to justify their abusive beliefs and actions. Jane does not allow her faith to be broken despite being abused by Christians, and this proves her strength of mind to maintain her belief system, despite negative external influences. 

In addition to her Christian faith as an adult, Jane’s other effective strategies for not letting trauma dictate her life involve leaning her moral conscience, taking responsibility for her actions, forgiving her abusers, and applying forethought to her actions. Whenever her trauma symptoms present themselves, Jane thinks carefully about the outcomes of her actions before making decisions. She introspects, takes other’s into consideration, and recalls her goals before finalising her decisions to act. One could say that Jane does not react to her challenges in fear or panic, but rather responds with careful, well-thought out plans. 

The last major decision which Jane makes in the story, is her decision to return to Edward. Jane does not know if he is still married or not, but she seeks him out to find out about his well-being. She mentions a supernatural or intuitive call drawing her to him, but she does not say anything about returning to be his mistress. It seems that Jane wants to return to Edward, simply to check on his well-being. This shows that Jane never compromised her values, despite her deep love for Edward. After her heart is opened to forgiving her aunt, Jane is able to forgive Rochester for his deception as well. This change in mindset sets in motion Jane’s journey back to Thornfield, and then to Ferndean. Upon learning of Bertha’s suicide and Edward’s new disabilities, Jane does not think twice about becoming his wife and caregiver. Her life’s purpose as a Christian servant is fulfilled, and she is content to be with the man she loves. Though Jane once dreamt of travelling across the country, and to further lands, to find excitement and adventure, those ideas diminish as she finds inner happiness and love in her life and in herself, and with the family she and Edward build together at Ferndean. 

In conclusion, it can be noted that Jane drew strength from her inner resources to survive abuse, and enjoy life after multiple traumas. Along the way, there were important figures in her life, who had a positive effect on her; they guided and helped her. But ultimately, it was Jane’s committed decision to overcome adversity, which led to her fulfilment in life. Jane endured many different types of abuse, including physical, emotional, spiritual, and neglect. However, using her intellectual wisdom, emotional intelligence, and gut instincts (based on past experiences), she was able to make decisions which enabled her to heal her wounds and conquer her circumstances. Jane made her own way in life using the limited resources available to her. Despite the socio-economic challenges of being an orphaned female in Victorian England, Jane found a way to build a life for herself – a life which was true to her authentic self, and which satisfied her wishes and dreams. Jane lived on her terms, proving herself to be an empowered survivor of abuse and trauma.   

Bibliography

Bancroft, L. 2002. Why does he do that? Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, United States of America. 

Bolat, E & Gulustur, E. 2018. The Providential Impact of Lowood on Jane in Jane Eyre. The Journal of International Social Research, 11 (58): 83-89. http://dx.doi.org/10.17719/jisr.2018.2519 (Accessed: 25 June 2022). 

Brontë, C. 1848. Jane Eyre. The Random House Publishing Group, New York, United States of America. 

Federico, A.R. 2009. Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic After Thirty Years. University of Missouri Press, Missouri, United States of America. 

Gaskell, E. 1997. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Penguin Books Ltd.. London, England. 

Gilbert, M. & Gubar, S. 1984. The Madwoman in the Attic. Yale University Press, Connecticut, United States of America.

Griesinger, E. 2008. Charlotte Brontë̈’s religion: faith, feminism, and Jane Eyre. Christianity and Literature, 58 (1):29-59. https://muse.jhu.edu/journal/751 (Accessed 25 June 2022). 

Heller, L. & LaPierre, A. 2012. Healing Developmental Trauma. North Atlantic Books, California, United States of America. 

Leggatt, J. & Parkes, C. 2006. From the Red Room to Rochester’s Haircut: Mind Control in ‘Jane Eyre’. English Studies in Canada, 32 (4): 169-188. https://doi.org/10.1353/esc.0.0008 (Accessed 25 June 2022)

Mizel, A. 2016. Righteous Restraint in Hard Times and Jane Eyre. Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, 68 (3):176-18. https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/righteous-restraint-hard-times-jane-eyre/docview/1814288640/se-2  (Accessed 25 June 2022).

Morris, P. 2013. The Depiction of Trauma and its Effect on Character Development in the Brontë Fiction. Brontë Studies, 38:2, 157-168, https://doi.org/10.1179/1474893213Z.00000000062 (Accessed 25 June 2022)

Poplawski, P. 2008. English Literature in Context. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, United Kingdom.  

Rhys, J. 1982. Wide Sargasso Sea. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.. New York, United States of America. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: