Traditionally, history has presented us with the oppression of women through male-dominated environments as they are consigned to the margins of society. Brontë and Eliot’s presentation of their female characters in Jane Eyre and Adam Bede respectively, is demonstrative of the implications of this social conditioning founded upon 19th century patriarchal and political systems. This indicates the domineering nature of cultural norms, ideologies and customs on a society as they predetermine the ideal feminine positions which is subsequently foisted onto females with no alternative. Through examining the individual modes of resistance shown by Brontë’ s and Eliot’s female characters in the face of limiting conditions and oppression, they transcend boarders of societal confinement inspiring their female readership through their heroic efforts to overturn their imposed victimhood. Our authors follow the females on their journeys to defy society however accurately convey the unfavourable end many meet. Although each novel questions women’s positions to varying extents, Eliot is much more compliant with societal norms than Brontë ‘s more rebellious work. Brontë’s predominant character of Jane Eyre explores the quest for freedom and equality whilst upholding a moral high ground. This endeavour the reader takes with Jane throughout the novel defies the forced submission, presumed lack of intelligence and lack of voice given to women in the 19th century. The novel itself reflects Brontë’s personal anger and lack of contempt for the Egalitarian society she lived in, also examining the abuse of privilege and wealth in relation to women’s role. The novel however has no argument for a change in the actual structure in society. It instead allows its female protagonist to question female positioning in society without being explicitly anti male. Eliot’s presentation of female characters however complies more so with the role of women in society, by examining social realism and the concept of a fallen woman the novel offers an intrinsic insight into 19th century society in actuality. Terry Eagleton expresses his view of Brontë’s gender roles, ‘there is a streak of dissent, blunt exasperation and turbulent rebellion direction often enough at the privileged gentry.1’. Eagleton will provide me with the theoretical framework to underpin the novel to examine women’s position in society.
Brontë challenges the role of women through her protagonist Jane Eyre as Jane values and chooses her own freedom so as not to be enslaved or constitute a form of imprisonment. The character ultimately frees herself defying the stereotypical helpless role of women in society. Brontë primarily explores Jane’s freedom through use of marriage as a metaphor for the power struggle between the sexes. Although the character of Bertha Mason is labelled insane she is symbolic of how a once seductive icon can be dominated and controlled by marriage. Jane retracts from marriage proposals that would inhibit her identity and prioritises equality above anything else. This is mainly seen when Jane inherits her own wealth before marrying Rochester which in turn grants her personal and financial independence and freedom, therefore she is not Rochester’s dependent. This was very controversial of the time for a woman to break the rigid confines of a very misogynistic society to become self reliant. Brontë presents Jane as a lower class woman, evident as she has to work to support herself which makes her relationship with Rochester so peculiar and rare. At this point in the novel a fantasy had been achieved as relationships between class rankings was uncommon making Jane seem extremely lucky. So for Jane to end the relationship with Rochester due to a sense of betrayal sets Jane apart from the conventional woman who would be deemed foolish to end a relationship with a wealthy man. This is a prime example of Jane prioritising her morals and sense of self worth rather than comply to the expectations of a woman in society and honing her independence. Furthermore Jane demands equality from Rochester, ‘Do you think’, she demands of Rochester, I am an automation? – a machine without feelings?’ before declaring ‘equal – as we are2’. Brontë uses selective language such as ‘feelings’ and ‘equal’ to remind her reader of the radical intentions behind her novel. This is further evidence of Jane’s rebellion against societal norms as women were given no voice, especially in regards to men; so for her to demand his respect marks an act of defiance on Brontë’s part against society’s role of women. Brontë uses her protagonist to take a political stance against the marginalisation of female’s position in society, Helen Dunmore argues ‘if Jane Eyre has fairytale and mythic qualities, she is also an intensely political creation.3’, Dunmore acknowledges the fairytale aspect of Jane and Rochester’s relationship and how Brontë has achieved the balance between enticing her reader whilst making a political status rebelling against society’s confinement. Furthermore Brontë fights to convey her protest against female’s derogative position in society. Terry Eagleton qualifies Dunmore that Brontë’s ‘self promoting impulse can also take the form of radical protest and an egalitarian sympathy with the victims of the system … It is not hard to read in this fissured sensibility something of the actual situation of the Brontë sisters.4’. Eagleton recognises the essence of Brontë in Jane and makes the connection between the work of Charlotte Brontë and her sisters Anne and Emily Brontë who all demonstrated feminism in their works. Particularly in Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ clear overlaps of the same anger towards the Egalitarian society is expressed which Eagleton recognises. Hence Jane Eyre’s self assurance and demand for equality is formed as a product of her creators anger. Thus challenging women’s position in society without demanding any form of actual change rather use of self promoting impulse to promote radical protest.
George Eliot also questions the position of women in society although not to the same extent as Brontë. Eliot’s female character of Hetty is portrayed as a fallen woman, Hetty diverges from the idealistic woman in society, she is very much the truth of the victim of the system. Hetty is depicted gathering apples ‘Hetty was bending over the red bunches, the level rays piercing the screen of apple-trees boughs5’ the apples conventionally represent the forbidden fruit in biblical terms associated with the original sin and ultimately the death of innocence. Since female honour was reliant on their chastity Eliot is insinuating Hetty’s loss of honour hence implying she has sinned as a result is a fallen woman. Moreover this female like Jane Eyre has power of males by utilising her beauty to manipulate Adam Bede despite having no intentions of marrying him. This allows the reader to see the more manipulative side of Hetty proving that women have intelligence and power despite having dark intentions. However, by Hetty using her beauty she complies with society’s ideology of women as her intelligence is depicted as skin deep and marginalises women again as her only power is her beauty. Within this Hetty is exposed as innately selfish, consciously cultivating male attention with her beauty conforming to societal norms of females being no more than at men’s disposal. Eliot builds on the character as Hetty attempts to transcend her class with her principle desire to become a ‘grand lady … with feathers in her hair.6’ this coupled with her sexual transgression labels her an outcast of society due to committing fundamental wrongs. Ultimately Hetty’s criminal twist of killing her child sees her persecuted by society. This escalation from immoral wrongdoings to criminal although demonstrates violence and power of a woman; in the wider context proves that because women could not ask the man for financial aid this was Hetty’s only option – to murder her illegitimate child. Therefore Eliot exposes the truth behind how society treats women. This is reflective of how Eliot uses her female characters to demonstrate why change is needed. By exposing how the condemning of women in society can lead to a sinister end Eliot creates a protest against the position of women by making an example of Hetty. In the mid Victorian period when the novel was being written there was an overwhelming public opinion that young women should be able to ask men for financial aid, this arrangement may well have stopped Hetty from committing murder. Eliot follows her journey until ultimately she is expelled from society, by doing so Eliot has exposed the consequential impact of the misogynistic attitude to women in society. Similarly to Brontë, Eliot does not argue for a change in the structure of society rather provides evidence to fuel the protest rising at the time of publication. Rosemary Gould states that Eliot argues, ‘Childishness ought not to be an ideal quality in adult women, and that the idealization of women as children causes great harm.7’ Gould reinforces the notion that Hetty’s loss of sexual innocence has led to her expulsion from society. By examining the idealistic woman in the context of the novel and contrasting this with realistic ideas, Gould finds the logic behind Eliot’s presentation of women. The expulsion from society led to more harm for Hetty’s mental state and her child.
In Jane Eyre it is evident that Brontë ‘s personal anger at her entrapment in an Egalitarian society is being represented through her protagonist. Therefore effectively challenging the position of women in society making a clear demand for equality and respect. Whereas Eliot follows the journey of typical vain woman in society and how she falls victim to the system of a patriarchal society by losing the idealistic childlike innocence a woman was expected uphold. By doing this Eliot creates evidence to prove the unfairness in society whereas Brontë actually generates a radical argument for the time. Therefore Brontë questions and challenges women’s positions in society more so than Eliot.
The two novels share the same concept of parallelism. In Jane Eyre the characters of Bertha and Jane are regarded as doubles of each other representing the angel and the devil of the house. Similarly in Adam Bede the characters of Hetty and Dinah both reflect women at either end of the spectrum – the devil and angel again. With each author respectively exploring the darkness and pureness of their characters and how they are regarded in society both authors continue to challenge the position of women in society. Brontë’s two doppelgängers both stand for differing principles, critics Gilbert and Gubar believe that Bertha is Jane’s ‘truest and darkest double8’, with Brontë attempting to convey that as long as a woman has her morals her social standing is irrelevant. This is exemplified by Jane’s attitude toward poverty that it is respectable as long as the individual wants to better themselves. This attitude carries Jane toward an ending that is happy she writes that her and Rochester have been blissfully married for ten years. Whereas Bertha who is deemed as dark and twisted does not reach a similar happy ending which implies that Brontë believes a woman who has morals can overcome the marginalisation of society. Therefore through doing this Brontë puts forward a way for female readership to overcome the confines they face in the Egalitarian society, and radically defies the presentation of women in society.
Eliot however takes a retrospective look at how the angel embodied by Dinah and the devil embodied by Hetty both meet unhappy ends due to being victimised by society. Dinah’s journey begins with her refusing to be silenced however by the end of the novel she no longer preaches and seems reduced and somewhat tamed by her marriage becoming the expected stereotypical woman of the time. Hetty also meets a dark end after her criminal act and admits to Dinah in court that she is weak and as helpless as a child. Hetty like Bertha in Jane Eyre is morally inferior to her double, Dinah, reinforced by Susan Rowland Tush who declares that Eliot makes ‘Hetty’s moral inferiority a universality accepted conclusion long before Hetty herself ever commits any overt transgressions.9′. Therefore Eliot explores various women in society the purest and the darkest and examines how both meet unhappy endings due to their forced position in society. Thus Eliot again provides evidence for the movement for more gender equality in society by depicting how no woman of whatever social standing or moral intergrity can benefit from the societal structure. Therefore this shows that Brontë more radically challenges women’s position in society as she argues her opinion through her protagonist and finds a way for women to overcome marginalisation whereas Eliot provides evidence to fuel the protest movement against misogynistic attitudes.
Both novels explore the impact of society in the 19th century, the treatment of female characters and the transgressive nature of human history is closely examined. With Brontë strongly questioning women’s position in society through her strong heroine who demands equality and respect from males. Her personal and financial freedom take priority whilst at all times upholding her moral high-ground, Brontë has created a radical protest of her era. Whilst the novel does not explicitly challenge the status quo or impose actual change in society’ structure the novel uses self promoting impulse to promote radical protest. Moreover Jane Eyre explores the confines of society and how upholding ones morals can allow a female to overcome misogynistic attitudes and Brontë’s personal desires for society. Adam Bede however does not share the same radical protest it instead closely follows its female characters as they endure the marginalised position of women in society and how no matter what the intentions or background of the female they still end up in an unfavourable end. Thus creating evidence of why society should change for its reader to use as evidence in the protest but not demanding a change in society structure itself. Furthermore Eliot follows the character of Hetty and despite her seeming the vain typical woman she still experiences the victimhood of the patriarchal society leaving her a criminal and broken spiritually. Overall Brontë’s presentation of female characters challenges women’s position in society to a great extent without demanding change in society’s physical structure as Brontë’s personal anger is evident through her protagonist. Eliot does not challenge women’s positions as much as Brontë as she examines social realism to create evidence of the impact of societal norms on women but does not create a form of protest to the same extent as Brontë.
1Terry Eagleton, The English Novel (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), p. 123-124
2Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London, Currer Bell, 1847) p. chapter 23
3Helen Dunmore, (2016), https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/16/charlotte-bronte-bicentenary-birth-jane-eyre-by-sarah-waters-margaret-drabble-jeanette-winterson> accessed 11th January 2018.
4Terry Eagleton, The English Novel (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), p. 123-124
5Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London, Currer Bell, 1847) p. chapter 20
6Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London, Currer Bell, 1847) p. chapter 17
7Rosemary Gould, ‘The History of Unnatural Act: Infanticide and Adam Bede ‘, Victorian Literature and Culture, 25.2, (1997), 15 (p. 264) in
8Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, 2 edn (United States: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 360
9Susan Rowland Tush, George Eliot and the Conventions of Popular Women’s Fiction notes (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1993), p. 36.