I long had a problem with Jane’s opening statement to the final chapter: “Reader, I married him,” in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
One of the best-known conclusions in literature always caused me to wonder. The first time I read the novel, at about age 11, I wondered why Jane, although so plain, chose to marry the homely and rather mean Rochester. In undergrad, my growing feminist sensibilities led me to wonder why she would give up her great freedom to marry a man who clearly was not good at relationships, to put it mildly. Graduate school didn’t change my opinion. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, in which we learn about how Rochester was a main cause of his first wife’s “madness,” as well as Sandra Gilbert’s and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, fueled my growing belief that Jane was making a horrible mistake.
Perhaps she was.
But my thoughts, after more recent readings of the novel, have shifted. Maybe Jane did not make the choice I would have made, but I now can understand that Jane made her own choice. Her society was much more patriarchal and restricting, but Jane ultimately chose her path, and that is worth noting, even celebrating.
We as 21st century American readers, by and large, tend to impose our beliefs, cultural contexts, and even desires on fictional characters created in Victorian England. We need to take a step outside of our own experiences and consider the ideas that third- and now fourth-wave feminism: Think of the cultural context of the issue, in this case, Jane’s life in Victorian England. Don’t assume or impose.
Worth remembering is that Charlotte Brontë herself, along with her sisters Emily and Anne, needed to use male pseudonyms (Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, respectively) in order to have their novels published initially. The Brontë sisters grew up in a patriarchal society – both inside and outside the home. Those facts alone makes the character of Jane, an orphan who must make her own way, one to admire as an active participant in her own life.
Jane Eyre is a classic Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story. In such tales, the protagonist is often alone in the world as a youngster (Jane is an orphan); the protagonist must go on a journey consisting of many destinations (Jane becomes a governess for Rochester’s charge Adele; she flees and finds temporary life with the Rivers family); the protagonist finally finds a proper, satsifactory place in society (Jane returns to the manor house and marries Rochester). All throughout the novel, readers see the protagonist progress psychologically so that by the end of the novel, the character can demonstrate agency. Think Dickens’ David Copperfield, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the list goes on. The twist, especially in 1847 when the novel was first published, was that the protagonists of Bildungsromans were almost always male. It makes sense. Women in Victorian England, despite the fact that a woman was queen, had little to no agency.
And this is where I can see my error with Jane. Brontë’s language in the final chapter shows us that Jane has agency. “Reader, I married him” is key. Brontë’s use of first person, of course, gives Jane agency throughout the novel. And here it is important to note that Jane says she married him, not “Reader, he married me.” This seemingly small grammatical choice can indicate to the reader that the marriage was indeed Jane’s choice. She has returned from her journey with the knowledge and experience to make the decision she wants to make.
The chapter shows more, through language, how Jane is in control, at the very least, of herself and at most, her situation. “I put into his hand a five-pound note,” Jane tells the reader after she has given their manservant John a tip. Of course, she is giving the money to John on Rochester’s request, but it is important to note that she, at that moment, has control of the couple’s money.
The remainder of the chapter is filled with “I” statements, again showing that Jane is the actor of her own actions. Importantly, she also is blind Rochester’s “eyes” during the first two years of their marriage. And although Rochester regains some sight, Jane reassures her readers that their marriage is suiting her: “My Edward and I, then, are happy,” again showing Jane’s role in the marriage not as a possession but as a partner, as she calls him “my Edward.”
Jane updates her readers on the others in her life, including her former suitor St. John Rivers, and her former pupil Adele, again showing that Jane has made her own choices. Jane informs us that she could no longer be Adele’s governess because her blind husband needed her care, but it is clear that Jane does not regret this choice as she (not Rochester) has provided Adele with “a sound English education.”
The lesson here is that we need to work to put aside our own wants and appreciate what these women have done for our cause. Charlotte Brontë gave us a strong, forceful character in Jane Eyre. She’s not a 21st century heroine because she did not have the privileges that many women have today, but she certainly triumphed in 1847.
*All quotes are from the 1987 Norton Critical Edition of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.
Suzanne Sanders is a volunteer at the Women’s Museum of California and teaches copyediting at University of California, San Diego Extension. While an English professor at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, she developed the college’s women’s and gender studies program and curriculum. She facilitated a roundtable discussion on teaching women’s and gender studies at the community college level at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in 2015.