If you’ve hung around to read all of my posts on the heroine, I am both flattered and grateful. And now we get to look at a true heroine! With the medieval heroine we saw how female characters maintained their feminine identity while sacrificing their active role in the story. With both the sexualized and masculinized heroine we saw how female characters sacrifice their feminine nature in order to take an active role in the story. Now, with Jane Eyre, we find a heroine who is both active and feminine.
Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Bronte, is a book that gets better every time you read it. Jane is a deeply rich character, and there is no doubt that she drives the action of the story. Every time the plot progresses it is because of one of Jane’s decisions. She decides to leave Lowood School and become a governess. She decides to leave Rochester and goes out into the wilderness. She refuses to marry St. John and returns to Thornfield Hall. Jane perpetuates all of the action in the story. She is assertive because she is passionate. In the beginning of the novel, Jane thinks to herself, “My eye passed all other objects to rest on those most remote, the blue peaks; it was those I longed to surmount; all within their boundary of rock and hearth seemed prison-ground, exile limits.” In one of the most famous scenes in the book, Jane tells Rochester, “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have has much soul as you, – and full as much heart!” Jane is the opposite of the passive medieval heroine.
At the same time, Jane never compromises her identity as a woman in order to be an active character. In fact, her ability to drive the plot forward is rooted in her character. Unlike Moll Flanders, Jane doesn’t selfishly abandon people in order to achieve her own desires. On the contrary, Jane sets out to help and care for people wherever she goes. She ministers to her students at Lowood, to Rochester’s ward Adele, to students out in the country, to her cousins, and ultimately she cares for Rochester after a fire takes his sight and injures him.
Jane is always caring for the individual needs of people, always showing love and affection for those around her. Moll moves from one man to the next as she seeks to satisfy her own desire, but Moll only ever finds the embrace of lust. Jane, however, finds true love that is anything but selfish. At the end of the novel, she tells Rochester, “I will be your neighbour, your nurse, your housekeeper. I find you lonely: I will be your companion – to read to you, to walk with you, to sit with you, to wait on you, to be eyes and hands to you. Cease to look so melancholy, my dear master; you shall not be left desolate, so long as I live.”
Jane also holds fast to her virtue and self-respect. When Rochester proposes that she become his mistress, Jane replies, “The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” One of Jane’s defining characteristics is her commitment to virtue and respect for both herself, others, and God. In one of my favorite passages in the novel, Jane says, “I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they, inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth – so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane.”
Jane is an incredible character. Unlike Rowena from Ivanhoe, Jane is an active character. Unlike Moll Flanders, Jane is selfless and respects herself. Unlike Rosalind from As You Like It, Jane demonstrates kindness, compassion, and deep love for the people around her. Jane takes an active role in her story without compromising any part of her feminine identity, and that is what makes her the perfect heroine.
For more on the heroine: