Examine the use of the theme of social class in ‘Jane Eyre’ and how this is illuminated by your reading of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen.
The novel ‘Jane Eyre’ highlights the idea of social class and the position of women in society. It tells the story of how protagonist Jane progresses through different social classes in life, beginning as the low position of an orphan and ending in the higher position of being both wealthy and married. Charlotte Bronte’s own social background was that of being relatively middle class as she was the daughter of a clergyman, which may have impacted on Jane’s attitude towards the ranks of society: it is shown at many points in the novel that social classes are unfair and prejudiced. Austen presents a similar view in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, though eventually her novel’s outcome shows that love is more powerful than rank, whereas Jane’s happy ending is not so simply achieved.
The opening chapters of ‘Jane Eyre’ introduce the importance of class and its position in Victorian society. Jane explains to the reader how she was ‘”humbled by the consciousness of [her] physical inferiority”, demonstrating how even as a child Jane was made aware of her low rank. By saying ‘physical inferiority’ Bronte implies that if she were more handsome, her social standing would have been more openly accepted – a point that is later voiced by the servants at Gateshead Hall. This is an example of how a person’s appearance was valued more highly than their intelligence or kindness, both of which young Jane possesses, but which are ignored due to her lack of handsomeness. This opinion is mirrored by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth Bennet is describing the ladies of the Darcy family: she describes them as “very fine ladies” for they were “rather handsome” and “educated” with a considerable “fortune”. This demonstrates how it is the material, superficial attributes that make a ‘fine lady’ – there is no mention of kindness, charity, or other honourable traits. Merely their appearance and wealth makes them ‘fine’ in social class.
Later in these opening chapters it is shown how John Reed dominates Jane and bullies her. He says she cannot “rummage through the bookshelves for they are [John Reed’s]”, an opinion of society that has been enforced onto him and, in return, he is forcing onto Jane. As he is the only male heir, he will inherit the entire Reed family estate, for they lived in a patriarchal society. Jane is an orphan with nothing to her name and her cousin has no sympathy for her. This, within Victorian society, would position Jane far lower than John Reed in terms of social ranking. By including this in the novel, Bronte has demonstrated to the reader how deeply imprinted the ideas of society are on youngsters and adults alike.
One of the ways in which Bronte presents class in a negative light is through the character of Mr Brocklehurst. He is considered middle-class as he is “charitable” and a clergyman, though it is clear to the audience that he is a hypocritical Christian. By including the character of Brocklehurst , Bronte has highlighted how being a part of a higher-ranking class doesn’t make you a better person. Similarly, Austen created the character of pompous character of William Collins whose offer of marriage is rejected by Elizabeth Bennet. It is acknowledged in the novel that Collins is a character created to be repulsed, for Mr Bennet agrees with Elizabeth’s decision to decline his hand in marriage despite it being a good financial fit for them. Both Bronte and Austen have used these seemingly respectable, middle-class gentlemen to give an example of those who are bad people despite their social background.
Jane is affected by the prejudice against her social class, though not necessarily in a negative light. In chapter ten, once Jane has become a young woman, working as a teacher and thus in a higher class than before, we see a moment of independence that...
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