Jane Eyre: Religion, Class, and Love

Jane Eyre is a coming of age story about an orphan who, through her struggles, attempts to find her place in life despite the obstacles she encounters. Throughout the novel we are given insight to the development of her character as she balances her beliefs about religion, love, freedom, and her position in life. Charlotte Bronte’s Jayne Eyre addresses several important themes that high school students can relate to or may have experienced themselves. The novel incorporates themes of religion, class, and love that allow for a connection to real life situations, thoughts, ideas, and feelings.

Religion is a difficult subject that must be navigated carefully in a classroom setting. In the novel, Bronte incorporates religion as a theme, which aids in the development of Jane’s character but also, in my opinion, represents the choices we have as individuals. Her spiritual journey allows her to encounter several different types of religions and in the end allows her to develop her own beliefs and understanding of God. Bronte uses characters such as Mr. Brocklehurst, to represent Evangelicalism, and Helen, to represent Christianity, as symbols of religion that Jane encounters. Jane finds Mr. Brocklehurst hypocritical and Helen to passive and submissive and eventually finds her own spiritual balance and faith in God. Jane’s spiritual journey is one of choice and understanding that students can learn from.

Social class is also an important theme in Jane Eyre and Bronte sheds light on it through the ambiguous social class that she places on her protagonist. Jane is a governess and is educated, sophisticated, and cultured like her aristocrat counterparts, but is also an employee and looked upon as a servant. Jane’s relationship with Mr. Rochester displays the importance of social class at the time. Jane, in societies views, is capable of being Mr. Rochester’s intellectual equal but not his social equal due to her social class. Social class is an interesting theme that students can pull out of this book and question whether culture or wealth should define who we are as people.

The protagonist’s search for love and freedom in her life is a major reoccurring theme in the novel that many students can relate to. Throughout the novel Jane displays a strong desire to be loved and accepted, while at the same time displaying a longing for her freedom. Jane’s desire for belonging and love is a direct result of her childhood and the cruel treatment she suffered at the hands of her Aunt Reed and her cousins. Throughout her childhood she was alienated and exiled by her family, which left her lonely and created a desire for belonging and acceptance. Jane displays this feeling of wanting to be loved and accepted, at all cost, when she is sent to school at Lowood. She admits to her friend Helen that she would gladly accept physical pain if it came with acceptance and affection from her or Miss Temple. Jane also desires romantic love, but believes that acquiring it and getting married comes at the cost of sacrificing her freedom as an individual. Jane’s views of love are directly connected with her growth as a character and as she becomes self-sufficient she also learns to love and be loved without sacrifice.

Jane’s character develops and becomes more aware of thoughts, ideas, and feelings associated with the three themes of religion, class, and love. Jane learns who she is spiritually, understands her place in society through class, and learns to love and be loved without sacrificing herself. Life is a complicated thing for students to understand which includes these three themes of love, religion, and class. Understanding Jane’s struggle and growth with each theme, in my opinion, gives students not only an example of these three concepts but also explains how finding balance and understanding of love, religion, and class may help their own lives.

There are many ways to view Jane Eyre

   One of the first literary lenses that I would have my students view the novel Jane Eyre through would be that of Feminist Criticism. As a character, Jane interacts, and sometimes befriends, a great number of female characters and a few male characters as she lives her life. I would ask my students to keep track of each of the characters as they are introduced in the novel. I would ask my students to think about how each of these characters help or hinder Jane’s experiences and whether a particular character is a positive influence, a nuisance, or neutral.

 

For instance, Jane has a great relationship with Bessie, who is a positive person in her life, but she does not greatly affect Jane’s course in life. Then when you look at a character like Misses Reed, whom Jane despises, she is a character who sets Jane on a path to gain an education and then employment. I want my students to be able to see the way in which each character plays simple and sometimes significant roles in the journey that Jane is on throughout the novel.

As Jane goes on to the Lowood School, and then to the Thornfield Estate, she connects with other female characters, like Miss Temple, Helen, and Mrs. Fairfax. These characters symbolize strong and equal female companionship and support for Jane. Most of the males that Jane encounters, like Master John and Mr. Brocklehurst, are not very supportive of Jane. There is not a positive male character for Jane until she encounters and gets to know Mr. Rochester. Although he continues to be snooty as a person, he opens up to Jane and befriends her in the best way that he is able. Again, I would want my students to look closely at the way each of these characters affect the choices Jane makes and how she navigates through her life. I could even have my students try to match up and identify people in their lives that have similar personalities and traits as a number of the key characters in the novel.

One of the themes that I also feel is important in the novel is class. This could be examined through a Marxist lense. Jane is an orphan who is taken in by an Aunt and help of the house in which she lives. She is able to see how the well to do live, but does not experience it for herself. I would want my students to examine how Jane as a character with intelligence and determination, is able to remain strong and humble, even when placed in some very trying situations over long periods of time. I would want my students to consider Jane’s journey and imagine each of them going through similar experiences. I would ask them if they believed that they would be able to handle the various trials that Jane is faced with. I would also have my students connect the idea of classes to our society today and generate a discussion regarding our country and how these ideas are still alive.

Along these same lines is the theme of Existential thought. This philosophy and way of thinking and viewing the world runs through the novel. I would want my students to examine the journey that Jane goes on. Many times she is alone, left just to her thoughts. She encounters many challenges and many challenging people. I want my students to realize, in their own way, that Jane is a very resilient individual, who is able to overcome adverse circumstances and still carry on. I would ask my students to come up with reasons why Jane is able to do this.

  • Justin J. Gallagher February 2016

 

Relating Novels To Life

When I start reading a new novel with my students, I always try to look for ways to relate the novel to my students’ lives.  I find that a lot of my students don’t like to read because of a few things.  The first is many don’t read outside of school.  As a result, many of my students struggle with reading, which is the second reason they don’t like to read.  That being said, something that makes it easier for them to get into a book in school is to make sure they can see something about the novel in their own lives.  I usually explore this with my students through character analysis and theme analysis.

For character analysis, graphic organizers are my best friends.  As students begin to read, I have them pick out the details about each major character and record their appearance, their actions, what they say about themselves, and what other characters say about them.  The characters I would have them explore the most would be Jane Eyre (obviously), Mr. Rochester, Bessie, the Reed Cousins, Helen Burns, Bertha Mason, and have them pick a couple other characters they think are important to include.  By completing this graphic organizer, we can see as a class who the characters are and infer why each character behaves the way he or she does.  This will allow students to understand the motives behind each character so they can understand the plot better.  It will also allow students to connect to certain characters, make opinions about characters they don’t like, and connect to life.  I find myself mediating students frequently about when one student doesn’t like another student or another teacher.  By analyzing character, we can relate to life that there will always be people we like and people we don’t like, as there are characters we like and don’t like.

The next aspect of the novel that I think would be important to address with students is the theme of Jane trying to find herself in her world and fit in.  School at the secondary level is highly social for all students.  They just want to find who they are and fit in with the people around them.  To connect to their own lives, I would have students analyze this theme at each step in Jane’s journey from Gateshead Hall to Lowood to Thornfield Hall.  Identify what happens to Jane at each juncture in her journey and how she grows from a young girl to a young woman basically all alone.  What happens around her that gives her the will to keep going since she isn’t really surrounded by the happiest of people or lives.

Lastly, a couple activities that I like to employ with reading novel are journal/letter writing as characters or writing a piece of the novel from the perspective of a character who doesn’t provide the main narration.  It allows students to really understand the novel from all aspects since it forces them to look at other characters more critically.  They could explore the class issues of why John, Eliza, and Georgiana are so terrible to Jane.  They could pretend to be more of the more eccentric characters of Mr. Rochester or Bertha Mason.

Jane Eyre and Katniss Everdeen: Two Girls on Fire

 

While reading Jane Eyre I couldn’t help but immediately connect many of the themes to what I am currently reading with my students, The Hunger Games. I know it may seem that these two novels, published over 150 years apart couldn’t possibly have any similarities. However, many interesting parallels can be found and analyzed when looking into the powerful themes that cross all ages and genres.

The three themes most evident in the novels that I feel I could currently teach in my classroom are social class, gender inequality, and authority. In order to incorporate Jane Eyre into my lessons I would have to photocopy specific passages of the book that I felt connected to the correlating themes in The Hunger Games. Students would be asked to highlight any related themes (as well as motifs and symbols) and analyze within a group the connections as well as try to expand on it by giving a contemporary example. Students could also complete character analysis charts in class by finding similar characteristic traits in both Jane and Katniss. These activities would widen student understanding of how prominent these themes are and how novels published in 1847 and 2008 can have very similar characters and themes that we still see today. It would also be wonderful to at least expose eighth graders to a relatable character from gothic Victorian literature.

The theme of social class is the most prevalent in both novels. In Jane Eyre the reader sees the strict Victorian hierarchy beginning with Jane being treated unfairly by her aunt and cousins because she is an orphan, which is considered the lowest class in the social hierarchy. Jane does not have any money or family so she is sent to a boarding school that is described as an institution to educate orphans. At the school only very basic necessities are given and strict rules are enforced. Similarly, Katniss is also considered to be in the lowest class of her society. In The Hunger Games the country of Panem is divided into districts instead of states. Within this social hierarchy Katniss lives in what is considered the lowest ranking district of all. Katniss doesn’t only live in the lowest ranking district, but she also resides in the most poverty stricken part of the district. Katniss is also considered an orphan because her father has died and her mother is in a state of debilitating depression. Both protagonists live within a social hierarchy where they are considered to be at the very bottom, due to no fault of their own. These hierarchies are put into place with very strict authority to make it difficult for anyone to rise in social status. However, both characters prove that though difficult, it is not impossible.

Similar to the theme of social status is the use of authority and control used to retain it by the control of food. In both novels there are large connections between food social status. In Jane Eyre, Jane is given burnt porridge on her arrival to Lowood that is too disgusting for most to eat. However, it is necessary for her to consume it because she has gone too many days without nourishment. Thankfully kindness is shown by Miss Temple who gives the girls sandwiches after feeling guilty for the lackluster meal that was given. This shows the use of control by those in authority by giving the lower class inedible food, but also proving that there are still kindhearted people who see beyond social class that are willing to provide when necessary. There is a similar scene in The Hunger Games when Peeta gives the starving Katniss (a stranger) bread that was meant for the pigs to eat.

This can be taught in conjunction with The Hunger Games because control is used similarly in this way. Katniss and other citizens of District 12 are often on the brink of starvation and at times will also eat anything they are fortunate to be given. In District 12 food is scarce and controlled by the authorities in the form of tesserae, which are tokens worth a year’s supply of grain and oil for one person. Once a child turns 12 they can receive tesserae and place their name into the pool that the yearly Hunger Game tributes are drawn from. Of course this system isn’t fair because the poorest of the districts will have a much higher chance of being chosen for the Hunger Games because they are in need of food. The entries are also cumulative so the districts of higher social status that are not in need of food do not have their names in more than the required amount. This arrangement allows the authorities to keep control of the hierarchical system as well as foster the districts resentment of each other to further the separation of social classes.

Gender inequality is also seen in both novels and students could create character collages to visually provide what kinds of inequalities Jane faced in the 1800’s vs. Katniss in the dystopian twenty-second century and as an extension look at gender inequalities today. Although students may assume gender inequalities have changed immensely since the 1800’s they may think differently once they analyze the texts in class. In both novels Jane and Katniss are described as being part of a society that assumes woman should be domestic, motherly, passive, and should keep their station without question or forming any unique ideas. However, both break the mold and prove to be individuals who do question the society they live in as well as initiate change for equality between genders and social class. We later see both Jane and Katniss move higher in their own social classes once they have had the chance do discover their true selves. Katniss does not have equal power until she has to survive the games where boys and girls have equal opportunity for survival and she does survive earning a life of ease and comfort. Jane later learns that when her uncle died he left his fortune to her and only then is able to marry as an equal.

If I wanted to continue with this lesson there are many other themes that could also be explored; such as love, mothers/family, emotion vs. intellect, and independence. There are also similar symbols that can be discussed including fire (ashes) and birds, as well as motifs like morals, rebellion, and rebirth. I believe Jane Eyre could be a great companion novel to The Hunger Games and a very unexpected one. There is so much emphasis on high interest reading that many classics are not taught at the middle school level. I believe if it were worked into lessons in this way students would be more open to reading classics they may not necessarily have chosen on their own.

 

Power, Love, and Self in Jane Eyre: Examining Theme and Language

ASSIGNMENT AND RATIONALE

As a student of literature, I have always been engaged by both the complex nature of theme and the emergence of theme through the author’s style–his or her imagery, diction, syntax, tone, and structural choices. Perhaps because of a poetic thread that runs through my family, I am the kind of reader who lingers on certain passages, phrases, and words. I say these things aloud, turn them over in my mind, look them up, bounce them off the people around me, and tuck them away for later resurfacing. In short, I read literature not only to learn lessons about the complexity of life–distilled into complex themes–but also to learn lessons about language and how language furthers theme.

Theme and language are indeed my two main interests as I continue reading Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre. Looking back on the first two volumes of Jane Eyre before I begin reading the third, the themes that have gripped me most so far are those of power, love, and self. Empathizing with our stalwart narrator, Jane, I have watched her transition from a child with little apparent power to an adult with–at the very least–the power of self-awareness. This development of self has also engaged me, as has the possibility for Jane to have her self affirmed by the love of others. Resonant to readers of any age, the themes of power, love, and self are, I believe, especially resonant to high school students, who are themselves gaining a greater understanding of these themes in their own lives. If I were to lead my students in an examination of the themes of power, love, and self in Jane Eyre, I would expand the following lesson elements.

SELECTED LESSON ELEMENTS

Essential Questions / Analysis Goals

  1. How do themes of power, love, and self develop over the course of Jane Eyre? (RL.11-12.2)
  2. How do the themes of power, love, and self interact and build on one another to ultimately complicate the universal truths argued by the text? (RL.11-12.2)
  3. How do the figurative and connotative layers of Brontë’s language help to illuminate the themes of power, love, and self? (RL.11-12.4)

Process

  1. Formative Assessment: Students’ regular keeping of theme-focused annotations in the form of double-entry journals
  2. Formative Assessment: Mid-novel and end-of-novel small group and class discussions, leading to the creation of a class study-guide which notes and analyzes thematic passages (example below)
  3. Summative Assessment: Open-study guide and open-book timed writing which requires students to make an argument responding to two or more of the essential questions posited

Example Study Guide Organizer for Thematic Analysis

Textual Evidence Analysis of Thematic Complexity + Possible Complex Themes Analysis of Style’s

Relation to Theme

Quotes that intertwine the themes of power, love, and self How are the themes of power, love, and self interacting within this quote? What possible thematic statements could be supported at this moment? How do the figurative and connotative layers of Brontë’s language help to illuminate the themes of power, love, and self?
“I resisted all the way…The fact is, I was a trifle beside myself; or rather out of myself, as the French would say: I was conscious that a moment’s mutiny had already rendered me liable to strange penalties, and, like any other rebel slave, I felt resolved, in my desperation, to go all lengths…‘Master! How is he my master? Am I a servant?’ ‘No; you are less than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep. There, sit down, and think over your wickedness’” (Brontë 26).
  • Jane’s motives and actions are misunderstood by the figures of Bessie, Miss Abbot, and Mrs. Reed, who chastise, punish, and demean her for standing up for herself.
  • Despite thinking of herself as a rebellious slave–which implies some self-awareness and self-advocacy–Jane at this point seems still to value highly the opinions that others hold of her. This is echoed in later chapters when she is publicly shamed at school.
  • POSSIBLE COMPLEX THEME AT THIS MOMENT: When children are denied power and love by the adults in their lives, they must detach themselves from outward reality and look inward to give value to the self.
IMAGERY: symbolism of Jane as a rebellious slave +  hostile, destructive mood
DICTION: “slave,” “master,” “servant” = connotations of oppression, subjugation, violence + powerlessness + self defined by work (no intrinsic value) + impossibility of being loved by others
DICTION (ctd.): “mutiny,” “rebel slave” = possibility for power? possibility for self in rebellion? possibility for heroic self-image?
ATTITUDE/TONE: sympathetic to Jane

Closing Thoughts

Throughout Jane Eyre, there are many passages that lend themselves to the study of multiple themes at once. Perhaps these types of passages could also lend themselves to the use of multiple critical lenses at once.

 

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Rpt. in Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Jane Eyre.

2nd ed. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. Print. 21-437.

Newman, Beth, ed. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Jane Eyre. 2nd. ed. Boston, MA:

Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. Print.