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