Social Constructs in Jane Eyre’s Freak Show: Obstruction of Freedom to Love
Marriage is the eventual union between two lovers’ passion and social status. However, in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, the engagement between Jane and Rochester functions as a source of tension and separation instead of greater intimacy. While Jane and Rochester share a profound level of love and passion toward each other, the disparity between the two lovers’ power and status ultimately leads to their temporary disunion. Initially, the closeness of Jane and Rochester’s relationship seems to have a strong correlation with the relative equality or inequality of power between them — with greater intimacy occurring at times where their power dynamics is balanced, and vice versa; though such trend becomes problematic in the final scene of their reunion. Behaviors that indicate a potential causality between Jane and Rochester’s intimacy and relative equality can be analyzed in various “freak shows” throughout the story, where their balance of power shifts as they become “the host,” “the freak,” “the viewer,” or an intersectionality among the three roles. Through the evolving power dynamics between Jane and Rochester, Brontë explores the mechanisms by which the differences in their social constructs affects their relationship, and suggests that power should be vested in the more virtuous person in a romantic relationship in order to establish harmony.
The first significant shift in Jane and Rochester’s power dynamics is induced by Rochester, who takes advantage of his hegemonic masculinity to turn Jane into a freak. It seems that, after Jane accepts his marriage proposal, Rochester seeks to consolidate his socially acceptable, patriarchal control over his fiancée by naming Jane as “Jane Rochester,” “Mrs. Rochester,” and “Fairfax Rochester’s girl-bride” (258). By replacing “Jane Eyre” with these socially-constructed names, Rochester effectively shows to the viewers that he has the power and tendency to completely deprive Jane of her own identity and transform her into a freak — an enslaved “girl-bride” — belonging to him. When Rochester explicitly demonstrates his power and commanding thoughts to Jane, the couple’s relationship is inevitably damaged, as Jane senses that Rochester’s power over him threatens her own identity and independence.
Then, Rochester even obtains more power as he uses another social construct — his socioeconomic status — to overwhelm and verbally manipulate Jane. In order to elevate Jane’s social status to that of an upper-class woman, Rochester says he will “put the diamond chain round [Jane’s] neck, […] for nature, at least, has stamped her patent of nobility on this brow” and “will clasp the bracelets on these fine wrists and load this fairy-like fingers with rings” (259). Through the repeated imagery of slavery (“chain,” “stamped,” “clasp,” “load”), Brontë seems to accentuate that Rochester’s relatively higher socioeconomic status confers him the power to modify Jane’s appearance, and suggests that Jane will lose her personal liberty and independence if she submits to his manipulation. This connects to a later freak-show scene where Rochester displays Bertha to Jane, completely exposing his manipulative, patriarchal, deceptive side to her. Rochester’s abuse of his power ultimately forces Jane to temporarily break her relationship with him in order to save her independence.
Interestingly, both Jane and Rochester could have both been freaks in a bigger, more implicit freak show. The two freak-show scenes mentioned previously are different from earlier in the story where Jane declares that “[she and Rochester] stood under God’s feet, equal — as [they] are!” right before Rochester’s proposal (253). As Jane and Rochester’s relationship becomes official through the socially-constructed process of engagement, they are no longer able to escape from the society’s various norms and expectations; otherwise they will become freaks that are disdained by the viewer — the rest of the society. The disparity between Jane and Rochester’s socioeconomic status enables the host — the conventions of the 19th century British society — to manipulate the couple as such social conventions are recognized by the viewer and even the freaks themselves. This is similar to Buzard’s idea that “the forces of [a built social environment of a national culture] and their opposites weave the fabric of Brontë’s autoethnography,” as it seems that the driving force of change in Jane and Rochester’s power dynamics results from Rochester’s desire to conform with society’s expectations, albeit elevating Jane’s social position necessitates that Jane be a freak subordinate to him. Through this implied freak show, Brontë seems to critique that social expectations obstruct the freedom for individuals to love whom they passionately love.
When Jane returns to Thornfield at the end of the story, the power dynamics between Jane and Rochester is nearly reversed. As Jane re-introduces herself to Rochester as a rich, “independent woman,” Rochester’s original relative socioeconomic power over Jane crumbles (434). Rochester’s hegemonic masculinity, which used to enable him to have control over Jane, also dissolves as he is now an emasculated “blind lameter” (435). This is also reflected reflected in Chen’s critique of the novel, where Chen claims that “the domestic ‘harmony’ Jane finds fulfilling is established on her superiority as the seeing ‘Eyre’” (Chen). In this scene, Jane can be seen as having more authority over Rochester, now a physical freak, as she becomes economically independent and “controls what can be ‘seen’ by [Rochester] and how it should be presented” (Chen). This change in relative status between Jane and Rochester may help Jane reduce her self-abasement and Rochester get rid of his patriarchal mentality, weakening the principal factors that have previously caused their disunion.
By increasing Jane’s socioeconomic status and weakening Rochester’s masculine body, Brontë appears to recognize the reversal of gendered roles and economic empowerment of women as viable ways to reduce patriarchal oppression. At this point, it seems that Brontë does exemplify the so-called “rebellious feminism” described by Gilbert, because Jane and Rochester’s unconventional relationship after their reunion shows the “‘anti-Christian’ refusal to accept the forms, customs, and standards of society,” as their final marriage defies that the social expectation that male should be the more-powerful figure in a romantic relationship (Gilbert).
However, this becomes problematic as Rochester still attempts to play as a host. Despite his physical degradation, Rochester still wishes to have control over Jane when he demands that Jane “must not go,” “be about my hand and chair,” and “wait on me as a kind little nurse” (435). In contrast with earlier in the story where the balance of power is tilted toward Rochester, Jane’s response to Rochester’s demands shows more affirmation than unwillingness — yet the balance of power between Jane and Rochester does not seem to shift to either side. Jane’s relatively equal or higher social status in this scene gives her assurance that she will not be easily manipulated again by Rochester, but at the same time Jane does not abuse his power over Rochester.
But Jane’s surprisingly restrained use of her power renders the ending even more problematic, because it acts as counterevidence against the potential causal relationship between Jane and Rochester’s relative equality and intimacy. The novel’s overly happy ending makes it seem that even though Jane and Rochester are not equal in social status, they can still marry and live happily ever after. It is at this point that the reader of Jane Eyre should realize they themself may be in a freak show, one in which Brontë subtly exhibits Jane and Rochester as “freaks” to the readers. In this freak show, Brontë maneuvers Jane and Rochester through various coincidental deus ex machina (e.g., the fire that results in Rochester’s disability and Bertha’s death, the mysterious voice that brings Jane back to Rochester) in an effort to manipulate the reader’s perception, which makes the ending contrived in the reader’s mind.
It is intuitive for the reader to have a realistic perception that the underlying conflict of the story is one between Jane and Rochester’s relative inequality and their passion for each other. However, it is probable that Brontë tries to convey a different message through the “contrived” ending. One explanation is that Brontë seems to explore who should have more power in a romantic relationship, instead of whether an inequality between two romantic partners is detrimental. Through Jane’s restrained use of her power in the end, Brontë suggests that power should rest in the more virtuous (less abusive) person in a relationship, as they are more likely to control their power and protect the harmony — and thus the intimacy — of the relationship.
The ambiguity within Brontë’s argument results from the constraint that she can only explore her idea through the bildungsroman of a female protagonist, because most of the power in a romantic relationship was already granted to the male in the 19th century Britain. This may explain why although Brontë is not a feminist, Jane Eyre’s message may seem feminist. In her experiment with Jane and Rochester’s power dynamics, Brontë shows that the manipulative nature of social expectations and relative power correlated with gender and class may impede individuals’ freedom to follow their passion. Brontë gives her own solution to this dilemma by letting Jane, who is less abusive than Rochester, to manage the power conferred by the society to safeguard the harmony of their relationship. Nevertheless, the extent to which Rochester has changed through his repentance and punishment can be further analyzed to confirm that Brontë gives more power to Jane only because she is relatively less abusive at the end.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Oxford University Press, 1979.
Buzard, James. “The Wild English Girl: Jane Eyre.” Disorienting Fiction: The
Autoethnographic Work of Nineteenth-Century British Novels, Princeton University Press, PRINCETON; OXFORD, 2005, pp. 196–217. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rzbr.11.
Chen, Chih-Ping. “‘Am I a Monster?”: ‘Jane Eyre’ among the Shadows OF Freaks.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 34, no. 4, 2002, pp. 367–384. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/29533530.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. In The Madwoman in the Attic:
The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.