Study Guide

Jane Eyre Society and Class

By Charlotte Brontë

Society and Class

Volume 1, Chapter 2

Bessie answered not; but ere long, addressing me, she said,—

"You ought to be aware, Miss, that you are under obligations to Mrs. Reed: she keeps you: if she were to turn you off, you would have to go to the poor-house."

I had nothing to say to these words: they were not new to me: my very first recollections of existence included hints of the same kind. This reproach of my dependence had become a vague sing-song in my ear; very painful and crushing, but only half intelligible. (1.2.14-16)

Jane’s early life includes constant reminders that she’s poor, that she’s alone, and that even her aunt and cousins consider her lower-class than they are because she won’t inherit any money. Thinking of herself as beneath others, even those in the same household with her, is a habit that she learns from the very beginning.

Volume 1, Chapter 3

Poverty looks grim to grown people; still more so to children: they have not much idea of industrious, working, respectable poverty; they think of the world only as connected with ragged clothes, scanty food, fireless grates, rude manners, and debasing vices: poverty for me was synonymous with degradation. (1.3.63)

Jane would refuse to live with poor relatives, even if she had any and they were loving, because the Reeds have taught her that poverty is always accompanied by immorality and unpleasantness. It’s going to take Jane some time to realize that wealthy people can easily be just as degraded as poor ones—or more so.

Volume 1, Chapter 10
Jane Eyre

"A new servitude! There is something in that," I soliloquized (mentally, be it understood; I did not talk aloud). "I know there is, because it does not sound too sweet; it is not like such words as Liberty, Excitement, Enjoyment: delightful sounds truly; but no more than sounds for me; and so hollow and fleeting that it is mere waste of time to listen to them. But Servitude! That must be matter of fact. Any one may serve: I have served here eight years; now all I want is to serve elsewhere." (1.10.13)

Jane’s keeping it real here: she knows that she can’t just up and leave Lowood and be the Queen of England tomorrow. (Besides, that job is taken, and Victoria’s not going anywhere.) Instead of wanting complete freedom from all responsibilities, she just wants new responsibilities. She’s accepted that she’s just a peon, and all she’s asking for is a change of scenery. So her new job really isn’t any kind of class or status change—just a transfer.

Volume 1, Chapter 11

There are people who seem to have no notion of sketching a character, or observing and describing salient points, either in persons or things: the good lady evidently belonged to this class; my queries puzzled, but did not draw her out. Mr. Rochester was Mr. Rochester in her eyes; a gentleman, a landed proprietor—nothing more: she inquired and searched no further, and evidently wondered at my wish to gain a more definite notion of his identity. (1.11.102)

Jane is frustrated that Mrs. Fairfax can only tell her Mr. Rochester’s station in life instead of what kind of person he actually is. In fact, Mrs. Fairfax—like some people we could name—can’t tell the difference between status and character, and assumes that describing him as "a gentleman" is enough.

But Jane has met gentlemen like Mr. Brocklehurst, and she knows that the fact that he owns land and a house and keeps servants doesn’t really tell her anything about what kind of person Rochester is. She’ll have to figure that out on her own.

Jane Eyre

"I am so glad you are come; it will quite pleasant living here now with a companion. To be sure it is pleasant at any time; for Thornfield is a fine old hall, rather neglected of late years perhaps, but still it is a respectable place; yet you know in winter time, one feels dreary quite alone, in the best quarters. I say alone—Leah is a nice girl to be sure, and John and his wife are very decent people; but then you see they are only servants, and one can’t converse with them on terms of equality: one must keep them at due distance, for fear of losing one’s authority." (1.11.42)

Mrs. Fairfax is glad to have Jane at Thornfield because they’ll be able to socialize together. Later in this chapter, we’ll learn that Mrs. Fairfax is the housekeeper and household manager for Thornfield; as such, she is above the regular servants but below the master of the house, and there’s hardly anyone she can talk to without compromising her position.

It’s a little bit like being a camp counselor: you’re living with the people you’re in charge of, but you can’t start hanging out with them or they won’t do what you say anymore. You can only hang out with the other camp counselors.

Volume 1, Chapter 14

"The fact is, once for all, I don’t wish to treat you like an inferior: that is (correcting himself), I claim only such superiority as must result from twenty years’ difference in age and a century’s advance in experience."

[…]

"I don’t think, sir, you have a right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have—your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience." (1.14.42, 48)

Try that one on a teacher (or parent, or boss) next time they tell you they know better just because they’re older and have more experience than you do.

Volume 2, Chapter 2
Jane Eyre

"You have nothing to do with the master of Thornfield, further than to receive the salary he gives you for teaching his protégée, and to be grateful for such respectful and kind treatment as, if you do your duty, you have a right to expect at his hands. Be sure that is the only tie he seriously acknowledges between you and him: so don’t make him the object of your fine feelings, your raptures, agonies, and so forth. He is not of your order: keep to your caste; and be too self-respecting to lavish the love of the whole heart, soul, and strength, where such a gift is not wanted and would be despised." (2.2.2)

Here Jane’s trying to sort out her relationship to Rochester, and it’s a lot harder because she’s developed several different relationships to him that aren’t entirely compatible. She’s reminding herself that (1) she’s his employee, (2) she’s lower-class than he is, and (3) he hasn’t necessarily shown a serious romantic interest in her.

But that highly rational assessment really doesn’t cover the instant connection they made in the forest on their first meeting, when he leaned on her shoulder to limp back to his horse and she began taking care of him.

Volume 2, Chapter 5
Mr. Edward Rochester

"You are my little friend, are you not?"

"I like to serve you, sir, and to obey you in all that is right." (2.5.138-139)

You can’t forget that, whatever else is going on between Jane and Rochester, they’re never really equals. One of their first big conversations is an argument about whether Jane is going to let Rochester order her around and why she should, and he only wins the argument because she helps him.

And remember: Jane likes to call Mr. Rochester her "master." Yeah, it’s a little weird, but Jane, like Kate at the end of The Taming of the Shrew, knows that you can actually be in charge by seeming like you’re not in charge. If you’re really good at that kind of thing.

Volume 3, Chapter 3

She again regarded me with a surprised stare. "I believe," she said, "I was quite mista’en in my thoughts of you: but there is so mony cheats goes about, you mun forgie me."

"And though," I continued, rather severely, "you wished to turn me from the door, on a night when you should not have shut out a dog."

"Well, it was hard: but what can a body do? I thought more o' th' childer nor of mysel: poor things! They’ve like nobody to tak' care on 'em but me. I'm like to look sharpish."

I maintained a grave silence for some minutes.

"You munnut think too hardly of me," she again remarked.

"But I do think hardly of you," I said; "and I’ll tell you why—not so much because you refused to give me shelter, or regarded me as an impostor, as because you just now made it a species of reproach that I had no "brass," and no house. Some of the best people that ever lived have been as destitute as I am; and if you are a Christian, you ought not to consider poverty a crime." (3.3.56-61)

As a child Jane thought poverty absolutely horrible and wouldn’t even consider living with poor relatives even if they were kind and hard-working people. Now, she’s able to teach Hannah, from her own experience, that your moral character and your bank account (or lack of one) are completely different things.

"You should hear mama on the chapter of governesses: Mary and I have had, I should think, a dozen at least in our day; half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi—were they not, mama?"

"Did you speak, my own?"

The young lady thus claimed as the dowager’s special property, reiterated her question with an explanation.

"My dearest, don’t mention governesses; the word makes me nervous. I have suffered a martyrdom from their incompetency and caprice; I thank Heaven I have now done with them!"

Mrs. Dent here bent over to the pious lady, and whispered something in her ear; I suppose from the answer elicited, it was a reminder that one of the anathematized race was present. (2.2.97-101)

Thought #1: If Blanche Ingram were alive today she’d have been cast in Mean Girls. Thought #2: Ranting about the lower classes right in front of them shows who’s really low-class. Thought #3: Class and race seem to be getting a bit mixed up here… that’s interesting. It’s like someone took all their prejudices and swirled them together in a blender, and now Jane has to drink it. (Gross.)