Female Independence in Frankenstein and Jane Eyre

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Visions of Female Independence in Frankenstein and Jane Eyre.

There are considerable ironies in the fact that, of the two novels considered here, it is Jane Eyre which is far more profoundly concerned with the possibility of female independence in a male-dominated world. Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the proto-feminist, and of the radical thinker Godwin. She was the wife of the revolutionary poet Shelley, and a friend of Byron. Yet Frankenstein, for all its shocking subject matter, is in many ways a conventional work of its time, a sort of encyclopedia of Romantic attitudes, and its vision of the role of women makes little attempt to disturb the accepted views of her contemporaries. Charlotte Brontë, by contrast, was a vicar’s daughter, whose most intense experience, it might be argued, was within her own family group, and who finally married a clergyman, and yet Jane Eyre is an intense exploration of a woman’s efforts to understand and maintain the integrity of the self against innumerable pressures – the tyranny of Mrs Reed, the bullying of Brocklehurst, the inevitable inferiority of being the salaried employee of Rochester, and later his gilded possession, and then the massive egotism of St John Rivers in its guise as religious selflessness. The longing for independence is indeed the central issue of the novel, and it is the intensity of the vision and the complex and unhysterical analysis of Jane’s experience that give the novel its importance. Of course, the protection of the self is not just a female issue; it figures largely in Arthur Clennam’s story and in Pip’s. But for nineteenth-century women it had a particular poignancy, and as Jane longs for a wider life than that offered by Lowood, she declares that “Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do” (Brontë, 1966, 141). The work is, as Margot Peters says, “a novel essentially radical in its preoccupation with the themes of independence and liberty for the subjugated sex, Victorian woman” (Peters, 1973, 148).

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To apply a feminist critique to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein must be a matter of some tact. There is little evidence of a direct influence of her mother’s ideas in the novel, though the critic Charles Robinson has argued that she was fully aware of her mother’s views, and was proud of her parentage. He claims that A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and Frankenstein (1818) are two radically different English romantic works that nevertheless address similar issues about education and parenting. Mary Shelley may have been denied direct advice and nurturing from her mother, but she could at least indirectly seek that parent’s wisdom by reading her works. (Buss, Macdonald and McWhir,128).

Frankenstein is full of the ideas of its time. The monster’s story is a study in Rousseauism. The landscape is Wordsworthian. Byronic and Beethovenian images can be detected in the notion of exploring, going beyond. Similarly the presentation of women in the novel is typical of its time. Men are the explorers, the scientists, the travelers, while women stay at home and offer affection, stability and compassion. Walton at the beginning of the novel is writing letters to his “dear sister” at home, a wife, who is “my dear, excellent Margaret” and whom he thanks “for all your love and kindness” (Vol I, Letter I, 18), while he asks “do I not deserve to accomplish some great purpose?” (ibid, 17). He writes of the master of the ship, who had planned to marry a Russian lady. He selflessly released her from the engagement when she revealed that she loved someone else, but her father insisted on the original match for financial reasons. “She was bathed in tears, and, throwing herself at his feet, intreated him to spare her” (Vol I, Letter II, 21). She is entirely in thrall to male power, and only the generosity of the master saves her. “What a noble fellow!” (ibid, 21). Such episodes simply reflect the conditions of the time. It is unlikely that Mary Shelley’s aim in this episode was to stir rebellion. Walton sees his sister as a mother figure. His youth was spent “under your gentle and feminine fosterage” (ibid, 20) which has refined and civilized him. This the monster notably lacks.

Frankenstein’s story presents the female actors in a very restricted role. Elizabeth is the novel’s central positive female force, “the beautiful and adored companion of all my occupations and my pleasures” (ibid, 37). Curiously, she is presented to Frankenstein as a sort of property, “mine to protect, love, and cherish. All praises bestowed on her I received as made to a possession of my own” (ibid, 37). This piece of charming childish naivety in his thinking has an edge that must grate on the modern reader.

The educations of Frankenstein and Elizabeth are most revealing. She is “of a calmer and more concentrated disposition” while he is “more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge.” So while she interested herself in such “girly” things as contemplating “the magnificent appearances of things, I delighted in investigating their causes” (Vol I, ch.II, 38). Girls do arts subjects, while boys do sciences! There is a tendency to stereotype here. Elizabeth has a “saintly soul” (ibid, 39), but acts largely as a supporter of others, “Her sympathy was ours: her smile, her soft voice, the sweet glance of her celestial eyes, were ever there to bless and animate us. She was the living spirit of love to soften and attract” (ibid, 39-40). In fact she has little other role. Frankenstein is away from home for six years, but we have very little information about what she does all that time, or what she thinks. After the death of the mother of the family (which, characteristically, is “calm” (Vol I, Ch. III, 45)), Elizabeth explicitly takes over the mother role, “the comforter to us all. She looked steadily on life, and assumed its duties with courage and zeal” (ibid, 45), and the only thing she can do when Frankenstein leaves for the university is to “bestow the last feminine attentions” (ibid, 46) on him.

The energy of life, even if misdirected, is left to Frankenstein himself, who pursues scientific knowledge with a passion which seems to be confined to men. Elizabeth writes, longing to help him in his illness, describing her own life as filled only with “trifling occupations” (Vol I, Ch VI, 66). Justine is another bearer of female charm and good nature: “She is very clever and gentle, and extremely pretty” (ibid, 67). In fact all the women in the book share these harmless and undramatic positives. The only disagreeable one is the old woman in the Irish prison (Vol III, Ch IV). Elizabeth weeps over the death of William and blames herself, and Justine goes to her death full of benevolence and piety.

The monster’s account of the De Laceys in their cottage continues the picture of the female as gentle guardian of the civilized. Agatha impresses him with her “gentle manners” (Vol II, Ch iii, 110), her job is preparing food, comforting the old man and “arranging the cottage” (ibid, 111). Safie is noted for “a countenance of angelic beauty and expression” (Vol II, Ch V, 119) and is characteristically occupied in “wiping a few tears from her lovely eyes” (ibid, 120). She sings “like a nightingale of the woods” (ibid, 121). Her “generous nature” is “outraged” by her father’s duplicity and tyranny (Vol II, Ch VI, 129). It is here that the monster begins to reflect on his own lack of parents, though it is the role of father he invokes; from the papers he discovered in the coat pocket “I learned… that you were my father, my creator” (Vol II, Ch VIII, 141). He has seen so few mothers, after all! But the monster wants a mate, effectively an Elizabeth for himself: “My virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal. I shall feel the affections of a sensitive being, and become linked to the chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded” (Vol II, Ch IX, 151). The female will offer sensitivity and compassion.

If a concern for independence seems absent from Mary Shelley’s women, for Jane Eyre it is a constant desire, and something by which she defines herself. She seeks liberty, not simply for license, but in justice to her sense of her own individuality. She will willingly serve, but not under conditions that violate that notion of self. At Gateshead she feels “Speak I must: I had been trodden on severely, and must turn” (Brontë, 68), not because she wants revenge, but because of an intolerable feeling of injustice. She “would fain exercise some better faculty than that of fierce speaking” (70), but she is driven by the same drive that later will send her away from Rochester, a self-respect that will not be crushed. At Lowood she is again oppressed, by the bullying and hypocritical Brocklehurst, but here a solution is offered to her by Helen Burns, who reads Rasselas and demonstrates the power of a stoical courage in the face of adversity. Her advice is of immense value to Jane, but ultimately the superhuman qualities in Helen make it impossible to follow her. When Helen is unfairly punished Jane wonders “How can she bear it so quietly?” (84). Helen is right to tell her “It is far better to endure patiently a smart which nobody feels but yourself” (88), but Jane is too red-blooded, to human and real to be able to accept Helen’s attitude. If Jane “thinks too much of the love of human beings” (101) as Helen says, that is a weakness that makes humanity valuable. Heaven and Hell cannot satisfy Jane, and Helen’s stoical quietism cannot satisfy her energetic self. Helen dies, perhaps indicating the impossibility of such a position for ordinary mortals, and Jane finds a satisfaction at the school under the intelligent Miss Temple. But in time she must seek “liberty… at least a new servitude” (117).

Thus she comes to Thornfield and Rochester, who finds her interesting because of the very quality of independence and self-respect which drives all her actions. As Mrs Leavis says, “The courtship scenes are peculiarly un-Victorian” (17) in their emphasis on equality between the partners, the result largely of Jane’s refusal to act the role of the humble dependant in their conversations together. She finds his directness refreshing: “A reception of finished politeness would probably have confused me…. The eccentricity of the proceedings was piquant” (152). She is not frightened of him; it is not in her nature to be so, such is her sense of the integrity of her selfhood. She is his employee, but “I don’t think, sir, you have the right to command me, merely because you are older than I…” (165). She likes his informality, but tells him that “for insolence… nothing free-born would submit to, even for a salary” (166). He knows that “Not three in three thousand raw schoolgirl governesses would have answered me as you have done” (166), but delights in the freedom this leads to as much as she does. She feels she is being treated with true respect, and life opens up for her. When she goes away to Mrs Reed’s deathbed, and shows her true maturity in her wish to be reconciled with her, her absence only clarifies for her what she loves about Thornfield. She has been able to live “a full and delightful life” (281) in which her precious self has at last been allowed to flourish. “I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence, with what I delight in” (281). As he proposes to her he says “my equal is here” (282), the perfect tribute to her being, and the explanation of their mutual love.

When she accepts his proposal she continues to fight with an almost instinctive strength against his attempts to convert her into a love object. She recoils from the unreality of his desire to “load these fairy-like fingers with rings” (287). She will not be “an ape in a harlequin’s jacket” (288), and would “rather be a thing than an angel” (291). She will not dress up for him, and hates the business in the silk warehouse (296). She feels “annoyance and degradation” (297), and thinks explicitly of the precious freedom of the self: “It would, indeed, be a relief… if I had ever so small an independency” (297). She feels that he has become a conventional lover, whose aim is possession. All this, of course, co-exists with a passionate love for him. And her decision to leave him after the revelations about Bertha is similarly driven primarily by the horror of betrayal of the independent self. To see her action as simply moral horror is as beside the point as to complain of her inability to take a more emancipated attitude. To stay with him “I should then be your mistress” (331), and to do this would make her “the successor of these poor girls” (339) he has kept before. As she thinks of her own insignificance in the eyes of the world – who would care if she did give way to him? – what she hears is the voice of her own independent self: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself” (344). Although she speaks of laws and training, it is the deep sense of the vital importance of her own integrity, her own self-respect, which drives her to act with such resolution.

In the novel plot is replaced by a series of revelatory episodes, each helping Jane to come to realization of what she truly desires. Her contact with St John Rivers clarifies what she wants and does not want. Being the teacher at the village school, for all its deprivations, is “independent” (381) and “free and honest” (386) compared with being Rochester’s mistress, but Rivers’ self-denial is unattractive, ultimately because it is dishonest, a distortion of his true self from “the bent of nature” (387), and, at core, a subtle weapon to destroy her independence and swallow up her precious integrity. But, although his appeal has immense power over her, she knows enough now to resist. “I want to enjoy my own faculties as well as to cultivate those of other people” (415), and when happiness beckons “I feel I have adequate cause to be happy, and I will be happy” (417). She tells him that she scorns his idea of love, with its wretched self-abasement, and she knows now that “God did not give me my life to throw away” (439). When she finally devotes herself to Rochester it is anything but a sacrifice. “What do I sacrifice? Famine for food, expectation for content” (470).

The circumstances of nineteenth-century women, in a world where the opportunities open to men were almost all closed to them, make Jane Eyre a radical and courageous document, though Jane’s concern to maintain the integrity of the self is a central human issue rather than simply a feminist complaint. In Mary Shelley’s case it can hardly be argued that she is aware of or troubled by the restricted role of women in her novel. Despite her own mother’s views, it was difficult for her to escape from history, and from the deepest assumptions of her time. Indeed, if there is a feminist element in the book it is in the condemnation of – characteristically male – intellectual daring, and the dangers that result from the desire to go beyond the limits, which inspires Frankenstein to make his monster, and Walton to explore the Arctic. “The primary pattern underlying feminist writing is that of Frankenstein, a world in which cerebral man and monster are one” (Gordon, 428).

Works Cited

Brontë, C. Jane Eyre. Introduction by Q.D.Leavis. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

Gordon, L. Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Little, Brown, 2005.

Peters, M. Charlotte Brontë. Madison and London: Univ of Wisconsin, 1973.

Robinson, Charles. “A mother’s Daughter: An Intersection of Mary Shelley’s

Frankenstein and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.”

In Buss, Helen M., Macdonald, D.L. and McWhir, Anne. Mary Wollstonecraft and

Mary Shelley. Writing Lives. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier U.P., 2001,


Shelley, M. Frankenstein. 1818 edition. Edited M.Hindle. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.


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