One of the strongest female characters I’ve found in literature is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In Jane, the reader finds courage and wisdom, an appreciation for the natural world, and a loving spirit. She’s an excellent example for readers to learn from, and there’s far more I can say about her than I fit in a blog post. So here just 3 life lessons from Jane Eyre that I want to share with you today.
1. Realize that Your Value isn’t Determined By Those Around You.
Jane Eyre is a woman with very little value by society’s standards. Plain, poor, and without family, her greatest strengths lie in her moral fortitude and intelligence. Jane learns to respect herself for these qualities and becomes confident in her identity and worth.
As a child, Jane gave too much weight to the opinions of others. She longed for affection, and because of that, she found her value in the approval of the adults around her. When she goes to Lowood boarding school, she meets Helen Burns who teaches her to worry less about what others think.
“If all the world hated you,” Helen tells her, “and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends,” (pp. 61-62)
Jane soon grows past focusing on others and comes to speak her mind. Though she is respectful and submissive to authority, she is quick to state her opinions. Refusing to be intimidated, Jane lives honestly and with a self-assurance that matches her stubbornness.
Her strength of spirit can be seen in her assertion of equality to Rochester: “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart! . . . it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!” (pp 240).
Just like Jane, we are created with worth beyond what our society sees. Our spirits are equal, despite what anyone else may think.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Stand by Your Convictions.
Jane Eyre’s courage reveals itself through her willingness to stand firm in her beliefs. Though Jane is usually submissive, she refuses to accept injustice when she sees it. From childhood to adulthood, she persistently defends what she believes to be right.
This is most apparent in her choice leave Thornfield after Mr. Rochester’s wife is revealed. Rochester tries to persuade her to stay and marry him anyway, claiming that his wife’s madness makes their union void. He begs Jane to live with him, reminding her she has no relatives who would be bothered by her doing so.
Her own heart longs to comply. She loves him, and he loves her, and it would be easy to stay. No one else in the world would care. But still, she says, “I care for myself. . . I will keep the law given by God . . . Laws and principles are not for times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour,” (pp. 302).
So she leaves Thornfield in the middle of the night; with no money, no friends, and an aching heart. She does what she knows to be best, even in defiance to her love and to her own desires.
One of the greatest signs of courage is the ability to stand for our convictions in the face of adversity. The whole world may try to shake us; our own rebellious desires may try to make us fall. But bravery asks us to hold firmly to truth, and when we do, we can find strength we didn’t realize we had.
3. Understand that a Healthy Relationship is Built on Equal Partnership and Mutual Respect.
Despite claiming herself as his equal, Jane’s love for Rochester causes her to elevate and idolize him. “My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world; almost my hope of heaven,” (pp. 260). Jane becomes torn between doing everything in her power to please Rochester and stubbornly defying him when he pushes too far.
Rochester, however, sees marrying Jane as putting her entirely under his power. He says of their marriage, “when I have fairly seized you, to have and to hold, I’ll just—figuratively speaking—attach you to a chain like this (touching his watch guard)” (Brontë, 269). Thinking he was loving Jane well, Rochester was in fact domineering and possessive. Their relationship was unbalanced, and Jane’s desire to please him blinded her to Rochester’s unhealthy actions.
Not until she leaves does Jane find the ability to truly, in both action and mindset, see herself as Rochester’s equal. She spends time supporting and caring for herself and finds freedom in her independence. Only after gaining an inheritance that grants her financial autonomy and after finding new relatives does Jane return to Rochester.
She finds him blinded and crippled by an accident; humbled and reliant on the help of others. His dependency teaches him a new respect for Jane, helping him to see her as a partner rather than a possession under his control.
When both Rochester and Jane come to see each other as equals, not just in intelligence, but as whole people, they are able to build a healthier relationship. At the very end of the story, they marry and find joy in each other’s company.
Jane says, “I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest- blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine,” (pp 431).
Having a healthy relationship requires seeing each other honestly and with respect. If we see our loved ones as perfect or superior to us–or as defenseless and inferior to us– then we create barriers in our relationships.
The life lessons from Jane Eyre remind us that individuality is a key to good community. Having a healthy opinion of ourselves allows us to relate better with others, without looking to them as the source of our identity. Even the ability to speak our convictions in the face of disagreement opens the door for open communication and growth. If you only remember one of the life lessons from Jane Eyre, let it be this: love does not give you your worth; understanding your worth helps you to love well.
(For more on identity and individuality, check out The Search for Self-hood in “The Age Of Anxiety”)
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Bantam Books, 1987.