Columns > Published on June 29th, 2012

Scandalous! Is Edward Rochester A Feminist?

Welcome to a new column here at LitReactor, in which I will dauntlessly voice an unpopular opinion about a beloved novel. Today I'll speak on a topic near and dear to my heart - the feminist subtext lying within Jane Eyre's Edward Rochester.

Why is this opinion so scandalous? Well, granted, Rochester did lock his first wife in the attic. And he's a really unpleasant boss to poor Jane. And he attempts to trap Jane in illicit polygamy, utterly unbeknownst to her. And then he tries to seduce her into a life of sin. On the surface, it doesn't look great for old Rochester, but we're going to look a little closer.

So let's take these points one at a time, shall we?

1) Rochester locked his first wife in the attic.

Look, have you ever been to an insane asylum in the 1840s? I imagine it's pretty bleak. Rochester was tricked into marrying Bertha by her father, who only wanted Rochester's money. After their hasty nuptials, he discovers that she is descending into madness with a quickness. She's violently insane and attacks Rochester dozens of times. He keeps her at his home in order to protect her from the devastating indignities of an asylum, but he has to stow her in the attic so she won't burn down his mansion and murder everybody the way she's always trying to do. It's a grim situation, but he does the best he can with it. I'd argue that Rochester is actually showing a great deal of humanity in this arrangement, because he could easily have tossed Bertha into the cruel hands of the state - or killed her.

The wonderful novel Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys presents an entirely different angle, telling the story from Bertha's perspective as she is wronged first by her father and then by Rochester. But we're examining the text of Jane Eyre here, not Wide Sargasso Sea.

Bertha Mason is mad; and she came of a mad family;--idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a mad woman and a drunkard!--as I found out after I had wed the daughter: for they were silent on family secrets before. Bertha, like a dutiful child, copied her parent in both points.[...]You shall see what sort of a being I was cheated into espousing, and judge whether or not I had a right to break the compact, and seek sympathy with something at least human.

2) He's a mean boss. 

Rochester is brusque and mysterious, often rude. But he always, always treats Jane like an equal. He recognizes the strength and intelligence within her, and he doesn't talk down to her the way most gentlemen would to their wards' governesses. He treats Jane as he would treat a man, and he treats men with severity. He does not feign tenderness because he believes she deserves it; he instinctively knows that Jane can withstand any degree of austerity. He admires Jane immediately for her honesty, and grows to love her for her strength of character and indomitable spirit.

'You examine me, Miss Eyre,' said he: 'do you think me handsome?'

I should, if I had deliberated, have replied to this question by something conventionally vague and polite; but the answer somehow slipped from my tongue before I was aware:--'No, sir.'

'Ah! By my word! there is something singular about you,' said he: 'you have the air of a little nonnette; quaint, quiet, grave, and simple, as you sit with your hands before you, and your eyes generally bent on the carpet (except, by-the-by, when they are directed piercingly to my face; as just now, for instance); and when one asks you a question, or makes a remark to which you are obliged to reply, you rap out a round rejoinder, which, if not blunt, is at least brusque. What do you mean by it?'

3) He tries to trap Jane unknowingly into illicit polygamy. 

This is the point on which it's most difficult to acquit poor Rochester. He loves Jane so much, needs her so much, that he cannot bear the thought of losing her once she discovers that he is already married. He should have told her. He should have trusted in that very strength of character that made him fall in love with her; but at the same time, he knew Jane's iron will would preclude her from submitting to something she believes is wrong. Rochester did badly here, but he did it out of his desperate, profound love for Jane. 

This girl[...]never dreamt she was going to be entrapped into a feigned union with a defrauded wretch, already bound to a bad, mad, and embruted partner!

4) He tries to seduce Jane into a life of sin. 

Here, I have no qualms in discharging Rochester. Perhaps that is the modern woman in me; perhaps, if I see this story through the filter of the time in which it was written, I should censure him for his wanton indifference to Jane's virtue. But so many male Victorian characters would make the decision for Jane, sending her away in order to protect her chastity. That's the sort of chivalry that borders on chauvinism. Rochester knows that Jane now has the whole story, and he trusts her judgment. He doesn't take the decision out of her hands; if she chooses to live as his unmarried partner, he won't think less of her. He will simply be overjoyed to be with her, his love and his equal.

As to the new existence, it is all right: you shall yet be my wife: I am not married. You shall Be Mrs Rochester--both virtually and nominally. I shall keep only to you so long as you and I live. You shall go to a place I have in the south of France: a white-washed villa on the shores of the Mediterranean. There you shall live a happy, and guarded, and most innocent life. Never fear that I wish to lure you into error--to make you my mistress.

Jane has more resolve than I, because it would be really hard for me to say no to living in a white-washed villa on the shores of the Mediterranean with Edward Rochester. Jane, of course, is a true feminist hero. She strikes out on her own again and again, maintaining her steadfast integrity and independence. She only fully submits to her love for Rochester after his wife dies, Jane has come into her own fortune, and Rochester has been blinded. At the end of the novel, Jane and Rochester are truly equals.

I have now been married ten years. 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. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward's society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together. To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character--perfect concord is the result.

So tell me - did I convince you? Edward Rochester: feminist or cad?

About the author

Meredith is a writer, editor and brewpub owner living in Houston, Texas. Her four most commonly used words are, "The book was better."

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