|Issue 01: Classic Lit|
These were originally written as assignments for various college literature courses. They have been modified slightly since then.
|"The Separate Spheres Supported in Rossetti's 'Goblin Market'"|
Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" upholds the Victorian "separate spheres" ideology as a beneficial way to separate the genders, providing women with a space to live contently outside of the world of men. The only male figures in the poem are the malicious goblins, who are a part of the marketplace where women (such as Laura and Lizzie) do not belong.
Rossetti presents the masculine world as fatally tempting to some women, such as Laura and the deceased Jeanie. They did not recognize the marketplace as a danger to them, nor are they suspicious of the male figures' intentions towards them. But these women were not able to participate in the marketplace as equals. When Laura had no money to buy the "luscious" fruits, the goblins did not refuse to give her any, as a merchant would if they expected an equivalent exchange with a recognized member of the marketplace. The goblins instead bartered for a different payment: "'You have much gold upon your head,'/ They answered all together:/ 'Buy from us with a golden curl'".
Only Laura's body was valuable to the marketplace because she was a woman, and she never even heard the merchant's voices once she let them take advantage of her. She withered in mind and body, as "Her tree of life drooped from the root" and "She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn/ To swift decay and burn/ Her fire away". Only discontent and death could result from Laura's interaction with the masculine sphere.
Lizzie, however, was willing to challenge the merchants to see her sister safely returned to their domestic sphere. She intended to use a silver penny to participate in the marketplace, and for it, the male figures viewed her as trying to enter a sphere she did not belong to. They were angry and violent towards her, and "One called her proud,/ Cross-gained, uncivil". But the "evil people" were not able to overcome Lizzie's resistance to their maltreatment, and she was able to save her sister through her feminine love. The fruits from the marketplace did not appeal to Laura once Lizzie had acted to restore her: "That juice was wormwood to her tongue,/ She loathed the feast". The male world's poisons were cleansed from Laura, freeing her to return to life in the domestic sphere with Lizzie and their eventual children.
Rossetti and her contemporaries were caught up in a time of changing roles. As the world became further Industrialized, people found themselves dealing with new careers, new social ranks, and new views of their position in the world. They had to rethink where they belonged since they were no longer the lower class farm workers who were also the center of the universe (as taught by the Church). When farms had employed most of the population, both men and women worked in them. The shift towards cities and their associated economic activities turned men towards the marketplace and women towards the domestic space. A time of new roles meant the genders had to differentiate themselves, and blending the roles while they were solidifying would have undermined them.
"Goblin Market" showed the same fascination as "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "The Lady of Shalott" with people and things belonging only in particular spheres. To choose mortal life and passions over art meant you would give up immortality and die. In "Goblin Market," women were punished if they even tried to infiltrate the marketplace; they would slowly die from longing for more of its fruits. The masculine world never would have let the women participate in it, but the women were happy and healthy living together in their rightful feminine sphere. They did not need what the male world provided to have fulfillment. In the view of "Goblin Market," obeying the Victorian separate spheres was the most satisfying way for women to live.
|"Reading Independence and Restraint in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre"|
Written as a "reader response" on Feburary 3 2005 for my Theories and Techniques of Literature class. This was after reading Volume 1, before finishing the book, so the thoughts do not reflect the book as a whole.
The first volume of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre reads to me as a setup for Jane to someday break out of her enforced or chosen roles. Although I have not shared Jane's life experiences, Brontë has constructed a text that interests me in Jane's life and emotions, as well as what I expect to be her eventual growth.
In the early chapters, Jane is trapped in a household where she isn't wanted by her aunt, her cousins, and their staff. Personally, I do not know what it is like to have never known my parents, to have no siblings, or to be forced to live somewhere that I hate. The orphan situation is something I have only known in book series, like The Boxcar Children and Harry Potter. I am accustomed to seeing these protagonist-orphans as characters with difficult lives, so I assumed that Jane would similarly have a hard time as well.
The way that Brontë portrays John Reed and Mrs. Reed seems aimed at making readers sympathetic to Jane's situation, although some might think that the Reeds' behavior is justified because they are in their own home. Jane's relatives act only out of concern for themselves and their own family, never for an outsider like Jane, so the novel led me to take her side instead of theirs. For instance, the fact that John injured a little girl's head is shocking to someone like me who is not used to children bloodying each other. I thought it was completely unfair for John to strike Jane, and wished she could retaliate like I would have wanted to at her age. If nothing else, I would have run to tell Mom, but Jane could not turn to anyone. Some readers might think Jane should obey the rules of the house, but my sympathies are with Jane for being so restricted that she could not even enjoy reading books, as I often did at her age. Early in the novel, I already saw her as someone who needed a chance to live as her own person.
Some authors use the first person narrative to "trick" readers into sympathizing with a character whom they normally would have contempt for, but I do not think Brontë is trying to fool anyone with the way that Jane is treated. Jane has had to live with injustice, and that seems quite clear from the way she is disciplined. I trust that Jane is meant to be a reliable narrator of her young life, so even though we do not get her relatives' side of the story, I think Jane's perspective is enough to say that she was living in a psychologically abusive situation. Part of the horror, to me, is that I have never seen a guardian treat someone that way; it seems especially cruel to lock a child in a room when I have never seen any good reason to do it. I do think children need discipline, but discipline is punishing someone for actually doing something wrong, which is not the case with Jane. The narrator's descriptions of her terror at being trapped in the red room were enough for me to wish that she could escape the house entirely, maybe to live with some loving relatives whom she had yet to meet. Why should a child be tortured like that? I do not remember ever thinking I have seen ghosts, but I have been terrified by thunderstorms I could not get away from, and I have had nightmares about being unable to escape some unidentifiable horror. One of the worst experiences for anyone, I would say, is not being able to control a frightening situation like the red room. Most readers should be able to find a comparable experience in their own lives, and understand why it was abusive to force a little girl to stay in that state. No wonder Jane was ill afterwards! The novel seems to be setting the readers up to wish that Jane could escape many parts of her life, as we might have hoped that she could have escaped the red room.
Brontë also seems to want readers to cheer for Jane when she stands up for herself. After seeing how badly the Reeds treat Jane, I wanted Jane to take a stand against them, as she did when she said exactly what she thought of Mrs. Reed and the children. The previous narrative events gave me reason to agree with Jane's position. I found it satisfying to read Jane speaking her mind instead of deferring to an adult, and it created an expectation for Jane to continue speaking against authority figures/oppressors in the future. It feels like there will be a pattern of Jane being in a situation that makes her hold back her true self, and then saying or doing something that is all her own.
Jane's school conditions were another situation where I felt that the narrative was setting Jane up for rebellion. I felt sympathetic again because of her inadequate meals and Mr. Brocklehurst's decision that the girls should cut their hair. Again, I thought of other books that dealt with these issues. The Harry Potter series contrasted with Jane's situation by serving the students much more food than they could eat, so her meager meals seemed even worse in comparison to that abundance. I cannot remember the title of a book that I read when I was little, but it featured a girl who had her long hair pulled up over a brick wall and cut off by her enemies. The idea of cutting off any girl's hair seems like a horrible punishment to me, aimed at damaging someone's self-esteem. The meals and haircuts, combined with Mr. Brocklehurst labeling Jane as a liar, made me again see her as being trapped by an authority figure that she should challenge. I wish she had spoken to Mr. Brocklehurst himself instead of to Miss Temple, but I was proud of Jane for talking about her previous home life and saying that she was not a wicked girl. Jane wanted a chance to receive an education that was to her liking and to form her own identity, and I thought she deserved them both. After all, I made a choice myself to change schools in order to get the education I wanted; I thought Jane should have a voice in her schooling like I did.
Jane's actions as a child give me high hopes for her adulthood, but she has not lived up to them quite yet. I see her growing towards a socially acceptable identity instead of her own. She is a teacher who became a governess, which are both roles that I think make her focus on others instead of on herself. In both positions, she is expected to conform to acceptable standards, rather than expressing anything contrary to them. For instance, Jane's imaginative paintings seem to me like they are at odds with this typically "prim and proper" behavior she displays when interacting with Mrs. Fairfax and Mr. Rochester. I am glad she sought a change of employment, but it is disappointing that she is trapped in what I assume is a very limited range of women's work. It feels like this is another case of Jane conforming to an environment which goes against her true self.
I think the novel makes that clear when Jane talks about how she basically finds Thornfield Hall too calm and boring, and would like some excitement or action to disrupt the tranquility. Jane naturally seeks stimulation, whether it is from books or conversation, so quietly teaching anyone seems to me like it is not an active enough life for her. I think she needs a big change in her career or lifestyle to give her fulfillment. Thankfully, Mr. Rochester looks like he could provide it.
Mr. Rochester has not brought Jane's self out completely, as of volume one at least, but I think he will be the inspiration for Jane growing increasingly assertive about her own desires. Jane and Mr. Rochester read to me like they are intended to be a romantic match; they both are written as physically unattractive people, they are thrown together by a chance meeting, and they are in a position where Mr. Rochester owes his life to Jane. This might just set them up to be friends, but I think it will turn into a marriage someday. It seems typical for novels to set up opposite sex characters as future lovers, so it would not surprise me if that happens. Mr. Rochester will see through her façade, and continue to draw her out of her self-imposed politeness. I almost laughed out loud when Jane accidentally revealed that she thought Mr. Rochester was ugly instead of being polite about it; there really is a bit of Jane slipping out of the formalities! He should keep pressuring her to reveal her thoughts instead of keeping them hidden. If he keeps being honest with Jane about his past, I think she will be further endeared to him; she is already comfortable with his features instead of being turned off by them. His interests in viewing her paintings and talking to her on more equal footing seem like they will eventually draw her out, until they are more like friends than a governess and her employer. The Thornfield situation is one where Jane will have to challenge herself to be herself, rather than having her view coming into conflict with someone else's.
I read Jane Eyre as cleverly leading me into cheering for Jane's independence. Brontë creates sympathy for Jane when she is in difficult situations, then provides satisfying moments of Jane asserting herself. I want to see this orphan girl become a strong woman, as I would want for myself and have read in other books. Hopefully, Jane will continue towards complete self-determination instead of letting other people, including herself, force her into a role that does not suit her.
|"Responding to History in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre"|
Written as a "reader response" on Feburary 22 2005 for my Theories and Techniques of Literature class. This was completed after I'd finished the book.
My reading of Jane Eyre is influenced by the knowledge and cultural background that I bring to the book. The world that I live in is not the same as the one in Jane Eyre, nor is my life particularly similar to Jane's. Although I may not be the ideal reader that the text asks for, I am able to make sense of it from my own experiences.
The world of Jane Eyre is largely different from my world in its gender and class distinctions, but there are some similarities as well. Unlike Jane, I am not growing up with such completely separate ideas of "man" and "woman." I know that sharp gender differences exist in some places, but that is not my own experience. Working in meager governess and teaching assignments or having to marry into a domestic life are not the only options that my society offers to me. My world is not Jane's world of a feminine domestic sphere and a masculine market sphere. However, I know that some people still do see women's place as being in the home, while men go out and hold careers. I think it is only in the last century that women could expand into other fields, even though there are still assumptions about some roles. For instance, people still generally think of a woman when they hear the word "secretary" or "nurse," and they think of men when they hear something like "scientist" or "math professor." I recently heard of a prominent man at Harvard who slipped up at a conference by implying to the women there that they might not be suited to math and science professions. Attitudes about strict gender differences are not completely gone, but at least they are not as dominant as they are in Jane Eyre's world.
I seldom hear lingering separate spheres rhetoric, at least outside of watching the show Wife Swap, but sometimes I do get treated differently from men. It may be because I am short, young, and blonde, but it is hard to tell when people are responding to those additional features or solely to my gender when they talk to me like I am ignorant or helpless. This occasional underestimation does not seem as extreme as what Jane regularly experiences. She really is considered less of a person by her society, while I am rarely treated that way. I do not have anyone telling me it would be inappropriate to accompany them somewhere because I am a young unmarried woman, like Jane's cousin told her about India, or looking down at me because I am not a fellow aristocrat or other social elite.
On a typical day, I am not very aware of class distinctions that divide me from other people. It is not that there are no differences in status, but status does not seem to determine my interactions as much as it did in Jane Eyre. For instance, I do not regularly see wealthy high-class society holding itself above lower-class servants and governesses, but I do sometimes see highly educated people looking down on those who do not have college degrees or high school diplomas. I also see people ignore or dismiss others who work in custodial or sanitation positions, and there are assumptions that farm workers— especially migrant farmers and undocumented laborers— are ignorant and less cultured than other Americans. My society still distinguishes between socio-economic classes, but it is a society that is largely compromised of the middle classes that I do not see represented in Jane Eyre. I do not think I can call Jane herself middle class; she is either working in near-poverty, or marrying into a higher class, so she moves between the lower and upper classes. Other characters are also either barely making a living or living with wealth, whether or not they still possess it when Jane encounters them. As for marriage itself, there is no expectation that I must marry and then have a domestic life, or have to barely support myself with limited job options. Women nowadays are still perceived differently based on whether or not they are married, and to whom they are married, but it is not the same as what I see in Jane Eyre. The options that women have now are much more diverse and profitable.
I think that Jane Eyre anticipates an intelligent reader who is familiar with how its particular society works. It does not seem to be written for newly-literate readers, or readers who will find that society completely foreign. For instance, I think that the book presumes its readers know tuberculosis enough to recognize it; Helen's cough is enough to alert readers that she has "consumption," if they know what it is. The interactions between employer and governess are not treated like part of a strange and different lifestyle; they are not written as unfamiliar or exotic. Jane is able to imagine what her situation might be like, and the book does not have to explain in detail how her role and the household work. It is assumed that the reader already understands the basic relationships in such a household, although readers might not personally know the perspective of a governess in those situations. Apart from readers' social backgrounds, I think that the ideal reader is one who understands the use of Gothic traits like insanity and the supernatural. The reader will ideally be able to accept that Mr. Rochester houses an insane woman, and that mysterious voices could reunite the couple. Otherwise, readers will not enjoy the book or take it seriously; it will seem too absurd or sacrilegious. The diary form seems to me like it wants readers to relate to or sympathize with Jane, so I do not think it asks for readers who will think that Jane cannot be believed.
In order to read Jane Eyre, I believe I came to it knowing what it requires to interpret it. Previous courses taught me about Gothic conventions, which I also saw in childhood watching Scooby-Doo and Batman: The Animated Series. This knowledge helps me and other readers make sense of an insane wife trying to murder people, and a spookily elegant mansion. I also already know about the Victorian separate spheres ideology, which helps me understand why Jane keeps going through teaching jobs and then right into home life, instead of pursuing art or other interests. Without some sense that men and women were considered different from each other, a reader will have difficulties understanding why Jane does not try other jobs or assert herself more in some situations, like confronting St. John earlier instead of taking time to refuse him. It makes sense for Jane's situation that she is tempted by the notion that her proper place is elsewhere, possibly as a minister's wife. However, I do not know French, so I would not have been able to handle Adele's dialogue without the footnotes. I assume readers of the time were more likely to have French language training in their educational background, so it might have been more accessible then. Latin or Romance language experience will help readers in versions that lack those footnotes. Overall, I know about the literary conventions and social realities that I need to handle this text.
Although the novel does not ask me to become another person, it does assume that I know something of its social realities. I think Brontë wrote it in a way that said, "I am Jane, and I want you to sometimes pretend to be me," rather than saying, "I am Jane, and you will become me." I emphasize those words because the novel does not act like you are Jane-of-the-past throughout it; it comments from a later perspective, as well as addressing the Reader specifically. It would be hard for the Reader to maintain the identity of Jane-of-the-past when a later voice keeps interrupting. So, I think the novel says to just be Jane when she is younger, and then step back into yourself. The diary form successfully makes my inner camera look around from Jane's perspective instead of observing her from outside, but I think the book is aware that the readers are not fully Jane; they sometimes need to hear more to understand what the text is doing. It stops to let the Reader know what it is doing when it advances time by months or years, and to say to the Reader, "I understand what you might think here, but here is how I saw it at the time."
I do not find it difficult to identify with Jane, perhaps because I am a young woman myself. However, I read with a decent understanding of our historical gap, so I am able to assume that she is acting out of her own worldview and accept actions that I would reject in my own world. I judge her from what I know of her apparent time period and the wishes that she expresses. Otherwise, I would be furious with Jane for getting stuck as a teacher/governess all the time and then finding true happiness in marriage. I am still a bit disappointed, but it makes sense from her desire for Mr. Rochester and the historical perspective that they inhabit. Jane seems to have a happy ending that is appropriate for her personality.
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|This e-zine copyright © 2006 Immora. All other properties are copyright to their respective holders. E-zine originally created as a service learning project for WST 3930/Third Wave Feminisms. Project started on March 18 2006.|