What does Jane Eyre have to say about social class? Does the book criticize or reinforce existing Victorian social prejudices?
Victorian society was notoriously hierarchical and rigid, a fact that is amply explored in Jane Eyre. However, our titular heroine does not advocate for the dissolution of England’s rigid class system. Rather, Jane Eyre views the class system as a useful means of determining character. Those at the top and bottom—the very rich and the thoroughly impoverished—can be dismissed safely. It is those who float around the system, defying classification, who merit attention and praise in the novels.
Jane despises nearly every well-off, well-bred character in the novel and treats nearly every character mired in poverty with condescension at best and scorn at worst. The well-to-do Reed children torment, bully, and demean Jane. Mr. Brocklehurst lavishes money on his wife’s and daughters’ beauty regimens, but starves the pupils at his school and forces them to cut off their beautiful hair. Blanche Ingram and her mother make cruel, half-witted remarks and parade around in their expensive finery like peacocks. And yet Jane is only slightly less hard on the poorest, lowliest people she meets. If they escape the scorn she heaps on the rich, they earn only grudging condescension. Hannah is a dense, superstitious woman who is willing to let Jane die in the cold. Jane’s students work hard, but they only achieve as much as poor and low-class girls can—that is, not very much of anything. Bessie is praised for her kindness to Jane, but even she is depicted as a dull, slightly pathetic creature.
In contrast, the unclassifiable characters win Jane’s admiration and affection. Those who have either money or good breeding—but not both—are characterized as those most worth knowing. Helen is poor but full of natural elegance; she is depicted as an angel on earth, a model of piety, virtue, and empathy. Miss Temple is a middle-class woman with the carriage of an aristocrat; she is shown to be a fair and kind authority figure. Adèle is a sweet child whose mother was a promiscuous entertainer; she is depicted as a loving, if shallow, girl. Diana, Mary, and St. John are classy but impoverished; they are portrayed as generous, loving, educated, and lively. Mr. Rochester is land-rich but sexily low-rent and debauched; he is characterized as a gruff but good-hearted and ultra-masculine philosopher.
Of course, Jane Eyre herself is the prime example of the unclassifiable person. Perhaps more than any other character, she is suspended in limbo between high and low class. Her mother came from high society, but her father was an impoverished clergyman. She is a penniless orphan, but she is brought up in a rich, high class household. She is a governess, but she works for a member of the landed gentry and attends social gatherings with elegant aristocrats. She is a working woman, but one of uncommon intelligence and artistic accomplishments. Jane doesn’t hide her defects: She portrays herself as moody, judgmental, and quick-tempered. But she is the heroine of this story, and doesn’t hesitate to ask for the appreciation a heroine deserves. Her classless state is what enables her to be a keen observer, a proto-feminist, a paragon of moral virtue, a loyalist to her own beliefs, and a fearless adventurer.
When reading Jane Eyre, we must always bear in mind that it is a novel told in the first person, by a fascinating, passionate, intelligent, and flawed woman. Brontë’s views on class may not be exactly the same as Jane Eyre’s; in fact, she may want us to view Jane’s prejudices with the same kind of skepticism with which Jane observes the very rich and very poor. Jane’s views are not meant to be the last word on class, but rather a provocative viewpoint that inspires us to examine our own opinions on society.