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Social Issues in Victorian Literature and Society: Jane Eyre

This presentation connects visual work with factoids to create a depiction of a social issue in Victorian society.

Michael Hu

on 23 December 2012

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Transcript of Social Issues in Victorian Literature and Society: Jane Eyre

Class Issues in Victorian Society: Jane Eyre
by : Michael Hu Social Classes: Hierarchy The pecking order witnessed in Victorian society consisted of four classes based on wealth and familial standing. The hierarchy of the classes possessed a very strong influence of societal conduct in 18th and 19th century English; it was considered bizarre to associate with anyone outside of one’s own class without a viable reason. Because of this society-enforced norm, the classes were greatly segregated and very few people ventured to bridge the gaps until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Jane Eyre’s rejection of the behaviors that are expected of a working class Victorian woman can be witnessed through her bridging of the classes despite the breadth of the divide. The Victorian Upper Class consisted of nobles and members of the church who primarily received their fortunes through inheritance from parents or relatives. Typically, members of the upper class did not work; however, instead of worrying about survival, nobles did have strict sets of formalities that they were expected to follow and had to work to maintain proper social standings amongst their peers.
Jane Eyre is exposed to the upper class lifestyle in Thornfield while working under Mr. Rochester. Although she is only a governess, Jane sits in on some of the conversations held by the nobles at Mr. Rochester’s party. There, she witnesses first hand the biases upper class Victorians had towards those of the lower class, the vast differences between herself and ladies of nobility, and the fickle nature of love and relationships among the rich. During the beginning of the Victorian era, the Middle Class consisted of a very small portion of the population; due to advancements in technology, however, the Middle Class was extremely large and affluent by the end of the 19th century. Although they were not overwhelmingly rich like those of the Upper Class, members of the Middle Class still lived quite comfortably. Middle Class families usually had reliable and stable sources of income and very few struggles to worry about. Socially, members of the Middle Class did not associate with the Upper Class much and held a loathing mentality for the those of lower classes. This can be witnessed in Jane Eyre by looking at how the Reed Family, a Middle Class family, treats Jane whose father was a lower classed clergyman. The Working Class consisted of those who preformed physical labor, skilled or unskilled. The jobs available for this class were often very difficult and paid very little. They were also rarely available year-round so Working Class families frequently experienced weeks or months without income. Also, due to the low pay of Working Class jobs, families often had to send their children to work instead of having them attend a school and receive a proper education. Because of this, few families ever escaped the Working Class.
Jane Eyre’s time as a governess placed her somewhere between the Working and Middle Classes. Although her pay was not much, her job was quite stable and she was regarded as more than a common servant. As a governess, Jane did not have much time to herself and was considered easily discardable, as seen when Mrs. Ingram stated that Blanche would fire Jane and send Adele to school the moment she married Mr. Rochester. With the overabundance of the women in Victorian England and the thin range of jobs that were available to them, unemployment was a very realistic possibility. The Underclass was composed of all the unemployed and bankrupt member of society. As mentioned before, women had a hard time finding employment and were, therefore, sent off to poorhouses. Immigrants, however, were also very commonly found shelterless in the streets or suffering in poorhouses because of the lack of jobs available in England compared to the number of hopeful laborers its industrialization drew. Unlike with the Middle and Upper Class, the difference between the Working Class and Underclass comes down simply to whether or not one possessed enough money to survive. Falling into the Underclass was always a threat looming of the horizon for Jane while she stayed with the Reeds, had she not been sent to school and found a job as an art teacher, Jane would have ended up in the poorhouse along with thousands of other people who had fallen victim to the Victorian Economy. Social Classes: Upper Class Social Classes: Middle Class Social Classes: Working Class Social Classes: Underclass Members of certain races were often associated with either the Working Class or Underclass during the Victorian era and, therefore, became associated with the prejudices given to the lower classes. The Irish, Blacks, and Russian and German Jews escaping persecution were often associated with immaturity, faithlessness, filth, and untrustworthiness all because of the class system in England at the time.
Jane Eyre was written shortly after the freeing of the British West Indian slaves. Unsurprisingly, the novel mentions race inequality quite a lot such as when Jane, feeling inferior to John Reed because of his class, calls John a slave driver and compares him to a Roman Emporer. Bertha Mason, the foreign wife of Mr. Rochester, is also a symbol of the Victorian mentality that foreigners possessed very few likeable characteristics. Bertha is described as deranged and unstable, much like how immigrants were seen by Middle and Upper Class Victorians during the 18th and 19th centuries. Social Classes: Race One of the characteristics that makes Jane Eyre such an interesting and unique character is her ambivalent social class. As a child, Jane was the daughter of a Working Class father and Middle Class mother living with a Middle Class family. At Lowood, Jane transitions to living under very dark and desolate conditions, as if she were part of the Underclass. Upon becoming a governess, Jane takes on a job that makes her place in the social hierarchy even more confusing. As a governess, Jane is treated as more than servant and is allowed to sit with Mr. Rochester’s Upper Class peers to listen in on their conversation; however, Jane is still paid very little and her job is relatively unstable. Marrying Rochester again changes her class from somewhere between Working and Middle (with the ability to associate with the Upper Class) to the Upper Class while her blood still shows that she should belong in the lower classes.
While the gaps between Victorian classes were rarely bridged, Jane manages to not only create connections between classes, but also cross the bridges she creates over the course of the novel. Through Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte is trying to convey that the issue of the widely separated social classes can be solved. Although each of the classes is distinct from the others, Jane manages to span all of them by differing from the norm and rejecting the expectations put on her by Victorian society. Social Classes: Jane Eyre "Alcantarilla Alquimica: La Percepcion De La Deuda En La Historia." Alcantarilla.
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