Jane Eyre was written by Charlotte Bronte in 1848 and published under her androgynous pseudonym, Currer Bell. Based only on the fact of Charlotte Bronte’s revision of herself into a male (or at least uncertainly gendered) writer, Jane Eyre becomes weighted with the question of gender: who is a woman? who is a man? why might a woman wish to be or behave as a man? who gets to do what in Charlotte Bronte’s world?
The typed Victorian understanding of gender rested on a binary system: male and female. Men behaved masculinely (riding horses, killing animals, being manly) and women behaved femininely (embroidering, accepting marriage proposals, wearing corsets). Despite the Victorians’ efforts to uphold and perpetuate this kind of gender, their extremized gender system often fell through, as people of the “wrong” sex acted according to the gender norms of the opposite sex.
Jane Eyre is a deeply female text, relying on female strength and female spiritual power. However, its understanding of “femaleness” does not owe much to the Victorian understanding of female as feminine. Throughout, Jane behaves with her own volition, expresses her own agency, and insists on her own independence. In the scene of Rochester’s proposal to her, she addresses Rochester as an equal, despite their status differences. Her angry (and deeply unfeminine) speech to him ends in the declaration, “‘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!'” (Chapter 23) Despite the tempering of religion, Jane clearly believes herself and Rochester to be spiritual and mental equals. Her repetition of their equality, as well as her claiming of her own natural independence (“I am a free human being with an independent will”), subverts the Victorian gender binary and expected female behavior.
In this way, Jane Eyre presents a queer understanding of gender. Jane behaves not as a “womanly woman” but as a “free human being”; by degendering herself, Jane in effect revokes her role as a feminine woman and claims agency over her own life. Her direct revision of “normal” behavior for a woman creates androgyny in the text, as she performs typically “masculine” behavior in her attempts to reach a level of equality with Rochester.
Jane tells Rochester directly, “‘I am better than you'” (Chapter 23). In context, the phrase seems only to point out that Jane is more morally admirable since she would never accept a spouse she did not love. However, in the gendered hierarchy of Victorian status, Jane’s expression of a direct superiority overturns Victorian understandings of gender position.
Thus Charlotte Bronte’s writing of Jane Eyre. However, fifty years after Jane Eyre was published, an edition came out featuring illustrations by Edmund Garrett, whose understanding of Jane Eyre’s gender owed more to Victorian norms than to the novel itself. Garrett’s representation of Jane and Rochester’s togetherness is wholly different than Bronte’s degendered, stormy Jane: in Garrett’s picture, Jane is below and behind Rochester, demoted to the background of their pose, while Rochester’s hands are occupied in hiding and enclosing (therefore possessing) Jane.
The illustration entirely misunderstands the scene and its implications for gender in the text. Jane Eyre is not a shrinking woman to be covered and protected by a male guardian, nor is Rochester (despite his attempts to fill the role) a stoic man offering protection and guidance to a young female. Jane Eyre herself subverts both these typified gender roles – but Garrett’s illustration misses this entirely, down to the title.
Garrett captions the picture “‘Are you happy, Jane?'” Clearly, we’re meant to decide that Jane is happy: head dropped onto Rochester’s shoulder, face half-hidden behind Rochester’s hand, body covered and dominated by Rochester’s, she’s leaning into him, submitting to him. Neither look happy in the picture, but Jane’s eyes are mostly closed, suggesting another form of submission (sexual or emotional) in addition to her stance.
The Victorians’ troubled relationship with gender stemmed mostly from their insistence on a binarized system, which contributed to their confusion when humans didn’t fit into “masculine” or “feminine” categories but understood themselves as simply human. Jane Eyre expresses this, but Edmund Garrett refuses to see it. In some ways, the fifty years between Jane Eyre‘s publication and Garrett’s illustration solidified the gender binary; although Jane Eyre explicitly refuses to be feminized, Garrett represents her as a stereotype of Victorian feminine womanhood. Neither Jane herself nor Charlotte Bronte understand Jane as a feminized woman; rather, she is a human woman, whose understanding of herself as a woman depends on herself rather than the cultural expectation of her time.
Because of this deviance from the Victorian norm, as well as the novel’s revisions and subversions of gender, Jane Eyre can be understood as a queer text. Jane herself is a queer character: she is not all man or all woman, but simply Jane.
Link to VQA: http://vqa.dickinson.edu/novel/jane-eyre-autobiography