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Jane Eyre: Sexism

In the cases of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice and Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the ideals of romantic love are very much the same. In both 19th century novels, women’s wants and needs are rather simplified. However, this could also be said for the roles and ideals of the male characters. While it was obvious that this era was responsible for a large amount of anti-female sexism in society and the economy, can it also be said that male-female partnerships were simplified from the male perspective?

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it is widely agreed that the character of Jane Bennet is, in all aspects, the perfect 19th century woman. She has beauty, charm, manners, a little intelligence (but not too much), and is very loving and supportive. All of these qualities are said to show the men around her that she would make a good wife. As many discussions about this story have already said, this shows a sexist ideal of the time, that women are only good for wives. However, along the same standards we find a character such as Charles Bingley, who is thought to be the perfect gentlemen of the time.

Bingley is remarkably handsome, affable, rich, and extraordinarily mannerly. All of these characteristics throw the Bennet house of women into a frenzy over who will be fortunate enough to marry Bingley. While this may show a certain dominance/subordinance relationship due to the women clamoring for the hand of a “good man”, it also simplifies a man’s place as to be rich, handsome, and strong. Thereby, all men who are not these things are judged according to what they do have to offer in terms of these three or so categories.

In the very beginning of the novel, the Bennet girls’ mother says, when asked if Bingley is married, “Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls! ” (p3, Austen). This shows a simplicity of role for a female, but also an undermining of any personality a man may have. Nothing is known about Bingley except that he is rich, yet Mrs. Bennet is already prepared to allow him to marry any of her daughters. Albeit she is being made fun of for this mindset, she continues to focus solely on her daughters marrying the most handsome, rich man they can find.

It can be said that in a relationship such as this, that the woman is simply a pawn in the game, trying to move up in social status. This is rather sexist. However, at the same time men are presented as only being good for bringing a woman up in social class and providing her with wealth. Which role is worse for the individual is arguable, but it can be assumed that either person would most likely be rather unhappy in such an arranged marriage. The man, who had known nothing of the woman except her looks and lineage, would most likely grow tired and resentful of his wife.

This can be seen in the character of Mr. Bennet, who continuously throws sarcastic barbs toward his wife and children, most of whom he believes are “silly and ignorant” (p2). This possibly could have been prevented had the Bennets not followed standard conventions of the time and married a woman he did not know very well. On the same point, Mrs. Bennet can assuredly not be happy with her husband. The only way someone can be happy while another person is actively degrading him/her is to ignore it, which is not an effective way to deal with the problem.

This may also have been avoided had she not followed standard conventions of marriage and courtship. However, to judge the decisions of characters 150 years ago would be unfair. To a certain extent, people are all free to choose whatever path they want. However, some paths at certain points in history are more difficult than others. The ideas of who is “agreeable” to the opposite sex are similar to the ideas of who is not. Near the beginning of the story, Darcy is introduced with Bingley. Darcy is also rich and handsome however his character seems to be the polar opposite of Bingley’s warm demeanor. Bingley was sure of being liked wherever he appeared, Darcy was continuously giving offense. ” (p10) When considering his opinion of Jane, Darcy thought she was “pretty, but she smiled too much” (p16). While these thoughts would be expected from someone in today’s culture, they were shockingly rude for that time. However, Darcy continued to be a main character throughout the novel, and finally married Elizabeth. Had Darcy been a poor man, how many people at the party would have ever forgiven him for his personality, let alone married him?

This shows an obvious emphasis on wealth in society at the time, but it also shows a simplistic sexist ideal of men being rich providers in a male-female relationship. In Emily Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, sexism in the 19th century male-female relationship takes on a more insidious tone. While in Pride and Prejudice the ideals and roles were more innocently ingrained in the characters, Jane Eyre shows a darker, more possessive side. When Jane is with Rochester, there is a constant struggle between his possessive tendencies and her optimistic “prophecies” of the future.

In Chapter 24, Rochester has pressured Jane for sexual relations, and she has denied him by way of trickery. S….. he tells him to play her a song instead, in the hopes he will be swayed from his course. Here Jane describes herself as “naturally hard, very flinty” (p187). Although at first both characters are unhappy with the situation, Rochester makes himself agree with Jane, and Jane alternates between a feeling of impending doom over things and her feelings about Rochester becoming her idol and center of her life. Obviously, any time one person is more of an ideal than a human to their lover, the relationship is not well.

Jane wants Rochester to let her be herself after the marriage, and she believes he will give in on this and other points. In this novel, Rochester is shown to portray a “male” trait of wanting to control her. Rochester argues with Jane whether or not she will dress and act as he wants when they are married. This part of the story shows a sometimes-common trait in women of being overly optimistic in a relationship with a man. It also shows a sometimes-common trait in men of being overly possessive and jealous. This trait can exist in either of the sexes, however.

In conclusion, a few things should be stipulated when thinking about possible sexist overtones toward men and women in 19th century novels. First, to say this does not undermine the obvious and quite definite struggle of women to obtain social and economic equality. Women have always been seen in society as somewhat below men, which is the epitome of sexism. However, it can also be said that men’s roles and views were simplified to such an extent as to show some semblance of sexism. This can be seen in either Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre.

Also, in a discussion of male-female “loving” relationships, one must include the science of evolution. The ways in which living organisms develop over a great period of time is important to our understanding of nature and natural relationships. Through observation of all species in nature that require two separate sexes to reproduce, certain traits can be seen as attractive to the opposite sex. For example, when deer mate, many times one or more males will fight each other over the position of being the one to mate with a certain female. Thus, the male deer that are more easily accepted to mate with are the stronger, bigger deer.

This idea is very similar to most of humankind. Men are, on average, larger than women. Plus, females will most often be attracted to the bigger, stronger male out of a group. Using this natural philosophy, one can see more easily how 19th century sexual and “loving” feelings are established through inherent traits which may be viewed as “sexist”. However, for one to claim that nature rules everything we do is wrong. Men and women in these two stories may have had rather simplistic ideals about themselves and their prospective mates, but they certainly could have attempted change.

While it’s true that society plays a very strong role in determining what we as humans do and think, it is important to realize that within everyone is the ability to revolutionize the processes by which we live. The last condition to be taken into account is the idea of a sort of egocentric revisionist history where people in modern times can judge the behavior of people or characters from many years ago living in a different culture. While it is obvious that both novels showed sexist or nearly-sexist views, for the time it may have been completely commonplace.

For example, when historians study our generations, they will most likely call the gap between male and female wages very sexist. In doing so, they are correct. However, if a poll were taken of the people of this culture at this period of time, almost assuredly it would say that people believe women should get equal pay for equal work. Thus, the danger in judging an entire culture by one or two examples. In this idea, we cannot judge fairly the sexism of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, though we can agree that it contains sexist material by today’s standards.

Both novels show a distinct preference for certain traits in romantic partners. Wealth, appealing looks, and social status are three major points. In connection, the idea of romantic love in both novels seems to be a sort of cohabitation between people, instead of a true loving bond. People married for wealth, for higher status, for land, but rarely for true love and fulfillment. In choosing partners, both sexes are warned of those who are lazy, poor, lower class socially, or are unmannerly. Men are warned against women who do not obey and who are not pretty. Women are warned against men who are lazy, irresponsible, poor, or not handsome.

In both novels, the male lover is revered for his wealth and powerful personality. Bingley, Darcy, and Rochester are all at least fairly wealthy, and all three have powerful, strong personalities. Rochester is the only character who is not seen as very handsome, also. Jane Bennet, Elizabeth Bennet, and Jane Eyre are all celebrated for their beauty, grace and ability to be agreeable. In conclusion, it can be shown that Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice include many ideas of love from the viewpoint of men and women, and often simplify the needs and wants of both sexes to the point of near sexism.

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