Victor versus Jane: Their Views on Women and Autonomy
As I read the opening chapters of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, I started noticing some interesting differences between Jane’s views of women and those of Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Both novels have some interesting things to say about how women view other women and the freedom and success of other women.
Anne Mellor says that Frankenstein is a book about “when a man tries to procreate without a woman” (10). In class, we talked about how this might mean Frankenstein is trying to take on the role of woman/mother, and how that might affect his views on and of women. When Frankenstein makes his second creature, which would be a woman, he worries about the havoc the creature might wreak with the pre-existing monster (120-121). Or worse, what if the female monster desires autonomy? What if she thinks for herself and decides not to commit to a bargain agreed upon before her creation?
To Frankenstein, the worst outcome would be to have a female creature that has free will. What does this say about his views on women in general? We talked in class about how this might imply that he’s afraid of women having power and independence. But if Frankenstein is a “woman” (mother) himself, what does this say about how women view women?
Women can sometimes be their own worst enemies. Not only are women compelled to constantly judge themselves, but to judge other women as well. In Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein is afraid of granting another woman (the would-be second creature) autonomy because he himself, in the role of a woman/mother, does not have autonomy. Thrust into the role of a woman, Frankenstein begins to see things from a woman’s point of view, and he feels threatened by the independence of “other” women when he himself is not granted independence.
Compare this to the woman-on-woman relationships in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Within the first few chapters, we can see the relationships play out between Jane and her adoptive family. It soon becomes obvious that all members of the Reed family have an animosity towards Jane. But the most interesting scene to me was the scene between Jane and Mrs. Reed directly after Jane learns she is to be admitted into Mr. Brocklehurst’s school (24-28). Jane musters up the courage to confront Mrs. Reed about her mistreatment. She is liberated by her outburst: “my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt” (30). Mrs. Reed, on the other hand, “looked frightened; her work had slipped from her knee; she was lifting up her hands, rocking herself to and fro, and even twisting her face as if she might cry” (30). Mrs. Reed is frightened by Jane’s newfound independence. When Jane goes to school, Mrs. Reed relinquishes all rights and obligations towards her, and Jane is granted the autonomy she has never had. Mrs. Reed, for the first time, is threatened by Jane simply because she is now free. In this moment, when Jane forces her to face the fact that she has been an awful caretaker, Mrs. Reed sees that Jane now has more than she will ever have—and this scares her.
Jane, on the other hand, does not seem threatened by the freedom of other women. Her admiration for the school superintendent Miss Temple is immediate and unshakable; and she is greatly influenced by the friend she makes in her fellow student, Helen Burns (Reger 214-215). Though Helen is in the same situation as Jane, she is more “free” in the sense that she can let go of her anger and resentment towards others (50-51). Miss Temple is certainly more free than Jane, being a teacher, yet Jane has nothing but admiration for her.
Jane is better able to accept the freedom of other women than Frankenstein (in the role of mother) or Mrs. Reed. Why? Perhaps Jane is able to see hope for herself in the accomplishments of others. While Frankenstein and Mrs. Reed see the independence of other women as a threat, Jane feels inspired by the accomplishments of her heroines. She believes in personal growth, while Frankenstein and Mrs. Reed are more focused on making sure they get what they want (and certain others don’t get what they want). I have yet to see how Jane reacts to the other women she will come across later in the novel, but at least at the start, she sets a good example for women to not be afraid of or resentful towards other women, a lesson Frankenstein (arguably) would have benefitted from taking to heart.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Smith, Cornhill, 1848. Print.
Mellor, Anne. Mary Shelley: Her Life, her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc., 1988. Print.
Reger, Mark. “Bronte’s Jane Eyre.” The Explicator 50.4 (1992): 213-215. PDF.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. London: Colburn and Bentley, 1831. Print.