Coming of Age Story
Jane Eyre, is a coming of age story, about a young, orphaned, and submissive girl growing up, through many hardships, into a young, passionate, and free willed woman. Charlotte Bronte begins the story with a ten-year-old Jane Eyre living with an impartial and sometimes cruel aunt, Aunt Reed. Aunt Reed, after neglecting Jane for the whole of her life, finally decides to send her away to boarding school, to Lowood School.
Upon her departure, Jane expresses a measure of autonomy and agency, the first of many episodes in which she “gathered her energies and launched them in this blunt sentence – ‘I am not deceitful; if I were, I should say I loved you; but I declare I do not love you” (pg. 30). Here Jane, after living so many years in silence, makes a choice to stand up for herself, by letting Mrs. Reed know her true feelings about how she has been treated thus far; she is in a state of self-governing. Jane Eyre continues to fight for autonomy and agency – through her departure from Lowood to Thornfield, in her growing relationship with Mr.
Rochester, and then through her decision to leave behind Thornfield and Mr. Rochester, and finally to go back – as she matures, and evolves from a child into a woman. The next time Jane exercises autonomy and agency, she is eighteen, and longing to see something of the world other than Lowood. “I went to my window, opened it, and looked out […] all within their boundary of rock and heath seemed prison-ground, exile limits. I traced the white road winding […] how I longed to follow it further” (72). Jane has now spent eight years in this school (prison), presently working as a teacher, and is desperate for a change.
She knows that her lack of fortune and social class weaken her options; and so she comes to the conclusion that she should take up a new position elsewhere. As she looks out her window upon the now unsuitable Lowood she cries “then […] grant me at least a new servitude” (72). The term “servitude” means a condition in which one lacks liberty to determine one’s own course of action. Jane feels as though she is trapped and wants very badly to be able to control her own destiny, so she begins to think of a way around this obstacle. That state of self-governing has returned.
She then continues to reason with her free will, “I have served here eight years; now all I want is to serve elsewhere. Can I not get so much of my own will? Is not the thing feasible? Yes—yes” (73). Is it “feasible”, possible, for Jane to obtain control of her own destiny? Jane soon demonstrates autonomy and agency when she proves that it is “feasible”, by putting an ad in the local paper and accepting a new position at Thornfield Hall. She wanted something, and then expressed autonomy and agency by taking the steps to get it.
Jane has taken this new understanding, that she can find ways to control the outcome of her life, into her future at Thornfield Hall. The first half of her life has been somewhat monotonous and barren, but as she settles into her new life at Thornfield, Jane begins to come by some happiness as she forms a relationship with Mr. Rochester, her employer. Their relationship grows through a series of conversations, and Mr. Rochester plays mind games to lure out Jane’s feelings for him.
Eventually Jane cannot hold in her passions any longer, and exclaims, “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? …] I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart […] just as if both had passed through the grave, and stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are” (216). In this passage she expresses another episode of autonomy and agency as she stresses to Mr. Rochester that though they may not be “equal” in social status, they are “equal” in thought and feelings. “Equal” is a term marked by justice, honesty, and bias, and something that everyone is entitled to. Jane Eyre is letting Mr. Rochester know that she is entitled to be happy, and that she finds her happiness in him.
Upon this exclamation, and her fearlessness to express her sentiments, Jane and Rochester get engaged, and Jane, once again, gets what she wants by having taken action. Jane’s comfort at Thornfield and with Rochester and her rising level of maturity start to bring out more frequent episodes of autonomy and agency, with ease. The next episode rises within a few days of the last, when Jane strives to maintain her identity with Rochester. Mr. Rochester wants to dress her in new clothes and Jewelry, “I will make the world acknowledge you a beauty too […] Jane in satin and lace,” he says (221).
In reply, Jane says, “And then you won’t know me, sir; and I shall not be your Jane Eyre any longer” (221). Earlier in the novel Jane had no other option but to be a governess, and so to better her situation she chose to find a new location, other than Lowood, for her “servitude”, and ended up at Thornfield, where she has ultimately fallen in love with Mr. Rochester. Ironically Jane is now in a position where she has the capability to get anything she wants, but she wants nothing, but to be herself. Autonomy and agency are apparent in her decision to not change; Jane seems to know who she is – a sign of maturity. “I will be myself.
Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me – for you will not get it” (221). Jane will not have anyone hold expectations or “exact”, to call for forcibly, to alter her identity. Mr. Rochester fell in love with Jane Eyre the governess and so that is who he will get. Because Jane has formed her identity, and is so decidedly against altering it, she was forced to express autonomy and agency again, when she was obligated to leave Mr. Rochester. Jane could not marry him because he was already married to another woman; and when asked if she would live as a kept woman with him, she replied, “Mr.
Rochester I will not be yours” (269); and when he says, “It would not be wicked to love me,” she says, “It would to obey you” (269). The word “obey” is strong in this passage; to “obey”, to comply with what Mr. Rochester proposed would be against her moral standards, and the respect she has for herself. Autonomy and agency is to “obey” oneself. Jane is becoming more and more defined as a woman; she has set certain standards for herself, of how she would be treated by others, how she would treat herself, and moral independence and repeatedly sticks to them.
She is once again in a state self-governing, and trying to preserve her integrity, a showcasing of autonomy and agency. And when Rochester asks, “Who in the world cares for you? ” she replies, “I care for myself” (270). Jane leaves and finds herself, once more, in a relationship with another man, though of a different kind. Her next episode of autonomy and agency comes about, when she claims her position in the relationship as of friends, brother and sister, rather than partners, husband and wife. St.
John, the man who has helped physically and financially rescue her, and in doing so, become her good friend, asks for her hand in marriage out of practicality, not love. Possessing love in a relationship is one of those standards Jane repeatedly sticks to; she is friends with St. John, and so she does love him, but she is not in love with him, and so therefore her autonomy and agency will not allow her to marry him. She tells him, “I will be your curate, if you like, but never your wife” (352).
She declares she will be a friend and a “curate”, clergy assistant, but never his wife, because she does not love him in any other way. God did not give me my life to throw away; and to do as you wish me would, I begin to think, be almost equivalent to committing suicide” (352). Jane is exercising her moral independence and free will – autonomy and agency; and to not do so, to her, would be equivalent to being dead. With this revelation, Jane realizes that she would throw away her life no longer and, dares to go back to Rochester. “I broke from St. John […] It was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play, and in force […] I desired him (St. John) to leave me. He obeyed at once.
Where there is energy to command well enough, obedience never fails” (358). Notice the term “obey” and “obedience” again; Jane fights to only “obey” her own law – she is master of herself; and because of her assuredness, she can demand the “obedience” of others. The words “my” are italicized to emphasize this empowerment. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane has really developed as a character and person, and is now a self-governing woman, rather than a submissive child that is just set aside as though she were an object rather than a human being; and this degree of womanhood has not come about without a fight.
Jane Eyre’s episodes of autonomy and agency were a battle for her to gain and define her identity and to have the confidence to assert herself and her decisions. They have worked hand-in-hand with her coming of age and growing maturity level; as she learned to express herself more fully she matured, and as she matured she found it easier to express herself more fully. This has resulted in well-rounded, complete, and happy woman. She had to find herself before going back to Rochester.
The idea that one must know themselves before successfully being in an intimate relationship with another person is an expression of autonomy and agency, because one must be able to govern themselves before one can govern anything else. Jane’s parting words to St. John are an example of this; as stated in the previous paragraph, because of her assuredness in her identity, she can demand the “obedience” of others. One must know what they want before they can ask for it. Jane now knows that what she wants is Edward Rochester.