A bildungsroman is a novel that focuses on a protagonist’s moral, intellectual, and spiritual growth. In contemporary literature, the coming-of-age stories can be equated with the bildungsroman theme as they often deal with the challenging transition to adulthood from childhood. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte traces the intellectual, moral, and psychological development of a young woman struggling to maintain a separate identity. She contrasts this development with the deterioration of Bertha Mason’s well-being and place in society.
In Jane Eyre, Bronte depicts the protagonist’s development from an irrational little girl into an independent, strong, rational, and moral woman. Like many women in the Victorian era, Jane and other female characters had minimum rights regarding property, marriage, and education. Women were considered men’s property in marriage and were trained to submit even before marriage. Despite the similarity in roles, there was a distinct line dividing the middle and lower-class women from the upper class. Nonetheless, Bronte depicts women’s growth and character development in all classes to explore the bildungsroman theme, primarily through Jane Eyre and Blanche Ingram.
Readers follow Jane’s childhood to adulthood in an individualistic narration. As a child, Jane is under the cruel guardianship of Mrs. Reed, her aunt, before she is sent away for fighting with her cousin. From the novel’s beginning, Jane is committed to justice, dignity, self-worth, passionate disposition, and faith. As a child orphaned at an early age, Jane feels ostracized and exiled, which worsens with her aunt’s harsh treatment and cousins. Due to the fear that she may never find a sense of community, home, or identity, she develops a strong urge to belong somewhere, which marks the theme of bildungsroman.
Jane’s need for a kindred spirit or kin prompts an equally intense desire for freedom and anatomy. The Marmion, Gulliver’s Travels, and Pamela are the books that progress the desire and provide an escape from her misery as she admits, “…a tale my imagination created . . . quickened with all incident, life, fire, feeling, that I desired and had not in my actual existence”(Bronte). Besides her imagination, Jane is confident that her artistic and educational pursuits will liberate her and give her the power to enhance her position in society. Additionally, Jane asserts her identity through rebellion, especially in the novel’s beginning when she refers to herself as a “rebel slave”(Bronte).
Precisely Jane opposes forces preventing her from achieving her dreams like her aunt’s mistreatment, St. John’s intention to make her a missionary wife, and Rochester’s efforts to make her his mistress. Ultimately, Jane falls in love with her master Mr. Rochester, thus mutinying implicitly against the dictates of society and class boundaries. Thus, Jane’s character development follows a Bildungsroman form when she rejects society’s restrictions, gender roles, and her achievement in pursuing intellectual stimulation just like men in the nineteenth-century Victorian society.
Contradictory to Jane’s character development is Bertha Mason, a higher-class woman, and Mr. Rochester’s first wife. Although Bertha is a higher-class woman, she lacks the beauty and elegance that many gentlemen seek. Bertha has mental health issues and a burden to the misogynistic and male-dominating Rochester, who locks her up in her room. Unlike Jane, Bertha loses her psychological development, identity, and place in society and thus fails to follow the plot form of bildungsroman. Precisely, Bertha disintegrates into coarseness, dissipation, and eventually goes mad.
Conclusively, bildungsroman typically ends with complete maturity and acceptance in society. Jane in Jane Eyre achieves a social connection. She develops from a powerless and isolated young girl to an intellectually independent woman who defies social class and marries a wealthy upper-class gentleman. Jane’s progressive development differs from Bertha’s situation as the once majestic woman’s mental health deteriorates to madness. Thus, while some characters’ development takes the bildungsroman form to create secure social attachments, others do not.