Appearing to Diminish: Female Development and the British Bildungsroman, 1750-1850

By Lorna Ellis | Go to book overview

6
Jane Eyre and the Self-Constructed Heroine

Jane Eyre marks the last major step in the history that I have been constructing of the female Bildungsroman. It demonstrates most concretely the distinct characteristics of the genre: its combination of conservative and subversive elements, its link between social alienation and material concerns, and its emphasis on the gaze as a means of articulating the heroine's manipulation of appearances. It also illuminates certain connections between the female and the male Bildungsroman that exist less overtly in the other novels I have analyzed. Like male Bildungsromane, Jane Eyre articulates life's progress as a series of stages, demonstrates the importance of self-consciousness, and establishes an ironic distance between narrator and protagonist. Furthermore, Jane Eyre demonstrates most clearly the link between the social alienation of female Bildungsroman protagonists and the Romantic alienation of traditional Bildungsroman heroes; through her status as an artist as well as a social outcast, Jane embodies both forms of alienation, and the lines between the two become blurred.

Jane Eyre, however, also marks “the last major step” in this history of the female Bildungsroman, because the same novel that solidifies the links between the male and female Bildungsro- man also sounds the female Bildungsroman's preliminary death knell, at least for the nineteenth century. By examining more fully than other female Bildungsromane the consequences in psychological strain of manipulating appearances, Jane Eyre begins to push the limits of the female Bildungsroman tradition. And Jane's continuing overt insistence on her own point of view signals an immanent shift away from the conservative reintegration that is characteristic of the Bildungsroman. The idea that one's conduct should be guided by an internal monitor, even if

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