Jane Eyre and the Invention of the Self

The now-ubiquitous selfie expresses in miniature the seismic conceptual shift that came about centuries ago, spurred in part by advances in printing technology and new ways of thinking in philosophy. It’s not that the self didn’t exist in pre-modern cultures: Rather, the emphasis the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century placed on personal will, conscience, and understanding—rather than tradition and authority—in matters of faith spilled over the bounds of religious experience into all of life. Perhaps the first novel to best express the modern idea of the self was Jane Eyre, written in 1847 by Charlotte Brontë, born 200 years ago this year.

.. The broader cultural implications of the story—its insistence on the value of conscience and will—were such that one critic fretted some years after its publication that the “most alarming revolution of modern times has followed the invasion of Jane Eyre.”

.. The Reformation empowered believers to read and interpret the scriptures for themselves, rather than relying on the help of clergy; by extension, this seemed to give people permission to read and interpret their own interior world.

.. It is exactly this willingness—desire, even—to be “at war with the accepted order of things” that characterizes the modern self.

.. More disturbing to Brontë’s Victorian readers than the sheer sensuality of the story and Jane’s deep passion was “the heroine’s refusal to submit to her social destiny,” as the literary critic Sandra M. Gilbert explains. Indeed, one contemporary review complained, “It is true Jane does right, and exerts great moral strength,” but the critic continues that “it is the strength of a mere heathen mind which is a law unto itself.” In presenting such a character, the reviewer worries, Brontë has “overthrown authority” and cultivated “rebellion.”