Duty and desire in Jane Eyre

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How is the conflict between duty and desire explored in these texts?

Desire is a term conveying a longing for a certain object, person or outcome. It is an emotion from the heart and is unaffected by social opinion. Duty, in contrast, is a moral obligation to an act, which is perceived to be selfless. The decisions made regarding these emotions are significant throughout ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’. However, these definitions were more extreme during the time that Brontë and Rhy’s texts were written. In the 19th century, it was considered a completely selfish act for women to show desire, it was a vulgar emotion that women were expected to control and conceal. The female role during the 1800’s was limited; they were expected to be passive and were passed from father to husband, similar to a possession. To perform one’s duty to society was regarded as an unspoken rule imposed on all women, therefore, women never truly had the chance to express their true identity or gain real independence. The 19th century conflict between duty and desire was a key topic written about by many authors, predominately women, who illustrated personal experiences and beliefs through the characters and their decisions. In both Bronte’s and Rhy’s novels the authors illustrate the limitations imposed on women, society’s views and expectations concerning the conflict, and the importance of finding the balance between the duty and desire.

        The life path of women living in the 19th century was largely dictated by Victorian society and was limited both in its direction and expression of individuality. Victorian women were forced to conform to the ideologies of patriarchal society and so duties were imposed on them; many of which repressed their desire. In ‘Jane Eyre’, though Jane’s character is very passionate, she adheres to the Victorian morality, in which passion and emotion were kept concealed. Jane learns to become dutiful and to control her passion at Lowood and through the preaching of Helen Burns. However, Brontë shows recognition of the female struggle through Jane’s character, who recognises that “Millions are condemned to a stiller doom”, acknowledging the oppression felt by women across the nation. In the same paragraph Jane expresses the general female opinion stating women who “are supposed to be very calm… feel just the way men feel”, that women too need “exercise of faculties” and when this is not given, like men would, “they suffer from too rigid a restraint”. In this section Bronte employs challenging and political language, such as “revolt”, “rebellions” and the consistent mention of “restraint” to portray the powerful struggle Victorian women experienced. Brontë experienced the same struggle when trying to publish her novel. She realised that it would be impossible for a woman to publish such a controversial book as ‘Jane Eyre’ in the patriarchal society she was living in. Therefore, she felt obliged to publish under the pseudonym of “Currel Bell”.  

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In contrast to Jane, the character of Antoinette in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ is extremely passive. Antoinette losses all sense of self by allowing society, (Rochester), to compress her desires and so she becomes completely dependent on others. Rochester symbolizes patriarchal society when he imposes an entirely new identity on Antoinette, by renaming her ‘Bertha’. Her lack of self is illustrated when she realises she will have no one to depend on; “what will be come of me?”. To this Christophine replies “Get up, girl… Woman must have spunks to live in this wicked world.” Rhy’s choice of language is significant; ...

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***** 5 STARS This is an excellent thought provoking essay which through a mixture of social, biographical and historical context increases understanding of the two protagonists in the novels. Some biographical information on Jean Rhys who wrote 'Wide Sargasso Sea' in mid 20th century and so had very different influences and experiences to Bronte would have been interesting. Well written and intelligently expressed with good use of well selected quotes: this is a superlative essay.