Volume 66, Issue 4, Fall 2014
Essays on Values in Literature
Aubrey L. Mishou
Jane Eyre and Nineteenth-Century Evolutionary Theory
Taking cues from scholars such as Gillian Beer and George Levine, “Surviving Thornfield” is an evolutionary reading of Charlotte Brontë’s canonical gothic novel, making use of theories by Charles Darwin and Robert Chambers to analyze an atypical discourse of female development, courtship, and marriage. Using three separate domestic spheres as an organizing principle, this paper first considers the introduction of evolutionary concepts in the character of Jane through the presentation of the protagonist in competitive situations, before focusing more fully on the primary concern of the novel: an exploration of evolution as it pertains to sexuality and contemporary marriage. “Surviving Thornfield” argues that Jane’s contentious relationship with Bertha Mason is an experiment in sexual selection, with Bertha and Jane posed as competitive sexual figures in an evolutionary courtship of Mr. Rochester. Jane Eyre clearly demonstrates the “survival of the fittest”, and posits that the definition of such a figure is antithetical to traditional gender expectations.