In Jane Eyre, the themes of servitude and liberty are brought to life and contrasted with each other in many instances throughout the novel. Inside, Jane at first desires to be a free spirit, but the social class stratification and conditions of the world that she lives in make this dream impossible to truly fulfill. Jane regards the concept of such absolute freedom a fleeting, ethereal, and “hollow” notion, and accepts her servitude; it is a vehicle that helps her learn more about herself and her true desires. From her experiences in servitude, Jane learns what she needs in a relationship and also what she cannot bear; she recognizes the foolishness of class distinctions and realizes the true value of kindliness and being able to forgive and forget. Jane seems to be consistently moving from one type of servitude to another throughout the novel, from her beginnings at Gateshead under Mrs. Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst at Lowood Academy, to Rochester at Thornfield, and then to St. John at Moor House. She Jane ultimately realizes that attaining true liberty is not only beyond her power, but it is also not really her true desire. She rejects the idea of seeking spiritual liberty alone and accepting a life of solitude like St. John, and chooses instead to remain in a type of servitude as Rochester’s wife. However, she consoles herself with the fact that this is a different type of servitude unlike her others, it is that of a lover caring for another, someone who needs and appreciates her, and someone who treats her with respect. These are the things that she has wanted all of her life, and she is willing to put aside her personal freedom to enjoy them and to for once be loved, accepted, and appreciated.
Throughout the book Jane serves many different masters, and her situation, thoughts, and desires change greatly as she develops, as do her feelings concerning freedom and servitude. The first of her masters is the Reed family, most notably John and Mrs. Reed. These opening characters serve to represent a transformation in her character, as she goes from obedient and unassertive to very opinionated and defiant. While Jane at first obeys their orders because she wants to be included in their social circle, she soon realizes that the Reeds are nothing more than arrogant, elitist slave drivers, and that her submission only serves to reaffirm their power. Her first act of rebellion is against John, who condemns her for reading “his” books, and reminds her that she is not an equal, but a beggar, not worthy of living with “gentlemen’s children.”(27) . After he strikes her with the book, she struggles against him and cries out, “You are like a murderer – you are like a slave-driver – you are like the Roman emperors!”(43). Here she is stating that his rights are not natural at all; he has gained them by oppressing others with his bullying force. In her comparison of John to a tyrant, she threatens his class identity by implying that his authority and power are completely illegitimate. Here, Jane begins to realize the unjust cruelty in the treatment she receives, and refuses to continue being the abused prop to the Reeds’ need to reaffirm their power. This is the type of servitude that becomes unpalatable to Jane; she will not stand for a servitude in which she is unappreciated, abused, and outcast as an inferior. She takes it upon herself to no longer let the Reeds reject her, but rather herself reject the Reeds, and all that they stand for. Later, when Mrs. Reed tells Mr. Brocklehurst that Jane is a liar, Jane again rebels against her aunt’s underhanded move and delivers an impassioned speech, in which she openly rejects Mrs. Reed and states: “You think I have no feelings, and that I cannot do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so…People think you are a good woman, but you are bad, hard-hearted. You are deceitful!”(45-46). Here, Jane makes clear what she needs as a human being and what she will not tolerate from the Reeds; she needs to be loved, and to be acknowledged as a real person with real feelings. She will not stand for obedient servitude under these conditions, and for the first time is explicit and direct in her open rejection of Mrs. Reed.
Jane is then sent to Lowood, where she is again made an outcast by Mr. Brocklehurst, who one day declares that she is a liar and that no one should speak to her for the rest of the day. Brocklehurst is like the Reeds in his assumption of natural rights, the power of the elite social class, and his attempts to make Jane feel outcast and unwelcome. Lowood, rather than being a vehicle for young, impoverished students to learn and to rise out of their social class, is more like a tool that Brocklehurst uses to reaffirm social class divisions and superiority. The school is “surrounded by walls so high as to exclude every glimpse of prospect,”(80) a visual description that alludes to Jane’s feeling of entrapment in this school. Here, life is regulated by a strict discipline and lifestyle, and it is enforced harshly by authoritarian figures such as Mr. Brocklehurst and Miss Scatcherd. It is here that Jane comes to an important realization, as she states,
My eye passed all objects to rest on those most remote,…all within their boundary of rock seemed prison-ground, exile limits. I traced the white road…vanishing in gorge between the two: how I longed to follow it further!…I tired of the routine of eight years in one afternoon. I desired for liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed faintly scattered on the wind then blowing. I abandoned it and framed a humbler supplication; for a change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space; ‘Then,’ I cried, half desperate, ‘grant me at least a new servitude!’ (99)
Jane shows in this passage that she wants to escape the boring routine of Lowood, and she faces this with excitement and no fear. However, her prayer for true liberty seems “faintly scattered on the wind;” she abandons it because it is a dream that she feels cannot ever be fully realized in the world and society that she lives in. She instead turns to the idea of at least a change, which she abandons again, turning to the idea of at least a new form of servitude. To Jane, a new servitude is the only realistic and achievable goal within reach, because “it does not sound too sweet; it is not like such words as Liberty, Excitement, Enjoyment: delightful sounds truly; but no more than sounds for me; and so hollow and fleeting that it is a mere waste of time to listen to them.”(100). Jane abandons the ideas of “Liberty, Excitement, Enjoyment” because they are not real to her, they are no more than hollow and fleeting sounds that she considers a waste of time. She realizes that they are ideals which are not realistically attainable, and actually accepts servitude, just as long as it is somewhere else.
At Thornfield, Jane enters a new stage of servitude, as a governess working for Mr. Rochester. Rochester is a different type of master than Jane has had previously; though commanding in his presence and demanding of his needs, he treats Jane as an intellectual equal. Rather than deprecating and putting her down, Rochester and Jane exchange in witty, intellectual conversation. Though she submits to his authority, she makes clear her belief that though he has “the right to command her,” he has “no call to feel superior.”(143).She has defined the terms of servitude that she considers intolerable and is not afraid to speak frankly on the matter. In her servitude under Rochester, there is a strange reversal of roles, as Rochester becomes the damsel in distress who Jane rescues time and time again. It is Jane that helps Rochester back on his horse when they first meet, and it is also Jane who saves him from the fire that is mysteriously set in his room. After helping Rochester back on his horse, Jane states
It was an incident of no moment, no romance, no interest in a sense; yet it marked with change one single hour of a monotonous life. My help had been needed and claimed; I had given it: I was pleased to have done something; trivial, transitory though the deed was, it was yet an active thing, and I was weary of an existence all passive. (132)
It is here, at their first meeting, that Jane realizes what she really desires – to help someone that needs and will appreciate her efforts. She wishes to be “active” rather than “passive,” in the sense that she is for once serving a purpose, aiding someone who actually needs her help and is appreciative of her presence. This is the kind of service that is not merely palatable for Jane, but something that she desires and has always yearned for; to be loved and needed by someone. From the beginning, it is clear that Mr. Rochester is dependent on Jane, and this, along with all of the courtship games he plays to try to win her, puts her in a position of power over Rochester, with the ability to reject him. Jane comes to see Rochester as her soul mate, and finds herself in a situation that seems too good to be true; she is obviously very important to Rochester, who depends on and needs her help, and is for once treated as a real and tangible person. Her plans to marry Rochester are too good to be true, it turns out, as his secret past is revealed and Jane discovers that he is already married. After the discovery, Jane states to Rochester,
I tell you I must go!…Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automation? – a machine without feelings?…Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless – You think wrong! -I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart!…- it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal – as we are! (284)
Here Jane rebels against Rochester and asserts her equality to him. She clearly will not stand to be deceived and treated without consideration for her feelings, like a heartless automation. This is the aspect of servitude that she had hated the most and thought she had avoided with Rochester, who for once actually gave her a fulfilling sense of purpose in life. However, she cannot accept marrying him under these conditions, in which she would most likely soon be forgotten and dropped once Rochester grew tired of her and had taken her virginity.
When Jane leaves Thornfield, she for the first time experiences true freedom out in nature, which turns out to be much harsher reality that she had once dreamed. With no food and little money, Jane quickly realizes that the “white road” leading to complete freedom, out in nature all alone, ends in total desolation. She ends up coming into yet another form of servitude, this time under St. John at the Moor House. St. John is the extreme representation of the repression of physical desires, and his repression turns him into a “cold, harsh man”(400) with “reason, and not feelings”(401) as his guide; he is “inexorable as death”(391). These seem to be the worst characteristics in a master that Jane could imagine, but she has no choice or control over the matter, coming to him as a beggar. St. John is extremely judgmental, and assumes the worst when Jane shows up on his doorstep, that she is spoiled and lazy. When his prejudices are proven wrong, St. John becomes even colder to Jane; no matter how hard she tries to clean or improve the house, he still takes no notice. Once they are established as equals and family, Jane begins to study with St. John, and he gains more influence over her than ever before. Jane feels smothered by him, unable to laugh or be free without inciting his disapproval of her “frivolity.” She soon feels that she has entered another form of unbearable servitude and wishes she had never agreed to study with him. St. John does not treat her with respect or appreciation, and so she rejects the idea of ever marrying him, for she will never be treated as an equal and he will always try to control and repress her. Nevertheless, she almost gives in to St. John’s will to become a missionary, his “great work,” his “foundation laid on Earth for a mansion in Heaven (399-400), because it gives her a sense of purpose. Jane’s dreams, however, are “many-coloured…charged with adventure, with agitating risk and romantic chance” (393) when she thinks of Rochester and her times at Thornfield. Jane realizes that a missionary life with St. John is not the kind of servitude, or purpose, that she desires. St. John will never appreciate her as Rochester did, nor will he ever treat her with the kindness and love that she needs. Life on the moors has drained her of the emotions and desires she felt at Thornfield, and Jane leaves to find Rochester when she hears his voice calling for her aid.
True liberty is never really a feasible option for Jane in this novel. Jane obtains absolute liberty, in its purest form, when she leaves Thornfield and struggles to survive in nature; in this scenario, total freedom ends in total desolation. Though Jane would ideally like to be completely free, she realizes that the sounds of such words as “Liberty, Excitement, and Enjoyment” are “hollow” and have no meaning for her. The cold, harsh world and society that she lives in prevents these things from ever really being attainable to her. She acknowledges this fact, and accepts servitude as her destiny in life, not as an inferior slave being but as a recognized individual with a real use and service to someone in need. What Jane desires most is a sense of purpose; of appreciation, care and love, which she fulfills when she finally ends up with Rochester, her soul mate.