AWEJ Special Issue on Literature No.1, 2013 Pp.67 -75
Reading and agency in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar
The frequency with which the image of the female reader recurs in nineteenth century literary and cultural is striking but not surprising. At that time, middle class British women began to write novels and circulating libraries made written texts available to an unprecedented number of people. A heated debate that followed these developments was fueled by anxieties related to class, gender, and national character. While many Victorians considered unsupervised access to books harmful to middle-class girls’ physical and mental health, major Victorian novelists, with Charlotte Brontë among them, were vocal supporters of female readership. This article explores the theme of reading in Jane Eyre, Brontë’s most popular novel, by focusing on the scenes of solitary or communal reading that mark pivotal points in the narrative. It proposes that the novelist relates reading, both in the literal and metaphorical meaning of the word, to the protagonist’s search for selfhood and agency.
Keywords: female reader, reading, selfhood, empowerment