Charlotte Brontë, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather created heroines who deal with issues of love and marriage. For the most part, men play a central part in all of their lives. The narratives are told from a variety of perspectives in the three novels. The endings differ substantively as well. Jane Eyre was first published in 1847 as a kind of autobiography. Jane is plain looking but filled with good sense and bravery. She triumphs over her cruel guardian and an inflexible social class order. When Jane becomes the governess in Edward Rochester’s house, she falls in love with him and eventually discovers his secret. In The House of Mirth, published in 1905 by Edith Wharton, Lily Bart balances between social class and wealth as a young woman who needs to marry well. Even those she is from a good family, she is penniless, and New York high society is revealed hypocritical and cruel. In the 1935 novel, Lucy Gayheart, the girl from a provincial small town seeks to gain the advantages offered by world culture and music. In looks, Lucy is beautiful as is Lily. In this way, Jane is the only one of the three who is ordinary looking.
Context The historical and cultural context of Charlotte Brontë was England during the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This differs from both Edith Wharton and Willa Cather who were Americans and lived a half a century later than Brontë. Wharton was part of the American upper class and that is what she wrote about, offering insights into New York high society. Cather was a woman from the frontier, and she wrote of the difference between city life and country life. Brontë lived through a period in Britain when rural workers headed to the urban centers in droves in search of higher paying employment. The result was filthy ghettoes and lives of poverty and exploitation at the hands of industrialists. The divide between the poor and the aristocracy had always been great and there had been little interaction between the two aside from that which occurred due to servitude. The expanding gentry and love across class lines are important themes in Jane Eyre. Jane is enamored of Rochester who acquires an infusion of cash by joining the colonizing efforts in Jamaica and going so far as to marry a foreigner from there, Bertha, a Creole. Brontë criticizes the search for wealth by Englishmen by causing Rochester to marry this non-white, non-British woman for money and then being saddled with a madwoman. If he had been willing to accept less as far as wealth, he would have been poorer but he would have been married to a proper, albeit penniless, English woman like Jane. Later in the story, Jane, still unsullied by greed and foreign influence, inherits an income from an uncle who made his fortune off slave labor and a sugar plantation. While Brontë contextualizes her characters in the middle class search for prosperity during the colonial period, she is more concerned with the personal situation of Jane as a woman. According to scholar Zoe Brennan, a Lecturer in the English Department at the University of the West of England, Brontë concerned herself with the British debate about what constituted appropriate female behavior, “the feminine ideal and the so-called ‘Woman Question’ became one that preoccupied society” during this period (Brennan 9). Middle class men who sought to advance and even upper class males whose aim was to restore their family’s wealth became working men. By extension, a woman’s job was to support and praise these efforts. Edith Wharton used Lily Bart to her explore changing attitudes in American about the issues the wealth and upward mobility. The context for House of Mirth is a half a century after Jane Eyre married Rochester and quietly restored peace and correctness to his household. Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart is penniless and without the support of an immediate family like Jane Eyre was before her marriage; unlike Jane, Lily is beautiful. She is on the lookout for a rich husband when she gains the unsolicited attention of Lawrence Selden, a lawyer who is familiar with upper class New York society yet has no personal fortune. Ultimately then, the story is about a young woman who realizes on some level that she will probably have to sacrifice love in order to marry into a life of country homes and dinner parties. Lily is portrayed as and indeed views herself as a commodity. Mary McAleer Balkun, Professor and Chair of the English Department at Seton Hall University, explains that, “Lily has been described by critics as an object for trade, as a commodity in the marriage market, as an ornament, as the object of the male gaze, as an outsider, and as a victim” (Balkun 74). At the outset, this same type of analysis could apply to the novel Jane Eyre which points up the evil that befalls men like Rochester who pursue money above all else. Wharton was expressing her ideas about treachery and greed in American society at the turn of the century. Willa Cather created Lucy Gayheart to explore the cultural and moral differences between country and city during the early twentieth century in the United States. Lucy is unwed, like Lily Bart, and remains so. Lucy, Lily, and Jane are all concerned with the issue of marriage and with the men who come into their lives. Lucy and Lily never marry, unlike the conclusion of Jane Eyre, which ends with a happily ever after retrospective by the heroine. As a young woman, Lucy was looking forward to a future that would include a career in music. Lucy is the only one of the three heroines who spends a great deal of time considering her career. She studies music in Chicago, which is where she meets and falls in love with Clement Sebastian, an older married man. Like Lily Bart, Lucy has some social successes. Like Lily and Jane, she interacts with members of the upper classes but she is not wealthy. Her love for Sebastian leads her to reject the marriage proposal of Harry Gordon, an eligible bachelor and the wealthiest young fellow in her hometown.
The Men in Their Lives
Lily Lily Bart confesses that she is “very expensive” (Wharton 10) and consequently obtainable only to a few wealthy buyers. She needs a level of upkeep that could be provided only by a man with money who must be from an acceptable social background and class. The background issue is emphasized by her cousin Jack Stepney, “we don’t marry Rosedale in our family” (Wharton 166). The combined necessity of money and class means Lily has a finite pool of suitors to choose from, however, she considers herself a prize because of her looks. Selden notes that she intimidates some men, and that she has put herself in a position whereby a husband would be required to cope with some unsavory facts. Lily “must have a great deal of money” (Wharton 10) however, she wants a place where she can have some solitude and arrange the furniture however, she chooses. When Lily hesitates to marry and it becomes obvious she is running out of options, Selden remarks, “Isn’t marriage your vocation? Isn’t it what you’re all brought up for?” (Wharton 9). Wharton has created Lily as a part of the American cultural moment toward voracious consumerism. She is simultaneously a consumer and a commodity. The emptiness within she feels inside is attributable to the emptiness that results from consumerism. There is nothing refined about it, Lily states that in times past, “rich men were patrons of the ‘arts of elegance,’ and collecting beautiful objects was one of the obligations of a noble leisure” (Wharton 184). Thus, she differentiates between brash consumerism and being a connoisseur. Then men in Lily’s life, Lawrence Selden, Gus Trenor, and Simon Rosedale, do not want Lily because she is honest and gentle. They want her because she is beautiful and beauty in New York is a commodity. Wealth, not culture, has become the basis of good taste. Men can buy a beautiful woman because they can afford her upkeep. Selden moves in the right circles but he does not have enough money. When Selden spies Lily at the train station, he observes her and catalogs her qualities. As he chats her while waiting for the next train, he is more interested in her movements, “the modelling of her little ear, the crisp upward wave of her hair . . . and the thick planting of her straight black lashes” than in what she is saying to him (Wharton 5). His pleasure in her physical appearance is increased when she finally agrees to join him for tea, a mistake that will cost her a great deal before the end of the novel.
Harry Gordon comes from an affluent family. He marries another woman after Lucy refuses his proposal to marriage. Later he turns shallow towards her, and leaves her unaccompanied in the frozen on the night she dies. In Lucy Gayheart, men almost demolish her with their attentions. Harry Gordon's determination to have Lucy is destined to end in tragedy. In the end, Harry tries in vain to preserve Lucy’s footprints. Clement Sebastian, a European musician, is Lucy's downfall. He is egotistic and indulges in an odd sort of flirtation with his pianist, James Mockford. He is married and much older than Lucy, enjoying her admiration while at the same time rejecting her and telling her she really does not know what she feels for him. On some level, Lucy views Clement Sebastian as a threat even while she admires his talent, “Sebastian walked to the front of the stage in the half-darkness and began to sing an old setting of Byron's When We Two Parted; a sad, simple old air which required little from the singer, yet probably no one who heard it that night will ever forget it” (Cather 26). Lucy feels weary and panicky, as she watches him on stage. Sebastian is about to leave on a tour. Later Sebastian muses on how Lucy and he will never see each other again, “It was a parting between two who would never meet again" (Cather 126). Lucy can read his mind or somehow understands that her love is hopeless, “Lucy knew what he was thinking. She felt a kind of hopeless despair in the embrace that tightened about her” (Cather 117).
Edward Rochester and St. John Rivers are the two main rivals for Jane’s affection and they are very different sorts of men. St. John is serious where Rochester is hot-blooded and sometimes flippant. St. John answers to a higher calling and asks Jane to join him as a missionary in India. If she accepted him, her life would follow a road full of meaning and good works. However, the real reason Jane rejects St. John is because she does not love him. She contemplates St. John’s marriage proposal to decide that love is more important to her than she realized. Jane’s retrospective musings, about how her youth was spent living with her brutal guardian, John Reed, “I had to stem a rapid rush of retrospective thought before I quailed to the dismal present. All John Reed’s violent tyrannies, all his sisters’ proud indifference, all his mother’s aversion, all the servants’ partiality, turned up in my disturbed mind like a dark deposit in a turbid well. Why was I always suffering, always browbeaten, always accused, forever condemned? Why could I never please? Why was it useless to try to win any one’s favour?” (Brontë 11). Jane’s unjust treatment in the Reed household give rise to the use of legal language that include courtroom idioms and debate notions about judgement, justice, and punishment. Other Jane legal issues are explored as they relate to inheritance, social class, marriage, and morality. For example, when Rochester has to physically restrain his insane wife, he demands, “Compare these clear eyes with the red balls yonder—this face with that mask—this form with that bulk; then judge me, priest of the gospel and man of the law, and remember with what judgment ye judge ye shall be judged!” (Bronte 311). Thus, issues justice, punishment, and retribution are framed throughout the novel. Jane falls in love with Edward Rochester because she has a whimsical notion that they are kindred spirits. Rochester is of a higher social class than Jane, and relatively wealthy. Rochester shows that he is morally weak when he tries to marry Jane under false premises. When all is revealed, that he is married to Bertha who is locked up in the attic, then Rochester begrudgingly admits to being fallible. Obviously upright Jane cannot become Rochester’s mistress, which would be humiliating. Through the course of the novel then, Jane is raised up by her own efforts and by fate when she inherits a fortune. When Rochester tries to save his deranged wife from the fire and is blinded, Brontë decides he has been punished enough and only then is he allowed to marry Jane.
Of the three novels, The House of Mirth has the most ambiguous ending. Lily’s overdose on sleep medication may have been a deliberate suicide or it may have been an accident. She wanted to sleep in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of Hamlet. She wants to sleep for a long time, without dreams, in order to escape the reality of her shabby, drab life. In fact, Lily accomplishes her goal of sleep by taking chloral, the medication that eventually kills her, “Slowly the thought of the word faded, and sleep began to enfold her” (Wharton 374). Lily’s promise to see Nettie and Rosedale again seem to indicate she is not contemplating suicide. However, her farewell to Selden implies she intends to go away for a long time. The fact that Lily is no longer in debt because of her inheritance should have made her happy. However, he paying off bills could also be a way of putting her affairs in order before she kills herself. Lucy Gayheart dies after being snubbed by Harry late one night in the local lake. Jane Eyre makes out better than the other two heroines in that she has a happy marriage and family life with Rochester. She announces her weeding to the readers in a blunt way Chapter 38, “Reader, I married him. A quiet wedding we had: he and I, the parson and clerk, were alone present” (Brontë 481). Jane is the only woman who marries of the three protagonists and the only one who has a happy life. Brontë’s narrative style in Jane Eyre relies heavily on diary style punctuation, giving the novel a personal feel. The long sentences are interspersed with dashes and semicolons making the story a series of clipped units. The tone of the novel varies in intensity, becoming vivid and violent in certain sections. Dramatic scenes are mixed in between routine affairs and personal reflections. In Jane Eyre, not only does the heroine have a happy marriage so do others around her, “My Edward and I, then, are happy: and the more so, because those we most love are happy likewise. Diana and Mary Rivers are both married: alternately, once every year, they come to see us, and we go to see them. Diana's husband is a captain in the navy, a gallant officer and a good man. Mary's is a clergyman, a college friend of her brother's, and, from his attainments and principles, worthy of the connection. Both Captain Fitzjames and Mr. Wharton love their wives, and are loved by them” (Brontë 420). It could be conjectured, then that Cather and Wharton were implying, deliberately or not, that unmarried women come to a bad end. Cather and Wharton present heroines who love unwisely, whereas Bronte offers readers a sensible woman who holds herself in high enough regard to settle for love and an honest marriage.
Balkun, Mary McAleer. Studies in American Literary Realism and Naturalism : American Counterfeit : Authenticity and Identity in American Literature and Culture. Tuscaloosa, AL, USA: University of Alabama Press, 2006.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. New York: Harper & Bros, 1864.
Brennan, Zoe. Bronte's Jane Eyre. London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 2010.
Cather, Willa. Lucy Gayheart. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1935.
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1905.