How dare I, Mrs. Reed? How dare I? Because it is the truth. You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so...
As we grow from larvaceous little rolls of baby fat into semi-conscious, babbling beings, we learn many things about how to exist in the world. These lessons come from those around us, generally from those who have taken it upon themselves to ensure our survival, to a greater or lesser degree. These lessons are not always directly taught, but rather absorbed through experience. The luckiest among us learn, for example, how to give and receive things like empathy and compassion. We all learn the varietals of shame. Some of us learn to protect ourselves from a world that wants to view us a certain way. We learn to take what we want (entitlement/privilege) or to accept what we are “allotted” (meekness/humility) or, more commonly, to compromise (neutral, possibly).
Compromise is the idea that if two entities want non-complementary things, they must come to some kind of agreement–meet halfway. Long touted as a necessary skill to interacting and being a successful player in society, not all compromise is created equal. In fact, compromise is largely gendered and, if we have learned anything from the news of late, that which is gendered is so rarely equal.
If a man and a woman disagree on something, you can pretty much bet that the woman has been socialized to be more amenable to compromise than the man. Women have been compromising forever, making themselves smooth so others can move more easily over them. Children or a career? A partner or freedom? Though past iterations of feminism have claimed that we can have it all, most of us can’t and frankly, don’t want to. Compromise is fine, I think, when talking about where to eat lunch or go on vacation, but when it comes to life’s big decisions, to dreams and aspirations, I say, to hell with them. Take what’s yours. You are entitled.
In literature, compromise is often the end of a woman’s journey. When she lets go of some part of herself in order to fit more snugly into someone else’s idea of how their life should proceed, often in the guise of marriage, something is forfeited, something the man would never be asked to pawn. But not so Jane Eyre. Although her story ends in marriage, it is marriage on her own terms. There seems to be nothing ideal about her eventual reconciliation and marriage to a newly blind and one-handed Mr. Rochester, and yet she has remained true to herself and her integrity, and thus does she, in the end, triumph.
Throughout Charlotte Brontë’s novel, the eponymous heroine is anything but your average girl turned woman. She does not meekly bow her beribboned head in the face of slander and misplaced blame while in the house of her cruel aunt, nor does she tremble beguilingly when Mr. Rochester enfolds her in his arms and entreats her to stay with him, despite the fact that he tried to marry her without informing her that, not only was he already married, but was keeping his arguably insane wife locked away in a room above Jane’s own. Jane maintains an iron grasp on what she believes to be good and true, on her sense of right and wrong, sacrificing superficial contentment for the furtherance of a deeper, more soul-saturating, though by no means guaranteed, happiness.
I laughed at him as he said this. “I am not an angel,” I asserted; “and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me–for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate.
As a woman, the expectations Jane Eyre faced in her little world of 407 pages (in my edition) were varied, diverse, and deeply-embedded in the society in which she lived. Despite her extraordinary resilience and loyalty to her own integrity, these societal influences showed. She referred to her boss as Master. She almost, almost married St. John, the (in my opinion) slightly sociopathic wannabe missionary, just because 1) he asked, and 2) he cited the impossibility of an unmarried woman being allowed to do much good in the world. Yet her resolve held, and in the end led to the fulfillment of her desire to marry Mr. Rochester legally and honorably.
“Keep to common sense, St. John: you are verging on nonsense. You pretend to be shocked by what I have said. You are not really shocked: for, with your superior mind, you cannot be either so dull or so conceited as to misunderstand my meaning. I say again, I will be your curate, if you like, but never your wife.
The compromises routinely asked of today’s women are not so different, and are still largely ruled by the whims and behavior of men. Women want free and easy access to birth control and reproductive freedom, but those who claim to have our interests in mind preach abstinence and strip away our “alienable” rights, as Roxane Gay calls them, one by one. Women want to wear clothes that make them feel good, men take that as an opportunity to catcall, leer, or W.C.S. (worst-case scenario), rape. So the compromise is that women should wear more conservative clothing.
I admire Jane Eyre. She thrived in the face of insuperable obstacles, but we have come a long way and times have, in some ways, changed. She had no friends, no vehicle of voice with which to protest. She lived in such a small world, and that world has grown large. We, women, have choices and voices she could never have hoped for, and we need to take responsibility for them. We need to make what is alienable inalienable. The time for compromise is over. Our bodies are not board room tables over which compromises are made. We must show the same kind of integrity that Jane showed and keep the greater goal in mind. We must not be tempted by momentary appeasement to give up the game. Charlotte Brontë’s heroine knew the merit of not compromising, and she suffered for it. She was homeless and hungry and near death, yet she persevered. We would have pardoned her for giving in, but she never did. We need to show the same resilience. We need to acknowledge that when it comes to our bodies, our futures, the time for compromise has passed.
Though the world would have you believe otherwise, believe this, tell yourself this in moments of doubt:
I am no bird, and no net ensnares me.