Gender and Sexuality in the Work of the Brontë Sisters

by Brittany Regas

Mentor: Sonia Hofkosh, English; funding source: Provost’s Office


My project, “Gender and Sexuality in the Works of the Brontë Sisters,” focused on the seven novels written by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, a trio of sisters who wrote and published during the middle of the 19th century. Charlotte, the oldest, most prolific, and longest-living of the sisters, wrote Jane Eyre (1847), Shirley (1849), Villette (1853), and The Professor (1857), which was the first novel she wrote but was published posthumously. Emily wrote a single novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), and Anne, the youngest, wrote Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). The Brontë novels are often considered proto-feminist, dealing with issues such as women’s independence as well as marriage and sexuality. Because my own literary interests lie in investigating questions of gender and sexuality in the novel as a genre, the Brontë novels provide a rich source.  

At the beginning of the summer, I knew that I was interested in analyzing some Brontë texts for my senior honors thesis in the Department of English, but because I had not selected a specific text or texts, I decided to start broad. Therefore, my work consisted of a close reading of each of the seven novels. As I read each novel, I kept detailed notes and wrote down my observations in a reading journal. I supplemented this reading with selections of literary criticism, mostly relating to the novels themselves, but also paying some attention to the broader genre of feminist literary criticism, including Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic. Because I read a wide variety of texts, it was difficult to summarize my work and come to any concrete conclusions, but in the end, I organized my analyses into three categories that represent patterns that I noticed across multiple texts.

The first category, “Narrative Structure,” deals with the two primary narrative strategies employed in the Brontë novels. All but one are narrated in the first person. Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey are the ostensible autobiographies of their female protagonists; in Jane Eyre in particular, the text lends its woman narrator complete authority. Wuthering Heights and Tenant both employ a layered narrative structure, beginning with narration from a male perspective and then switching to a story-within-the-story narrated by a woman. My second category, “Androgyny & Cross-Dressing,” considers how gender-bending characters in the novels both deconstruct and uphold the gender binary. The presence of androgynous women in Wuthering Heights and Shirley and cross-dressing men in Jane Eyre and Villette serve tocomplicate the question of gender for the Brontës. The final category, “The Marriage Plot,” is particularly pertinent, as all seven of the novels are concerned with the marriage plot, defined as a storyline that focuses on a heterosexual couple and the obstacles that prevent their marriage. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Tenant all feature sexual violence intertwined with their marriage plots, perhaps pointing to the inherent violence of a marital structure which forces women into submission. Charlotte Brontë’s final novel, Villette, is unique among the Brontë novels in featuring a failed marriage plot: unlike all of the others, this novel does not end with a marriage. This aspect of this novel,as well as its intense interest in surveillance and espionage, its depiction of repressed sexuality, and its homoerotic undertones, led me to choose Villette as the natural focus for my senior honors thesis. Therefore, I have continued my summer Brontë research into the fall semester, reading criticism concerning Villette specifically as well as widening my research to include more general feminist and queer theory. In my thesis, I hope to address the theme of surveillance as related to the protagonist’s expression or repression of desire and to provide a queer reading of this queer text. 

6 thoughts on “Gender and Sexuality in the Work of the Brontë Sisters

  • October 23, 2020 at 3:24 pm

    Your presentation made me go out and buy Wuthering Heights! I think the “layered story structure” mirrors the challenging of the gender binary in the novel; the two narrators are wrapped together instead of just one monolithic narrator. I’m very excited to hear where this research goes!

  • October 23, 2020 at 3:45 pm

    You are presenting such interesting possibilities for rereading these texts in light of current gender theory. Maybe it would be worth going back to a few foundational feminist arguments about compulsory heterosexuality (Adrienne Rich; Catherine MacKinnon) to explore the violence in the marriage plot idea further. . .

  • October 23, 2020 at 4:52 pm

    I don’t know much about English or different kinds of novel structure, so I’m so interested to know more about how the structure, regardless of content, of a novel, reflects certain ideas about gender and sexuality. Well done!

  • October 23, 2020 at 7:33 pm

    This project is awesome and I’m so intrigued as to how your thesis will unfold. It is so interesting to be able to compare such a sample of writing from these three women. I’m especially fascinated how the appropriation of the male voice allows the writers to express thing they wouldn’t be able to from their own position and genders.

  • October 23, 2020 at 8:25 pm

    This seems so interesting– I’m not very familiar with any of these texts but your poster and analysis has made me want to read them for the first time or read them more closely! I’m excited to see where this goes.

  • October 24, 2020 at 10:00 pm

    Your poster was great! This project is so interesting even though I don’t know much about these texts. I would definitely take the time to read these texts!

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