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The Macksey Journal

Abstract

This paper draws on the anthropological literature on gift economies to reconsider the way Charlotte Brontë imagines the possibilities for women’s commercial mobility in Victorian England. Specifically, it examines the overlap of gift and commercial economies in Jane Eyre, first exploring Jane’s reliance on commerce to safeguard her independence as a woman and an orphan, and then investigating the way Jane’s spiritual sojourn on the moor prepares her to act as a vessel of the gift. Reviewing pivotal economic scenes in the text—such as the bridal shopping spree that makes Jane “burn with annoyance,” and Jane’s distribution of her inheritance among the cousins she feels indebted to—I demonstrate Jane’s talent for navigating the conflicting demands of gifts and commodities. This skill ultimately enables Jane to capitulate to the total gift existence, in which, the novel implies, she need no longer preserve her hard-won autonomy because she and her husband are fused emotionally into one. My reading of Jane Eyre’s gift and commercial economies helps explain Jane’s otherwise puzzling conversion at the end of the book from an impassioned, rebellious actor in the commercial marketplace into a docile wife inhabiting the secluded gift realm of marriage. Money, the novel uncynically affirms, is one of the few tools able to transcend social constraint and facilitate female autonomy.

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