While a cursory glance of the stifling social fabric of nineteenth century England may reveal an era practically alien to our technologised world of today, Victorian writer Charlotte Bronte’s gothic romance Jane Eyre dispels insights surprisingly relevant to the twenty-first century social scene. Through its depiction of a socially marginal titular character’s search for meaning, [...]

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Jane Eyre, social media and the philosophy of mindfulness


While a cursory glance of the stifling social fabric of nineteenth century England may reveal an era practically alien to our technologised world of today, Victorian writer Charlotte Bronte’s gothic romance Jane Eyre dispels insights surprisingly relevant to the twenty-first century social scene. Through its depiction of a socially marginal titular character’s search for meaning, happiness and a heightened sense of self, Jane Eyre provides an invaluable lesson in the timeless philosophy of mindfulness, illuminating how our living today can navigate a media-saturated terrain, ablaze with contemporary technological advancements and invasive virtual communities.

Jane Eyre dispels insights surprisingly relevant to the twenty-first century social scene

The practice of mindfulness, which involves an individual cogently noting the events, thoughts and impressions that comprise the present moment, as opposed to dwelling stagnantly in the past of dreamily fantasising of the future, is a central tenant of Buddhism. Over two thousand years ago, the Buddha, himself, deemed mindfulness as a major stepping stone on the path to enlightenment, and outlined four key foundations – our bodies, our feelings, our minds and our surrounding world – which bestow us with an advanced understanding of our social sphere. Growing up as Prince Siddhartha, in the 6th to 4th centuries BC, and residing in a plethora of palaces lavishly interspersed across the north-eastern plains of what is now modern-day Nepal, the young nobleman spent the earliest ages of his life sheltered from the harsh realities of the world that lay beyond the palace walls.

A key episode in Prince Siddhartha’s youth which exposed him to the paramount importance of mindfulness in all aspects of life, transpired from his desire to see the world outside the princely realms in which he had been raised. During these excursions, the aristocrat’s sighting of an old man with a feeble gait and wizened, withered face – a vision unlike anything he had encountered during his childhood in the palace court, a façade of eternal youth – triggered his conceptualisation of life as a progressive journey that entwines both body and mind. As a result, Prince Siddhartha delineated mindfulness as a means by which humans achieve a sense of control over their destiny, via the deliberate reflection and evaluation of situations they encounter throughout their lifetime.

The protagonist of Jane Eyre embarks on a similar path of mindfulness, traversing the contours of nineteenth century English society as an indebted female subject. In a similar fashion as Siddhartha, Jane pursues a route of limited social conversation as a way of psychologically navigating the binaries of reason and passion, self and society, in her quest towards a more advanced interior life.

City University of New York scholar Patricia Ondek Laurence describes this approach as the “female tradition of silence”, in which a wholesale exclusion from public discourse allows people to observe, listen and reflect on social positions from the sidelines. This is illustrated in Jane’s attempt to quell her envy towards her handsome employer, Mr. Rochester’s love affair with the most beautiful woman in the country, Blanche Ingram, via what cultural theorist Mieke Bel describes as “self-portraiture.”

Essentially, Jane draws a likeness of her own relatively plain face alongside a sketch of the beautiful visage of Blanche Ingram to understand how Mr. Rochester perceives her vis-à-vis her competition. Bal pinpoints this process as a symbolic representation of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s mirror theory, in which people are able to recognise and criticise their own behaviours, by examining themselves externally in comparison to others, therefore attempting a course of objective judgement.

Dubai-based psychologist Saliha Afrida, however, warns that the comparative behaviour engendered by contemporary globalised technologies and installations, social media and the internet can trigger a variety of negative emotions such as resentment and envy. This perspective is particularly applicable to social media apps, such as Instagram and Facebook, which bombard users with a multitude of airbrushed images of hyper-realistic, idealistic lifestyles, events and people. As a result, the protagonist of Jane Eyre’s hypercritical comparison of herself to the fiancé of the object of her infatuations can facilitate in a modern context what Saliha Afrida describes as the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) Phenomenon, thus heightening jealousy, insecurity, abandonment and low self-esteem, by drawing self-depreciating distinctions between oneself and others.

Another leading contribution to the doctrines of mindfulness are the theories and writings of pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, mathematician and astronomer Thales of Miletus, who lived in what is now modern-day Turkey during the 6th century BC.
Thales – who introduced the concept of scientific philosophy, based on observable and recordable facts – proposed the idea of life being composed of a continuum of events and people existing in the realms of time and space. Subsequently, the philosopher conceived mindfulness as a realised progression of momentary experience and awareness. This is exemplified in literary scholar Kathleen Tillotson’s praise of Jane Eyre’s portrayal of a personality that effectively “discovers itself” by “keeping pace with [its] own experiences” and daily routine.

For example, Brown University student Benjamin Graves highlights how Jane’s social position as a Victorian governess of an upper-class British family simultaneously places herself in the communal circle of the family and the economic level of the staff, thus allotting her significant influence in how the domestic sphere is gendered and valued. This is symbolically reflected in Bronte’s narrative structure, particularly the manner in which the protagonist psychologically dominates her world in the way that certain scenes and characters are framed. A key example of this occurs during a charade at Thornfield, in which Jane directs the reader’s attention from the spectacle onstage to the private conversation of Mr. Rochester and Blanche Ingram, signifying her own personal power over her social world in regard to her ability to personally construct her social environment.

This Victorian approach to interiority is complicit with American journalist Robert Wright’s emphasis on the necessity to pause, re-assess and re-evaluate while engaging with contemporary social media, which provides a wide array of distractions to the human psyche. Wright contends of social media, email services and the internet in general, as a grid which displaces the human mind from the small social arena it was designed to interrogate, into an infinite macrocosm of users, images and information.

In similar fashion as Jane, Wright examines his thoughts, feelings and responses, in conjunction with the negative sentiments that are oft triggered by social media, such as schadenfreude – deriving joy from another’s misfortune – anxiety, covetousness and overall dysphoria. Concurrently, Wright asserts that one can effectively master the internet grid by maintaining self-control and well-being in the face of deviant responses to social media content. This is reiterated in a 2015 study conducted by non-partisan American think tank Pew Research Center, which indicated the increasing number – currently 24% – of USA teens perpetually hooked to the grid, as a requisite for young American to cultivate what Thales, Jane Eyre and Robert Wright all wield: a sense of momentary awareness, or intentionality, as they traverse the social media landscape.

For example, editor of Greater Good, Kira M. Newman, divulges the distinction between teenage subjects who exhibit advanced traits of mindfulness, such as calm, balance and maturity to process and acknowledge negative sentiments, with those devoid of such qualities, as an impetus for whether social media is utilised productively or as an impulsive bubble of consolation and diversion. Therefore, social media users are advised to ask themselves continuously as they access online content, if they are mastering their emotions or allowing those pernicious sentients to master them.

Overall, while Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre is oft praised as a classic text of archaic Victorian literature, the 19th century novel provides lessons in human society that are timelessly contemporary in their essence. Through her depiction of a protagonist’s journey towards heightened selfhood via extensive internal reflection, Bronte’s text marries the scriptures and writings of a variety of scholars, philosophers and thinkers, whilst illuminating methods of existence in an increasingly digitalised and socially virtual twenty-first century community.

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