The Eyre Arc

Jane Eyre, a novel which works to explore the 19th century and womanhood, is one of the most highly regarded works of literature in the modern western cannon. It is a novel that has inspired a multitude of spin-off works that seek to expand upon the fictional world originally crafted by Charlotte Bronte and the women within it. With a focus on women and the ways they interact with society, Jane Eyre and its spin-offs can be regarded as feminist in nature. Through the examination of Jane Eyre alongside both a prequel and sequel to the original novel, with each work coming from distinctly different time periods, I seek to propose a new way that we might distantly analyze literature as something that reflects the social movements of a given age. Using a distant reading, text mining, and topic modeling approach, I explore the ways in which the pronouns “she” and “he” and frequently used corresponding verbs reflect the shifting of feminist values over time and ponder the ways this impacts the creation of adaptations.
Literature does not exist in a vacuum. It is not written to only be experienced one way. It affords to opportunity to expand, to imagine new twists and turns, to think about the ways we might modernize a fictional space for authors that did not have the opportunity. In this project, I examine the ways in which literature transforms and can be transformed. I will look to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre alongside two notable spinoff novels, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966) and All Hallows at Eyre Hall (2014) by Lucia Grey, which are both written by other female authors centuries later in an effort to examine the ways a fictional world changes with time and the ways this might be representative of larger social issues of a given age.

Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre on the basis of her own experience as a woman in the Victorian age, creating a sharp contrast from other popular depictions of the world as being completely male-dominated. Jane pushes past struggle and strives for a self-defined life. There has been much debate as to whether Jane Eyre should be considered feminist or anti-feminist. It has been said that “When [Bronte] was on the brink of beginning Jane Eyre, she wrote to her friend Ellen about how much she would like the power ‘to infuse into the souls of the persecuted a little of the quiet strength of pride,’” (Harman). After reading lines like, "I am no bird, and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will," (Bronte), I find it hard not to subscribe to the believe that this text should align with early feminist texts, which is a believe that in and of itself inspired this project. How can we look at Jane Eyre and its adaptations through a new and inherently feminist lens? Can analyzing an original work in comparison with its adaptations shed light shifts within larger, gendered issues outside of just that of the fictional story?

First, it is necessary to contextualize my corpus within feminist movements – to do this, I utilize an article written by Constance Grady on the differing waves of feminism. Feminism is generally thought about as the general social push for equality across genders – the right to vote, to have control over one’s life, and reproductive rights. In actuality, the feminist movement can be divided in to three distinct movements that emerged in the late 19th century, the mid-20th century, and at the beginning of the 1990s. These movements are referred to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd wave feminism respectively. First wave feminism emerged around 1848, with the Seneca Falls Convention, wherein women gathered to discuss the disparities in social, civil, and religious conditions and rights of women. The hot topic at this convention was the right to vote, which would eventually occur in 1920. Jane Eyre was published just one year prior to the Seneca Falls Convention, which allows for the understanding to emerge that this work is one that helped to spark this initial wave of feminism. Second wave feminism emerges around 1963 with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique – which pushes back against the “problem with no name” (aka sexism) and describes that woman have a right to express their creative and intellectual faculties instead of simply being seen as a housewife. Along with this second wave came discussions of reproductive rights. Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, falls closely after this second wave began and can be understood as adopting these specific interpretations of what womanhood should be. Finally, third wave feminism began with the Anita Hill case in 1991, which brought forth to the supreme court a complaint of sexual harassment and in turn prompted other women to come forward with their own stories of harassment. Following this catalyst, women became more open about their feelings and grievances, fighting for fair treatment, (Grady). All Hallows at Eyre Hall was published in 2014, twenty-three years after Anita Hill’s case and just before the #MeToo movement would begin. Given that #MeToo focuses on the continued harassment of women and can in many ways be connected with expanding third wave feminism, Lucia Gray’s novel can be contextualized as calling upon these ideas of feminist thought.

To examine the ways in which a feminist representation manifests itself into these texts, I propose the use of digital tools, distant reading, text mining, and topic modeling to look at pronoun usage and corresponding verbs. These verbs, given that they are aligned with a gendered pronoun, are then gendered themselves. This allows for certain actions or desires to then be associated with a specific understanding of gender, which might align with a given time or wave of feminism. Through an analysis of these verbs in this preliminary experiment, I begin to trace the shifts of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd wave feminism across the adaptions of Jane Eyre. Primarily, I will be looking at Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, and All Hallows at Eyre Hall as a way of examining the shifts of gendered and feminist syntax over time. I have included two additional sets of 3 texts, one feminist and the other “anti-feminist,” as a way of providing support for the ways feminist or anti-feminist syntax might present itself. Each set contains a text contemporary to Brontë, Rhys, and Gray. Although this is a small-scale project, I believe the methodology I use to analyze these works will provide a new way to look at the intersections of novels and their adaptations in the historical context of social movements.
My analysis will be based on the following corpus of texts. These texts were acquired via both Project Gutenburg and personally owned PDF copies that I was able to transform and clean into usable TXT files:

The Eyre Arc: Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte; Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys (prequel to Jane Eyre); All Hallows at Eyre Hall (2014) by Lucia Gray (sequel to Jane Eyre)

3 Centuries of Feminist Literature: Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte; Valley of the Dolls (1966) by Jacqueline Susann; Big Little Lies (2014) by Liane Moriarty

3 Centuries of Anti-Feminist Literature: Sex in Education (1873) by Edward H. Clarke; Washington Confidential (1951) by Jack Lait; Stop Fem-Splaining: What ‘Women Against Feminism’ Gets Right (2014) by Cathy Young

Jane Eyre has many prequels and sequels. Wide Sargasso Sea is written as a prequel to Jane Eyre and All Hallows at Eyre Hall serves as a sequel to both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea. This connection creates a narrative continuity across the three novels, along with the fact that all novels are written in the first person. Both Jane Eyre and All Hallows at Eyre Hall are written from Jane’s perspective, while Wide Sargasso Sea is primarily narrated by Antoinette. I am looking here at the linguistic choices on behalf of the author that reflect changes in the portrayal of women and the ways in which this might align with feminist movements of a given time. Each of the novels within the “Eyre Arc” are compared to its contemporary in the “3 Centuries of Feminist Literature” grouping, a set of female authored, feminist themed works. These texts serve to provide a “control” of sorts so that might be a reference to what other feminist work, syntax, and word choice looked like at the time. The “3 Centuries of Anti-Feminist Literature” is slightly different. These are all non-fictional works, published in the same centuries as the Eyre Arc texts and are regarded as some of the most “anti-feminist” works of these centuries. I opted to stray from the fictional narrative as I did not find any narratives that possessed a storyline that I felt was starkly different enough to my core texts. These non-fictional texts remain successful in my tests of pronoun/verb usage, though I do consider myself lucky, as it would have been ideal to have continued with fictional narratives. These texts serve to provide a contrast to feminist syntax and word choice. For each of these groups, I will be analyzing each text individually and then each set as a whole. I will then set these overall findings of each set up against one another to first make a claim about feminist and anti-feminist language, and then use this in support of my analysis of the core corpus (“The Eyre Arc”) in order to discuss the significance of adaptations within literature through the ability to track shifts in social movements.

I plan to utilize methods of distant reading, text mining, and topic modeling to analyzing my sources. Distant reading is the act of “understanding literature not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data,” (Schultz). This is to say that one does not focus on the narrative and reading each word, but just looks distantly at certain results. Distant readings allow for a number of different types of textual analysis to happen at the same time within a large corpus of texts. One of these techniques is text mining. Text mining refers to “the process of examining large collections of documents to discover new information or help answer specific research questions…[it] identifies facts, relationships and assertions that would otherwise remain buried in the mass of textual big data,” (“What Is Text Mining”). Utilizing programs to look at specific word usage and phrasing is one way this technique is accomplished. Lastly, topic modeling refers specifically to “a technique that automatically identifies groups of words that tend to occur together in a large collection of documents,” (Goldstone). This is beneficial to understanding the ways in which certain words or phrasing helps to describe the ideas of a given time period and creates meaning surrounding these connections.

The programs I will be utilizing to distantly read and text mine these works are Antconc and Voyant. More specifically, I will be utilizing the N-gram feature on AntConc to search specifically for “she” and “he” pronouns and corresponding verbs – both in each individual work of literature as well as for all three smaller groupings of text. The N-gram feature on AntConc preforms many functions. Not only does it pull clustered phrases based on the searched word, but it also tracks how many times that cluster is used in comparison to other clusters. For this project, I am less concerned with frequency, and much more focused on the first appearance of what I am calling “action” verbs – or verbs that describe what an individual is actively doing as opposed to verbs like “was”, “is”, etc. I will also utilize the graphing feature in Voyant to track uses of these pronouns across the three respective groupings of text. I choose these tools as they offer clear results for analysis and easy to understand data visualizations.
After running these tests in AntConc’s N-gram search feature, I scrolled past verbs like “was,” “is,” and other non-action verbs. For this analysis, I will only be analyzing novel action verbs.

The Eyre Arc


There are only slight differences in the verb usage as it corresponds to women and men in Jane Eyre. I am most interested in the notion of asking vs. answering here. Women are seen as asking (appeared 12 times), while men are seen as answering (appeared 14 times). This might allude to an understanding that, although women have the agency to ask, they do not yet have the agency to answer. Moreover, the idea as well that women wish is an interesting one – almost as though women are more future thinking when compared to their male counterparts who not relay as much on social change that comes with time.

There is already a shift we can see in Wide Sargasso Sea, as women are no longer simply asking, but are answering (appeared 6 times). They also tell (8 times), as do men (5 times), alluding to the idea that men and women could be more equally aligned in this period of time.

The verb usage in All Hallows at Eyre Hall is much more emotional than in the previous texts. Women love (8 times), think (7 times), feel (6 times). The verb usage for men in this novel seems to be fairly consistent with that of the other two novels – men are not stripped of their agency, but they remain fairly stagnant in their position – continuing to answer (10 times).

Across the “Eyre Arc” set, women are seen answering (15 times) and wishing (15 times). Men are seen answering (26 times) and wanting (18 times). Though the terminology aligning with men seems more domineering, women are seen as actively participating, which in and of itself is a feminist ideal. The included graph created by Voyant is one which demonstrates the usage of the pronouns “he” and “she” overtime in these three novels. It is interesting 1) that “he” is always utilized more, 2) that we notice a dip in the use of both gendered pronouns in the 1960’s, and 3) that in the 21st century the usage of the two pronouns is growing closer together.

3 Centuries of Feminist Literature


In Wuthering Heights, women answer (27 times), ask (12 times), reply (19 times) – all strong action verbiage that alludes to a sense of agency and autonomy. This is an interesting contrast to Jane Eyre, leading me to wonder why Charlotte Bronte did not feel that she could include such associations with women. Was this a purposeful choice? Men in this context continue along the same lines as with other texts: answering (46 times), adding (14 times), looking (12 times).

The gendered verb usage in Valley of the Dolls come across very distinctly to me. Men appear passive: looking (2 times), nodding (2 times), adding (1 time); while women appear active: arriving (2 times), handing (2 times), insisting (2 times), thinking (2 times). This seems to be the most apparently “feminist” novel of the bunch.

The results from Big Little Lies are fascinating. In the entire book, there were only 10 hits for gendered verbs connected with the pronoun “he”, all of which are incredibly passive – mentioning (1 time), staggering (1 time). Women, on the other hand, take (2 times), want (2 times), accompany (1 time), adjust (1 time), analyze (1 time) – all active and participatory verbs that signal agency and autonomy.

In the “3 Centuries of Feminist Lit” corpus, women are answering (27 times), asking (14 times), and feeling (16 times). Men are replying (36 times), answering (46 times), and looking (14 times). In this context, women seem to possess an interesting mix of emotional and active verbiage, whereas men continue along the same lines as before. The Voyant graph shows that in fact the use of the pronoun “she” has gone down on a steady incline, while the use of the word “he” has become incredibly popular. It was in the 1960s novel that the two pronouns were equally distributed – further solidifying the notion that Valley of the Dolls may indeed be the most forward-thinking feminist novel of the entire corpus.

3 Centuries of Anti-Feminist Literature


In Sex in Education, women follow (2 times), preform (2 times), and persist (2 times) -- which is a word I am reading in this context as something of a negative/passive understanding of womanhood. On the other hand, men choose (1 time), develop (1 time), formulate (1 time), and give (1 time) – all active verbs that present males as being in control.

Washington Confidential presents women as destructive (1 time), accusatory (1 time), and emotional (1 time), but also as choosey (1 time) and constructive (1 time). Men in this context remain, again, stagnant – aligning with wanting (8 times), knowing (8 times), finding (5 times), and living (5 times). Overwhelmingly, women are aligned with verbs that might be understood as something negative when compared to men. While men are made to seen as active learners and livers, women are seen as destructive and emotional.

A much shorter piece, I needed to shift my methodology slightly for this piece, in that I looked at the terms “women” and “men” instead of “she” and “he”. Women are seen voting (1 time), whereas men are seen as oppressing (1 time). It is interesting here that even though this is an inherently conservative text, the modern age promotes the production of more equally balanced portrayals of women in order to reach a wider audience – a fact evident here through this N-gram analysis.

The “3 Centuries of Anti-Feminist Lit” produced interesting overall results. Women are seen graduating (3 times), studying (3 times), and following (2 times), while men are seen doing, wanting (8 times), becoming (7 times), and knowing (8 times). It is abundantly clear in this context that men are seen as the more active participants with agency. What is intriguing, however, is the Voyant graph which expresses that gendered verb became as distantly separated as ever in the 1960’s, which when compared to the “3 Centuries of Feminist Lit” corpus is complicated to think about. Maybe this was a response to more openly feminists texts?


Across the “Eyre Arc” set, women are seen answering (15 times) and wishing (15 times). Men are seen answering (26 times) and wanting (18 times). Though the terminology aligning with men seems more domineering, women are seen as actively participating, which in and of itself is a feminist ideal. The included graph created by Voyant is one which demonstrates the usage of the pronouns “he” and “she” overtime in these three novels. It is interesting 1) that “he” is always utilized more, 2) that we notice a dip in the use of both gendered pronouns in the 1960’s, and 3) that in the 21st century the usage of the two pronouns is growing closer together.

In the “3 Centuries of Feminist Lit” corpus, women are answering (27 times), asking (14 times), and feeling (16 times). Men are replying (36 times), answering (46 times), and looking (14 times). In this context, women seem to possess an interesting mix of emotional and active verbiage, whereas men continue along the same lines as before. The Voyant graph shows that in fact the use of the pronoun “she” has gone down on a steady incline, while the use of the word “he” has become incredibly popular. It was in the 1960s novel that the two pronouns were equally distributed – further solidifying the notion that Valley of the Dolls may indeed be the most forward-thinking feminist novel of the entire corpus.

The “3 Centuries of Anti-Feminist Lit” produced interesting overall results. Women are seen graduating (3 times), studying (3 times), and following (2 times), while men are seen doing, wanting (8 times), becoming (7 times), and knowing (8 times). It is abundantly clear in this context that men are seen as the more active participants with agency. What is intriguing, however, is the Voyant graph which expresses that gendered verb became as distantly separated as ever in the 1960’s, which when compared to the “3 Centuries of Feminist Lit” corpus is complicated to think about. Maybe this was a response to more openly feminists texts?

Multiple notable findings emerge when working to interpret the data found when running these three “mini corpuses” of text through AntConc and Voyant. When comparing the three sets of text to one another, it is clear to me that the general alignment of a piece of writing with feminist or antifeminist ideas can be acknowledged even on a distant reading level. In the antifeminist works, women are seen studying and following, while men are seen doing, wanting, becoming, and knowing. Men are perceived as active participants whereas women are seen as followers. The word studying is an interesting one – one which distantly connotes the same understanding as the word following, but in an oddly more specific way.

In the feminist groupings however, women are seen wishing, giving, and smiling, whereas men are seen answering, speaking, and wanting. These are interesting understandings of the respective genders. Women are aligned with not only action verbs, but also verbs that align with some sort of emotion (smiling, wishing). They are actively participating, but yet not presented as soulless or emotionless. In an article by Cheryl Hercus entitled ““Identity, Emotion, and Feminist Collective Action,” this notion of emotion and feminist collective action is discussed. She writes that “individuals who became involved in social movements were viewed as rational agents who weighed the costs and benefits before choosing to participate…a false dichotomy between reason and emotion [was created], which has been extensively criticized by feminist scholars both inside and outside of the social movements field,” (Hercus 34). This is to say that, in a masculine society, emotion is not supported as being a part of a movement of change (let’s say for example: war). The feminist movement, and very obviously in feminist literature, we see scholars pushing back against this notion, allowing for emotion to enter into a space of change, and I would argue actively working to separate from traditional notions of masculinity and power, highlighting that emotion can still be a source of agency. Moreover, the ways in which men are seen more passively looking, wanting, and taking, aligns heavily with the notions of voyeurism brought up in Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” – one that highlights the “pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within [male] individual subject and the social formations that have molded him,” (Mulvey 360). This is to say that men, from a psychoanalysis perspective, are in some ways socially groomed to actively observe women in such a way that they come to understand that she is there for their observation. Women are in many ways presented to continue perpetuating this idea – they are objectified as a way of putting male sexual desire first, thus working to limit female agency. Presenting men in this more passive way in feminist novels seems to work to highlight this notion, set in contrast with actively participating women as a way of pointing out the simple ways in which this antiquated understanding of society can (and should) fail.

Finally, in looking specifically at the “The Eyre Arc” corpus, we can begin to see, as I predicted, the shifting of feminist ideas across 1st, 2nd, and 3rd wave feminist movements. Women begin at their most passive moment in Jane Eyre – still asking and wishing. Asking and wishing for the right to vote and participate in society, which seems appropriate given that this book came as a precursor to even what many consider to be the beginning of first wave feminism. Asking and wishing, in this way, is inherently feminist in that women sought to become more involved in the development of their agency. We move then to the 1960s where women begin arriving, insisting, and thinking. During this time, women were seeking more control over their lives, equal opportunity, and freedom – all of which required the act of insisting and thinking. Women had more freedom to vocalize their opinions during this time, a fact apparent through the differences in verb choice between Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea. Finally, we see women, in the 21st century, liking, loving, thinking, feeling. We return here to the ideas previously addressed – that moving away from the passive verbiage of first wave feminism in the 1800s and more emotionless ideas of second wave feminism in the 1960s, to allowing for the inclusion of emotions to be a part of the portrayal of strong female characters. Emotion, and acknowledgement of feeling, as a source of strength is an idea in line with the notions of the Anita Hill and #MeToo movements which sought to bring trauma to the forefront of society’s mind and the way in women are able to overcome.
This experiment successfully shows that the data revealed by the text analysis tools establishes how the portrayal of women and men (in a certain time and setting) changes to reflect the era of the writer. In doing so this data demonstrates the potential to apply this method at scale, perhaps in ways that promote the analysis of the works of authors currently overlooked by most, particularly women writers. By putting my “Eyre Arc” set against two other mini corpus that focus on the language of feminist and anti-feminist thought, we begin to confirm what type of syntactical structures are innately feminist during a given time, which in turn allows us to look more critically at the adaptations themselves. Within these adaptations of feminism, we begin to see the ways in which we might examine adaptations of literature as bringing a fictional world into the modern world and understandings.

This experiment is one I would like to further expand to examine other feminist adaptions and create a larger corpus of what could be considered feminist syntax structure. I would also love to examine (and/or interview) authors to discuss if these choices to present gendered characters in different ways that align with a modern movement is purposeful or a subconscious action. Moreover, I think that this way of analyzing texts and formulating a corpus could be utilized to examine other social movements across history through literature, such as the push for racial equality and LGBTQ+ movements. This way of understanding the intersection of literature, adaptation, history, and social change is one I believe has the ability to shed a new light on the ways we interpret literature within society and the ways in which social movements underscore our understanding and depiction of the world.
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Bronte, Emily. “Wuthering Heights.” The Project Gutenberg, Dec. 1996, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/768/768-h/768-h.htm.

Clarke, Edward H. “Sex in Education.” The Project Gutenberg, 5 June 2006, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/18504/18504-h/18504-h.htm.

Goldstone, Andrew, and Ted Underwood. “What Can Topic Models of PMLA Teach Us about the History of Literary Scholarship?” ARCADE, https://arcade.stanford.edu/blogs/what-can-topic-models-pmla-teach-us-about-history-literary-scholarship.

Grady, Constance. “The Waves of Feminism, and Why People Keep Fighting over Them, Explained.” Vox, Vox, 20 Mar. 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/3/20/16955588/feminism-waves-explained-first-second-third-fourth.

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Hercus, Cheryl. “Identity, Emotion, and Feminist Collective Action.” Gender and Society, vol. 13, no. 1, Sage Publications, Inc., 1999, pp. 34–55, http://www.jstor.org/stable/190239.

Lait, Jack, and Lee Mortimer. “Washington Confidential.” The Project Gutenberg, 29 Nov. 2021, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/63469/pg63469-images.html.

Moriarty, Liane. Big Little Lies. Berkley, 2019.

Mulvey, Laura, and Scott MacKenzie. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2014, pp. 359–70, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt5vk01n.109.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. W.W. Norton & Co., 1999.

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