Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Reason vs. emotion in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley

Mila Whiteley
Fairfax, Virginia, United States

Portrait of Charlotte Bronte, 1873. Painted by Evert A. Duyckinck, based on a drawing by George Richmond, University of Texas Collection.

Charlotte Brontë’s 1849 Shirley is often considered a “Condition of England” novel, due to its exploration of various social, political, and religious issues of the time. One of the most prevalent themes throughout the book is the role of women (and by extension the role of men) in society. During the Victorian period, the lines between the feminine and masculine were sharply drawn, yet still unavoidably transgressed. According to the standards of masculinity and femininity, men were meant to be rational and effectual, while women were controlled by their emotions and easily led astray by them. In Shirley, the character of Caroline Helstone supports this feminine stereotype, sickening from grief to the point of near death due to her belief that her love Robert Burns is going to marry the titular character of Shirley. However, while one would assume she could be helped by the masculine and powerful presence of a doctor, medicine is surprisingly impotent; it is only after discovering that her good friend Mrs. Pryor is her mother that Caroline rediscovers her will to live. Though one would expect the male gendered profession of a doctor to take control of Caroline’s illness, it is only through the distinctly female outpouring of emotion that Caroline can heal, creating tension within the dichotomy of female and male power.

During the Victorian era, behaviors and professions were strongly gendered. Men were meant to be active and driven, with skills in reason and logic, while women were expected to devote their energy to childrearing, an occupation suited to their highly only emotional states (Ingham, 2006, p. 176). The characteristics of reason and ambition fit in with a career in science and medicine transforming the role of the doctor into a masculine vocation. Indeed, although more women attempted to become doctors, their foray into medicine was protested vigorously by the male authority. This opposition was based on the scientific study of the time, which implied that “medical practice and study would harm women’s heath—particularly their reproductive health—and unsex them” (Swenson, 2005, p.87). Victorian doctors believed that a woman’s health and energy were centered on her reproductive system. A women’s energy was meant to be used for the birthing and rearing of children. If she spent her energy on other occupations, it was seen not only as a waste of her reproductive abilities but also as a potential threat to her health. Due to the instability of a monthly physical cycle such as that of menstruation, “the seeds of hysteria were always present within a female human being; women were by their very nature, always on the urge of mental illness” (Teachman, 2001, p. 114-15). Based on this diagnosis, women were unsuited for a powerful, hard science career such as medicine, where practitioners were not only expected to assert reason but also the will power to control their bodily and cerebral processes.

In Shirley, there are a few instances when the principal female characters allow their emotions to overcome not only their good sense but also their health. One exemplary example is expressed through the character of Caroline Helstone. Caroline Helstone is in love with her neighbor Robert Burns. Unfortunately, Robert needs to marry for money and as an orphan Caroline has no prospects; however, her friend Shirley is an heiress. Beginning to suspect that Robert is interested in Shirley romantically, Caroline languishes into a depression that is slowly draining the life out of her. The powerful physical effects of her emotional anguish support the idea that women’s passionate emotions can overpower them. After seeing Robert, Caroline goes to bed at night, “in good health, as she imagined. On waking the next morning she felt oppressed from unwanted languor…palatable food was sawdust and ashes to her” (Brontë, 2007, p. 351). Without her love, Caroline begins to waste away, not leaving her bed except for a brief trip to the window in order to get just a small glimpse of Robert (Brontë, 2007, p.355). Caroline’s inability to care for herself and overcome her love for Robert Burns fits in with the idea that when women experience powerful emotions they can naturally and easily deteriorate into womanly illnesses such as depression and hysteria. The heavy physical toll on women’s emotions leaves them dependent on masculine rationality to save them from themselves.

However, in the case of Shirley’s Caroline, no masculine figure comes to rescue her from her lovesickness. Robert Burns is unaware that Caroline is very sick, as she has sent out messages, to his sister, specifically, saying that she simply has a cold. When the doctor came to see her, he only “wrote some prescriptions, gave some directions —the whole with an air of crushing authority- pocketed his fee and went. Probably, he knew well enough he could do no good; but didn’t like to say so” (Brontë, 2007, p. 354). While the doctor has masculine authority through his profession, he is unable to help Caroline, instead simply sending her off with platitudes. Through the sentence, “Probably, he knew well enough he could do no good; but didn’t like to say so,” the narrator expresses doubt at the doctor’s masculine action, doubt the reader cannot help but relate to. Caroline’s uncle is similarly unable to help cure Caroline’s illness or care for her in hard times. Thus, in the face of sickness and death, the men and their medicine are deemed impotent and unable to act, even as caretakers.

The role of the nurse is left for the women of the household. While all of the servants aid in Caroline’s care, it is Mrs. Pryor, Shirley’s governess (and unbeknownst to Caroline, Caroline’s mother) who rises to the occasion. As soon as she sees Caroline’s state, “Mrs. Pryor made it [the sickroom] her domain: she performed all the duties; she lived in it day and night…loneliness and gloom were now banished from her [Caroline’s] bedside; protection and solace sat there instead” (Brontë, 2007, p.353). The narrator’s use of the words “protection and solace” implies a comfort that was not being provided by the masculine figures within the novel. Indeed, it is Mrs. Pryor who ends up saving Caroline, through her confession of maternal love. Caroline has never felt as if she has any family other than her uncle, and with Robert seemingly lost, she has lost her will to live. However, after Mrs. Pryor confesses that Caroline is her daughter, Caroline regains some hope of love, saying, “But if you are my mother, the world is all changed for me. Surely I can live—I should live to recover—” (Brontë, 2007, p. 362). Caroline’s feelings of loneliness and grief are overcome by her will to live after discovering her mother. By providing support and affection, Mrs. Pryor is providing a “remedy for hypochondria depression: someone to love and be loved by” (Ingham, 2006, p.178). As Caroline rediscovers her survival instinct, the emotional propensity which caused her feminine weakness in the first place allows her to recover, bringing her back to life in way that doctors could not.

The impotence of medicine, particularly doctors, is emphasized once Caroline regains some interest in her life. After discovering the truth about her mother, Caroline almost instantly begins to struggle to regain her strength, requesting her uncle provide some company and food. Seeing Caroline’s happiness and worried that it is simply the result of fever, he goes to call for a doctor, only for Caroline to say “No: I don’t want a doctor; mama shall be my only physician” (Brontë, 2007, p.367). Through this statement, the masculine reason is displaced for the affection and love provided by a mother. Although in Shirley Caroline Helstone is seemingly controlled by her emotions, in reality, her emotions give her more agency than all the science that doctors could offer her. Though her emotion of love caused Caroline to waste away, in the end, it is also what brought her back to life, in a way that reason could not. It is hard to say whether Charlotte Brontë meant something through the transgression of male reason with female emotion. Is it a statement about the condition of masculinity during Victorian times? Or is it simply a reflection of Charlotte’s life experiences, in which family members continued to die despite access to the medicine of the day. No matter what her motive, it is clear that both reason and emotion have agency within a human life, and that neither side can be defined as powerful or impotent.


  1. Brontë, C. (2007). Shirley. Oxford, GB: OUP Oxford. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com
  2. Ingham, P. (2006). The Brontës and the Psyche: Mind and Body. In The Bröntes (Authors in Context, pp. 155-183). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  3. Swenson, K. (2005). Medical Women and Victorian Fiction. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
  4. Teachman, D. (2001). Madness and Victorian Women: Diagnosis and Treatment. In Understanding Jane Eyre: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents (“Literature in Context” Series, pp. 111-155). Wesport, Conn: Greenwood Publishing Group.

MILA H. WHITELEY graduated from Gettysburg College in 2015 with a degree in English. Since graduating, she has been teaching in Ecuador and investing time in her interest in other cultures and classic literature.

Spring 2016 



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.