Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre - Reading with Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
Reading with Literary Theory

Feminist Theory * New Historicism * Postcolonial Studies * Ethnic Studies

Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre offers the reader numerous avenues for interpretation. Most prominent since its publication in 1847 have been interpretations that focus on the representation of women. Feminist theory, particularly that form of it that emphasizes issues of social and sexual equality, has found a rich resource, even a kind of foundational text, in Jane Eyre. As a Bildungsroman, Jane Eyre records a young woman's self-formation, her struggle to harmonize her own desire with the demands placed on her by society. This struggle takes many different forms: reason v. passion, self v. society, self-fulfillment v. social duty, passive obedience v. active rebellion, self-mastery v. slavery, wife v. concubine. The polarized nature of these conflicts is symptomatic of the image we have of Jane and that she has of herself: a divided self, a SUBJECT torn between responsibilities to herself and to society. This self-division is reflected in her chosen occupation of governess, one of the few positions open to single women of modest means; but this role is ambiguous (she is both part of the household and an employee in it) and therefore stands for the uncertain and confusing status of women in Victorian society.

In the end, however, it is not clear if Jane ever effectively transcends or repairs her divided selfhood. Her desire for liberty - “I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer” - is dampened and fi nally set aside in an unrelenting DIALECTIC of diminished choices. “I abandoned it and framed a humbler supplication; for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space: ’Then,' I cried, half desperate, ’grant me at least a new servitude!' ” (72). Jane's desire for a “new servitude” is to some degree a capitulation to the very PATRIARCHAL social order that restricts her life options to begin with. But it is also a sign of Jane's AGENCY, of her willful acceptance of social responsibility. Jane's powerful feelings for Rochester - “He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun” (234) - signal her enslavement to patriarchal authority. Indeed, Jane frequently uses the language of slavery to describe her relationship with Rochester. His Gothic intensity and energy “were more than beautiful to me” she notes: “they were full of an interest, an influence that quite mastered me” (149). However, it is possible to argue that Jane appropriates the language of slavery to assert her own authority and AUTONOMY. When Rochester makes an implicit comparison between her and “ ’the grand Turk's whole seraglio; gazelle-eyes, houri forms and all!,' ” Jane responds in mutinous terms: “ ’I'll be preparing myself to go out as a missionary to preach liberty to them that are enslaved - your harem inmates amongst the rest.' ” She adds that Rochester will find himself “fettered amongst our hands” and forced to “sign[] a charter, the most liberal that despot ever yet conferred' ” (229-30). Jane Eyre is an AMBIVALENT text, unable decisively to assert Jane's dependence or independence.

As I have suggested above, Jane's ambivalence is partly a function of her position in Rochester's household. A New Historicist approach might focus on the socio-historical grounds for this ambivalence. In Jane Eyre, Bronte famously indicts institutions like Lowood School, dedicated to producing “proper” young ladies the best of whom, like Jane, go on to become governesses for the upper classes, teaching their students the same skills they themselves have learned. Jane attends a school populated by orphans and unwanted children and is fortunate enough to succeed and go on to teach herself. In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, the time-frame of Jane Eyre, there was no formal system of education available for women. After the formation of the national school system in the 1830s, there were some improvements. By the mid- 1840s, when Bronte was writing, primary and some secondary education were fairly widely available. By setting her novel in the recent past, Bronte was able dramatically to point up the paucity of educational and occupational opportunities for women. Jane's relationship with her long- lost cousin, St. John Rivers, underscores another historical context in the novel. Rivers is a minister, and his calvinism underscores both the social importance of religion, especially its missionary programs, and the severity of his religious authority. “ ’I am not a pagan,' ” he tells Jane, “ ’but a Christian philosopher - a follower of the sect of Jesus. As His disciple I adopt His pure, His merciful, His benignant doctrines. I advocate them: I am sworn to spread them' ” (320). His advocacy is very much a part of the patriarchal social order that limits Jane to subservient roles. Moreover, Rivers' insistence that she learn Hindustani in preparation to join him on a mission to India situates her within a specific historical context: the consolidation of British colonial power in India. That Jane resists the passive historical role foisted upon her is testimony not only to her strength of character, to her unwillingness to be conscripted into a colonialist enterprise, but also to Bronte's dissatisfaction with Protestant missionary activities. By depicting Jane's challenge to the limited agency offered to her by male authority figures (Rochester and Rivers), Bronte undermines the historical authority of the Church and the aristocracy. Though Jane's job as a schoolmistress, which she enters into while staying with her cousin, and her subsequent marriage to Rochester limit the efficacy of her challenge, her negotiation of these positions, together with her critique of patriarchy, calls into question the univocal authority of a historical narrative that subordinates women to male power.

Edward Said has argued that novels like Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, when subjected to critical examination, reveal the colonialist substructure of early nineteenth-century British society. A similar critical expose is possible with Jane Eyre, for Rochester's fortune is derived from plantations he controls as a result of his marriage to Bertha Mason, a West Indian CREOLE (i.e., a European born in the Caribbean). On this view, Bronte's novel indirectly depicts the social impact of COLONIALISM on the English upper classes, specifically the way that colonial fortunes enabled those classes to maintain their social and cultural privileges. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is the “mad woman in the attic,” a literal prisoner but also a powerful symbol for the colonial OTHERNESS that Rochester attempts to repress by locking her up. It is clear from Rochester's account of his marriage that he has been tricked into marrying a woman of mixed race. To Jane he speaks of “ ’vile discoveries' ” and the “ ’treachery of concealment' ”; her nature is “ ’wholly alien to mine,' ” he confesses, “ ’her tastes obnoxious to me; her cast of mind common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher, expanded to anything larger… . What a pigmy intellect she had - and what giant propensities!' ” (261). Rochester's language identifies Bertha as racially Other; her “alien” nature and “pigmy” intellect, her sexual openness and fondness for alcohol, were at that time qualities typically associated with SUBALTERN peoples. Moreover, the contrast with Jane identifies Jane herself as a version of the emblematic “English lady,” the symbol of English values, of what colonialism and Christian missionary work are meant to instill in the barbaric peoples of Africa, India, and the Caribbean. The rebellion that Jane threatens to instigate should Rochester try to entrap her in a harem-like subservience testifies to her unwillingness to be identified as a colonized Other. But her subsequent marriage to him undermines her rebellious intentions by suggesting that, in the end, Jane is complicit in a colonial social order. Once again, Jane's (and Bronte's) ambivalence challenges the master narrative of historical destiny according to which Europe takes upon itself the authority to rule the subaltern races of the world.

The postcolonial critique of Jane Eyre is deepened and extended when read alongside Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel that tells the repressed story of the colonized OTHER, Bertha Mason (whose real name, we discover, is Antoinette). Set mostly in the Caribbean, Rhys's novel attempts not only to give substance to Bertha's character but also to reveal the precise nature of Rochester's involvement in the plantation system in the West Indies. Rhys's postcolonial critique ofJane Eyre dovetails with an Ethnic Studies approach that emphasizes problems of race and miscegenation. Wide Sargasso Sea avoids the kind of character assassination we see in Jane Eyre and tackles the problem of Antoinette's racial heritage through a more or less straightforward exposition of her background. In a powerful scene, Rochester confronts Daniel Cosway, the man he believes to be Antoinette's brother, and becomes increasingly hysterical in his dealings with his wife. He is drawn to Antoinette's sensuality, but at the same time repelled by the Otherness that she represents. She is soon associated in his mind with an unfriendly native environment. Just before Antoinette tells her mother's story, Rochester thinks, “the feeling of something unknown and hostile was very strong.” Then he tells her, “ ’I feel very much a stranger here … I feel that this place is my enemy and on your side' ” (78). He tries to efface this Otherness (he renames her “Bertha”), but Antoinette is surrounded by women who remind him of it. Amelia, a young servant, represents an object of forbidden desire - the purely racial Other - on whom Rochester is able to displace his desire for the equally forbidden Antoinette. Christophine is a more troubling figure, for she is a self-reliant, independent native woman, a practitioner of obeah, an Afro-Caribbean form of shamanism that is used as a weapon of resistance to the colonial authority that Rochester represents. When Antoinette asks Christophine to use obeah to make Rochester love her, she is attempting to use native resources to overcome her husband's European prejudices. Christophine warns her against this strategy. “ ’So you believe in that tim-tim story about obeah, you hear when you so high? All that foolishness and folly. Too besides, that is not for beke [white person]. Bad, bad trouble come when beke meddle with that' ” (67-68). As a Creole, however, Antoinette is neither Afro-Caribbean nor beke, so it is unclear how she ought to understand Christophine's words. Her fall into madness is a psychic response, a turning inward and away from a social world in which she is neither native nor European, but rather a “white nigger” caught in the middle of a colonial DIALECTIC. Her mother was “driven” mad in a very similar way. But this madness is not a sign of “a pigmy intellect” or of “giant propensities,” as Bronte has Rochester claim in Jane Eyre. It is rather a response to a profound sense of alienation and displacement. By the time Antoinette arrives in England, she succumbs to what Bronte herself called “moral madness” but she more closely resembles the Afro-Caribbean zombi, “a dead person who seems to be alive or a living person who is dead” (64). In the final scene, Antoinette (as Bertha) awakens after dreaming of Tia, the girl who had taunted her at the novel's beginning for being a “white nigger.” She takes up her candle and with resolve sets out to set fire to Thornfield. As we know from a few short sentences in Jane Eyre, Bertha dies in the fire. Rhys rewrites this conclusion, suggesting identity or union with the native Other in a purgative fire that transforms painful ambivalence into a joyful unity of difference.


Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Richard J. Dunn. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2001.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: Norton, 1999.