This page last revised 21st May 2001.
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has been considered as a potentially subversive and revolutionary text because of its – and its author – social and political position. Jane Eyre is a young woman, orphan and low born, who fights for emancipation and liberty. She wants to lead her life independently without any external control. As a little girl, she was the incarnation of rebellion. Having been adopted by the Reed family and being treated unfairly, the prospect of a happy life was particularly little. Later on, as a pupil at Lowood she was characterized as disobedient, servant of Evil and liar, by Brocklehurst. Despite all these, Jane manages to provide herself with a lower middle class education, which enables her to be independent enough to earn a moderate income as a teacher. As a partner of Mr. Rochester, she rejects his despotism, characteristic of a male aristocrat of his era, and is reluctant to be his subordinate. She questions women’s position in society with regard working rights and equal opportunities. She does not comply with the conventional norm which forces women to be restricted to the domestic sphere only. On the contrary she wants to take full advantage of her keen intellect, as a man in her position would normally do. Above all, she, a servant, marries her master, thus disturbing the social order.
Nevertheless, despite the revolutionary potential of the text, the novel, while challenging, reproduces certain imperialistic tenets. It is part of a discursive terrain in which the ideal, unified Enlightment subject is placed, where a fantasy of unity is created by the invocation and subsequent obliteration of the Other subject, differentiated by class, race and gender. In our novel, we find this Other portrayed in the figure of Bertha Mason, the rival of Jane. Bertha represents a threat for the central narrator, yet her fate is closely linked with that of Jane. When criticized that the episodes involving the madwoman were unnaturally exaggerated, Charlotte insisted they were "but too natural", though she thought she had erred in making horror not pity, predominant. But it is exactly horror that we feel when we read the passages in which Bertha is involved. She is represented in a highly hostile way by the author, she constitutes a constant threat to everybody who comes close to her. We first become aware of her existence when Jane hears a "curious, distinct, formal mirthless laugh". Then, for several weeks she often heard that thrilling laugh, and "eccentric murmurs" which constituted sounds only and not proper speech. Soon, it is presumed that the unknown source of these sounds are not made by a human at all: "This door was open; a light shone out of the room within: I heard thence a snarling, snatching sound, almost like a dog quarreling" (p.210 – 11). The representation of this miserable, beast-like creature is being brought to a climax when Bertha attacks and injures by means of biting her own brother, Mr. Mason. The reader inevitably sympathizes with Jane as she, influenced by the violent incident, experiences a delirium of ecstatic horror: "…now St. John’s long hair that moved; and anon the devilish face of Judas, that grew out of the panel and seemed gathering life and threatening a revelation of the arch-traitor – of Satan himself – in his subordinate’s form." (212)
Thus, by the time Briggs intervenes in the wedding ceremony and breaks it off, it is well established that that mysterious figure, hardly human, imprisoned in one of Thornfield’s secret chambers, is dangerous for other people’s life and should be kept in isolation. Bronte is at great pains to persuade us that such a harsh treatment on the part of Rochester is not only justified but necessary as well. First, Bertha’s humanness has to be disputed, degraded. Rochester compares her to Jane: ""That is my wife", said he….And this is what I wished to have (laying his hand on my shoulder): this young girl, who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell, looking collectedly at the gambols of a demon…Wood and Briggs, look at the difference! Compare these clear eyes with the red balls yonder, this face with that mask – this form with that bulk" (296 – 7). Bertha is a beast, a "tigress", a "clothed hyena". She is a dangerous lunatic too. She comes from a family of lunatics; her mother was shut up in an asylum, her younger brother was a "complete dumb idiot". Even those who have no signs of mental disease will "probably be in the same state one day" (310). It is interesting to note here that we are not offered a single hint of Jane’s objections concerning the brutal treatment of the miserable woman. On the contrary, she employs the same vocabulary to describe her, she remains silent when we expect a sort of sympathetic comment on Bertha’s imprisonment. Science, society, religion, Rochester, Jane demand the extermination of Bertha. It is morally and scientifically justified: "since the medical men had pronounced her mad, she had of course been shut up" (312). "See that she is cared for as her condition demands, and you have done all that God and humanity require of you." (313)
Throughout the novel Jane, the central subject, seeks to establish herself through the eradication of other persons/subjects. Azim points out that at the same time it is only in a dialectical relationship with that Other that the central subject can define its own position. In other words, it is through Bertha’s savage state of being that she realizes her self as civilized, through her physical obliteration that she finds her happiness. In all events, whether this Other is Bertha or the Oriental woman (either Turkish or Indian) they have to remain silent, deprived of the right – or unable – to speak.
Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G. and Tiffin, H. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1995.
--- Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
Azim, Firdous. The Colonial Rise of the Novel. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.
Barker, F. Europe and its Others. Colchester: University of Essex, 1985.
Acknowledgements: The second image is a picture of the church of St. Michaels and All Angels, rebuilt in 1879 - 81, which contains the tomb of Charlotte and Emily. Both images were taken from the Matsuoka’s Bronte website.
This page was written by Nikos Karkavelias. Email me with your suggestions.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.