This page was last updated on 8 May 2001
Critical perspectives choose their favoured texts, and Kiplings Kim or Conrads Heart of Darkness would appear to offer more to the field of postcolonial studies than does Brontës Jane Eyre. Frequently regarded as bildungsroman, and therefore suitable for Marxist or feminist critique, the text would not seem to be fruitful as an arena for a postcolonial reading. It is my contention that no matter what Brontës conscious authorial intentions were-and it is not my intention to examine them in this essay-she has deeply inscribed white English anxieties into a discourse of race, empire and chromatic difference. This essay examines Brontës evocations of colour, race and Christian mythology as evoked in Jane Eyre.
It may be argued with some justification that the authors upbringing as part of a clergymans family led to a situation where her Weltanschauung could only be Christian. This seems a self-evident and facile point, but an understanding of this view is central to a postcolonial reading of the text. Anglican doctrine rests on notions of an originally pure state of grace that Man has lost through his own sin. This Garden of Eden may be regained, but only via moral purity. The central motif of Christianity is that the punishment for sin is damnation, while the reward for good works is a place among the chosen in Heaven. While the effects of such a doctrine are clearly manifold, two seem to be overwhelmingly significant. The first is that the good/bad, heaven/hell, God/devil religious dichotomy can lead only to a Manichaean Weltanschaunung, the effects of which are demonstrated in Jane Eyre. The second effect is that the notion of a group of chosen people who have been allowed to dwell in Paradise requires, by extension, a similar group that has been excluded. This produces a mindset that continually accords positional, hierarchical value to the perceived object. The ideology runs something like this: "If my group is good and chosen, then by extension your group, outside the Pale, (literally and metaphorically) must be fallen and rejected". It is my contention that these central tenets of Christianity produced the mindset that wrote Jane Eyre, and thus inscribed the British Empire on a wider field.
Brontës hierarchical response to the perceived world is embedded throughout the text. Eyre observed that "the British peasantry are the best taught, best mannered, most self-respecting of any in Europe: since those days I have seen paysannes and Bäuerinnen; and the best of them seemed to me ignorant, coarse, and besotted ". (434) The principle is clear; once Eyre has sorted her pupils by class-through comparison to her own social standing-she then indulges in re-sorting against inferior foreign models. Instinctively, reflexively and without exception, she defines and judges the observed other against some idealised white middle class Christian norm. Inevitably, with few exceptions-the female Riverses, Rochester, herself-these others are repeatedly found to be faulty or severely lacking.
This attitude is replicated when Eyre encounters the colonies. Rochester suggests that the woman takes up an appointment as tutor to the daughters of "Mrs Dionysius OGall of Bitternutt Lodge, Connaught, Ireland" (282). The stereotypical stock Irish trait of drunkenness is embedded in the Irishwomans first name, as Dionysius is the sensual, unrestrained Greek god of wine. Similarly, her surname, and that of the house, suggest wormwood and gall, the bitter Christian punishments for sin. Eyre is being banished, in a Christian sense, from a state of grace at Thornfield. The desired state is near Rochester, at the house, yet she is being cast out to a place of bitter experience on the margins. For Brontë, the colonies are invaluable as a convenient locus of expiation for submerged sin.
The authors more unsympathetically rendered characters act in similar, though more overt, ways. The narrator ironically observes that Jane, as one of the "anathematized race" is insulted by Mrs Dent: "I am a judge of physiognomy, and in hers I see all the faults of her class" (200). Brontë satirizes 19th-century snobbery, foregrounding an obsession with social status, realized via the now discredited science of judging character through physical appearance. And yet and yet. It appears that when set against her social superiors, Eyre is vulnerable to their snobbery and satirizes it, yet when the white contacts the black, or she gazes on her social inferiors, no such drollery may be seen.
An example of this may be discerned when Rochester describes Berthas family. The point of departure here must be that her mother is described as "Creole" (326). Although the meanings of the word are complex, for the purposes of this essay I shall take that of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, which is "a person of mixed European and Negro descent". Even if the case is that her mother is white, or "racially pure", Brontës use of the term indicates an "other" to the white of Rochester, or she would merely have used the term English. Stemming from semantically/racially uncertain origins, Bertha is "mad", "of a mad family; -idiots and maniacs through three generations" (326). Her mother was "mad", her younger brother "a complete dumb idiot", while her elder has a "feeble mind" (344). Berthas total unsuitability as a wife for Rochester is delineated thus: "I found her nature wholly alien to mine; her tastes obnoxious to me; her cast of mind common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher" (344). Tellingly, she is in possession of a "pigmy intellect" (345). This term acts in two ways. Clearly, it means that she was of limited mental power, but also "pigmy" may be defined as coming from India or Ethiopia. Thus by subtle means the native is inscribed as small and inferior, in both physical and mental terms. If this conversation had been reproduced in the mode of the earlier conversation with Mrs Dent, then the narrator/Eyre would have made wry, ironic interpolations as to the weaknesses and prejudices inherent in Rochesters narrative. Yet these are absent; she simply takes a tearful, passive stance as she listens: "I pity you-I do earnestly pity you" (345). When a haughty and scornful gaze is visited on Eyre, a narrative voice elicits sympathy from the reader; yet when the racially suspect Creole is examined from the Christian viewpoint, nothing but horror and revulsion will suffice.
Bertha Mason (Courtesy of Rochester Films Ltd.).
Bertha is employed by Brontë to reinforce traditional Occidental representations of the racial other. Rochesters first wife is portrayed as sexually predatory and over active. She had no "modesty" (344), "her vices sprang up fast and rank" (345), she had "giant propensities" and was "unchaste" (345). Although Rochester is aware of "the loathings of incongruous unions" (350), he must highlight that "debauchery" is the vice of his "Indian Messalina" (350). For Brontë, the crime and the race are coterminous; sexual licentiousness and the native are represented as one and inseparable.
The impact of these revelations on the 19th-century Christian woman reader cannot be overstated. At a time when the favoured characteristics of the white female were that she should be silent, unassuming, chaste, modest and blushing, the vision of a female "monster" (348) with a "discoloured savage face" (317) that was sexually rapacious, would have raised or reinforced deep anxiety towards the native. Whether this process of inscribing the other was conscious or unconscious on Brontës part is irrelevant. The words are on the page, and she is implicated in a process whereby the person from the colonial margin is portrayed as eternally mad, bad and sexually dangerous.
Brontë frequently represents the world as a series of bipolar opposites, in an unsophisticated process of epistemological inscription. When seeking sexual comfort in Europe, Rochester looks for "the antipodes of the Creole" (349). Here, the native can only have a polar geographical and racial opposite. St. John Rivers describes his aims as "carrying knowledge into the realms of ignorance-of substituting peace for war-freedom for bondage-religion for superstition-the hope of heaven for the fear of hell" (417). Persistently, for Brontë, complex issues can only have an antithesis. For Rochester, Rivers is described as "tall, fair, blue-eyed", while his alter ego, himself, is "a Vulcan, a real blacksmith, brown" (490).
Helen Burns states that "Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine; but Christians and civilized nations disown it" (68). When living in the colonial periphery, Rochester feels a "wind fresh from Europe" and then a "sweet wind from Europe" (347). Here there is madness and storms; there one may find solace and zephyrs. It appears that not only is there an absence of lunacy in Europe, but the weather is better there also. Repeatedly, Brontës world rests on two opposites, one good, and the other evil. These dichotomies are born out of, and reinscribe, Christian mythology. It is as a development out of these opposites that the Christian will to civilise the savage, and build an empire grew.
While the bipolar oppositions outlined above are relatively complex constructions, they ignore the chromatic structure on which much of the text is based. A leitmotif of the work is that of the white and the black. For Brontë, black=uncontrolled/savage, while white=Christian/educated. Throughout the text, black signifies ugly, as in "dark skin" (22), "ugly old creature black as a crock" (217); or foreign and by extension inferior, as in "dark as a Spaniard" (196). Necessarily, for the author, black must have its antithesis, and this is the positive white. An attractive house has a "white door" (367), the road to salvation at Riverss cottage is "white" (371), the virginal Diana has a white hand (390), while the saintly Miss Rosamond is "clad in pure white" (405). Rochester promises Jane a "white-washed cottage" where she will lead a "happy, and guarded, and most innocent life" (342). The two terms serve as much more than simple opposites. More than positive and negative, they denote beauty/ugliness, cosy domesticity/the wild, virgin sexuality/promiscuity, cleanliness/dirt, civilised/savage, sentient/mad. The majority of the "black" references in the text occur in the early and central sections of the text, at the low points of the narrative, such as Berthas madness, while those concerning the white tend to appear towards the end, as Eyres fortunes improve.
As the white references increase towards the end of the text, they signal a progression to a complex series of literary moves that are centrally imbricated with Judaeo-Christian notions of the Fall and redemption through self-sacrifice. Eyre finds herself at a place called Whit[e]cross, which boasts a whitewashed cross with "Four arms". It is no accident that at this stage of desperation in her life, when she wishes "my Maker had that night thought good to require my soul of me" (365), that she can see a cross. This cross represents Calvary, and heralds the advent of the "inexorable" (408) and fanatical St. John Rivers. The missionarys name signals his origin, in that John the Baptist and the river Jordan are central icons of Christian mythology. It is at this stage in the narrative that the importance of empire becomes apparent.
William Carey, English Baptist Missionary to India.
Died Serampore, India, 9th June, 1834.
(Courtesy of Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives)
St. John Rivers is an allegorical figure, signifying both Christ on the cross, and the white mans burden in empire. India is realised as a place in which good white people sacrifice themselves on a metaphorical cross and die. Oliver considers that "going out" [to India] was "quite throwing a valuable life away" (413); Eyre feels that St. John Rivers would lay "his genius out to wither, and his strength to waste, under a tropical sun" (416), and that if she goes to India, it would "be almost equivalent to committing suicide" (461). The text closes with Riverss Biblical death. Because of his self-revulsion at his carnal desire for Rosamond, and his absolute Christian belief in the rightness, and whiteness, of the British cause in India, he knows he must expiate his sins through a blood sacrifice on the altar of India. It is only Eyres prescience, and desire for Rochester, that saves her from a similar fate.
It seems that a Christian viewpoint led Brontë to view the world as a series of bipolar oppositions. From this Weltanschaunung it was a natural progression to an instinctive and continual value judgement on those she saw around her. Visions of India became convenient tropes of a place of death where Man might expiate his sins. To argue that Brontë did not intend a certain effect, or that her text is merely the product of a 19th-century sensibility, is to wilfully miss the point. The tropes embedded in the text must stand independent of the circumstances of their production and authorial intent. A postcolonial reading, narrow and problematic as it may be, is no more or less valid than any other. Jane Eyre is a rich vein of material for a postcolonial reading, and it is my regret that time and space preclude a deeper critique of the text.
The Imperial Archive http://www.qub.ac.uk/english/imperial/imperial.htm
The Victorian Web http://landow.stg.brown.edu/victorian/cbronte/bronteov.html
University of Maryland Jane Eyre online http://www.inform.umd.edu/EdRes/ReadingRoom/Fiction/CBronte/JaneEyre/
Bertha Mason image courtesy of Rochester Films Ltd., 1995. Image taken from http://www.angelfire.com/nc/janeeyre/moviepics.html
William Carey image courtesy of Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives "Biographies". http://www.sbhla.org/bio_carey.htm
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin Books, 1996.
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.
This page was written by Jon Buchan. E-mail me with your suggestions.