This page last revised 7 May 1997
The plot of Jane Eyre is well known and it is not my intention to outline it here. Instead I want to draw attention to a number of key points which relate to the theme of colonies and colonialism. The figure of the first Mrs Rochester, the insane and promiscuous Creole who stands in the way of Rochester's marriage to the modest Jane is the most obvious example of Bronte's use of the colonies to provide the material for her work, but there are other moments of interaction throughout the novel.
As a child, Jane is fond of likening her position to that of a slave, but Bronte distances her character from the slavetrade in the West Indies by placing the model for Jane's slavery in the Far East, where England has no hand in the business. The slave metaphor is repeated throughout the novel to describe the position of women in British society, but it is always distanced. When Jane eventually comes into her inheritance from her uncle, the source of her wealth is Madeira, another slave society. Jane acts in an honourable fashion by dividing her wealth with her cousins who saved her, but the means of her independance is undeniably due to the colonies.
The treatment of India is important in this context. St. John Rivers wants Jane to join him as his wife on a missionary expedition to India, but Jane sees the discipline and severity of his character as too stifling for her to thrive in. The implication is that she would revert to her former slave position under his influence. But Jane recognises that although his discipline is too much for her, he will do extremely well in India, perhaps indicating that the Indians are in need of such a severe influence to keep them under control. Bronte never explores the double standard of her own position where she strives to give voice to the cry for freedom of a young woman, but silences entire cultures by so doing.
Jean Rhys was always troubled by the portrayal of the Caribbean Creoles in Bronte's novel, and in Wide Sargasso Sea she sought to reclaim a speaking position for the silenced other -- Bertha Rochester.
This page was written by Eimer Page. Please e-mail me with your comments.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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