Jane Eyre // Wide Sargasso Sea

May 17, 2017
Charlotte Bronte

Expressions // Thoughts on feminism in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

I was originally going to write a piece about Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel entitled ‘Why Jane Eyre will always be relevant’ but upon reflection decided that such an effort would not exactly be futile, but, well, frankly unnecessary.  That Jane Eyre is still taught to students from KS4 right up to postgraduate level, that it is still pitched to film executives for ever more adaptations, that figures like the brooding Rochester, and ‘plain’ Jane have each entered our collective consciousness, enshrined among the greatest symbols of our literary heritage, that the literature tags of Tumblr and Instagram are utterly saturated with photographs of stylised quotes from Jane’s great ‘I am no bird’ speech, this – all of this – renders completely redundant the task of attempting to account for, or justify the text’s endurance.  The novel can, and will, speak for itself, as it has for generations. Instead, I’d rather focus specifically on the novel’s ‘relevance’ in terms of feminism, and nowhere have I found Jane Eyre’s significance to feminism’s third wave more succinctly explained than in Kaplan’s Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism, in which she writes:

‘The fact that Jane Eyre continues to incite a highly charged contentious response within feminist criticism, a response so full of present feeling that it seems out of sync with the novel’s historical status, suggests that its narrative condenses unresolved questions in and for feminism today.’[1]

Indeed, even this quote itself-explanatory. But this being a personal blog, I would like to take the opportunity of this, my inaugural post, to examine her assertion and all its implications on my own terms.  In discussing Brontë’s novel, then, I think it’s probably useful to start by unpacking Kaplan’s statement here, and deal primarily with the assertion that Jane Eyre’s narrative condenses any number of unresolved questions in and for feminism.  As such it’s also probably useful to discuss Wide Sargasso Sea since Rhys’s novel easily constitutes the best known creative response to Brontë’s text. I will therefore delineate these ‘questions’ as follows:

the questions IN feminism comprise mainly of the aforementioned divisions within the movement itself; that is, its problematic history of privileging the narratives of white, middle-class, European women whilst ignoring, if not completely erasing, the experiences of women belonging to different classes, cultures, races etc.

the questions FOR feminism will extend to the broader societal issues raised by both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea which persist today, and which still present obstacles to women, like attitudes to female sexuality, the struggle of negotiating a world in which the vast majority of wealth and political power belongs to men, and a world in which women are still too often pitted in competition against each other.

If, after all, the Victorians are as Mathew Sweet insists, ‘the people against whom we have defined ourselves’,[2] then analysing the values encoded within their literature in the context of our own twenty-first century biases might just be revelatory of which of these questions remain unresolved.

Charting the development of Western feminist literary criticism, Ross C. Murfin points to the more recent trend of examining the particular ‘category of women’ being presented in fiction.[3]  In other words, to consider the plight of those women whose identities are not only defined by the fact that they are female, but also by a ‘something else’ (which, as I mentioned above, could refer to a difference in sexuality, race, religion, culture or any combination of these).  As Murfin explains, ‘this “something else” is precisely what makes them, their problems, and their goals so different from other women.’  Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea, and Bertha in Jane Eyre both possess this ‘something else’, and both suffer profoundly as a result.  In Wide Sargasso Sea, this ‘something else’ is highlighted not only by the cultural discord between Rochester’s European sensibilities and the normative behaviours of the people he encounters in the West Indies, but also in Antoinette’s fruitless struggle for a sense of identity and social acceptance.  Rochester’s first impressions of his new wife and his new surroundings are, by his own admission, entirely judgemental.  Like her stepfather Mr Mason before him, he watches her ‘critically’, noting her strangeness and her ‘alien eyes’, finding himself ‘annoyed’ by her ‘pleading expression’ (WSS, p.56, 59).  Her appearance and habits are ‘alien’ to him, and he is almost immediately resentful of her because of it; because she belongs to a world he can never, and will never, fully comprehend: ‘I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know’, and ‘I hated her.  For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness’ (WSS, p.141).[4]

Antoinette does not occupy a clearly defined position in her world, and several other characters’ attempts to describe her identity and her heritage all point to toward the difficulty of articulating a simple definition of her ‘place’ to begin with.  Her servant Christophine explains Antoinette’s predicament as a white Creole woman living among recently emancipated, and understandably resentful, black families: ‘she is not béké like you but she is béké and not like us either (WSS, p.128).  As Antoinette’s new husband observes, ‘Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either’ (WSS, p.56).  Later, at the prospect of returning to England with Antoinette as his wife and one of the servants in tow, he angrily exclaims to himself: ‘God!  A half-savage boy as well as… as well as…’ (WSS, p.140).  His frequent recourse to ellipsis throughout is characteristic of a stream-of-consciousness narrative in which thoughts trail and remain unformed, but in this instance it also serves to emphasise how indefinable she is to him: he cannot, and therefore does not, articulate who or what she is.


Antoinette is thus placed in an unsettling in-between state, never to be fully accepted by either of the white and black communities between which she is torn. She describes this precarious situation to her husband, stressing her own sense of place as being ‘between’ the two, before going on to describe the broader personal and psychological implications of this cultural dislocation:

[…] a white cockroach.  That’s me.  That’s what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders.  And I’ve heard English people call us white niggers.  So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all (WSS, p.85).

The racialisation of Bertha in Brontë’s text is also demonstrative of anxieties over identity, but in Jane Eyre’s case, these anxieties are less to do with a longing for some kind of cohesion, and are instead presented as a fear of what Kaplan refers to as ‘racial contamination’.[5]  Even in her retrospective narrative,[6] Jane describes Bertha in strikingly animalistic terms, referring to her with the unspecific pronoun ‘it’, which denies Bertha both her humanity and her femininity.  She is described as a ‘strange wild animal’, and a ‘clothed hyena’, rising up on ‘its hind feet’.[7]  That this image of Bertha after years of imprisonment is, as Kaplan notes, in such stark contrast to the beautiful, ‘tall, dark and majestic’ woman ‘in the style of Blanche Ingram’ whom Rochester encounters in the West Indies (JE, p.302) signifies the terrifying transformation set in motion by her removal to England.[8]

The implications of this identity debate on feminism ought to be clear: the historical propensity of the feminist movement to favour predominantly white, middle-class women, and the tendency of earlier literary critics to focus solely on gender without taking into account the racial or cultural ‘something else’ which also defines them, each work to ‘[assume] an essential female condition at the expense of the non-Western character’.[9]

Pamela Aronson has observed that, typically, women of historically colonised nations, working class women, and women from ethnic minorities in the west have not been accepted as ‘full participants’ in the majority of feminist organisations as they have worked chiefly to better the lot of white middle-class women, ‘despite the organisations’ claims that their concerns are universal to all women.’[10]  This misplaced, and indeed, ill-advised presumption to speak on behalf of all women whilst failing to address the needs of these women is certainly evident in Jane Eyre, when, in Chapter Twelve, the narrative shifts temporarily from its intensely personal nature to allow the narrator to confront what she apparently considers to be the universal issues of womanhood:

‘Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.  It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.’ (JE, p.111)

Because the word ‘women’ is not preceded by a quantifier, like ‘some’, or ‘all’, etc, the narrator here demonstrates her own understanding of women as a sort of generic group, or, as Murfin explains, ‘as a single, deterministic category’, rather than the ‘nexus of diverse experiences’ that group really is.[11]  It is interesting that Jane should adopt a rather more objective voice in her condemnation of the constricting social mores which defined Victorian womanhood, repeatedly referring to women in the third person: ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’.  This objectivity seems to place Jane outside the group whose rights she advocates, perhaps affording her argument the sort of philosophical rationality that the emotive, personal tone that characterises the majority of her narration would not quite achieve.  Indeed, Gilbert comments on this rationality, observing that ‘the sequence of ideas’ Jane expresses is ‘as logical as anything in an essay by, say, Wollstonecraft or Mill.’[12]

However, Jane is indirectly, perhaps unknowingly, excluding working class women from her ideology.  Though she points out that gender ‘roles’ and male ‘privilege’ are ‘pronounced’ by ‘custom’ rather than by ‘nature’, the activities to which she feels women are confined are indicative of wholly middle class concerns.  Among these, she lists playing the piano and embroidering, which could hardly be considered the pursuits of the working class women who had, by this point, become integral to the labour force of a rapidly industrialising economy.[13] Moreover, Jane’s assertions of universality are not borne out in the rest of her narrative, which, as Meyer states, promotes a particularly ‘exclusive feminist individualism’.[14]  Although this passage certainly does have the effect of a sort of egalitarian diatribe against the hierarchy of gender as it existed in 1800s England, – and indeed, a diatribe which can account for the Victorian accusations of the novel’s supposed radicalism and rebelliousness[15] – it is at odds with the novel’s treatment of Bertha.

Bertha Mason’s backstory remains largely unelaborated in Jane Eyre, and the reader’s lack of information regarding her history is merely compounded by the fact that what little is provided is almost entirely mediated through Rochester’s speech.  Her presence in the novel is, to begin with, then, dictated by the terms on which she is enclosed.  Just as she is physically confined to her chamber in Thornfield Hall, so her experiences are confined within Rochester’s own subjective narrative of her history, and due to her condition she is denied any real voice in the novel, beyond the utterances of animalistic sounds, and maniacal laughter.  Jane is, perhaps understandably, less concerned with Bertha’s story than she is with the prospect of the degradation of becoming the fourth in a series of Rochester’s mistresses, but having heard his explanation of his situation she assures him, emphatically, of her sympathy for him: ‘I pity you – I do pity you’ (JE, p.304).  Although she rebukes Rochester for his hatred and ‘vindictive apathy’ towards his wife, ‘It is cruel – she cannot help being mad’ (JE, p.298), demonstrating, as Stoneman observes, a sympathetic, ‘humane’ response to Bertha,[16] the reasons for which she went ‘mad’ are never fully explored.

Though Rochester spares Jane, and therefore the reader, the trouble of the ‘abominable details’ of his relationship with Bertha, the adjectives he later uses to describe his wife’s conduct make all too clear the primary cause of his objections to behaviour (JE, p.303).  She is, in Rochester’s words, ‘intemperate’, ‘unchaste’, and ‘impure’, suggesting that since her sexual desires/activity do not operate within the narrow confines of what he considers acceptable, she must, therefore, be inherently ‘depraved’ (JE, p.306).  Furthermore, sine he has already admitted to censoring his story, sparing Jane particular details, questions might reasonably be raised as to the extent of the information he has withheld.

John Sutherland has drawn attention to the double standard demonstrated by Rochester’s expectations of his wife, pointing out that whilst Rochester strives to present himself sympathetically, he admits to much the same behaviour as Bertha just moments later, taking of hiring mistresses an spending ten years seeking his ‘ideal of a woman amongst English ladies, French countesses, Italian signoras and German grafinnen’ (JE, p.308).[17]  In Wide Sargasso Sea, this same theme is addressed in much the same way, as Daniel, Antoinette’s illegitimate half-brother, attempts to sabotage her marriage by appealing to Rochester’s sense of male pride: ‘you are not the first to kiss her pretty face’ (WSS, p.104).  Daniel’s interference seems to succeed, and in response to Christophine’s earlier declaration ‘She thirsty for you’, Rochester later convinces himself, ‘She thirsts for anyone – not for me…’ (WSS, p.129, 135).  Given his adulterous relationship with Amelie, Rochester’s anger with Antoinette for what he perceives as her promiscuity seems particularly hypocritical.  In Jane Eyre, Rochester not only uses his wife’s behaviour in order to justify his own actions, but he also holds her morally responsible for her own condition.  The ‘excesses’ of her sexual appetites to which he earlier alludes had, he insists, ‘prematurely developed the germs of insanity’, and Bertha’s madness is therefore bound, inextricably, to her sexuality (JE, p.304).  Rochester’s conclusion, in both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, is unambiguous.  What constitutes acceptable behaviour for men is not acceptable for women, an attitude which, unarguably, still persists today.  Rochester is able to denounce his past behaviours, suffering little in the way of retribution, whilst Bertha is punished for hers, and driven mad by her imprisonment.

This control of Rochester over his wife is evident in both texts.  As mentioned, this control is demonstrated in her physical incarceration in Jane Eyre, but it is also demonstrated in Wide Sargasso Sea by his act of renaming his new wife.  He begins to call her Bertha because he claims ‘it is a name I’m particularly fond of’, but Antoinette later responds: ‘You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name’ (WSS, p.111, p.121).  In this sense, Rochester’s renaming of Bertha is an attempt to construct for her a totally new identity, an identity he will be able to understand, with which he will be, he hopes, comfortable, and over which he will have complete control.  That Rochester is also able to construct a new identity for Antoinette by labelling her insane does not go unnoticed by Christophine, who remarks that it is in Rochester’s ‘mind to pretend she is mad’ (WSS, p.132).  Her new name is part of her new identity as the voiceless, ‘mad’ wife with whom readers of Jane Eyre will be more familiar, a wife unfavourably, unfairly presented in the Victorian novel as merely the obstacle standing in the way of Jane’s marriage, and by extension, Jane’s ultimate happiness.

Bertha’s madness has often been interpreted as a metaphor for the imprisonment or repression of female sexuality, and Bertha has even been viewed by several critics as a double for Jane herself, representing the extreme end of Jane’s own psyche (in particular her sexual desires) which must be literally destroyed in order to ‘make way for the full strength and development of the central consciousness.’[18]  Needless to say, these readings are problematic since they deny Bertha’s right to her own character, with her own problems, and her own desires, and her own goals.  Similarly, as Donaldson points out in her more recent study; ‘when [Bertha’s] madness is used as a metaphor for feminist rebellion […] the mental illness itself is erased.’[19]  Bertha’s history is therefore subjected to this process of erasure in both the text and by many of the critical assessments that followed.  Rhys’s text goes some way toward allowing the character her own story, in her own voice, thus redressing the balance without detracting from the horror of the punishments meted out to her by her husband.

Whether the focus of the criticism is Jane Eyre’s representation of imperialism, race, or disability, the main preoccupation of the modern critic now tends to be the exclusivity and individualism of Jane’s (-perhaps Charlotte’s?) own brand of feminism.  Murfin writes that, ‘the evolution of feminism into feminisms has fostered a more inclusive, global perspective.’[20] This expansion of the ideology toward fully accommodating women of vastly disparate backgrounds, along with its integration into society[21], has altered the way we digest literature, shifting the emphasis we place on what we now perceive, through our 21st century lens, as the shortcomings of the original text.

Kaplan is justified, then, to suggest that Jane Eyre condenses many of these unresolved questions, and I would argue that the continuing but ever-changing debate that Brontë’s text still manages to generate is reflective of societies’ tendency to unconsciously ‘rewrite’ the texts they read.  After all, as Eagleton explains, ‘no work, and no current evaluation of it, can simply be extended to new groups of people without being changed.’[22]

[1] Cora Kaplan, Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p.25.

[2] Matthew Sweet, Inventing the Victorians (London: Faber, 2001), p.232.

[3] Ross C. Murfin, ‘Feminist Criticism and Jane Eyre’, in Jane Eyre (Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism), ed. by Beth Newman (Boston: Bedford St Martins, 1996), 459-467, p.464.

[4] This idea of the white (male) coloniser frustrated with the unknowability of the land and the people he colonises or ‘explores’ is a recurring trope in the fiction of the 19th century, and one which I will explore in a separate piece about H. Rider Haggard’s She, in which this unknowability is inextricably linked with both literal and metaphorical depictions of the female sex.

[5] Kaplan, Victoriana, p.156.

[6] I say this because you (well, I, at least) might expect that the benefit of hindsight would have possibly softened Jane’s attitude to Bertha, particularly from the point of view that by the novel’s conclusion, Jane has ‘won’ her happy ending in marriage to Rochester.

[7] Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (Croydon: Penguin, 1994), p.291.

[8] Kaplan, Victoriana, p.155.

[9] Carine M. Mardorossian, Reclaiming Difference: Caribbean Women Rewrite Postcolonialism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005), p.60.

[10] Pamela Aronson, ‘”Postfeminists”?: Young Women’s Attitudes toward Feminism and Gender Relations, Gender and Society, Volume 7 (2003), 903-922, p.907.

[11] Ross C. Murfin, ‘Feminist Criticism and Jane Eyre’, p.465.

[12] Sandra Gilbert, ‘Plain Jane’s Progress’, Signs, Volume 2 (1977), 779-804, p.788.

[13] Esther Godfrey, ‘”Jane Eyre”, From Governess to Girl Bride’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Volume 45 (2005), 853-871, p.854.

[14] Susan L. Meyer, ‘Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy of Jane Eyre’, Victorian Studies, Volume 33 (1990), 247-268, p.251.

[15] Sandra Gilbert, p.779.

[16] Patsy Stoneman, ‘Jane Eyre’s Other: The emergence of Bertha’, p.200.

[17] John Sutherland, Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p.71.

[18] Elaine Showalter, ‘Charlotte Brontë: Feminine Heroine’ in Jane Eyre (New Casebooks), ed. by Heather Glenn (Hampshire: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1997), p.68.

[19] Elizabeth J. Donaldson, ‘The Corpus of the Madwoman: Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Embodiment and Mental Illness’, NWSA Journal, Volume 14 (2002), p.99-199, p.102.

[20]Ross C. Murfin, ‘Feminist Criticism and Jane Eyre’, p.465.

[21] By which I mean the general (if possibly superficial) acceptance of feminism’s central tenets across the West.

[22] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996), p.12.

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