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Jane Eyre: Jealous, Prejudiced, Or Racist?

A screen shot from the 2011 film adaptation of Jane Eyre

Screen shot from Jane Eyre, copyright © 2011 Focus Features.

Recently I have been enjoying The Secret Life Of Books on BBC Four. I’ve had to play catch up as our aerial isn’t working and it’s been a pleasure to have a few to watch at once. But the last episode on Jane Eyre I found disappointing.

Others have looked into the problem of the presenter focusing on racism from a 21st century perspective, so I’ll only be dealing with the subject when necessary. My own take away was that Bidisha didn’t consider many options or opinions when summing up her views.

Though I disagreed with her, I did appreciate the difference in perspective from the point of view of debate. I found her discussion with Rebecca Fraser (whether Jane was submissive) of value because it made me think, and I did like that she introduced ideas about the book that aren’t discussed as much as, say, identity or gender. But I felt she missed important points in her quest to state that Jane and her creator were racist.

One of the aspects that stood out to me was the fact she never once considered the role jealousy must have played in Jane’s view of Bertha and the way that Rochester’s view of Bertha would have been influential, too. (If we view the book in the past tense in which it’s written then Jane’s addition of Rochester’s view is something to consider, even if that could be considered meta.)

More than racist, which I personally see far less of, is what you could ascribe to the jealousy Jane could easily have felt and, more obviously – in my opinion, given the word choice – a hatred and/or fear of mental illness.

Bidisha paraphrases from the following (the paraphrasing itself I find troublesome as it removes it from its context):

“Fearful and ghastly to me – oh, sir, I never saw a face like it! It was a discoloured face – it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!” […] “[T]he lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrowed: the black eyebrows widely raised over the bloodshot eyes.”

What Bidisha paraphrases is the response Jane gives to Rochester when he questions who she saw in her room, long before she sees Bertha in the attic, and Jane ends by saying the figure – because it could have been a ghost at this point – reminds her of a “German spectre – the Vampyre”. To me this is more in favour of a prejudice against disability and illness rather than race, though in this particular dialogue, it sounds more your standard fear of the literal unknown. This is compared to the following, which is Jane’s description of Bertha upon meeting her:

What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face. […] The maniac bellowed: she parted her shaggy locks from her visage, and gazed wildly at her visitors. I recognised well that purple face, – those bloated features.

She’s mad; she’s a ‘hyena’. This view of mental illness, to me, is far more the subtext than any view of race. At the same time I believe you can’t separate the prejudice completely from the jealousy and you have to view the passages through the lens of both Jane’s prejudice and fear, and Charlotte Brontë’s own thoughts. I think it’s fair to say that given the time period, the prejudice would be the same or similar on both accounts. It was so normal to be prejudice, I’d argue Brontë wouldn’t even have thought about it.

In regards to the jealousy, I say this because if Jane Eyre is to be considered a fictionalisation, of sorts, of Brontë’s own life and love for her teacher (as Villette more obviously is), then we can assume some form of jealousy is in play. Brontë’s teacher was married so there was bound to be some sort of jealousy or envy in there somewhere.

More so I think hatred and jealousy should be considered in this way because Jane’s are strong words. In Villette we are shown Brontë’s hatred of another religious denomination, so much of it that it’s almost impossible to separate author and text – whether or not Brontë felt as strongly as Lucy Snowe, the probability of her using her character to preach is fair.

To look at Rochester’s description of Bertha (a demon, “that fierce ragout”, “that bulk”) I think we have to factor in frustration. Frustration not only of having been tricked, as he sees it, but of having managed to get Jane to the altar without her knowing and having it all fall apart because of this person he doesn’t love. The pacing of this section says much, as does the fact that Rochester has kept Bertha with him rather than send her away, that he ultimately tries to save her. He was frustrated before, but now at this crucial moment when he’s in love, everything is unravelling. I don’t think we can dismiss what he says, far from it, but I think it’s worth remembering the fact we don’t always say what we mean when angry.

I think it’s very possible Jane was racist, Brontë too, but I’m not sure we can consider it as crucial, as Bidisha did. We certainly can’t hang on to it too much unless it’s a study in contextual differences because we can’t really apply our thinking today to people who wouldn’t have shared or even known our beliefs. So I do disagree with Bidisha. I think it’s far more about the situation at hand, that everything fell apart for both characters at a time it should have been perfect (or at least they would have thought it should be). I also think it’s more about the literal darkness of the attic that emphasises emotions and acts as a metaphor of the ‘dark’ day. Possibly even that Brontë wanted her hero to really want the heroine as her teacher did not want her.

What do you think? And did you watch the programme?

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Margaret @ BooksPlease

October 8, 2014, 10:01 am

I haven’t seen the programme, missed the series completely!

I read Jane Eyre years ago, possibly when I was about age 12 after I’d watched a TV version of the book. I was terrified of the mad woman in the attic, but I was totally unaware of Bertha’s race. I thought her appearance and behaviour was the result of her madness! A re-read of the book is long overdue!


October 8, 2014, 9:15 pm

I haven’t seen the program either. I’m impatient with people who want to accuse the Brontes of modern prejudice. I think your ideas about jealousy and fear of the unknown make a lot more sense.


October 10, 2014, 12:42 pm

I believe Bronte was racist, she was a product of her class. It’s not Jane’s perception of Bertha, which as you’ve stated can be down to things such as jealousy, but Bronte’s depiction of Bertha that is mainly problematic.

If we knew Jane was an open abolitionist, I would look upon Jane Eyre different, as a critique. But, conservative that she was, Bertha must be a reflection of her own views. Bertha is ‘othered’ and assigned characteristics that make her lower than her white counterparts. She is denied identity or freedom, and it is explicitly stated her malady is inherited from her Creole mother, not her white father. I think it is a crucial aspect of the novel, especially in analysing the culture at the time and considering how culture effects novels and vice versa.

While race is not the only element to the novel, which I think is the argument you are making, I would say it is one to take seriously.

There were aspects Bidisha’s interpretations of Jane that I didn’t agree with. My interpretation of Jane was a stoic introvert, and she saw her more as an outspoken women outside of her time. But, that’s the beauty of these programmes, they spark discussion. I’ll have to go and watch the rest now.



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