Feminism & Postcolonialism in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
Feminism & Postcolonialism in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
As a representative work of a female author who was well ahead of her times, Jane Eyre can safely be regarded as the magnum opus of Charlotte Bronte. A literary career that spanned for a meager six years, it was really incredible as to how Charlotte Bronte could excel so much as a novelist so as to be able to pen down the account of a lonely and principled woman who has since been looked up as the very epitome of womanhood, let alone the politic of feminism. Moreover, elements of postcolonialism and their influence on individual behavior can also be traced in the polarized character sketching of Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason.
In contemporary literature, gender and postcolonial discourses do not seem to rest solely on any stereotypical convention of characterization. Instead, such approaches tend to de-categorize women according to their individual identity. In other words, a female character in today’s literature would rather have patchy dispositions, as opposed to having lofty and focused ideals. What makes Jane Eyre a true critique of postcolonial and feminist literature is its assimilation of the contradictory traits of womanhood – good and bad, elegance and vileness, civility and impudence – within a single narrative framework.
In the light of this observation, this paper attempts to justify Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as a fictional illustration of feminism and postcolonialism. To substantiate the thesis, the paper will look into chapters 26 and 27 – a transitory phase in the storyline of Jane Eyre. Most of Charlotte Bronte’s novels, including Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853), deal with a vivid picture of colonial Europe and document how social conventions are shaped and redressed by colonial aggressions. At the end of chapter 26 of Jane Eyre, Mr.
Rochester asks Jane to accompany him to France – a place not colonized by Great Britain. This shows how the concepts of meta-colonization were imbued in the author’s mind while writing the novel. What it also brings out is how the male protagonists of Bronte, while most of whom have a sardonic and bipolar attitude to romantic relationships, invariably prefer women having a distinct colonial background in order to rule out the possibility of a foreign intrusion into their hardnosed Victorian veils.
Meyer points out that there is a fusion of postcolonial societal doctrines and racial synthesis in the way Bronte treats her women characters in Emma (1853) and Jane Eyre. This hints at a dichotomy of social prejudices regarding how a common European would respond to the color of human skin on one hand, and how it would be treated as a benchmark for social permissibility. The paradigm of postcolonialism is embedded at the heart of the novel when Mrs.
Reed grows an aversion to little Jane on the ground of her ethnic background, alien to the former’s own (249). Meyer further discusses the literary tropes Bronte uses in Jane Eyre to signify race relations prevalent in contemporary English societies. Bronte, according to Meyer, uses the concept of blackness in a figurative way to connect the actual history of British colonization with racial “otherness”. This psychological practice of attributing “otherness” to was a result of a colonizer’s preoccupation with Whiteness.
There is a paradigmatic shift from literature to life, however, in the way Bronte pinpoints the presence of both class and race discrimination in the British society. She does this to unmask the patriarchal impositions that were central to the overall aura of dominance practiced by the British over their colonies. The politics of feminism in Jane Eyre is quite complex in nature, simply because a number of related factors are interwoven in the plot. Quoting Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Meyer argues that Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason represent two distinct leagues of feminism.
While Jane is a sober and progressive woman capable of bettering her situation on her own accord, Bertha Mason is a compulsive character, almost an obstacle character, lying beyond the scope of self-improvement or redemption. Bertha Mason is a representative of the aboriginal race, precariously positioned between human and bestial instincts. In dealing with the development of a meaningful character, Bertha Mason is deliberately stripped of the very qualities that are bestowed to Jane Eyre. Consequently, Jane grows to be the epitome of womanhood with all her feminine virtues (250).
But Meyer does not take Spivak’s argument at face value. She further questions the validity of the claim that Spivak makes about the correlation between feminism and imperialism in Jane Eyre. If imperialism can be cited as a tentative offshoot of postcolonialism, it would be easier to substantiate the thesis. From imperialistic perspectives, Bertha Mason qualifies as a colonial woman who is supposed to have an individualistic entity of her own. But then again she is also portrayed as a native woman, which seems to obfuscate the earlier attribution to imperialism.
Going by Meyer’s argument, it is clear that traits of both imperialism and postcolonialism cannot coexist within a single character, and if it does, one must remain dormant for the other to thrive (250-1). Hence, it is logically better to link patriarchy with colonial dominance, as both have their origins rooted in the nineteenth century British high-bloodedness that had historically been proved to be discriminating on gender issues. Rositsa Kronast examines Bronte’s introduction of the “female colonial Other” in the context of a male dominated regime.
Citing Jane Eyre as her principle reference, along with Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Kronast shows how the tables can turn with changes in power and hierarchy. It may be noted, however, that this change may or may not come from internal agents. As is the case with Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason, the change is imposed by the Victorian norms that were outright puritanical. Consequently, Jane, despite being a woman of substance, is pitted against seemingly insolvable situations especially when her love affair with Mr.
Rochester comes under serious threat from Bertha Mason. While Jane is drained of her power, Bertha Mason steps in as an empowered woman, capable of inflicting great damage at a public level. The reversal of fortune is only possible because the Victorian times in colonial England allowed for total submission of women before male whims. The Victorian concept of womanhood that Jane embodies is based on relative compatibility with men. Women were seen to be playing second fiddles to their gender counterparts in a number of roles – from mother to wife (3).
What is interesting to note from Kronast’s argument is that if Jane is the Other woman, she is at once powerless and empowered. This brings us to the same logical fallacy that has been mentioned earlier in the paper – two contradictory traits cannot control a character’s life in any way. So to put matters in the right context, it is reasonable to infer that the Creole woman portrayed by Bertha Mason must give in to the author’s intention of representing the colonized face of womanhood, in order to accommodate for a lofty and ideal feminine role for the individualistic Jane (Staines 42).
In essence, reading into the feministic and postcolonial components in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre brings out the difference between what is intrinsically feminine and what is not. It is basically a novel based on modern concepts of feminism. Jane’s personality exudes a rich ardor of feminine grace and beauty. Postcolonialism, on the other hand, is only introduced for putting the concept of feminism into perspective. Therefore, Jane and Bertha continue to hold their respective positions of significance, with the latter playing the role of a borderline character.
Works Cited Kronast, Rositsa. The Creole Woman and the Problem of Agency in Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea”. Munich: GRIN Verlag, 2010. Meyer, Susan L. “Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy of Jane Eyre. ” Victorian Studies. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990. Staines, David. Margaret Laurence: critical reflections. Ottawa, Ontario: University of Ottawa Press, 2001.
Subject: Jane Eyre,
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 30 September 2016
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