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Friday, January 27, 2023

Charlotte Brönte’s Classic: Jane Eyre and her views about the madwoman

the novel 'Jane Eyre' does celebrate women emancipation as Jane Eyre succeed to be a companion of Rochester as an independent woman rather than being a property of his' by getting shackled with plentiful jewellery and gifts.

Charlotte Brönte’s classic novel Jane Eyre (1847) is still relevant today. Brönte’s novel even got mentioned by Queen Victoria, in her diary penned on November 23rd, 1880- The Queen herself commented about this book as “so powerfully and admirably written, such a fine tone in it”. Along with themes like Self-realization, growth and love,   the novel’s most important theme is women emancipation and often it is called a feminist classic.

Upon reflecting this and reading the novel from a postcolonial perspective, the main character Jane Eyre, who should have been treated all women equally, seem to appear as a prejudiced prototypical British woman who accepted racial bigotry as presented by her lover Edward Rochester and both of them were biased from a certain angle.

The novel is a brilliant Bildungsroman and Jane Eyre,  the phenomenal “British” “Independent ” woman- is undoubtedly iconic, but as the plot went forward,  several women characters were introduced among them some were antagonizing, some were friendly. So, when a character like Jane befriended Helen Burns (a girl who was despised by many), had a warm relationship with Bessie(a servant woman) – readers anticipate her to be more inquisitive and wise before accepting the idea of a lunatic woman locked up in an attic without questioning the authority (in this case her lover- Mr Rochester).

It is a turn in the novel to realize her bias as her views on the “Madwoman at the Attic” were quite problematic.  Bertha Mason Rochester “,the first wife of Mr. Fairfax Edward Rochester – to whom he even refuses to give the name “Rochester”,  is the mental traumatized victim  throughout the novel who finally cleared Jane’s way by committing suicide. Her identity as “Mrs. Rochester” only established after she took her life as the innkeeper confirmed, “that there was a lady-a-a lunatic, “who “turned out to be Mr. Rochester’s wife!”.

On the other hand, Brönte’s protagonist Jane, an English woman who had famously remarked, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will” failed to consider Bertha as a “human” as she commented about her saying she was a “clothed Hyena”, had a “savage face” and compared her with the “foul German spectre-the Vampire”. The othering started here, thus provoking the readers to distrust Bertha as consider as the devilish woman who bite and do harm. Before in the novel, another othering process can be traced.   Mrs Reed, Jane’s cruel aunt – she perhaps seems a little more villainous when Victorian readers learned her skin colour as she had a “dark” skin.

Later, the nation or race based bias became more vital as in the case of Bertha, Rochester argued to prove her insanity and said “Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a Drunkard!” Conscious readers know that race has to do nothing if someone became drunkard and mad and yet Rochester vilified  his wife, denied her a name,  calling her “fearful hag” and continued to refer to her by her maiden name” Bertha Mason” instead of saying Mrs. Rochester,  which indeed she was, either mad or not.

Jane, the heroine, did show Bertha a little sympathy by saying “she cannot help being mad.” Later she forgot all about Bertha and fled from Rochester. Afterwards while serving as a school teacher in a village school, she dreams about her little scholars to “get the better of them” but the philanthropist Jane never even thought once about Mr. Rochester’s wife who was miserably locked up in an attic. She even did not sympathise upon hearing the news of her suicide.

It is true that It was Rochester,  about whom she cared most but a generous, kind and enlightened soul like Jane who even took the pain to meet  her bedridden aunt who disowned her and reconciled with her and her narcissistic daughters – did not see Bertha as a proper human rather  she frankly believed Rochester’s view of “the madwoman in the attic”, whereas she used to question  Rochester very often as seen in the case of Miss Ingram, as Jane was concerned about Blanche Ingram with whom Rochester “feigned courtship ” that if Blanche was left to be “forsaken and deserted” upon Rochester’s true colours.

However, a woman to whom Rochester only had given emotional distress (Blanche, by pretending courtship with her) is a matter of concern to Jane Eyre, but a woman who was locked in the attic for years, hidden and denied an identity by her husband, was not a grave matter of concern for Jane except the living truth” Rochester was a married man”. Therefore, Jane did not comment about Bertha being “forsaken and deserted” by every possible attachment, human rights and such although Jane did care for Blanche from this perspective whose suffering was just a little or nothing comparing to this caged woman.

So, the novel does celebrate women emancipation as Jane Eyre succeed to be a companion of Rochester as an independent woman rather than being a property of his’ by getting shackled with plentiful jewellery and gifts.  However, Bertha, the woman who sacrificed herself unable to live within captivity, pointed out Jane’s darker and narrower side that Jane exhibited unconsciously or willingly to qualify as a “free” woman. Bertha being a non-English woman worked as a stimulant and all her sufferings were suppressed and her voice was silenced so that misogynist people like Rochester can reign and captivate little, perfect English women like Jane Eyre who just imitate a voice of freedom which can only fit herself in a patriarchal society in a seemingly unique way but in reality this “freedom” fails to reach to vulnerable women like Bertha, thus it appears that Jane’s vision are limited because though she condemned the male idea to women confined to home to “making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags, she chose to be silent when a woman was confined and locked, accused of lunacy-  that prove her narrow and rigid nature.

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The writer is a student of English Department, University of Dhaka

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