Narrative control and the monster within: empowering disability in Jane Eyre

Mary Vallo
Glastonbury, CT, USA

 

Jane Eyre on Page and Screen 14: The Veil.”
Linnet Moss. The author of the article credits
Monro Orr (1921) for the image.

In chapter twenty-five of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jane tells Rochester that the night before, “a form emerged from the closet” in her room and tried on her wedding veil, ripped the veil apart, and blew out a candle in her face before Jane fainted with fear.1 Although Jane is unaware at the time, the “form” is Bertha Mason, Rochester’s mentally ill wife who lives locked in the attic of Thornfield Hall. While Bertha is the novel’s most recognizable character with a disability, scholars of disability studies such as Julia Miele Rodas have pointed to Jane’s social differences as hallmarks of autism, arguing that Jane is also socially “disabled.”2 Thus, in many respects, the passage in chapter twenty-five positions Jane Eyre as a tale of its time: it contains negatively fraught language and attitudes toward disability that subjugate both Bertha and Jane as characters. However, narrative techniques throughout Jane’s recollection of Bertha’s intrusion into her room depict the two pivotal female characters of the novel as more than simply subservient. By highlighting the connections between Bertha and Jane, Brontë empowers their disabilities and looks beyond stereotypes of people who have psychological and social differences.

In chapter twenty-five, Jane’s storytelling approach is one example of this complex mix of traditional and progressive attitudes toward disability. On the one hand, Jane makes her outward deference to Rochester painfully clear in her use of “sir” six times in less than two pages and her obedience to his order to “Describe it, Jane.”3 Jane struggles with social interactions and relationships throughout the novel, and given her social “disability,” Rochester assumes that he must use simplistic commands in order to converse with her in this passage. Jane’s conversational capitulation to her “master” fulfills conventional expectations of people with disabilities and mirrors Bertha when she is physically “mastered” by Rochester during their wrestling match in the subsequent attic scene.4 In both instances of subjugation, the victim is a person with disabilities and, according to nineteenth-century views, a member of the less “able” sex.

On the other hand, Jane subverts her appearance of submission by asserting narrative control over Rochester throughout the passage. When Jane tells Rochester about her nightmare that preceded Bertha’s visitation, Rochester commands her to stop: “Now, Jane, that is all.”5 Jane casually refutes this injunction by remarking, “All the preface, sir; the tale is yet to come,” and then continues with her story.6 Despite her use of “sir,” Jane’s language gives Rochester no opportunity for response or negotiation, just as Bertha later confronts Rochester’s physical domination in the attic with “virile force.”7 In effect, Jane’s narrative pushback against Rochester is her own version of an attic wrestling match.

Similarly, when Jane explains that the nighttime visitor did not resemble any other woman in the house, Rochester “interrupt[s]” to dismiss her claim: “It must have been one of them.”8 Jane rebukes his interjection by continuing, “No, sir, I solemnly assure you to the contrary.”9 Jane’s no-nonsense willingness to be “contrary” puts Rochester in his place as a listener and not a participant in her narrative. Later, when Jane describes Bertha’s dark facial features, Rochester corrects her: “Ghosts are usually pale, Jane.”10 Unfazed, Jane insists that this ghost “was purple,” thereby shutting down Rochester’s attempt to invalidate her perceptions.11 By resisting Rochester’s intrusions, Jane claims the story as her own and rejects Rochester’s attempts to “disable” it.

Given Jane’s resistance toward Rochester, why does she overuse the word “sir” and comply to his “describe it” command?12 Jane’s seemingly contradictory behavior may be a form of what Petra Kuppers calls “disability performance.”13 Although disability performance comes in several forms, one is “the semiconscious alternative experience of one’s embodiment when under pressure” and another is “the conscious and artful manipulation of one’s narrative of a disabled self.”14 Jane’s submissive demeanor may be an anxious, self-deprecating reaction to the conversational “pressure” of Rochester’s harsh directives.15 Alternatively, a more subversive reading of the passage would suggest that Jane “performs” modesty in order to soften the blow of her claims on narrative power over Rochester. While Rochester would feel usurped by an outwardly bold and impudent Jane, a Jane who exaggerates her social “disability” and self-effacing manner can subtly rebuke Rochester’s interruptions and assume a deceptively powerful narrative stance.

In addition to the nuanced power dynamics of storytelling in this passage, Jane’s descriptions of Bertha offer a similarly ambivalent representation of disability. Overall, Jane’s recollections of the intruder in her room play into widespread fears among the nineteenth-century able-bodied British majority and establish Bertha as an outsider. Jane identifies Bertha through a process of elimination and negation: she is “not Sophie…not Leah…not Mrs Fairfax…not even that strange woman, Grace Poole.”16 By distancing Bertha from the women of the novel and describing her as even more than “strange,” Jane others Bertha and her mental illness.17 Even more dehumanizing, Jane refers to Bertha with words like “form…it…shape…height…contour” and remarks that Bertha only “seemed” a woman.18

This objectifying language constitutes typical treatment of the monster figure in Victorian literature. According to Christina Schneider, the monster was “used to draw boundaries between the ‘I’ and the ‘not I’…[and] because he is rejected for his deformity, represents society’s fear of the revenge of the outsider.”19 In other words, Bertha represents mental difference and the Victorian concern that people with disabilities could resort to violence. In nineteenth-century Britain, this fear arose out of growing concerns about moral decay, which people associated with madness, and anxieties about the stability and security of the British Empire.20 Thus, Bertha’s mental illness functions to label her as destabilizing and dangerous to a homogeneous, “civilized” society.

Indeed, the passage in chapter twenty-five reflects an underlying fear that mentally ill people could become violent and thereby “disable” able-bodied people. Jane compares Bertha to a “vampire,” a monster that drinks the blood of its victims, and Jane’s fainting spell at the end of the passage emphasizes this physical vulnerability.21 According to Schneider, “The figure of the vampire in general can be seen as a personification of evil (cf. Guske 191), epidemic diseases (cf. Botting 148), as well as…sexual lust…This voices the Victorian fear of sexuality and the connected loss of control.”22 Not only did Victorians associate the figure of the vampire with immorality, disease, and sexuality, but Paul Marchbanks also cites the Victorian belief that “sexual promiscuity could accelerate the course of mental illness.”23 In other words, illicit sexual behavior, psychological disorders, and the monster figure were all mutually linked.

In keeping with this belief, Jane recalls that Bertha’s “lurid visage flamed over mine.”24 The image of Bertha hostilely leaning over Jane in her bed highlights Bertha’s physical dominance and her sexually suggestive behavior. Brontë’s use of the word “lurid” connotes both illness and sexuality. The mention of flames, which can spread uncontrollably like disease, echoes Victorian fears of the contagiousness of both madness and immorality. Indeed, moral corruption has already “infected” Jane: by being engaged to Rochester while he is already married, Jane unknowingly participates in a forbidden act that threatens the sanctity of marriage, embodied by the wedding veil that Bertha symbolically tears. As Schneider writes, “The concern that the degenerate may outnumber the ‘fit’ is one of the central themes of the Victorian concept of degeneration. The vampire threatens to infect humankind with a permanent ‘otherness’, allowing the darker side of human nature to reside over morality.”25 Thus, Jane’s storytelling passage solidifies Bertha as a figure of both mental and moral deformity who threatens to disrupt the order of an able-bodied society.

Despite this passage’s reactionary depiction of Bertha as a dangerous, disabled figure, Jane’s recounting of Bertha’s visit to her room draws striking parallels between the two women. As Bertha tries on Jane’s wedding veil, both women gaze into a mirror. This reflective moment aligns the two characters, who are not only connected through their relationships with Rochester but also through their traumatic life histories. Later, Bertha looks out the window when she turns to leave the room. In this humanizing moment of contemplation, one cannot help but recall the young Jane “breathing on the frost-flowers with which the window was fretted, and thus clearing a space in the glass through which I might look out on the grounds” during her abusive childhood at Gateshead.26 By connecting Jane and Bertha through the visual imagery of the mirror and window, Brontë reminds us that both women have been trapped in abusive households, demonized by authoritarian figures, and tortured by their own “mad” or anxious minds. The glimmer of progressive thought in this passage lies in these two central female characters who push back against oppressive systems that have ostracized them for being mentally or socially “disabled.”

When Jane tells Rochester about the visitor to her room, her explicitly docile language and description of Bertha as a psychologically and morally “deformed” being position both Bertha and herself in traditional roles of inferiority. In many respects, Bertha’s “monstrous body” and Jane’s social isolation “serv[e] as a means to establish a norm in the first place (cf. Shelton 176), by demonstrating what is abnormal.”27 However, through Jane’s and Bertha’s common life experiences and courageous resistance to authority, Jane Eyre begins to assume a more forward-thinking stance. When Bertha’s “monstrous body” appears in the same mirror at which the novel’s heroine gazes, the boundary between normal and abnormal grows tenuous.28 Through this correspondence between Jane and Bertha, Brontë’s subtle yet revolutionary novel asserts that disability and ability, insanity and sanity, and immorality and morality are more dependent on circumstance and perception than the traditional Victorian mindset would ever venture to suggest.

 

End Notes

  1. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. Stevie Davies (London: Penguin Classics, 2006), 326-327.
  2. Julia Miele Rodas, “‘On the Spectrum’: Rereading Contact and Affect in Jane Eyre,” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 4, no. 2 (2008), http://www.ncgsjournal.com/issue42/ rodas.htm, paragraphs 13-17.
  3. Brontë, 326.
  4. Ibid., 339.
  5. Ibid., 326.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 326, 338.
  8. Ibid., 326.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 327.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 326.
  13. Petra Kuppers, “Performance,” in Keywords for Disability Studies, edited by RachelAdams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin, (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 137.
  14. Kuppers, 137.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Brontë, 326.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Christina Schneider, “Monstrosity in the English Gothic Novel,” The Victorian 3, no. 1 (2015): 2, 4, http://journals.sfu.ca/vict/index.php/vict/article/view/151.
  20. Schneider, 10.
  21. Brontë, 327.
  22. Schneider, 7-8
  23. Paul Marchbanks, “A Costly Morality: Dependency Care and Mental Difference in the Novels of the Brontë Sisters,” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 4, no. 1 (2010), 62, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/378827.
  24. Brontë, 327.
  25. Schneider, 10.
  26. Brontë, 37.
  27. Schneider, 9.
  28. Ibid.

 

References

  1. Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre, edited by Stevie Davies. London: Penguin Classics, 2006.
  2. Kuppers, Petra. “Performance.” In Keywords for Disability Studies, edited by Rachel Adams,
  3. Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin. New York: New York University Press, 2015. 137-139.
  4. Marchbanks, Paul. “A Costly Morality: Dependency Care and Mental Difference in the Novels of the Brontë Sisters.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 4, no. 1 (2010): 55-71, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/378827.
  5. Rodas, Julia Miele. “‘On the Spectrum’: Rereading Contact and Affect in Jane Eyre.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 4, no. 2 (2008), http://www.ncgsjournal.com/issue42/rodas.htm.
  6. Schneider, Christina. “Monstrosity in the English Gothic Novel.” The Victorian 3, no. 1 (2015): 1-11, http://journals.sfu.ca/vict/index.php/vict/article/view/151.

 


 

MARY VALLO is a high school biology teacher who has long been fascinated by the intersection between science and the humanities and strives to inspire her students with a passion for interdisciplinary thinking. She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where she double-majored in English and Neuroscience & Behavior. She received an M.A in Biology from Wesleyan in 2014 and an M.A. in Education from the University of Connecticut in 2017.

 

Winter 2018  |  Hektorama  |  Literary Essays