Monday, 31 October 2011

The Significance of Race in Jane Eyre

In the lesson today we made red rooms and an attic. These places link Jane and 'Bertha'. They look amazing! Well done.
Your homework is to read this and leave a comment. This should answer: How significant is race in Jane Eyre?
The autobiographical premise/first person narrative of the governess, Jane Eyre, allows an ethnocentric viewpoint that varies in its representation of race and, in consequence, significance. The two most obvious representations of race are through Bertha Mason and St John Rivers, but Charlotte Bronte also uses subtle language to connote racial stereotypes. It has been suggested that Charlotte Bronte uses representation of race as a metaphor for class and gender inequality.  It is also important to note the significance of the representation of race on the nineteenth- century novel’s readership, predominately white middle class women, to our own contemporary post-colonial ideas of race and British imperialism.

The racial representations of Bertha Mason are significant as the reader sees her through Jane’s eyes before we hear her story. The images are strong and animalistic.
 ‘a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched growled like some strange, wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, his its head and face.’ (Bronte, Chapter? p.308)
Jane’s meeting with Bertha Mason is loaded with animalistic imagery as Bertha Mason ‘gazed wildly’ (Bronte, 309) at Jane and biting of her husband is an animalistic act. Jane is dehumanises Bertha with the description turning her into something ‘wild’ and ‘grizzled’ and then is more sinister with ‘goblin’ and ‘vampire’ (Vol II, C10), clearly signalling the Gothic.   The reader then identifies this as the ‘discoloured’, ‘savage face’ that tears Jane’s veil in Chap. 25.
‘the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments! … the lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrowed: the black eyebrows widely raised.’ (Bronte, 299)
Bronte’s representations of race here show Bertha Mason as non-white and conform to racist 19th century stereotypes. However, the representation of Bertha Mason’s ethnicity becomes more ambiguous as Rochester reveals their story. She is described as a Creole, which at the time could have meant black or white. As her father was an ‘old acquaintance’ of Rochester’s father and as she is white enough to marry a wealthy English man the reader can assume she is predominately white.  Although ambiguous as a ‘Creole’ Bertha Mason does become blacker as her sanity declines; she is compared by Rochester to Blanche Ingram as ‘tall, dark, and majestic’ when they first met; (Bronte, Chapter 27, pg 321) this contrasts starkly with the animalistic image of Bertha Mason in the attic. The representation of Bertha Mason’s mother ‘the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard’ was also significant to the 19th century audience.
‘(Rochester) associates that line with two of the most common stereotypes associated with blacks in the nineteenth century.’ (Meyer, p. 229)
This is significant as, as cited by Meyer, Bronte had associated these racist stereotypes with black people from childhood and was a commonly held belief at the time. This shows that the representation of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre fits with nineteenth century beliefs and fears of non-whites and the association of race and low morals as coterminous.

The racial representation of Bertha Mason is compounded by the juxtaposition with Jane Eyre. Jane is often described as pale and small, in contrast to the tall and dark ‘Indian Messalina’ (Bronte, 328), and often described by Rochester as his ‘English girl’. As well as represented racially different from Jane, Bertha is also the emotional opposite to Jane; Jane is composed and modest whereas Bertha is ‘intemperate and unchaste.’(Bronte, 323) The representation of Bertha Mason reinforced the fear of racial difference and of women that didn’t fit the cultural British norm.  The representation of race implies the non-white are insane, sexually provocative and dangerous. The representation of the race of Bertha Mason is significant as a contrast to Jane.  The use of the Gothic, and patterns of imagery in Jane’s ordeal in the red-room, could be said to link Jane and Bertha on a psychological level in terms of struggle against social oppression with Jane’s internal struggles with rebellion and control.

The representation of the savage nature of people in the colonies is validated by the proselytising St John Rivers. St John martyrs himself for his ‘great work’: Christianity. He hopes of joining those who have ‘merged all ambitions in the glorious bettering of their race’ (Bronte, Chapter 32, p?) and, in doing so, the goodness of white people. He throws his ‘valuable life away’
‘Firm, faithful, and devoted, full of energy, and zeal, and truth, he labours for his race; he clears their painful way to improvement; he hews down like a giant the prejudices of creed and caste that encumber it.’ (Bronte, p. 481)
Here St John fits the Victorian work ethics with the Christain need to proselytise the colonies, cutting down the prejudices of creed and caste while simultaneously, and ironically, holding and perpetuating his own. This is significant as nineteenth- century colonisation needed to be justified and this was done using the idea of the inferior ‘savage’ native needing to be civilised into proper British behaviour. To a contemporary ‘modern readership’ is more accurate. Contemporary usually implies ‘of the time’ St John’s ‘energy and zeal’ seems suspicious as it represents the imperialistic brutality against natives of colonized countries. This shows how the significance of representation of race changes historically, a point put forward by Spivak.

The British Empire is significant in reading Jane Eyre. Spivak cites that Bertha Mason is born out of the ideology of imperialist axiomatic. When living in the colony in Jamaica, Rochester’s torment and emotional ‘storm’ is calmed by the reassuring, civilising European wind:
‘A fresh wind from Europe blew over the ocean and rushed through the open casement: the storm broke, streamed thundered, blazed, and the air grew pure. I then framed and fixed a resolution’ … ‘the sweet wind from Europe was still whispering in the refreshed leaves.’ (Bronte, 325)
This shows that the colonies were wild, mad places, but the sanity of Europe can reach Rochester. The use of natural imagery to describe extreme emotion pervades the novel. Conversely, the imperialistic interpretation is seen by Meyer (228) as highlighting Bronte’s anxieties about oppression and is a response to some Victorian texts and the connection of black people and white women to demean both, emphasising the need for control over both by white men. Meyer links Bertha’s blazing rebellion to the slave uprisings in the West Indies, and finds in this an oppression shared by white women and black people. Salvery and anxieties also remain in the unhealthy mist over Ferndean; slavery is used by Jane Eyre to describe her situation throughout Jane Eyre. As a child she describes herself as like ‘any other rebel slave’ and when Rochester buys her gifts she feels like a degraded slave.  Racial representation is significant as slavery and oppression serve as an allegory for women’s dependence on men.

The representation of race having significance for allegorical gender assertions is apparent in chapter 24.
‘I would not exchange this one little English girl for the Grand Turk’s whole seraglio ...”
“I’ll (…) preach liberty to them that are enslaved – your harem inmates amongst the rest. … I’ll stir up a mutiny.’ (Bronte, p. 283)
Here Rochester is emphasising Jane’s subjugation and her response is to wish to emancipate those women; this highlights her own oppression and the dichotomy of her preaching to those who she perceives as oppressed whilst being oppressed herself. This ethnocentric view of herself as, although oppressed, morally better than the women in the Turks seraglio and therefore shows the significance of racial representation and stereotypes.

Charlotte Bronte also subtly connotes racial and nationalistic prejudices. She uses the name Dionysius O’Gall for the family that Jane Eyre would work for in Ireland: Dionysius is the Greek God of wine and insinuates the drunkenness of the Irish. Charlotte Bronte also refers to Celine Varens and Adele as being materialistic and superficial because they are French, but Adele is saved from this by the superior English:
 ‘a sound English education corrected in a great measure her French defects.’ (Bronte, 479)
Charlotte Bronte does not just use race, but a degree of xenophobia to imply the superiority of the English. Where Bertha’s Creole heritage explains her insanity, Celine Varens morals were explained by her French nationalism.

Charlotte Bronte also uses white and black in Jane Eyre that connotes good and bad. The old ‘witch’ is ‘almost as black as a crock.’ (Bronte, 199) and Rochester also has a ‘dark, imperious eye.’ There are also the references to Bertha. This is contrasted by the welcoming ‘whitewashed villa’; the white River’s cottage; the pale Jane Eyre and the Christian ‘Whitcross’ (Whitecross).  The symbolic white of the pure and virginal also accentuate the depravity of the dark racial references.

Race is also used in Jane Eyre with irony to highlight class snobbery and prejudice in British, nineteenth century society. Mrs Dent’s criticism of Jane portrays her as a snob ‘it was a reminder that one of the anathematised race was present …  “I see all the faults of her class”( Bronte,  183) Here, Bronte is using race ironically to satirise class and also gender inequality. Middle-class women were at the mercy of judgements their fathers made and in consequence would end up in the ‘slavery’ of governessing. Women’s reliance on men often left them with no money or inheritance. The image of a lonely middle-class governess suggests promiscuity, madness and a challenge to the domestic stability. This also links to the depiction of Bertha.

Jane Eyre represents race as negative, but it is important to consider nineteenth century ideology and culture that was exceptionally scared of racial differences; imperialism often only reinforced these anxieties. Charlotte Bronte reveals her ethnocentricity in the novel when it is read today, this would have varied significantly to her contemporary audience in a time when imperialism was not seen as a stain on British history as it often is today. Bronte also uses race ironically to highlight snobbery and class prejudice in Victorian England. The representation and significance of race in Jane Eyre help to show some the inequalities that existed in nineteenth century England and some of the struggles to break away from them. 

What do you think? Leave a comment.


  1. I found the portrayal of Bertha, being a 'Creole,' particularly interesting when analysing the continuous theme of race in the novel. As you said, Jane seeing Bertha as animalistic could be seen as derogatory, where she is isolated, not only physically in the room but also in the description, distancing her from human and 'normal' society. However, a connection is made between Jane and Bertha, both being locked into a room, highlighting the inequalities which were prevalent for different people during the nineteenth century.

  2. I agree with what you've said here. I think race is another technique used to separate Jane from the rest of the upper class, this is made obvious when she's referred to as a "slave". The use of light and dark to describe good and evil, is applied to Bertha and Rochester. Jane is also pale and small faced, which at the time would have been a sign of great social standing, but now might signify illness. At the time colonialism was introducing people of different ethnic origins to the English, this created many anxieties. Therefore stereotypes were formed like "madness" and "alcoholism", this is sometimes alluded to in the book to highlight the social inequalities.

  3. I think Bronte uses race in this novel to highlight the inequalities and stereotypes that people face. Despite Bertha being a ‘creole’ and Jane being very pale; we can see that Bronte has used race to show that both of them are the subject of slavery and oppression – emphasising the idea that gender is also being discriminated.

  4. Good Job. You have got good ideas but some parts are not well explained and some bit of grammatical mistakes. Otherwise, this is great!

  5. Some bit of grammatical mistakes - love it!