The circulation of power at the domestic level allows the coloniser to monitor the bodies, actions and behaviour of the Other in myriad ways. This is nowhere more evident than in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Brontë dismissed socio-political agendas in a letter she wrote to her publisher in October 1852, telling him, 'I cannot write books handling the topics of the day, it is no use tryingŐ (qtd. in Gaskell 364). Nonetheless, Despite her disavowal of the social significance of her novel, Jane Eyre negotiates with the colonial dynamic in myriad ways.

The Abolition of Slavery Act was finally passed on the 23 August 1833 and the issue was definitely part of the national consciousness when Brontë began writing her novel. Rochester's reference to slave trade: 'bargaining for so many tons of flesh and an assortment of black eyes' (302) foregrounds the centrality of the debate to the Victorian conscious. However Brontë goes a step further than Austen, by appropriating the metaphor of slavery to underline the nature of the patriarchal gaze and articulate resistance: 'he smiled; and I thought his smile was such as a sultan might, in a blissful and fond moment bestow on a slave his gems had enriched: I crushed his hand . . . and thrust it back to him.'(301)

The novel, published between the Reform Bill of 1832 and mid-century prosperity, traces the induction of Jane, a 'poor', 'obscure', 'plain' governess into the leisure class. Jane's marginality, like Fanny's in Mansfield Park, is articulated in spatial terms since the very beginning — she confines herself to the small room adjoining the drawing-room and draws the red curtain about her, to shrine 'in double retirement' (14). However Jane moves from a position of liminality to occupy centre-stage by using the rhetoric of abolition in post-emancipation Britain. Brontë's interventionist method appropriates the metaphor of slavery to espouse a dual critique to serve this end: of the subjugation of women within the domestic space and the subjugation of the racial Other in the colonies. But the implicit critique of British domination gradually metamorphoses into a validation of the imperial project. Jane's 'rebellious feminism' (Gilbert 369) is premised on ethnocentric descriptions of Bertha and the Caribbean. Jane Eyre highlights shared oppression, drawing attention to British exploitation but the novel's figurative use of the racial other betrays this agenda and disturbs any neat categorization.

Jamaica is constructed as the spatial Other while signs of bestiality and grotesquery are constantly displaced onto body of the Creole subject. Bertha's body becomes the repository of the social space, an attestation of the political and economic exploitation involved in Imperialism. The topoi of racial otherness are evident in the descriptions of Bertha, who is described as 'discoloured', 'purple', 'swelled', 'blackened'. Interestingly Bertha, the racial Other is also morally 'stained' by intemperance, infidelity, impurity, profanity, madness and bestiality form a cluster of referents by which Brontë denotes the person of Bertha. Brontë reinforces typologies of the untrustworthy, sensuous native, which demonise the historically muted subaltern woman. An examination of the authorial gaze exposes the mechanics of constitution of the Oriental habitus by the Occidental subject.

However this is complicated by the fact that Bertha's presence upsets the stable domesticity of the Victorian country-house. Thornfield Hall proves to be a 'contact zone' (Pratt 4) which paves way for the co-habitation of the coloniser and the colonised subject. The spatial dynamics of this 'contact zone' deserves fuller attention — Bertha's presence allows the author to introduce desire within the parameters of the bourgeois domestic novel. Clearly it is only in a dialectical relationship that the other that the Self can define its own subject position — the Other impinges on the subject, creating disturbance and fracturing the stability it seeks. But this is deemed possible only via the introduction of the trope of the gothic and the segregation of desire within the space of the attic, the room where Bertha is imprisoned. Moreover this unsettlement is followed by the obliteration of the Other i.e. Bertha, in Jane Eyre. This entails the reconfiguration of the potentially heterotopic space of the attic within Oriental paradigms.

Furthermore despite Jane's insistence that she would not be 'hurried away in a Suttee' (306) and the British Abolition of widow sacrifice in 1829, Bertha's death, vaguely reminiscent of the act of Sati, allies the Oriental to older norms and pagan rituals. This conformity is ideologically loaded as the novel seems to validate self-immolation of the Oriental subject. It is in this tension, between disturbance and subsequent obliteration, that Jane Eyre needs to be situated. Jane and Rochester cannot be united until and unless Bertha sets Thornfield Hall, a signifier of misbegotten colonial wealth and her own person on fire. The free will of the Oriental female subject is effaced in order to affirm the will of the English subject. A stark contrast is established between the two women:

' . . . 'that is my wife' said he. 'Such is the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know . . . and this is what I wished to have' (laying his hand on my shoulder) . . . 'compare this clear eyes with the red balls yonder-this face with that mask-this form with that bulk'' (328-29, emphasis mine)

The demonisation of Bertha Mason underscores the dual act of containment of the political and sexual Other and the naturalisation of the virtuous heroine as normative. The novel ultimately relies on a valorisation of the bourgeois norms of domesticity: the rhetoric of selfhood, love and conjugality is used to reaffirm and circulate colonial stereotypes. In fact it is the ideology of imperialism which aids Brontë in her vindication of the socially marginalized woman.

To avoid simplistic conclusions, one must remember that an author's dependence of pre-existing representations to incite pre-conscious apprehension amongst the reading public cannot be underestimated. For instance, the change brought about in Sir Thomas Bertram owing to the weather in the colonies — 'he had grown thinner and had the burnt, fagged, worn look of fatigue and a hot climate' (127) — as opposed to Fanny's ruddy and blushing self is replicated by Brontë in her depiction of the Jamaica and India. Stereotypes about colonial territories/ peoples, or what I have called the oriental habitus, then become part of the genre Brontë inherits .

This is immensely visible in her reproduction of colonialist historiographies, grounded upon what Gautam Chakravarty calls the 'syntagmata of caste, religion, language and geography' (32), in order to counter-pose the chaos of Thornfield Hall with the order of Evangelicalism. Missionary efforts during the nineteenth century, premised on the axiomatic supremacy of the white Christian race, were institutionalised to target whole communities and peoples. St. John's doctrines are based on the evangelical vision, and are predicated on the assumption that heathenism resided outside the individual and was characteristic of entire communities. His ideology seems to replicate the assumptions of colonialist treatises like Charles Grant's Observations on the state of society among the Asiatic subjects of Great Britain (1792) and James Mills's History of India (1826) which offered polemical accounts of Indian manners and morals. The insistence on an evangelical system of mission education conducted in the English language was partly a belief in political reform along Christian lines. The suggestion seems to be that the diffusion of Christianity, and consequent moral improvements will construct a particularly appropriate form of colonial subjectivity. This is mirrored in Brontë's characterisation of India as 'the realm of ignorance . . . war . . . superstition' (417), the Rivers's insistence on Jane being 'much too pretty, as well as too good to be grilled alive in Calcutta' (462) and Jane's reiteration of the same idea 'Alas! If I go to India, I go to premature death' (450).

Historically the period saw the formation of numerous organisations which reflect the evangelical spirit: The Baptist Missionary Society, The Church Missionary Society, London Missionary Society and The Bible Society. The Christian mission furthered the process of empire building by creating a hegemonic cultural practice that offered middle-class evangelical men and other marginalised citizens a means of identifying with the English state — the empowerment of the marginalised worked as a covert stratagem to quell resistance within the body politic. Brontë seems to draw attention to this aspect by illumining the dark underside of the St. John's character, coldness and an inability to love. Brontë goes to great lengths to illustrate that 'he did not appear to enjoy that mental serenity, that inward content, which should be the reward of every Christian' (393). However, the daughter of an Anglican minister and a conventional Christian, Brontë seems to approve of the 'world redeeming work of the missionary' (6). It is for this reason perhaps, that, Jane's closing thoughts revolve, not around herself, but St. John's missionary activities in India.

The novel culminates with Jane's inheritance of her uncle's money, an offshoot of British earnings in Madeira, which seems to validate capitalism and international trade. Then again, the rhetoric of emancipation, used to describe Jane's personal struggle throughout the novel, climaxes with her retirement to the periphery of the country estate. Brontë's vision is fraught with an ambiguity and is clearly not absolutist as some postcolonial critics would have one believe. This points to the conflictual economy of colonial discourse and it is from such gaps, slippages and 'paradoxical half-openings of discourse' (Certeau 194) that authorial interventions, which have the potential of generating dissent, may emerge.

However Brontë's novel remains an incomplete gesture circumscribed by the spatio-cultural architectonics of colonial ideology. On the one hand, Jane Eyre makes a case for desire by showing that conformation to domestic ideology entails a relegation of sexuality to other spaces, whilst on the other, it relates Bertha's disruptive presence to the disintegration of the domestic space. The novel acknowledges Otherness, only to disavow it and critiques Evangelicalism, only to reinforce it.

Imagined Geographies: Representations of the Orient in Three Nineteenth-Century Novels

Related Material

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Michael Mason. London: Penguin, 1996.

Chakravarty, Gautam. The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale, 1980.

Mill, James. History of British India. London : Oxford UP, 1826.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 2005.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin, 1997.


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Last modified 19 July 2007