he Westminster Review provides a glimpse of mid-nineteenth-century British perspectives on blindness, deafness, and muteness in an article that appeared in 1846, only two years preceding the publication of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Analysis of the article allows for further understanding of Brontë's choice to make Rochester blind at the end of the novel.
Throughout the article, the author compares the state of blindness to that of deafness, constantly arguing how suffering from the former is far better than suffering from the latter. Assuming that Brontë wished to deprive Rochester of one the primary senses so that he could be more dependent on Jane (thereby empowering the female), the article clarifies why she would have chosen to blind him rather than deafen him. Firstly, the article mentions the following conclusions that one doctor drew after his "work on the deaf and dumb": "the comparison is greatly in favor of the blind, who appears by his language to enter into all your feelings and conceptions; while the unfortunate deaf-mute can hardly be regarded as a rational being." The author later writes,
reading, writing, arithmetic, and many mechanical trades have been taught successfully to numbers, whose poverty would have otherwise obliged them to become vagabond beggars, or idle miserable paupers. A far harder task was required to raise the deaf and dumb above the animal state to which they appear to be condemned. But while there is life there is hope; and a few noble minded men have succeeded, by the devotion of their lives to the task, in devising means of elevating this unfortunate class to the dignity of man, by long-continued and curiously-devised schemes of instruction.
The author states so matter-of-factly that the deaf and mute are in an "animal state" and do not even possess "the dignity of man," that his opinions are apparently not radical for the time period. Actually, up until the middle of the eighteenth century, the congenitally deaf were unable to "inherit property, to marry, to receive education, to have adequately challenging work-and were denied fundamental human rights (Sacks). Brontë certainly would never have relegated Mr. Rochester to a state of deafness that society viewed so negatively.
Such a misunderstanding of the deaf was due to their intellectual disablement without a means of communication. The establishment of schools for the deaf was only just beginning, as there were only approximately five hundred and fifty teachers of the deaf worldwide twenty-three years later in eighteen sixty-nine (Sacks). Consequently, many deaf people did not have access to schooling and were therefore unable to learn to speak (hence the term, "deaf and dumb") or to communicate through sign language. The article discusses the consequences of this inability in the following passage:
But when we reflect that the deaf are cut off from communication with others, that source of almost all that is wise and good; that they are necessarily dumb as well as deaf, and are incapable of understanding written language, without long and painful exertion, because that is a copy of vocal sounds..." "From want of language, want of the commonest knowledge springs; and it is, therefore, not surprising that the deaf and dumb adult, under ordinary circumstances, should remain intellectually in the state of childhood, while his blind brother has attained the mental proportions of a man.
The author also discusses the superiority of the blind over the deaf due to the former's command of language:
One of the most striking differences between the blind and the deaf is the tendency shown by the blind, in all ages, to poetry and poetical composition,-- a taste which the deaf have never exhibited. The great command of language acquired by the blind, the excellence of their ear, and the absence of excitement and distraction from the sensations of sight, will go far to account for this peculiarity. The deaf, on the contrary, have no command of language, no ear, and a sad deficiency of ideas and emotions, while their possession of that admirable organ, the eye, tends to overpower their inner feelings, and to throw them upon visual sensations for a great part of their enjoyment.
Jane and Rochester's love is founded on the words that they exchange. In turn, according to the article, Rochester is able to greater appreciate the language he shares with Jane, as his blindness enables him to concentrate more fully on words without being distracted by his vision. Moreover, Brontë might have also taken into account the fact that blindness was associated with poetry in her decision to blind Rochester. Perhaps Rochester's blindness elevated his language to a poetic status. Perhaps, also, Rochester grew more heroic in the nineteenth-century reader's mind if the reader acknowledged his apparent association with Homer and Milton "the two greatest poets" ("The Lost Senses") who also became blind at the end of their lives.
Consequently, Rochester's blindness served a dual purpose: to sharpen his language capabilities and to allow him to become closer to Jane than any two people, independent of one another, could become. Brontë illustrates the latter purpose in the following passage:
Mr. Rochester continued blind in the first two years of our union: perhaps it was that circumstance which drew us so very near — that knit us so very close for I was then his vision, as I am still his right hand. Literally, I was (what he often called me) the apple of his eye. He saw nature — he saw books through me; and never did I weary of gazing for his behalf, and of putting into words the effect of field, tree, town, river, cloud, sunbeam — of the landscape before us; of the weather round us — and impressing by sound on his ear what light could no longer stamp on his eye. Never did I weary of reading to him; never did I weary of conducting him where he wished to go: of doing for him what he wished to be done. And there was a pleasure in my services, most full, most exquisite, even though sad - because he claimed these services without painful shame or damping humiliation.
Review of The Lost Senses - Deafness - Blindness. By J. Kitto, D.D., 2 vols., 18mo. C. Knight & Co., 1845. The Westminster Review, March-June 1846.
Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices. Harper Perennial: New York, 1990.
Last modified 1996