"Am I a monster?": Jane Eyre among the shadows of freaks.
--The Illustrated London News, 29 August, 1846
In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell [...].
For Charlotte Bronte's readers, a generation indulging their appetite for monstrous marvels, the attic scene on the third floor of Thornfield in Jane Eyre might have been surprising, but not unfamiliar. When Rochester reveals the existence of his mad wife Bertha Mason, Jane Eyre and her wedding party are led into "a wild beast's den" (336), their eyes drawn toward a dark figure:
In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, 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 and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face. (321-22)
Rochester's audience is witnessing a scene that, in image, rhetoric, and form, echoes many nineteenth-century displays of anomalous bodies-giants, dwarfs, Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, fat ladies, living skeletons, wild men, and noble savages--in taverns, on street corners, in upper-class houses or courts, or in metropolitan exhibition places like Leicester Square and Egyptian Hall in London. Bertha's entrance recalls that of the "Hottentot Venus," one of the most notorious figures in London freak shows, who would emerge "like a wild beast, and [was] ordered to move backwards and forwards, and come out and go into her cage, more like a bear in a chain than a human being" (qtd. in Altick 269). The suspense surrounding Bertha's appearance echoes the provocation in advertisements such as that of "the Wild Man of the Prairies" in The Illustrated London News cited above. Though the show, the first of the "What Is It?" exhibitions staged by the famous showman Phineas Taylor Barnum, was promoted particularly with the appeal of the "missing link"; Barnum's advertisement, like many nineteenth-century freak show advertisements or handbills, established the attraction by emphasizing how the freak body borders on the boundaries of human and animal.
Yet the astounding power of this scene relies on more than the images from nineteenth-century freak shows. Significantly, the scene achieves much of its dramatic effect and intensity by evoking the entwined narrative forms that produce freak shows, including, as Rosemarie Garland Thomson notes, the advertisement account of the freak's "extraordinary" life and identity, the showman's pitch that introduces the exhibited body by emphasizing its "deformity" or "anomaly," the staging that involves performances monitored by the showman, and the display that functions to establish the distance between the "civilized" spectator and the freak (Introduction 7).
With the rhetoric of a freak show host, Rochester introduces Bertha, highlighting her "exotic" background and hybrid inheritance as the "anomalous": "Bertha Mason [...] came from a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard!" Describing himself as both a "civilized" host and a human victim of deception, Rochester invites his audience to see her as the monstrous: "You shall see what sort of a being I was cheated into espousing, and judge whether or not I had a right to break the compact, and seek sympathy with something at least human" (320). In Bertha's "goblin cell" (336), Rochester enacts the performance of a man and a "clothed hyena," making Bertha a supporting player:
[T]he clothed hyena rose up, and stood tall on its hind-feet. [...] Mr. Rochester flung me behind him: the lunatic sprang and grappled his throat viciously, and laid her teeth to his cheek: they struggled. [...] He could have settled her with a well-planted blow; but he would not strike: [...] he bound her to a chair. The operation was performed amidst the fiercest yells and the most convulsive plunges. (321-22)
The audience's gaze ends at center stage, not on the figure but on the host. They are directed to see him as a non-violent, therefore, "civilized" keeper of the bestial body and also a wronged man--"Mr.Rochester turned to the spectators: he looked at them with a smile both acrid and desolate." Rochester further highlights the differences between Bertha and Jane in physical features to dehumanize Bertha--"Compare these clear eyes with the red balls yonder--this face with that mask--this form with that bulk." Jane is given definite human characteristics, she is "this young girl" with a face, a form, and "clear eyes"; while the black-visaged Bertha is called a "mask" and "bulk" with "red balls" of a "demon." Rochester closes the scene in the words of a show keeper and Bertha as his property--"off with you now. I must shut up my prize" (322).
By foregrounding the tensions in the framing structure of freak shows, Bronte reveals her interest in the dynamics of identification and differences surrounding Victorian freak bodies, and in how the meaning of "freakishness," as Robert Bogdan argues, depends heavily on the strategies of presentation; it is "something we created: a perspective, a set of practices--a social construction" of "freakishness" (xi). My discussion of Jane Eyre explores Bertha's "enfreakment" as a paradigm for the larger drama of Jane's identity quest. The Rochester-Bertha freak show is but one of the freak show metaphors underlining Jane's struggle toward a desired female selfhood. From Gateshead Hall to Lowood School and to Thornfield, Jane's journey in status from being discriminated against as a "bad animal" (41)--because of her social hybridity (the orphan child of a poor curate and a rich man's daughter)--to becoming a British "lady" reveals the metaphoric connection of the struggles of a woman to assert her "self" and freakery as a cultural discourse.
Feminist readings of Bertha have emphasized her as the colonial body whose presence is inseparable from Bronte's inscription of her Victorian heroine's subjectivity. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues that Jane's progress from the "counter-family marginalization" to "the marital and sexual self-location in the family-in-law set" is conditioned by the "unquestioned ideology of imperialist axiomatics." Jane's struggle for feministic individualism, she notes, excludes the claim for humanity by Bertha, the "native subject" (265). Susan Meyer challenges Spivak's idea of exclusion and sees more ambiguity in the ways in which the ideology of imperialism is questioned and then re-affirmed in Jane's identification with and differentiation from Bertha's body of the dark race (66, 95). While Meyer's argument persuasively brings out more complexities of Bertha's function as supported by Bronte's text, it is clear, in addition, that Bronte intends Bertha to be read as a racial freak body because Jane's most defining "colonial encounter" with Bertha is coined emphatically in the images and form of a freak show. Bertha's oppression and inferiority are configured and fused in images of both the racial other and the exotic display. Bertha's "enfreakment," her deviant womanhood defined by Rochester, and her body mediated and appropriated by him for display embodies the gender hierarchy that also oppresses Jane as the cultural/social "other." Bronte, however, is not merely using the "other" to create or define Jane. Posing Jane's body both in association and dissociation with a woman's subjected body, Bronte uses freak shows to reinforce patriarchal oppression as well as to articulate her awareness of how the perception of the freakish bodies becomes overdetermined culturally and politically in the nineteenth-century, during which the British people witnessed the most intense phenomena of freak shows.
The concept of "freak" finds its root in the etymology of an older term, "monster," the term used in the nineteenth century. "Monster," as defined in Hensleigh Wedgwood's 1878 Dictionary of English Etymology, is related to moneo, "to warn" and monstro, "to show forth." Encoded in this etymology of "freak," freak shows, from their earliest appearances, embody a power that marks the "monstrous" body as a lesson for the viewers. Until the eighteenth-century, religious justification had dominated the interpretation of the monstrous births in Europe as "ominous signs of God's displeasure with sinful behavior" for the intended viewers (Semonin 71). As Victorian spectacles, Rosemarie Garland Thomson argues, the "monstrous" became important images in the society's self-examination and self-definition in the increasing expansion of scientific knowledge, marketplaces, and England's relations with non-European countries (Introduction 2). Reading monstrosity within the bio-social context of evolution, Charles Darwin in his chapter "Varieties Under Nature" in Origin of Species (1859) does not dismiss the importance of monstrosities as "varieties" forming a part of the evolution drama of the human species; but he also acknowledges his society's recognition of the monstrous as defective products of the human species: "By a monstrosity I presume is meant some considerable deviation of structure in one part, either injurious or not useful to the species and not generally propagated" (38). In popular culture, such "deviation" is imbued with political and racial significations. The extraordinary bodies, in Thomson's words-"rare, unique, material, and confounding of cultural categories "function as "magnets to which culture secures its anxieties, questions, and needs" (Introduction 2). They intrigue because they are perceived as emerging from humans to "traverse the very boundaries that secure the `normal' subject in its given identity and sexuality"; they destroy the boundaries between self and other because the monstrous "involve all kinds of doubling of the human form" (Grosz 64). The freak spectacles invited the British viewers to speculate on human development and civilization but also helped feed the viewers'sense of secured social/cultural status by inviting the audience to confirm their "normality" and the "superiority" of British nationality. The gratifying affirmation of "normality" broadened to include cultural superiority when bodies of indigenous people-American Indians, Hottentots, "Kaffirs," and unknown racial types-became booked in the same venues as the physiologically monstrous bodies (Kaplan xvii). Racial otherness and deformity became related phenomena and were treated as such. The former was often interpreted by viewers' associating the racialized body with monstrous bestiality. The keeper of "Hottentot Venus" was not considered unjustified in his claim that his exotic creature had "as good a right to exhibit herself as an Irish Giant or a Dwarf etc. etc" (Edwards and Walvin 172). This dehumanizing blurring extended to the indigenous as races. As Paul Jeoffrey Edwards and James Walvin argue in their study of Africans employed as freaks, although white freaks were exhibited as oddities whose attraction was determined by how they were distinguished from the other members of their species, dark freaks were invariably exhibited as representative of their race: "The Black freak could be used to blur this distinction, as [...] in the case of the Hottentot Venus, by placing members of an already degraded race in a position of further degradation and by reinforcing the conception of Africa as a place of monsters" (151). Charles Mathews, a visitor of the show, described how "Hottentot Venus" was treated: She was "surrounded by many persons, some females! One pinched her, another walked around her; one gentleman poked her with his cane; and one lady employed her parasol to ascertain that all was, as she called it, `nattral'" (qtd. in Altick 269). The process of "othering" also functions to justify the colonial relation. The "Hottentot Venus," her keeper, Henrick Caesar, contended, was "a subject well worthy of the attention of the [European] Virtuoso" after "the English last took possession of the colony" (qtd. in Edwards and Walvin 172). The production of the "Hottentot Venus" as an appealing display for the gaze of Europe thus served white supremacy and legitimated colonial exploitation. Likewise, Rochester's display of Bertha Mason as the "clothed hyena" (321) aims to justify his "civilized" status and treatment of his colonial "other."
Bronte's insights into freakery as a cultural discourse do not end here. She also draws attention to the logic of Victorian freak shows as a product of a dynamic relation between the host, the exhibit, and the viewer. In this triangle, the host figures in different roles-an exhibitor, a representative of the imperialist culture, and sometimes, a gazer. She reworks this dynamic to define and destabilize the structure of domination in patriarchal power relations: her heroine confronts the host in a variety of displays to gain a measure of agency and selfhood. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault sees in the spectacles of public torture and execution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a power that operates through discriminatory differentiation (32-33). "The body of the condemned" is the emblem of the sovereign's power in establishing the truth of the crime and marking the criminal's body "either by the scar it leaves on the body or by the spectacle that accomplishes it, to brand the victim with infamy; even if its function is to `purge' the victim" (34). Yet the punishing subject also faces a political danger, as the criminals' gallows speeches or the spectacle of the devastated body may invite sympathetic identification from the spectators who "never felt closer to those who paid the penalty than in those rituals intended to show the horror of the crime and the invincibility of power; never did the people feel more threatened, like them, by a legal violence exercised without moderation or restraint" (63). The boundaries between the spectators and the displayed body are replaced by the tension between the spectators and the sovereign power, since "through the tortured body of the criminal, the power that condemned confronted the people that was the witness, the participant, and the possible and indirect victim of this execution" (68). The crowd, seeing the tortured body or listening to the condemned individual cursing the judges, the laws, and the government, might regard the punishment as unjust. Protests and revolts were incited, and "rules were inverted, authority mocked and criminals transformed into heroes" (61). The spectators, subverting the sovereign authority, inscribe themselves and the criminal into power.
Shifting the spectacle from political tensions to gender tensions, Brontes Jane Eyre uses a woman's marked and displayed body in a freak show as a "site," a configuration of the effects of power relations played out in the interactions of the host, the spectacle, and the spectator. A woman's body exhibited as freak becomes an insignia of patriarchal authority, which defines women's secondary social positions by connecting women closely to the body and containing them within bodies that are represented, even constructed, as inferior and unruly. Discussing the disturbing cultural images of freaks, Thomson emphasizes the similarities between freaks and women, the connections that Bronte obviously pursues: "the freak is represented much like the woman: both are owned, managed, silenced, and mediated by men; both are socially defined as deviations from the ideal masculine body; both are marginalized in the realm of economic production; both are appropriated for displays as spectacles; both are seen as subjugated by the body" (Extraordinary Bodies 71). In Jane Eyre, Bronte evokes the images, form, and the ideological significations of freak shows to inform a gendered dynamic of dominance and resistance.
In her encounters with patriarchal authorities-her emotional and physical abuse by "Master" John in her adopted family, her disciplinary exposure by Rev. Brocklehurst at Lowood Institution, and her gender "education" under Rochester at Thornfield-Jane is forced to see herself, whether as the exhibit or the spectator, in the image of an anomalous body. With "exhibition" as the key configuration of his power and practices, the defining gaze of the patriarch in the figure of a show host establishes the truth about the "crime" of a woman. Her disobedience or transgression justifies his power to punish her by marking, through racialization and/or bestialization, a woman's unruly body as a freak body. On the other hand, "exhibition" also becomes a site for a woman's resistance by repositioning and enabling her to re-invent herself. Jane defies male authority by rejecting the imposed image of monstrosity but also by embracing the freak's unruly energy in her artistic imagination, creating her own spaces in which she can be a host to herself in order to express an escape from, a comment on, and finally a defiance of the subjecting power and gaze.
Jane is first associated with the freak image in the Red Room, when she is punished for daring to strike back at John Reed, her "Master." At Gateshead, she is subjected to gazes that judge her as anomalous. She is scolded by Mistress Reed for lacking a "social and childlike disposition" (39) and called a "wild cat" (44) by the servants. In confronting John Reed, she is incriminated as a "bad animal" (41) and locked in the Red Room. In this space where objects of no use to the household are exiled, she is made to "see" her anomalous position inside her stepfamily and outside in the world. The room mirrors her perceived alien-ness in the image of a folklore freak: "the strange little figure there gazing at me with a white face and arms specking the gloom [...] like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie's evening stories represented as coming out of lone, ferny dells in moors, and appearing before the eyes of belated travellers" (46). The supernatural creature intruding on human paths defines for Jane her social heterogeneity in the image of the "other" as seen by her foster family: "I was a discord in Gateshead Hall; I was like nobody there; [...] They were not bound to regard with affection a thing that could not sympathize with one amongst them; a heterogeneous thing, opposed to them in temperament, in capacity, in propensities" (47). If the folklore freak image interprets for Jane the impossibility of her being accepted in the world of Gateshead, it also defines the energy she can rely on to assert herself. The fairy-imp combines the elements of benevolent and malevolent, monstrous and angelic; Jane, the orphan who wants to be accepted, both fears and embraces the unruly energy to challenge her closely defined existence and the conventional "order of things."
Such energy manifests itself already at the beginning of the novel, in her window-seat reading. Drawing the curtain "nearly close," she enshrines herself in a space inside Gateshead but outside its society like a barbaric Turk (39) to read her uncle's History of British Birds, a book belonging now to "Master" John. As critics such as Carla L. Peterson have noted, her reading encodes a subversive rebellion against male authority in ownership and in interpreting the world. Her creative imagination transforms the male-authored "vignettes" of science into a female psychological landscape. History is made obsolete, and objective knowledge becomes a signifier for self-expression. The "death-white realms" of "solitary rocks and promontories" of "the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland" and of the "vast sweep of the Arctic Zone" are emptied of their referential world of ornithology, geography, and natural history, displaced by a female point of reference to convey her sense of death-like alienation: "I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children's brain, but strangely impressive." The sense of marginalization is mixed with an unconscious desire for power, the ability to control or punish, conveyed in the images of a "fiend pinning down the thief's pack behind him" and "the black, horned thing seated aloof on a rock, surveying a distant crowd surrounding a gallows" (40). For Jane, the possible power lies in the ability to see without being seen. Her private gallery becomes a sheltered space in which she asserts her visual power, assuming the role of a host who displays the re-imagined vignettes for her own viewing, forming her interpretation without being seen and judged.
At Lowood, the structural elements of freak shows--the host's discriminatory and defining gaze, a monitored display, and the problematic boundaries between the spectacle and the spectators-surface more fully to realize patriarchal oppression. Gender discipline, as the collective experience of Lowood girls, takes on institutional dimensions. Foucauldian propositions of the "technologies of discipline" on "docile bodies" can be applied only too well to the Lowood girls' lives under the manager, the Rev. Brocklehurst. The patriarchal authority of Lowood, Brocklehurst appropriates Christian spirituality to justify the physical starvation and regulation of the female body. To serve "a Master" "whose kingdom is not of this world" (96), Brocklehurst proclaims, "my mission is to mortify in these girls the lusts of the flesh" (97). The discipline is imposed on behaviors as well as activities. Female "vile" (96) bodies are regulated in temporal rhythms, physical appearances, space distribution, and gestures, with power dissociated from the body. The body's energy is then reversed and turned into a relation of strict subjection. Jane's "enfreaked" body emerges from this shared oppression of women to image the atrocity of this subjecting power.
When Jane's dropped slate, the tool of Brocklehurst's "educational" system, exposes Jane during his inspection, Brocklehurst denigrates her in from of the Lowood teachers and girls. Using racial impurity as a signifier of Jane's moral impurity, Brocklehurst visualizes for his audience a heathen unruly body whose viciousness is beyond the redeeming power of his Christian "civilizing" mission: Jane is like "the native of a Christian land, worse than many a little heathen who says its prayers to Brahma and kneels before Juggernaut," and then he and the teachers must "punish her body to save her soul--if, indeed, such salvation be possible." Warning his audience against Jane's influence, he imposes a boundary between his exhibit and his spectators: "avoid her company, exclude her from your sports, and shut her out from your converse" (98), "lest her vicious example should contaminate [your] purity" (99). Brocklehurst's images connect Jane's "monstrosity" to an imperialist racial order. Jane's social freakery is suggested by the images of the racial other eroticized and dehumanized, while the Lowood girls' expected moral purity is defined in the images of the civilized Britishness and the superiority of Christianity in contrast to the non-European religious and racial other.
Jane's resistance is articulated by her embracing of the freakish rebellious energy through her rejection of the "docile bodies." The subversion of Brocklehurst's authority is played out in her relations with two female spectators of her display, Helen and Miss Temple. Wearing "the untidy badge" (99), Helen, like Jane, is a "condemned" body, marked by Miss Smith, one of the "female Brocklehursts" (98). The "strange light" in her eyes invites Jane to view both of them as the oppressed heroes rather than the detestable criminals: "What an extraordinary sensation that ray sent through me! How the new feeling bore me up! It was as if a martyr, a hero, had passed a slave or victim, and imparted strength in the transit" (99).
Helen's "docile body" in her Christian submission--"It is far better to endure patiently a smart which nobody feels but yourself, [...] it would be your duty to bear it" (88)--invites Jane to see herself as a human victim rather than an inhuman monster. In contrast to Helen, the director Miss Temple's rebellious mind and will facilitate Jane's transformation. As the subversive mediator between the patriarchal Brocklehurst and the oppressed Lowood girls, Miss Temple has been quietly disobeying Brocklehurst's regulations to better provide for the Lowood girls in food and clothes. A sympathetic spectator of Jane's public humiliation, Miss Temple encourages Jane to challenge Brocklehurst's accusation: "You have been charged with falsehood; defend yourself to me as well as you can" (103). Accepting Jane's version of "truth," she hosts an exonerating display of Jane to subvert Brocklehurst's incriminating gaze and narrative: "Miss Temple, having assembled the whole school, announced that inquiry had been made into the charges alleged against Jane Eyre, and that she was most happy to be able to pronounce her completely cleared from every imputation" (106).
Miss Temple initiates Jane's new life at Lowood; Jane's own celebration, however, takes place in her private and imagined gallery of paintings:
That night, on going to bed, I forgot to prepare in imagination the Barmecide supper, of hot roast potatoes, or white bread and new milk, with which I was wont to amuse my inward cravings. I feasted instead on the spectacle of ideal drawings, which I saw in the dark--all the work of my own hands; freely pencilled houses and trees, picturesque rocks and ruins, Guy-like groups of cattle, sweet paintings of butterflies hovering over unblown roses, of birds picking at ripe cherries, of wrens' nests enclosing pearl-like eggs, wreathed about with young ivy sprays. (106)
Her artistic imagination had provided a space of escape, though temporarily, from patriarchal abuse at Gateshead; at Lowood, pictures of delicious food--"hot roast potatoes, white bread, and new milk"-are evoked for comfort in her constant hunger. In her moment of celebrating her exoneration, "sweet paintings" of an Arcadian pastoral paradise define her harvesting of her reward and her embrace of new birth-"birds picking at ripe cherries," "butterflies hovering over unblown roses," and "wrens' nests enclosing pearl-like eggs" are painted, viewed, and consumed with pleasure and content: "I feasted instead on the spectacle of ideal drawings, which I saw in the dark-all the work of my own hands."
Creating, presenting, and interpreting "the spectacle of ideal drawings" becomes an act of empowerment. The gallery of the drawings of her celebrated self emblematizes the authority Jane desires to claim in her autobiography as two-fold, relational and narrative. She won her first victory in narrative authority by being able to present her childhood experience at Gateshead as a sad but "credible" story proving her innocence (103); she celebrates this victory by imagining herself in the figure of an exhibition host who, being also the painter, and the viewer, is in absolute visual control over her display and interpretation of the pictures. In her autobiography, Jane is to define her female authority in the figure of a female host in these two contexts. As a character, she subverts the power of her male hosts over her body and image. As the writer, she seeks to use her narrative to inscribe self-authorization. Her final identity is Mistress Eyre-"I," a thirty or thirty-one year old woman and writer. She looks back at her past experiences and the people who affected her life and incorporates the pictures of other characters to frame her autobiographical portrait, using language as a medium to make her reader "see" the characters, but defends herself against the reader's critical gaze. The host-exhibit-viewer dynamics thus configure Jane's struggles for empowerment in both Jane's fictional relations with her patriarchs and her textual relations with her reader. Her involvement in this dynamic, however, makes her susceptible to adopting an imperial viewing position.
While patriarchal oppression is inextricably tied to gender discipline, in its starkest manifestation, the oppression is underscored by its association with the imperial implications of power and domination. The gendered triangular relations of host, viewer, and viewed at Thornfield are saturated with the Victorian discovery rhetoric and images of imperial museum. When Rochester unfolds for the first time his sexual history to Jane Eyre, specifically the story of his French mistress Celine Varens, Bronte transforms the relationship between the "master" and the governess into one of viewing and being viewed. Jane is enchanted as a listener but also invited as a viewer to see a new world through "new pictures":
I, indeed, talked comparatively little, but I heard him talk with relish. [...] he liked to open to a mind unacquainted with the world, glimpses of its scenes and ways; [...] and I had a keen delight in receiving the new ideas he offered, imagining the new pictures he portrayed, and following him in thought through the new regions he disclosed, never startled or troubled by one noxious allusion. (177)
Jane follows Rochester's lead to discover "new regions" in which women become objects of conquests and discriminatory gaze-Celine Varens, Giacinta, Clara, Blanche, and Bertha Mason. Rochester is the explorer-writer to Jane, the invited voyeur/reader, of the "scenes" and "ways" of his sexual conquests. Rochester seduces Jane with the visual pleasure of seeing and the desire to be the seeing subject, but he is also, without Jane's awareness, inscribing himself sexually into her. Jane is made his listener and opens her inexperienced serf to his glimpses and disclosure. He guides her through the presentations of these women to "educate" Jane into submitting to his pleasure and gaze, to become his object of desire.
With the sights and stories of these women seen as pictures, Rochester is also an exhibitor leading Jane through a house museum that records his history of conquests in displays. Nancy Armstrong, in Desire and Domestic Fiction, uses the metaphor of the imperial Victoria and Albert Museum (whose prototype actually is the Crystal Palace) to define Bronte's authorial power in Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre predates these exhibits but the image of an "imperial museum" does inform the power relations between Rochester, Jane, and his women. By re-contextualizing "the materials of other writings" to define the reality of writing through containing and reorganizing "the debris of culture," Armstrong contends, "domestic culture as Bronte represents it has all the qualities of a museum".
I have in mind such a museum as the Victorian and Albert where objects are quite deliberately arranged according to the strangest mix of categories [...] not unlike our modern literary histories, which sort out and assemble a canon according to a similar principle. [...] The museum effectively conceals the human effects of the Empire within the very structure organized by its acquisitive strategies [...]. (208)
The "imperial museum" in Armstrong's metaphoric connection becomes a signifier for a gendered authority in transforming cultural materials into literature, but in the character relations in Jane Eyre, "imperial museum" also surfaces as an extended metaphor for Rochester's power. Rochester, who has "battled through a varied experience with many nations, and roamed over half the globe" (165), hides the systematic rules of its formation-the acquisition, possession, and objectification of women as servile bodies-in his representation of women, in his ordering of their displays, and in his manipulation of the relations of the displays to Jane, his targeted female viewer. The third floor of Thornfield Hall, to which "furniture once appropriated to the lower apartments had from time to time been removed [...] as fashions changed," gives the hall, Jane reflects, "the aspect of a home of the past-a shrine of memory" (137). The symbolically resonant language describing the third floor where Bertha is "stored" away and the mansion, Susan Meyer argues, suggests that Thornfield stands as "a material embodiment of the history of the English ruling class as represented by the Rochesters," as "the repressed history of crimes" (71). The crimes concealed behind the furniture and the women's stories become encoded in the Thornfield master's acquisitive and display strategies. Rochester's women, like furniture, are subjected to the owner's decisions about their use, replacement, and display. The history of both the furniture and the women is disclosed and interpreted within the structure of power that organizes them and through the displays monitored by the owner/exhibitor. Mrs. Fairfax, acting as Jane's first guide through the rooms at Thornfield, believes that the Rochesters have been "rather a violent race than a quiet race" (137). Rochester explains what qualifies him as the "winner" of Bertha and her West Indian wealth: "because I was of a good race" (332). "Race," of course, means "kinship" and "lineage" in the general nineteenth-century uses of the word, but Rochester's differentiating himself from Bertha and her West Indian society in their marriage relation clearly reveals the fact that his proclamation of his superiority is in part based on race.
Woman as an attractive body but inferior mind is the subtext that Rochester propagates in his presentations, against which he defines his "imperial" superiority. In different degrees, the images of his mistresses and Blanche Ingram become associated with his verbal portrait of his Creole wife Bertha, a female body that seduces but also repulses. Bertha, according to Rochester, "lavishly displayed" for his pleasure all her charms (332), but soon revealed a nature "wholly alien" to his: "her tastes obnoxious to me, her cast of mind common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher, expanded to anything larger" (333). Although Rochester compares keeping mistresses to keeping slaves, he interprets these relationships as degrading to him, the buyer/employer, rather than to the servile women dehumanized by him: "[H]iring a mistress is the next worse thing to buying a slave: both are often by nature, and always by position, inferior; and to live familiarly with inferiors is degrading. I now hate the recollection of the time I passed with Celine, Giacinta, and Clara" (339). He criticizes their inferior intellect and moral looseness--"What was their beauty to me in a few weeks? Giacinta was unprincipled and violent [...]. Clara was [...] heavy, mindless and unimpressible [...]" (338). Dismissing the mistresses as attractive bodies with minds that fail to please him, Rochester justifies himself as the master in his sexual relations: "To women who please me only by their faces, I am the very devil when I find out they have neither souls nor hearts [...]" (289).
Blanche Ingrain, in spite of her British aristocratic status, is manipulated by Rochester as a specially curated exhibit. Rochester's power over Blanche is essentially validated by the patriarchal ideology at work in the particular nature of courtship marketing, in which Blanche voluntarily participates and allows herself to be packaged as a desirable commodity, her body and its attributes in exchange for the money of her suitor/buyer. In this arrangement, Blanche is not unlike Rochester's mistresses or wife Bertha. In one of the charades, Rochester dresses up as an Eastern emir; while Blanche is "attired in oriental fashion," "her cast of form and feature, her complexion and her general air [...] suggested the idea of some Israelitish princess of the patriarchal days; and such was doubtless the character she intended to represent" (212, 213). As a courted lady, Blanche is entitled to demand her suitor's performance and withdraw herself from the potential marriage transaction if the prospects prove dissatisfying; nevertheless, in both aspects her power over her suitor's performance depends largely on the suitor's response.
Yet if Blanche sees herself as a princess courted by her rich emir, her emir, Rochester, is interested mainly in hosting a courtship performance to draw out Jane's jealousy. Pretending to be a suitor, he orchestrates the whole courtship only to see it fail. He curates Blanche as an instrumental display. He lets her play out all her tempting acts and induces her rejection by creating a rumor about his fortune. More the host than the player of the courtship, Rochester's real interest is in monitoring Blanche's performance and surveying its impact on Jane, the spectator. Rochester's conscious comparison of Blanche with Bertha also implies a hidden agenda of devaluing Blanche as a white-race Bertha. Blanche is similar to Bertha in "darkness"--she is "big, brown, and buxom" (248). Arguing for the necessity to subdue her--"Her feelings are concentrated in one-pride; and that needs humbling" (291), Rochester interprets Blanche as yet another female body on which he can exert control and claim superiority.
The most important display in Rochester's imperial museum is, of course, Bertha. In the Rochester-Bertha scene, "freak" as a constructed but also a problematic gendered identity underlines Rochester's power over her coined both in his images as host of a racial freak and as imperialist curator of a colonial body. Bertha's freak display both defines and problematizes Rochester's host authority in verbal, physical, and spectacular control at its greatest visibility and intensity. Bertha's status as a freak of nature, presented and interpreted under Rochester's derogatory gaze, is what Susan Stewart terms "a freak of culture": "His or her anomalous status is articulated by the process of the spectacle as it distances the viewer and thereby it `normalizes' the viewer as much it marks the freak as an aberration" (109). Imposing overlapping boundaries, the physiological boundary between the "human" and the "monstrous" and the racial boundary between the British and the West Indian, Rochester, the host/patriarch, minimizes Bertha's "humanity" to confirm the "normality" of his British spectators and, more importantly, his own.
Yet the boundaries and authority imposed by Rochester are established only to be called into question. In spite of his claim, his audience recognizes Bertha as his legal wife regardless of her bestial appearance. His "conjugal embrace" (322) of Bertha, who can throttle him, symbolically maps out the entrapment and the limitations of his power in his union with the colonial wealth and colonial body. Her colonial wealth contributes to his British gentry's life of comfort and leisure but also traps him in a marriage that cannot be annulled. She is the most important piece of his collection, but one he cannot show to the outside world, and one whose inherited "colonial" lunacy makes it impossible for him to claim total control over her for collection or display. His narrative reduces her to a colonial body that seduces the British gentleman, but her body also exposes the shameful history of his acquisition of her wealth. Bertha's low groan in the dark has made Jane wonder "[w]hat crime was this that lived incarnate in the sequestered mansion, and could be neither expelled nor subdued by the owner?" (239), and voices the danger and burden of imperialist desire.
If Bertha's presence conveys Bronte's uneasiness about British imperialist ventures in the West Indies and the author's association of the ideology of patriarchal domination with the ideology of imperialist domination, Bronte's anti-imperialist politics, as Susan Meyer suggests, are more self-interested than benevolent. The implicit opposition to imperialism arises, not primarily out of the concern for the well-being of the colonized, but for the British in contact with the dark race and in danger of being contaminated by such contact (Meyer 81). Bertha's display and racial hybridity expose the historical crime of the imperialist practices, but it is the present Rochester's entrapment that destroys Jane's hope for love and marriage at Thornfield. Jane's "colonial encounter" with Bertha serves to centralize the gender tensions in the domestic relations of power; Bertha's image of monstrosity locates Jane's anxiety about her social status and self-image. Such anxiety is made explicit in her cry--"Am I a monster?" (293)--when she senses Mrs. Fairfax's seeming disapproval of her marrying Rochester and becoming the mistress of Thornfield Hall. Bertha's anomalous figure thus becomes a signifier of the tensions between the derogatory gaze of the society that continuously alienates Jane and Jane's struggles toward assertion and acceptance.
Bertha's display as freak, embodying domination and resistance, functions most importantly as the object lesson for Jane about the danger she is exposed to as a viewer. Bertha's display alerts her to how she has followed without questioning her host's gaze in interpreting his portraits of women. Rochester has led Jane to "see" more humanity in him and his mistresses as a stereotype and a category: "As he had said, there was probably nothing at all extraordinary in the substance of the narrative itself: a wealthy Englishman's passion for a French dancer" (italics mine, 177). In spite of her expressed sympathy for Blanche and her criticism of Rochester's "dishonest coquetry" (291), Jane is more than willing to be assured that Blanche does not suffer the bitter pain she feels during his designed courtship. It is only through her own victimization, when Rochester's dishonest marriage proposal proves to be nothing more than a sexual manipulation, that Jane begins to regard the mistresses as "poor girls" (339) and Bertha as "that unfortunate lady" (329), and Rochester as self-righteous and "inexorable": "you speak of her [Bertha] with hate-with vindictive antipathy. It is cruel--she can not help being mad" (328).
Bertha's displayed body also images Jane's increasing vulnerability to being transformed from the viewer to the viewed under Rochester's authoritative gaze in appropriating her as a display and a property. Jane's exhibiting, upon Rochester's request at their first meeting, the "elfish" portraits of herself in the watercolors--the lonely landscape of sea, hill, and iceberg; the relic of sunken ship, the female shape rising into the sky, the blank gaze of a colossus in despair (157)--wins her Rochester's reception into his museum. If she falls in love with Rochester, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar suggest in The Madwoman in the Attic, because he is "the only qualified critic of her art and soul" (352), Rochester soon claims his authority as a host in appropriating her art as exhibit items for the gaze of his male friends (160) at his dinner party. Nor does he hesitate to use the "heirlooms for the ladies of Thornfield" (287) to define and display her as his--"I will make the world acknowledge you a beauty [... ]. I will attire my Jane in satin and lace, and she shall have roses in her hair; and I will cover the head I love best with a priceless veil." Jane is quick to perceive the degrading nature of the display: "I shall not be your Jane Eyre any longer, but an ape in a harlequin's jacket" (288). The freak image imposed on Jane at Gateshead and Lowood and rejected by Jane here emerges, in a more hideous manifestation, in Bertha's body.
Jane faces the danger of becoming not only a dehumanized display, but also a subjugated mind. Her imagination, which she has used to create a space for shelter and self-assertion and to be a host to herself, becomes at Thornfield an expression of powerlessness and self-repression. She transforms Rochester, through painting his face, into a visual object that only confirms her subjection to his charm. His painted eyes look back at her and she "smiled at the speaking likeness [...] absorbed and content" (262). For her own image, Jane not only paints her social and sexual unattractiveness--she paints herself into the crayon and chalk "Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain" (190) in contrast to the watercolor of "Blanche, an accomplished lady of rank" (191). Even more self-critical, she sees, in her agony over her undesirability in Rochester's eyes, "a deformed thing" in herself that she fears to "own and rear" and has to strangle (272). Her anxiety, described as a deformed part of her mind she wants to, but finds it difficult to dissociate from, dominates her perception of herself.
Bertha's body, embodying Jane's potential danger and absorbing Jane's anxiety, sets in motion a reversal of roles and an inversion of power relations that structure the remainder of the text, culminating in Jane's reunion with Rochester. The spectacle of the inarticulate Bertha brings out her voice against being objectified--"Mr. Rochester, I will not be yours" (342). She breaks away from Rochester's emotional prison to re-assert herself, while Bertha the "wild" lunatic escapes from her attic prison to bring down Thornfield. The fire caused by Bertha, his "collection," symbolically burns away Rochester's colonial wealth and destroys his power as a male host and gazer, leaving Rochester growing not only "dangerous"--"he never was a mild man, but he got dangerous after he lost her [Jane Eyre]"--but also "savage" (452). The novel finally punishes him by turning him into a deformed body, a tamed freak body but emptied of the rebellious energy, in the eyes of the reader.
In Jane and Rochester's union, Bronte transforms the power relation between them by giving her the superior position of a host. When she brings herself back to Rochester as "an independent woman" and her own mistress (459), his mutilated body and his "cicatrized visage" (461) remind her of "some wronged and fettered wild beast" (456) that she has to "rehumanize" (461), and his faint gaze can no more manipulate her. Rochester does not face the danger of becoming a freak display, but his body is forever a sight of ugly deformity by the side of his "mistress." The domestic "harmony" Jane finds fulfilling is established on her superiority as the seeing "Eyre": "we are precisely suited in character-perfect concord is the result. [...] I was then his vision". Jane is more than Rochester's vision. She is the host that controls what can be "seen" by him and how it should be presented. In their marital "perfect concord," she becomes the authoritative Exhibitor--"He saw nature--he saw books through me; and never did I weary of gazing for his behalf" (476).
The novel concludes Jane's female defiance of male domination by according her not only visual but also textual authority as a host. Jane's privileged host position and power extend to her relation with her reader. She follows Rochester as a host at Thornfield when he begins revealing his past. Under his guiding gaze, she views "the new pictures he portrayed" "through the new regions he disclosed," and receives "the new ideas he offered" (177). As a narrator and the writer of a book defiantly entitled Jane Eyre, she also discloses to and leads her reader through her "gallery of memory" (147), but she makes explicit her authority in curating and exhibiting: "I am only bound to invoke memory where I know her responses will possess some degree of interest" (115). Her reader is to read a new face like "a new picture introduced to the gallery of memory" (147), a new chapter "like a new scene in a play," and Jane directs, "when I draw up the curtain," "reader-you must fancy you see" (125). Presenting, interpreting, and judging other characters, Jane the host, on the other hand, does not allow her reader to frame her in well-defined pictures. Her "self" is one of discontent, a woman resisting the confined feminine images of "making puddings and knitting stockings." Presenting her tale as "quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling" (141), she gives her reader no position to criticize her authority over the verbal pictures of memory she presents in her autobiography: "I am not writing to flatter parental egotism, to echo cant, or prop up humbug; I am merely telling the truth. [...] Anybody may blame me who likes [...]" (140).
The novel's critique of patriarchal oppression through the metaphoric structure of freak shows finally does not escape the structure it condemns. At the end of the novel, the narrative inscribes Jane's subject position by placing her into the masculine positions of the host and the gazer. The visual authority and pleasure associated with the patriarchal oppressors become justified in Jane's self-authorization, while the reformed patriarch is displaced into a freakish visual object. The subversion of freak show power relations concludes with the reinstatement of power hierarchy. Gender inequality and social marginality faced by a woman are "corrected" only by the reversal of the gendered roles of the host and the exhibit.
Ambiguity also circulates through the narrative's defining both Jane's social unacceptability and her successful integration into the British middle-class society in the images of the freakish other. Edward Said contends that the exorcism of the West Indian Bertha is "Bronte's way of telling us that denizens of the outlying Empire are useful as a source of wealth or as a moral ordeal for English men and women to experience, but never are they people to be accepted into the heart of metropolitan society" (273). The novel's metaphoric linking of Bertha and Jane by the freak body connects Bertha's social exclusion created by the ideology of race to Jane's inferiority and hybridity created by the ideologies of gender and class. The exorcising of Bertha, therefore, indicates the necessary erasure of the freakish from Jane to authorize her entry into the "normal" British middle-class society. Yet at the end of the novel, Jane's integration into British middle-class society is coined ambiguously in her embracing a physical freak, her marrying the deformed Rochester. Jane's attainment of her own social power and justification of her femininity depends on another freakish body to facilitate her enrollment into normal womanhood as a wife and a mother and secures her status as a social-ethical subject.
Richard Altick concludes his famous chapter on the exhibitions of the exotic bodies in Victorian London with this comment: "We cannot know for sure; but to many a mind and sensibility higher than those of the strange beings on display [...] the experience of gazing on such creatures must have induced thoughts too troubling for easy utterance" (287). In Bronte's novel, the experience of a woman's gazing on the freak body is presented as no less troubling; gazing on is also gazing in and being gazed upon. Bronte's subversive but ambiguous criticism of gender dominance in domestic relationships articulated through the freakish as a deviant and anomalous femininity leaves the boundaries between the self and the other forever shifting and the freak image forever reflecting and reflected in a woman's image of her serf.
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--. Introduction. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York UP, 1996. 1-22.
CHIH-PING CHEN ALMA COLLEGE
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2002|
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