Surviving Thornfield: Jane Eyre and nineteenth-century evolutionary theory.
Although pinpointing Charlotte Bronte's exact familiarity with evolutionary publications is difficult, it is reasonable to suppose that she was exposed in some way to contemporary commentary regarding evolutionary works, if not the tracts themselves. As an educated person and avid reader, Bronte was probably familiar with the theories of evolution such as those presented by thinkers akin to Robert Chambers in his 1844 Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. It is similarly conceivable that, whether consciously or subconsciously, she was in some way influenced by this mode of thought in her writing of Jane Eyre. George Levine proposes a similar line of defense for his own Darwinian readings of Victorian novels in his book Darwin and the Novelists. As he states in the opening chapter, "I am more interested here in the 'assumptions' than in the self-consciousness of questioning, and thus in writers who probably did not know any science first hand, who could have been 'influenced' by Darwin only indirectly" (3). Although there is reason to speculate Charlotte Bronte could have been familiar with the erudite discourse beginning three years prior to her publication of Jane Eyre, like Levine, I do not intend to imply that Bronte is undeniably influenced by the works of Chambers and Darwin, but rather that her novel is a response to the evolutionary theories taking shape in the society in which she lives. Like Gillian Beer's reading of Daniel Deronda in her influential study, Darwin's Plots, or Levine's expostulations on novels such as Mansfield Park and Little Dorrit, this essay suggests that, when read in the context of nineteenth-century evolutionary writings, Jane Eyre is revealed to be an experiment in evolutionary thought, as Charlotte Bronte not only explores various truths and theories of evolutionary ideas, but presents a text that itself provides literary support for such hypotheses.
While a reading of the evolutionary movements of Jane Eyre relies on the language and development of the novel itself, looking to the publication of and response to contemporary scientific writings introduced by theorists such as Robert Chambers and (later) Charles Darwin is essential. In the opening chapter of his book Victorian Sensation, James A. Secord recounts an anecdote about the publication of an anonymous text that would become, as he says throughout the chapter, a "sensation" for Victorian readers. His story begins with Alfred Lord Tennyson reading a review in a weekly paper in November of 1844, which inspires him to order the new publication from his bookseller. Upon its receipt "Tennyson [is] enthralled," writes Secord, and he goes on to relate how the particular review that leads Tennyson to order his copy in turn inspires a vast number of others to do the same, resulting in the first edition of the anonymously penned text to be sold out within just a few days (9).
The text in question is Robert Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, and its main focus of discussion is the natural process of evolution, and how the world came to be shaped as the Victorians saw it:
The book seemed to emanate from the very center of English life: leading aristocrats, members of Parliament, and famous men of science were suggested as the author. As then novelist and politician Benjamin Disraeli wrote to his sister Sarah, Vestiges "is convulsing the world, anonymous" and from a publisher he had never heard of. And his wife Mary had told her: "Dizzy says it does & will cause the greatest sensation & confusion." (Secord 10)
Both the subject matter of Vestiges and its early anonymity caused a stir, and the text itself quickly became a pervasive subject in English society. "Throughout fashionable London, from Buckingham Palace to intimate parties ... the most fashionable men and women in the country would be discussing Vestiges.... Books, like everything from clothes to political news, were part of a culture based on fashion," says Secord (155, 159). Such an account reveals the extent to which Chambers's treatise and evolutionary ideas permeated nineteenth-century English culture.
Nevertheless, the power of Vestiges is not singular, and similar accounts can be told of other literary endeavors ranging from Thackeray to Dickens to later evolutionary theorists such as Charles Darwin. The regard for texts such as Chambers's Vestiges--and later Darwin's On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man--allows astute scholars such as Beer and Levine to identify their influences in other genres, such as the realistic nineteenth-century English novels of authors such as Dickens and Eliot. "There were many evolutionists before Darwin and there have been many since" (3), writes Levine, and the correlations between Victorian theorists reveal a number of ideas developing within the field for over two decades before becoming better defined by later publications. Although Darwin himself will not use the term until 1871 when he publishes The Descent of Man, the groundwork for his theory of sexual selection can be seen in earlier evolutionary texts, such as Chambers's publication 27 years prior. In the chapter entitled "Hypothesis of the Development of the Vegetable and Animal Kingdoms," Chambers examines the creation of sex in various plant and animal species (focusing on how the differences between sexes begin with the original gestation of life), and the mother's possible role in not only helping to determine that sex, but likewise her part in the evolutionary sequence of the species.
In reference to his specific observations regarding the variables of humankind as a species and its natural relationship to evolutionary factors, Chambers writes:
It is fully established that a human family, tribe, or nation, is liable, in the course of generations, to be either advanced from a mean form to a higher one, or degraded from a higher to a lower, by the influence of the physical conditions in which it lives.... there are authentic instances of a people originally well-formed and good-looking, being brought, by imperfect diet and a variety of physical hardships, to a meaner form. (217-18)
By meditating on the evolutionary differences between races (as he here in this chapter uses examples of geography to explain the "devolution" of African races in comparison to their European counterparts), Chambers opens the door for consideration of the evolution of even European peoples, and goes on to discuss how a mother may be responsible for devolutionary "monstrosities" (218), when he writes that, "Such defects are the result of nothing more than a failure of the power of development in the system of the mother, occasioned by weak health or misery" (219). This discussion of motherhood, and "[nature's willingness] to go back and to go forward" (218), lays an important groundwork for the evolutionary thought that comes to play in Bronte's novel three years later, and Darwin's own evolutionary theses, as published in 1859 and 1871.
In order to further the reading of Bronte's novel as an evolutionary tract and place Jane Eyre within this contemporary scientific discourse, it is beneficial to compare the public response to the novel to these traditional evolutionary publications. In response to the October 1847 publication of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, G.H. Lewes writes in Fraser's Magazine:
The story is not only of singular interest, naturally evolved, unflagging to the last, but it fastens itself upon your attention.... Reality--deep, significant reality--is the great characteristic of the book.... it is souls speaking to soul; it is an utterance from the depths of a struggling, suffering, much-enduring spirit: suspiria de profundis! (qtd. in Barker, 170)
Lewes's attention to the "reality" of Bronte's novel is not singular; a November 1847 review in the Era likewise commends the publication for its "nature and truth," and the Westminster Review admires the author for her "natural tone" (qtd. in Barker, 170). The language these critics choose to describe Jane Eyre is particularly interesting for their early references to scientific theory. The words "natural" and "evolved" allude to not only prescribed social ideas regarding what defines a successful novel, but also to the academic project within its pages. Indeed, the commonality in many early reviews of Bronte's work is the emphasis on the reality of the work itself and Bronte's own successful dedication to the presentation of a facsimile of the culture and society in which it is published.
Jane Eyre's place in the gothic genre complicates a realistic and scientific reading of the novel. However, Bronte's strategic uses of gothic conventions in the narrative not only help lend credence to the realism of her story through the methodical explanation for each "otherworldly" occurrence, but likewise functions to further Bronte's theoretical evolutionary discourse. A reading of the surreal elements of the novel--the mysterious fires, disembodied laughter, and threatening specters appearing in the night--reveals a correlation between the "supernatural" and the markedly devolved figure of Bertha Mason with whom the highly evolved example of Jane comes into direct conflict at Thomfield Hall. The connection between the negatively-characterized, bestially-portrayed Bertha and the extraordinary serves several purposes, one of which is to discredit further the fantastic and overly-imaginative, and signifies the danger of devolution or stagnation of the evolutionary process in the human species. Just as superstitions and unexplained mysteries at Thomfield function as an extension of Bertha's degenerative madness, her very madness becomes a condemnation of the imaginative trope that supports the literary presence of such outlandish characters and events. In Jane Eyre, the very genre of gothic literature becomes a signifier of the devolution of humanity; the rejection of the trope and displacing of Bertha Mason is translated into an acceptance--and perhaps necessity--of an evolutionary process.
The evolutionary tract of Jane Eyre is itself broken into three escalating segments, represented by three separate domestic spheres that themselves function as scientific case studies in Bronte's narrative. The introduction of evolutionary theory and the presentation of the prime specimen to be analyzed takes place at Gateshead Hall, home to the Reed family. By its nature as an enclosed household with few external influencing factors, the grounds of Gateshead becomes the ideal space to consider how an evolutionary figure may appear, how his or her differences may manifest themselves, and how the same figure could interact with select representative groups (contemporaries as played by the Reed children, authorities as demonstrated by Jane's aunt Mrs. Reed, and a general public that is here made up of servants and other working professionals, such as the apothecary). Early reactions to Jane by other characters become useful in understanding the girl's place in a larger social context, and likewise show how she is marked as "different" from her very introduction:
[Mrs. Reed] regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance; but that until she heard from Bessie and could discover by her own observation that I was endeavouring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner--something lighter, franker, more natural, as it were--she must really exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy, little children. (5)
Here, on the first page of the text, the reader is presented with a description of Jane that firmly situates her character in conflict with representative nineteenth-century expectations of childlike behavior and decorum. The language Bronte gives Mrs. Reed to discuss Jane is poignant to Bronte's own later characterization of the girl; thus, what Mrs. Reed sees as un-childlike and unnatural in Jane, Bronte will reveal as signifying her status as an evolved individual and not simply markers of a foul temper or negative disposition. Just as this early description of Jane is utilized for greater study as the novel progresses, the first few chapters of the book as a whole are developmental in nature; while the reader is never truly made privy to the actual creation of the evolved figure, as the reader is introduced to Jane after her infancy, and after she has come to live with the Reeds as a child, (1) Bronte uses the space to explore the early development and manifestation of an evolved member of her sex. Jane's presence at Gateshead conduces to a natural progression towards the second stage of Bronte's study, which hinges on the young girl's presence at school, a transitional space that allows for the creation of a small society within a marginally domestic sphere.
With the fifth chapter of the book, the story transitions to Lowood Institution, where Bronte uses the principle Darwin will later identify as "survival of the fittest" in order to examine an evolved individual's methods of surviving and recovering from difficult circumstances. While conflict is present at the school between the students and some teachers--and, of course, the occasional intimidating presence of Mr. Brockelhurst himself--it is through Bronte's juxtaposition of Jane with Helen Burns that her intentions and insinuations regarding evolutionary theory are made most clear. In both the world of the novel itself and in that of the novel's original readers, Helen is representative of the perfect child. The author herself uses a tone of great approbation when describing the character's admirable attributes (such as her kindness and patience), and her relation to the other characters shows Helen to be the embodiment of the idealized adolescent. However, Helen is also a stagnant Victorian figure, and that very culturally-signified perfection ultimately renders her incapable of adapting to the world that creates her, and her inability to adapt reveals Bronte's purpose in introducing her relationship with Jane. It is through her death--and Jane's survival--that a discussion of a theory of the relation of adaptation to survival arises. Bronte then strives to present how an evolved individual is better-endowed for survival than even the contemporary pictures of perfection.
The final--and arguably most significant--of Bronte's theoretical proposals revolves around speculation of sexual selection, as set against the backdrop of Thornfield Hall. The cyclical return to the enclosed space of the aristocratic estate places Bronte's argument back into the immediate space of primary interaction (i.e. the Victorian home); it is here that she comes to discuss not only the consequences of devolution through the presence of Bertha Mason, but likewise the interaction between contrary evolutionary figures and the possibility of--and dangers concerning--further evolutionary movement of the human species. As the novel follows the natural progression and development of the evolved specimen as an individual, it is at Thornfield that Bronte moves towards a discussion of competition between sexual rivals and how the outcome of that competition controls the reproductive capabilities of those involved.
Bronte begins her evolutionary discourse by attempting to produce a rendering of what an evolved individual may be, and establishes what traits and qualities would mark such an individual. This rendering takes shape in the form of young Jane Eyre, who is shown from her primary introduction to be significantly and, in the eyes of the company with which she resides, regrettably different. This difference is shown to manifest itself most significantly in Jane's intellectual and social interactions with the household and speaks to Bronte's intentions as an evolutionary theorist. The traits she endows her primary specimen with speak to what she may possibly identify as a flaw in her own species. In her aunt's household, Jane's evolved characteristics are misinterpreted as purposefully negative behavior, and her juxtaposition with the Reed children serves not only to emphasize the differences in Jane, but also to demonstrate the specific traits which have evolved. Bessie demonstrates this acknowledgment of difference when she says to Jane, '"you sharp little thing! You've got quite a new way of talking. What makes you so venturesome and hardy?"' (33), signifying the deviance in Jane's "sharpness" of language. Likewise, Bessie's further observations emphasize the general reaction to the evolved girl, as they are revealed in an earlier conversation with a fellow servant:
Bessie, when she heard this narrative, sighed and said, "Poor Miss Jane is to be pitied, too, Abbot." "Yes," responded Abbot, "if she were a nice, pretty child, one might compassionate her forlornness; but one really cannot care for such a little toad as that." "Not a great deal, to be sure," agreed Bessie .... (21)
The hostility that the servants show for young Jane mirrors the contempt offered by Mrs. Reed and reveals the resentment that arises from the introduction of an othered individual as competition to the idealized--yet stagnant--status quo. (2) Yet, it is Jane's own conversation with Mr. Brocklehurst that most clearly demonstrates the aggressive intellect that marks Jane as an evolved child:
"... Do you know where the wicked go after death?"
"They go to hell," was my ready and orthodox answer.
"And what is hell? Can you tell me that?"
"A pit full of fire."
"And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there
"What must you do to avoid it?"
I deliberated a moment; my answer, when it did come, was objectionable:
"I must keep in good health and not die." (26-27)
Jane's growth is shown to reveal itself through her "unusual" intellect--an intellect that is again presented as decidedly sharp, having both a knowledge of conventional wisdom and an ability to dissect it with original and self-validated thought. Bronte's depiction of Jane's inability to conform to the ecclesiastical idealist's expectations of childhood suggests that the expectation of such behavior is itself a flaw. The superior intellect of the logical and straightforward, as demonstrated by her frank answer, is to be preferred over the diminutive intellect and stunted education of children.
Jane's defiance violates standards for children, but perhaps girls especially; while the sex of those involved in the primary conflicts of Jane Eyre is not to be questioned, the gender identification assigned to them by Charlotte Bronte is ripe for analysis. From the first introduction of Jane, the reader is shown that she is essentially other in comparison to her cousins, who arguably represent the English social status quo. This otherness is largely defined in contrast with the low cerebral capacity expected of Victorian femininity. According to Mitchell and Osland, young girls and women in the nineteenth century are:
... taught ... that love is "the supreme good", women are educated only to inspire it, and consequently they are "subjected by ignorance to their sensations, and only taught to look for happiness in love, refine on sensual feelings, and adopt metaphysical notions respecting that passion, which lead them shamefully to neglect the duties of life." (181)
For the majority of Victorian women, this means a preoccupation with the object of affection and the neglect of other intellectual pursuits. However, these lessons do not stand true for Jane, who, when she is banished from polite Victorian company by her aunt, retreats to an academic sphere of her own creation as opposed to lingering on sentimental feelings of remorse for her difference. (3) Her active intelligence and subversive behavior are essentially the cause of friction within the Reed household, and are likewise responsible for setting Jane's story in motion. Early in the novel, this otherness is marked by a lack of piety, as revealed in particular by her conversation with Mr. Brocklehurst; and thus, she is shunned by her more "refined" relations on the basis of not only her social class, (4) but what the Reeds regard as her seditious nature. In a time and place when little girls (and later wives) are expected to be compliant, obedient, and pious, young Jane is assertive, self-validating, and aggressive, not only responding with frightening frankness to the authority figures who question her, but literally fighting for dominance with her male cousin. This difference in character can be marked as the first evidence of Jane's evolutionary nature. While the typical nineteenth-century woman is witheringly confined in her home and society, the assertive Jane is developing new skills and traits that will allow her to survive and even flourish in an environment known to smother less evolved specimens, as can be seen in the example of Helen Burns at Lowood. The aggressiveness she displays in the Reed household is only one of many traits allowed to the character of Jane that will determine her survival later in the text, in different environments.
Unequipped to handle the unusual traits his cousin displays, John Reed can only put up a pitiful resistance to the new female specimen that Jane represents, which in and of itself threatens not only his territorial home space, but his social and evolutionary position as a dominant male figure and future head of household. (5) It is this campaign for territory against John Reed that inspires Jane's aunt to send her to Lowood, thereby freeing her poor son from his little competitor and reestablishing the old natural order. Despite the hopes of Mrs. Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst, Lowood does little to tame Jane's spirit.
To be sure, it is her personality that establishes Jane as more fit for survival, rather than her physical attributes. Charlotte Bronte goes to great lengths to establish the figure of Jane Eyre as small, plain, and physically unimposing; yet, this merely works to emphasize Jane's deviation from Victorian standards in terms of her thoughts and conduct. Though she repeatedly acknowledges her place in the world (in terms of social status, employment position, and sex as determined by the culture in which she lives), her thoughts and verbal ejaculations, as presented in the narrative, firmly define her as a singular, improved offshoot from that feminine identity.
Her alternative characteristics come to function clearly once Jane has left Gateshead and enters the transitory space of Lowood. Here, Jane's intellect and resoluteness are repeatedly tried by the difficult conditions of the school, as the expectations of English society are relentlessly forced upon her. Just as Jane's relationship to the Reed children is essential to early readings of Jane as an evolved child, her relationship to Helen Burns at Lowood Institution is equally important in reading Bronte's discussion of survival. Unlike Gateshead, where Jane is shown to be in constant passive-aggressive tension with the other members of the household, Bronte uses the school as a space in which to explore the benefits and necessity of adaptability. Certainly, Lowood presents an environment that demands adaptability in order for its occupants to survive their education. In order to emphasize this necessity, Bronte presents the figure of Helen Burns, an idealized child-figure who is the embodiment of religious piety and innocence as prescribed by the education and social rules of nineteenth-century society. However, since these rules are stagnating, in an environment demanding adaptation, Helen cannot survive.
"By dying young, I shall escape great sufferings. I had not qualities or talents to make my way very well in the world; I should have been continually at fault." says young Helen to Jane (69). Her statement expresses not only the necessity to inherit certain qualities for survival, but her own recognition that those qualities cannot necessarily be learned, suggesting that they belong largely to the evolved figure, such as Jane. Lowood is stifling both in that it is difficult to survive there, and in that, though nominally a place of education, its training does not improve survival chances beyond its walls. (6) Helen's death marks an important step in Bronte's hypothesis, as it demonstrates the inability of the un-evolved to thrive, and the natural selection that occurs even in contemporary social structure. This comparison between Jane and Helen is in fact Bronte's presentation of the survival of the fittest and serves as a stepping-stone towards her final analysis of evolution and reproduction.
The culmination of Bronte's theoretical evolutionary endeavors occurs once Jane leaves Lowood, and accepts her position as governess at Thornfield Hall.
I did not like re-entering Thornfield. To pass its threshold was to return to stagnation; to cross the silent hall, to ascent the darksome staircase, to seek my own lonely little room.... Yes, just as much good as it would do a man tired of sitting still in a 'too easy chair' to take a long walk; and just as natural was the wish to stir, under my circumstances, as it would be under his. (99)
The lifeless estate, that is here so foreboding to Jane, is representative of a return to the oppressive sphere of the claustrophobic Victorian home, where strict gendered expectations leave no room for evolution or expansion. However, unlike Gateshead, which houses only the Reeds and their servants. Thornfield Hall also houses a competitive force that comes to threaten not only Jane's present existence, but her instinctual evolutionary drive to procreate and ensure the survival of her evolved genetic line: the devolved monstrosity that is Bertha Mason.
Bertha Mason, who is at first alluded to only through means of gothic conventions, represents a regression of the human species. Jane's first introduction to Bertha by Rochester presents a visage of the other woman that is more bestial than human:
In the deep shade, at the further 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 groveled, 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. (250)
Like Chambers's monstrosities as described in Vestiges, Bertha is exemplary of how nature can in fact turn back as easily as it can progress, and she functions as an implied warning for those who would oppress the evolved figure.
As the character of Jane transitions into adulthood and sexual maturity, the theoretical work of Charles Darwin becomes useful in defining Bronte's discourse. Twelve years after Victorian England is first introduced to On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin publishes The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, in which he explores different characteristics of evolution and the role that sexual selection and reproduction plays in the progress of species. In this text, he expands on his earlier assertions regarding the functions and differences of the sexes, paying specific attention to those characteristics and qualities intended for the attraction of mates and reproduction. In On the Origin of the Species, he writes:
We can so far take a prophetic glance into futurity as to foretell that it will be the common and widely-spread species, belonging to the larger and dominant groups, which will ultimately prevail and procreate new and dominant species. (251)
The means through which this new and dominant species will come into being--and which traits will become part of their natural makeup--are at the center of Darwin's study. He argues that procreation and thus the propagation of any species is a competitive sphere, in which the males compete for the breeding rights to females of their kind. According to Darwin's observations, the largest, strongest, and (often) the most beautiful are more likely to pass on their characteristics to future generations than their weaker, less desirable counterparts. As he confirms in the conclusion of The Descent of Man:
The males are almost always the wooers; and they alone are armed with special weapons for fighting with their rivals. They are generally stronger and larger than the females, and are endowed with the requisite qualities of courage and pugnacity. (608)
Thus, Darwin presents the hierarchy of courtship as it is established in nature, placing the single female as the object of desire, which must be won through the active competition between males. This competition is frequently--and necessarily--physical and violent, as opposed to a benign display of physical attractiveness, as one might observe in animals such as peacocks, and to lose often means not only losing the right to mate with a particular female, but dying and failing to pass on genes.
It is within this structure of wooing, competition, and death that the major romantic narrative in Jane Eyre takes place. While Bronte's novel is published long before The Descent of Man, the parallels between the theories presented in the two texts shows that Darwin's principles of sexual selection and survival of the fittest are alive in the Victorian imagination long before Charles Darwin gives them a name. As Richard A. Kaye argues,
The Descent of Man confirmed the prevailing Victorian faith that the "courtship plot" was so universal as to possess a basis in nature. ... The Descent provided a bridge for seemingly contradictory strains within Victorian culture: the divide separating Victorian ethical strenuousness, high-minded and "purposive," and an incipient aestheticism built on a belief in the randomness of "sensations" and "impressions." (85)
As Kaye's work relates, Darwin's theories confirm Victorian notions that are already established and in practice, and are later used to defend active elements of nineteenth-century English culture that are possibly "contradictory" in nature--cultural preoccupation with both sensational aestheticism and strict moral righteousness. (7)
However, placing the figure of Bertha Mason within the courtship plot of Darwin and Kaye is complicated, as her degenerative qualities ask for a greater connection to the culture into which she is married. This issue leads scholars to examine not only Bertha herself, but also her possible binary relations to other characters, most often, Jane. Barbara Rigney writes:
In Freudian terms, Bertha is the evil-mother figure who prevents Jane's sexual union with the fatherlike Rochester.... However, Bertha is as much a doppelganger for Jane as for Rochester: she serves as a distorted mirror image of Jane's own dangerous propensities toward "passion," Bronte's frequent euphemism for sexuality. (15-16)
By reading Bertha in terms of familial relation to Jane, Rigney attempts to locate Bertha within a social structure that itself makes no room for mad first-wives, while simultaneously justifying the conflict that develops once Jane--here, the sexually-driven daughter figure--arrives at Thornfield. However, such readings, focusing on how Bertha represents menacing maternal and sexual forces, perhaps divert our attention from Jane.
Though their binary relation presents a tempting possibility to read such a close relationship, the active conflict between them speaks to an alternative binary based on natural competitive drives. As equally devolved as Jane is evolved, Bertha herself is presented as being beyond the realm of rationality and totally immersed in what can be described as natural (if bestial) understanding. Rochester defines Bertha's capacity for rational thought and sanity when he describes his wife to Jane:
"What a pigmy intellect she had--and what giant propensities! How fearful were the curses those propensities entailed on me! Bertha Mason--the true daughter of an infamous mother--dragged me through all the hideous and degrading agonies which must attend a man bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste." (261)
This "pigmy intellect" establishes Bertha as less than human, as the defining characteristic of her perceived madness functions to render her as below not only Rochester and Jane, but the Victorian reader as a whole. It is this baseness of seemingly lower consciousness that marks her as the abomination she is read to be.
Such abnormalities establish a sense of revulsion in terms of the presence of Bertha, and her very identity is reduced to that of a mutant. In her own study of monsters and female identity in the gothic, Karen Stein joins others in describing Bertha in opposition to the main protagonist--as "a monstrous incarnation of the passionate, angry aspects of the self that Jane must subdue"--and likewise asserts that,
Jane Eyre, for example, is a kind of encoded symbolic message in which the heroine is split into two selves, the "monstrous," passionate, sexual woman, and the "good," rational, controlled woman. The male fear of female sexuality is reflected in Rochester's treatment of his first wife, Bertha. Bertha's existence serves as a warning to Jane.... Only after Bertha's death, the death of the 'monstrous,' angry, assertive self, is Jane's marriage to Rochester possible. (128)
Stein's reading of Bertha as monstrous is helpful to later readings of the character, but her insistence that Bertha is at once half of Jane and a warning to Jane suggests that such a reading is at conflict with itself. While Bertha's presence in the novel is certainly necessary for the progression that takes place at Thornfield, Bertha herself remains a separate entity who functions in relation to Jane, not as a fragmented part of her.
Indeed, as many critics of Jane Eyre have already established, Bertha Mason's death is necessary for the progression of the novel, not only because it frees Rochester for a second marriage, but because it likewise removes a personal obstacle from the conscience of Jane herself. However, unlike scholars such as Stein, I believe that Bertha's death does not mark Jane's conquering of unacceptable passion and rage, or the fractured piece of self that prevents her successful assimilation into proper nineteenth-century society, but rather her dominance and superiority in terms of natural sexual selection. Jane's survival of Thornfield marks her as the "fittest" and allows her the right to procreation, thereby passing on her characteristic strengths to future generations, as signified by her winning of Rochester.
The gender implications in such a reading are great, as it places Jane and Bertha against each other in a way suggestive of competing males, while situating Rochester as the feminized mate to be won through that competition. Jane's strength, residing in intellectual acuity and emotional composure, takes on "masculine" overtones in its superiority of mental competence to both the female education and the brute physical masculinity that is commonly accepted as a definitive trait of superiority. Bronte presents Jane's competitive foil in oppositional terms, as the physically powerful and mentally unstable Bertha Mason. Just as Bronte works to establish Jane as a highly evolved individual, so, too, does she define Bertha in alternative terms. However, her evolutionary status is itself questionable, as her advanced physical attributes are marred by a devolved mental capacity. While her threat to Jane is manifold, it is her derangement that marks her as a social threat, and emphasizes the danger of having such a figure in the gene pool.
Bertha's madness is threatening, both for its instability and its hostility to Bronte's heightened admiration of intellectual realism. Regarding the trope of madness that regularly appears in gothic fiction, Stein writes:
Madness has proved a difficult term to define. Assessments of sanity are highly subjective, even among medical professionals. This subjective assessment is particularly true for women. The label of insanity has frequently been ascribed to women who fail to perform housewives' tasks, or who deviate from the 'average' norms of expected behavior. (125)
Drawing on the association of madness with the inability to conform to social regulations, very much including the use of language, Bronte uses this trait of madness to silence Bertha, emphasizing her physicality as opposed to her personality or intellect. Unlike Jane. Bertha has no rational or verbal outlet to express her anger and frustration at their society's restrictions on women, and therefore she must rely on physical acts of violence in order to protest the position in which that society has placed her.
In comparison to Jane's gender ambiguity, Bertha is physically represented as other to the idealized female model:
... the lunatic sprang and grappled [Rochester's] throat viciously, and laid her teeth to his cheek: they struggled. She was a big woman, in stature almost equaling her husband, and corpulent besides: she showed virile force in the contest--more than once she almost throttled him, athletic as he was. (250)
Here, in a confrontation with Rochester, Bertha's stature and power come into consideration. Represented as both powerful and brutish, Bertha's femininity is recalled only in terms of pronouns and her relation to her present opponent--she is a woman only as much as she can be considered a wife. She is taller than a woman should be, heavier, more vigorous, and stronger. Bronte depicts Bertha's ability to contest with Rochester physically as completely alien--even to Jane, who herself remains a marked other. Her physical difference confirms her evolutionary identification as a monstrosity--an evolutionary leap or deviance that is largely unsuccessful. This monstrosity must be removed from the competitive gene pool, in order to ensure the proper evolution of the species and prevent further dangerous devolution.
Such is the figure with whom Jane must compete, although their motives and means of competition differ greatly. Unlike Jane, who desires a mate and the opportunity of procreating, Bertha is fighting for her own survival. Darwin's description of the severity of these competitions in nature gives some insight as to why Bertha's actions are so desperate:
The males of some species kill one another by fighting; or they drive one another about until they become greatly emaciated. They must also be often exposed to various dangers, whilst wandering about in eager search for the females. (Descent 211)
In this light, Bertha's attacks on Rochester can imply a twisted expression of her drive to possess him--an expression of her recognition that losing him to a competitive mate would be to put her own existence in jeopardy. Jane's presence at Thornfield changes the dynamics of the household, inciting a fight for dominance recalling that which a young Jane undertakes with her cousin in the opening of the narrative. For Jane, the territory of Thornfield signifies the ability to couple--for Bertha, that same territory is the only assurance she has for her own survival.
Although Darwin's work with sexual selection focuses on the physicality of the competition between prospective mates, the competition between Jane and Bertha becomes a comparatively figurative one. Unable to match Bertha in terms of physical strength, Jane exercises her superiority through her ability to retain Rochester's devotion, even in her absence. As Darwin describes in his conclusion to The Descent of Man, males are often endowed with the means or organs not only to reach their mates, but to grab and hold them for their own purposes. Bertha Mason's hold on Rochester is only through the marriage that both seem to detest; meanwhile, Bronte represents Jane's grip on Rochester with her ability to fascinate him, and sets her intellectually separate from female mates. (7) Still fighting against the invasion of her competitor, despite Jane's absence from Thornfield, Bertha makes a final attempt to retain her ownership of Rochester (8); and in so doing not only does she set the scene for her own death, but likewise confirms the femininization of Rochester that allows for his final pairing with Jane. It is Bertha's own desire for dominance that leads to her demise, and confirms Jane's supremacy. Jane's competitor eliminated, she pursues the now passive Rochester, a "safe husband" for her (Hoeveler 203).
The death of Bertha marks neither the end of Jane's evolutionary status, nor presents a return to the narrative norm of nineteenth-century fiction; Bronte's acceptance of the marriage plot does not negate her academic intentions in the novel, but rather confirms the desirability her hypotheses initially present. While the traditional plot of marriage and procreation is achieved, the progressive theme that defines Jane throughout the text follows her to her "fairytale ending." As the conclusion reveals, Jane becomes the governing head of household, not only responsible for her husband's life, but becoming an extension of his male body as she functions as his eyes and right hand. (9) As Darwin discusses in his own work, the superior partner here wins the quest of sexual selection; and having prevented the genetic spread of madness and monstrosity, she gains the ability and joy of procreation so that her own characteristics and those of her selected mate may be passed to future generations.
Barker, Juliet. The Brontes: A Life in Letters. New York: The Overlook Press, 2002.
Beer, Gillian. Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin. George Eliot, and Nineteenth Century Fiction. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Richard J. Dunn. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001.
Chambers, Robert. Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and Other Evolutionary Writings. Ed. James A. Secord. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.
Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: Rand, McNally and Company, 1874.
--. "On the Origin of Species." The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Victorian Era. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2006. 243-52.
Heilman, Robert B. "Charlotte Bronte, Reason, and the Moon." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 14.4(1960): 283-302.
Hoeveler, Diane Long. "The Triumph of the Civilizing Process: The Brontes and Romantic Feminism." Gothic Feminism; The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontes. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1998. 186-241.
Kaye, Richard A. "The Flirtation of Species: Darwinian Sexual Selection and Victorian Narrative." The Flirt's Tragedy: Desire without End in Victorian and Edwardian Fiction. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2002. 84-117.
Levine, George. Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.
Mitchell, Marea and Dianne Osland. "Agitating Risk and Romantic Chance: Going All the Way with Jane Eyre?" Representing Women and Female Desire from Arcadia to Jane Eyre. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 175-93.
Rigney, Barbara Hill. "'The Frenzied Moment': Sex and Insanity in Jane Eyre." Madness and Sexual Politics in the Feminist Novel: Studies in Bronte, Woolf Lessing, and Atwood. London: U of Wisconsin P, 1978. 13-37.
Secord, James A. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship o/Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000.
Stein, Karen F. "Monsters and Madwomen: Changing Female Gothic." The Female Gothic. Ed. Juliann E. Fleenor. London: Eden, 1983. 125-37.
(1) In the third chapter of the book the apothecary remarks that Jane "must be eight or nine years old" (19), which indicated at least seven years of lost observation regarding Jane's development before the novel even begins.
(2) As here exemplified by Georgianna, whom Abbot refers to as a 'Little darling!' immediately following her rejection of Jane.
(3) "A small breakfast-room adjoined the drawing-room. I slipped in there. It contained a bookcase: I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it shold be one stored with pictures. I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement" (5).
(4) Which must be acknowledged in terms of her familial relations--it is the first black mark against her, before her personality is ever established.
(5) Interestingly, the primary scene of physical competition between John and Jane takes place over Jane's temporary possession of a book. John's denial of Jane's right to intellectual pursuits ('"You have no business to take our books; you are a dependent,"' he says to Jane (8) and his subsequent determination to use that book for physical punishment demonstrates not only the stagnant masculine desire to control and manipulate the intellectual pursuits of the female, but likewise reveals the stagnant, non-evolved figure's inability to grasp the power of intellectual pursuits in and of themselves.
(6) The death of Helen Burns may also be read as a response to the expectations of wives. The qualities attributed to Helen are also those that are expected of a wife, and Helen's death emphasizes the dangers of such expectations within the home, suggesting that the quest for such perfection and figuratively and literally bring a woman to the point of death.
(7) Such as Blanche Ingram, who is later shown to be no real competition for Jane or Bertha.
(8) As exercised by her desire figuratively to consume his body (in flames), which would prevent any competitor from possessing him at all. This extremist act can be related to her devolved state, in which--when faced with the inability to survive--she is overcome by the impulse to negate all progeny from the line she has marked as her own.
(9) "Mr. Rochester continued blind the first two years of our union: perhaps it was the circumstance that drew us so very near--that knit us so 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" (384).
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|Author:||Mishou, Aubrey L.|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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