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THE JOINER PRIZE ESSAY

The Seraglio or Suttee: Bronte's Jane Eyre Mary Ellis Gibson University of North Carolina at Greensboro Despite the enormous importance of Britain's empire to its commercial success and to its nationalist pride, little has been written about the domestic impact of Victorian empire as it is treated in the fiction of the time. Most critical attention has focused on those texts that are obviously "about" empire or imperialism--the works of Kipling or of Conrad, for example. But it may be equally fruitful to look to earlier texts and to ones in which the British empire is not the central focus. In this investigation, Charlotte Bront/:!'s Jane Eyre is particularly interesting--its links to the Gothic and to romanticism are well-known, and it has been repeatedly examined from psychoanalytical, mythical, materialist, and feminist perspectives. If we look at Jane Eyre as a novel about empire, we find a whole set of previously unremarked but crucial metaphors. Central to these metaphors is the choice Bronte offers her heroine of a seraglio or suttee. I will argue here that the metaphors associated with empire in Jane Eyre create a subversive, if covert and ambiguous, criticism of domination in domestic relationships, a criticism that extends to British imperialist impulses themselves. If there were time, it would be possible to situate Jane Eyre in its historical context. I can only suggest briefly that Jane Eyre is very much a novel of its time, a "domestic" romance in the age of empire. BroniC! clearly partook of the British attitude toward the position of "oriental" women though she did not share the self-congratulatory tone of many who were horrified at what she calls "pagan" customs. The missionary reports of the Methodist Magazine that her Aunt Branwell cherished and the travel accounts that were a popular feature of the quarterlies provided the literary context for Bronte's work, just as events in India and the Ottoman empire provided the political context. In the language of Bronte's juvenilia we see her fascination with domestic as well as political despotism, but nowhere is the language worked out in so concrete and systematic a fashion as it is in Jane Eyre. My purpose here is to examine the metaphors Bronte draws from imperialism and to suggest how she uses these metaphors at crucial junctures in the plot of Jane Eyre. I

3 2 In Jane Eyre Bronte systematically develops the language of master and slave, of tyranny and submission; she draws analogies between Jane's position and that of subjects in various empires-the Roman empire, the Ottoman empire, the British empire in the West Indies and in India, and even the Israel of the patriarchs. All these allusions as they occur to Bronte's characters, principally to Jane and to Rochester, create a context in which individual moral choices and personal relationships are explicitlyconnected to larger relationships of power and domination. Bronte's allusions to empire allow her to make the curious move of criticizingdomestic arrangements and British Christianity from the point of view of the "pagan" woman. The critical implications of this shift in point of view were not lost on Bronte's nineteenth-century readers, some of whom found Jane Eyre a proIt is only in connection with their aborted wedding that the language of slavery as it applies to Rochester and Jane takes a bitter turn. This turn--in incident as well as in language--is prefigured in Bertha Mason Rochester's appearance at Jane's bedside two nights before the wedding. Many readers have noted Jane's explicit reference to Bertha as vampire and Bertha's assimilation to the Victorian type of the fallen and demonic woman.. What is less obvious is the similarity between Jane's description of Bertha and Victorian descriptions of Africans and slaves (indeed Bertha is half Creole, a designation that may cover a variety of racial combina-

tions).S Jane exclaimsof Bertha: "I never saw a face like it! It was a
discoloured face-it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!... This, sir, was purple: the lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrrowed; the black eyebrows widely raised over the blood-shot eyes" (286). Of course Bertha is further characterized as a brute and demon, a monster, and clearly Rochester feels himself enslaved to her even as she is bound to and by him. As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar point out, Jane is forced to ask herself if she is a monster Rochester can love, tacitly and unknowingly identifying herself with Bertha.6 Indeed, while pitying him, Jane chides Rochester for his "vindictive antipathy" to his wife (303). As she hears the story of Rochester's life, Jane is reminded that while marriage without love like Bertha's and Edward's is a form of slavery, so would be love--or passion--without marriage. Jane takes warning from Rochester's comment that "hiring a mistressis the next worst thing to buying a slave" (314). After fleeing from Thornfield she muses by the fire in her cottage at Morton that it is better to be a village schoolmistress than "a slave in a fool's paradise at Marseilles" (362). In reuniting Rochester with her heroine, Bronte faced the difficulty of transforming the language of slavery into the language of equality. We are prepared for this conclusion in several ways, notably by Jane's declaration of equality with Rochester much earlier in the novel. Jane's claim to equality with her master is the same claim proferred for the slave: equality before God. "It is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal,--as we are!" (255). Bronte makes good this claim through Jane's assertion of moral independence and through Jane's inheritance. Equality before God, as many readers have noted, is not so much to be relied on for a happy marriage as equality of fortune. When Rochester exclaims in the closing chapters that Jane is now a rich woman, she replies significantly, "I am my own mistress" (438). Both playfully and seriously he now calls her "ma'am" as she has called him "sir" (445). And it is not only Bertha's death and Rochester's moral rehabilitation that make their union possible, but Jane's recognition that even in asking her to be his mistress Rochester had "in

foundly unsettling,not to say un-Christiannovel.2


The most obvious of these crucial metaphors is expressed in the language of master and slave, tyrant and victim. Many readers have been disconcerted by Jane's references to Rochester as her master. While Jane's language perhaps reveals a strain of feminine submissiveness,it also reflects her economic position and her youth. Counterbalancing her talk of masters and mastery is Jane's resolute opposition to tyranny. The novel invites a distinction between masters and tyrants, and it modulates the language of mastery itself. In the course of the novel Jane refers repeatedly to Rochester as master and refuses to overlook the situation he wishes to avoid mentioning--her economic subordination as governess/servant.! Rochester in this respect is Jane's legitimate master, however unfortunate the circumstances that make him so. With Rochester there also remains a possibility of illegitimate mastery which in metaphor, as well as in the workings of plot, takes the form of illegitimate sexual mastery. As Jane becomes familiar with Rochester's character, she observes, "I felt at times as if he were my relation rather than my master: yet he was imperious sometimes still; but I did not mind that; I saw it was his way" (149). The feeling of kinship of course predominates in Rochester's proposal of marriage--he asks Jane if she is anything "akin" to him. But their engagement is shadowed by his old attitudes as well as by the wife Rochester has been unable to leave behind. For as Rochester's fiancee Jane begins to feel like a "kept" woman (270), a doll, fairy, angel, or plaything. When she repulses Rochester it is in the language of mastery and slavery: "I'll not stand you an inch in the stead of a seraglio...so don't consider me an equivalent for one; if you have a fancy for anything in that line, away with you sir, to the bazaars of Stamboul without delay; and layout in extensive slave purchases some of that spare cash you seem at a loss to spend satisfactorily here" (271). Jane wishes not to relinquish her "governessing slavery" as Rochester calls it because it provides her sole, if equivocal, means of independence.

4 truth, loved me far too well...to constitute himself my tyrant" (443).Leaving aside the language of master and servant Jane comes to call her husband "my Edward." But by focusing first on this modulation of the language of slavery into the language of equality in Jane Eyre, we risk overlooking the spectacular dangers that metaphorically and actually threaten the heroine. We see Jane facing tyranny from the very first. When John Reed hurls a book at her, she flings her youthful reading back at him, accusing him of being a "slave driver" like the Roman emperors "Nero, Caligula, etc." (13). Rochester himself cannot escape the tinge of Roman imperialism, for he characterizes Bertha as a "Messalina," making himself by implication and for better or worse a Claudius, the emperor of many wives. Rochester appears as a kind of monitory figure in the "Bridewell" charade, too, where he impersonates an "Israelitish" figure from "patriarchal days." More important than these allusions, however, is the characterization of Rochester as sultan--no great compliment considering the state of the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the nineteenth century. Jane is lessthan pleased when he declares he would not change her for the "grand turks's whole seraglio," and she promises, prophetically, that should he indeed go out to "Stamboul" for his slave purchases as she recommends, she would be preparing to "go out as a missionary to preach liberty to them that are enslaved-your harem inmates amongst the rest. I'll get admitted there, and I'll stir up mutiny" (271). As it happens St. John Rivers, not Rochester, proposes that Jane go out as a missionary to foreign women; he would have her be a "conductress of Indian schools, and a helper amongst Indian women" (406). But St. John's request is shown to be "hardness and despotism," and one presumes he would expect at least the same submission from Indian women that he would expect from a wife who can be influenced "efficiently" in life and retained "absolutely" in death. Such a proposal is to Jane clearly an invitation to slavery and to martyrdom. Only by rejecting the notion of marriage with St. John does Jane feel she can retain her "natural unenslaved feelings with which to communicate in moments of loneliness" (410). It is not so much the British empire that St. John evokes, though we are told he should have been a statesman rather than a priest. Rather it is the empire of God. "Simplify," St. John exhorts Jane, "your complicated interests, feelings, thoughts, wishes, aims; merge all considerations in one purpose: that of fulfilling with effect--with power--the mission of your great Master. To do so, you must have a coadjutor--not a brother; that is a loose tie; but a husband" (408). Rochester may be Jane's first master, but God, in St. John's interpretation of him and with St. John as his agent, should be her second. God the master of enslaved feelings is not one Bronte wishes to recognize.

5 Critics have often remarked the similarity of St. John and that other Christian despot, Mr. Brocklehurst, who is the trustee of Lowood School. St. John and Brocklehurst are united not only in their appearance and their power but also in their god. Visiting Lowood School with his worldy daughters and wife, Brocklehurst pontificates to Mrs. Temple, invoking divine injunction against naturally curly hair: "I have a Master to serve whose kingdom is not of this world: my mission is to mortify in these girls the lusts of the flesh; to teach them to clothe themselves with shamefacedness and sobriety" (67). This episode prefigures Jane's rejection of St. John, for in Brocklehurst's view Jane is not a child of his Master but a veritable heathen or worse. In Brocklehurst's words she is a "little castaway: not a member of the true flock but evidently an interloper and an alien...for...this girl, this child, this native of a Christian land, worse than many a little heathen who says its prayers to Brahma and kneels before Juggernaut--this girl is--a liar!" (69).7 Metaphorically, then, Jane is on the side of heathen women--Hindu and Muslim--inciting them to mutiny she takes the part of the heathen against both oriental despotism and the Christian God as Master. (Bronte plays with the same metaphorical construct again in Shirley when the heroine, who will not comply with her Uncle's wishes, is considered by him an infidel and an atheist.) In the metaphors of empire then we see mastery equated with Roman imperialism, Ottoman imperialism, the British empire, and the empire of the missionary's god. The enslavement attendant on all these forms of empire is, one would think, scarcely appealing to a woman so spirited as Jane. There is nonetheless one further temptation for Jane--the temptation to take self-sacrifice as a virtue. The danger of this temptation is expressed metaphorically as suttee. Bronte takes suttee as a figure for Jane's relationship to Rochester and, more seriously, as a prophecy of what her marriage to St. John might entail. Immediately following Jane's jest about mutiny in the seraglio comes a tete-a-tete between Jane and Rochester in which Rochester sings a passionate ballad about his love living and dying for him. Jane keeps Rochester and this notion of romance at arm's length by rejecting such self-sacrifice, asserting that the power of her life and death is her own: "I had as good a right to die when my time came as he had: but I should bide that time, and not be hurried away in a suttee" (275). Jane's "eastern allusion" is a match for Rochester's allusions to houris. It is related also to Rochester's fairy tale of their marriage. When Rochester talks of taking Jane to the mountains of the moon, his illegitimate daughter Adele objects that Miss Eyre might get hungry and cold. Rochester proposes to comfort Jane, but his comfort is suspiciouslylike human sacrifice. Rochester proposes to warm his bride by carrying her up a volcanic peak and laying her on the edge

6 of a crater. Even with Rochester, Jane metaphorically is invited to death by fire. The metaphor of suttee is much more serious as it applies to the relationship between Jane and St. John, and it is, appropriately enough, assimilated to the idea of martyrdom. St. John's very proposal, his praise of Jane's docility, is to her an "iron shroud" (406). Jane reflects that St. John would willinglyresign her to God at her death, and she feelsthe moral certainty--Iater echoed by Diana Rivers--that her death would come quickly. The prospect of marriage is a prospect of martyrdom: "If I do go with him--if I do make the sacrifice he urges, I will make it absolutely: I will throw all on the altar--heart, vitals, the entire victim. He will never love me; but he shall approve me." Willing as she in some ways is to sacrifice herself, Jane cannot give up that "half" of herself that wishes to love and be loved; "such a martyrdom," she says, "would be monstrous" (407). To Jane's offer to go with him as a sister, St. John replies that God would reject half an oblation, a mutilated sacrifice. From Jane's perspective, to marry St. John would be a worse mutilation than a life as his missionary sister. Jane agrees, ultimately, with St. John's sister Diana that in going to India she would be virtually committing suicide, seeking to be "grilled alive at Calcutta" (418). Despite her resolution to live and her antipathy to sacrifice in marriage, Jane is sorely tempted by St. John--the more so since the temptation is cloaked in the language of religion and eternity. Giving in to St. John would be to unite her death to his in the name of religion. Jane's rejection of St. John reflects not only her need for love and her will to live, but the strain of English Protestantism that remained skepticalof extremeasceticism and martyrdom. It is, at the same time, a rejection of the ideal this same Protestantism condoned--the ideal of the self-sacrificing woman. The suttee Jane accuses Rochester of proposing she calls a "pagan" practice, but in her subsequent experience Jane finds the same idea cloaked in Christian doctrine. Even when she has rejected St. John, Jane has not done with the question of sacrifice. Nor has Bronte set to rest the disturbances, the violent echoes, her metaphoric structure has created. In the first place, the final understanding between heroine and hero must take into account the issue of self-sacrificejust as it must modulate the language of tyranny and enslavement. It must be made clear that in marrying Rochester, who calls himself "a poor blind man," Jane sacrifices nothing essential to herself. Rochester in fact fears Jane has agreed to marry him because she "delight[s] in sacrifice." But Jane objects in the strongest terms: "Sacrifice! What do I sacrifice? Famine for food, expectation for content. To be privileged to put my arms round what I value--to press my lips to what I love--to repose on what I trust: is that to make a sacrifice? If so, then certainly I delight

7 in sacrifice" (448). Thus we leave Jane to her marriage and domestic contentment. The reader, however, may be less than fully contented, may be haunted by images of the seraglio and suttee, of tyranny and empire long after Jane has put them out of mind. Bronte's systematic use of metaphor forms a double-edged criticism of empire and of domesticity. The moral justification of empire is made problematic by the domestic arrangements of the imperialist and the missionary alike. Despite the consistency of Bronte's metaphors and the power in Jane's rejection of the seraglio and suttee, the conclusion of Bronte's novel is ambiguous; for the novel as a whole stops short of a thorough critique of empire, of domestic social structure, or Evangelical religious principles. In the end, Jane's domestic happiness depends upon her inheritance from the West Indian trade, on Rochester's income drawn partly from the same source, and on the death of Bertha Mason Rochester, who is the Creole shadow of Jane's own oppression and who perishes actually, as Jane herself could have perished metaphorically, in a self-immolatingfire.' The domestic blissof Ferndean is, as many readers have noticed, significantly outside and isolated from any larger world. The world of volcanic eruptions, of the seraglio and suttee, or even of the empire's trade scarcely enters. And Ferndean is equally removed, as Gilbert and Gubar point out, from Bunyan's Celestial City--the goal of the pilgrimage on which Bronte modelled Jane's progress (Gilbert and Gubar 370). Jane Eyre thus balances between an unearthly heaven and an unheavenly earth. And the precariousness of the balance is obvious in the unstable tone of the novel's concluding paragraphs. We move from the quiet statement of contentment--"My Edward and I, then are happy"--to a dramatic peroration on the missionary efforts and coming death of St. John Rivers. "Firm, faithful, and devoted; full of energy, and zeal, and truth, he labours for his race: he clears their painful way to improvement: he hews down like a giant the prejudices of creed and caste that encumber it. He may be stern; he may be exacting; he may be ambitious yet; but his is the sternness of the warrior Greatheart, who guards his pilgrim convoy from the onslaught of Apollyon." As Gilbert and Gubar argue, this is perhaps half-ironic. At the least it is a strange conclusion for a poor and plain governess who has identified herself with the harem slave and the suttee and who has rejected both the unregenerate Rochester and St. John himself as her legitimate masters.
, For comments on Jane Eyre as domestic novel see the reviews collected in Tbe Bront~s: Tbe Critical Heritage, ed. Miriam Allott (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974),67-116. Tbe late juvenilia is especially interesting in its metapbors of sultans, harems, and slavery; see Bront/!, Five Novelettes, ed. Winifred Ocrin (London: Folio Press, 1971), especially "Caroline Vernon."

8
'See the review by Elizabeth Rigby and the review from the Cbristian Remembrancer, in Critical Heritage, IOS-112, 88-92. 'See Bronte, Jane Eyre (New York: New American Library, 1960), 137. Further references are indicated parenthetically in the text. On economics see Nancy Pell, "Resistance, Rebellion, and Marriage: The Economics of Jane Eyre," Nlneteenth-century Fiction, 31 (1977),397-420. 'Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982). See also Robert B. Heilman, "Charlotte BronU!'s 'New Gothic,' .. in Tbe Brontt!s, ed. Ian Gregor, Twentieth Century Views (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall), 96-109. 'The American Heritage Dictionary traces the etymology of the word creole to the Portuguese word meaning "a negro born in his master's house." The OED describes the various racial combinations indicated by the word, in addition to its primary use in reference to Europeans born in the West Indies. 'Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman In the Attic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 361. . 'On Mr. Brocklehurst's unnatural religion see Robert Bernard Martin, The Accents of Persuasion: Charlotte Bront!!'s Novels (New York: Norton, n.d.), 68. 'See Pell on the importance of income from the West Indies.