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The Madwoman in the Attic as a Portrait of Victorian Woman

Traditional, Feminist and Post-Colonial Re-Interpretations of Jane Eyre: An Autobiography

Survey of Critical Responses

Ever since its publication in 1847, the novel Jane Eyre by Currer Bell caused a number of diverse critical
reactions. It was at the same time rejected and praised by both its readers and critics. It was critically
acclaimed in 1847 as “decidedly the best novel of the season,” by G. H. Lewes in The Westminster
Review. The Victorians respected the reality of the story, however, some critics thought it to be anti-
Christian, and vulgar.This kind of controversy continued for the subsequent 260 years. It went through
different stages in terms of critical apparatus applied on its analysis. Today, Jane Eyre is considered by
some scholars to be the prototype of the feminist novel.

Ellis and Acton Bell

However, in the same year, two other sisters of Charlotte – Ellis and Anne – also managed to have their
own works published: Wuthering Heights was first published in London in 1847 by Thomas Cautley
Newby, appearing as the first two volumes of a three-volume set that included Anne Brontë's Agnes
Grey. The authors were printed as being Ellis and Acton Bell; Emily's real name did not appear until 1850,
when it was printed on the title page of an edited commercial edition. They decided to use a masculine
pen name because women writers were not taken seriously at that time in Victorian England. Charlotte
used the name Currer Bell. Ann was Acton, and Emily Ellis, the initials of which were the same as their
own, as in their joint book of poems from previous year.

The origin of pen names

How they came by their names they never revealed, but there are some strong indications. The name
Bell may have been chosen by the arrival that summer of their father's new curate, Arthur Bell Nichols.
While a governess at the Sidgwicks, Charlotte had certainly heard much of their neighbour, Miss Frances
Mary Richardson Currer, of Eshton Hall, Skipton. Her library was famous throughout the north. She was
one of the founder patrons of the Clergy Daughters' School, so that her name must have been doubly
familiar to Charlotte. The poetess Eliza Acton who had considerable success in her day and was
patronized by royalty, may have suggested Anne's pseudonym to her. There appears to be no clue to the
origin of Emily's choice of name, Ellis.

Possible critical interpretations

A range of critical approaches to the novel:

Historical-Literary (Positivistic) Psychoanalytical / Jungian

Traditional (Close reading) Post-Colonial Criticism

Marxist / Materialist Traditional literary criticism

It covered some biographical details from the author’s life, as well as provided in-depth analysis of some
common features of the book, such as:

composition/structure, particular vs. “universal” (fantasy and

plot/story or narrative,
pattern and rhythm (as defined by E.M. Forster
characters (flat vs. rounded ones),
in his Aspects of the Novel, 1927),
setting in regard to its social / cultural impact,
topics / themes,

motifs, symbolism, foreshadowing, etc.

Traditional criticism

The traditional critical approach was to deal with a number of issues that had been characterised as
“proper” features of the Victorian novel in its early stage. At the time, it still retained a strong connection
to its Gothic tale elements, as well as Romantic treatment of unhappy heroines on their ultimate path to
marriage, as “prescribed” in the popular novels by Jane Austin.

Gothic Influences

Jane Eyre does, in fact, display some typical characteristics of the Gothic novel:

Mysterious happenings Gloomy landscapes

Frightening scenes Incidents of madness

Imprisoned women Revelations of shocking secrets

A heroine who faces danger A romantic reconciliation

Supernatural interventions at crucial moments

in the plot

More of Gothic elements

The purpose of Gothic fiction was to evoke a sense of mystery, suspense, fear and terror.

It was sometimes referred to as “Dark Romanticism.”

Its other elements included:

Haunted castle or house Physical imprisonment

Dreaming and nightmares Psychological entrapment and helplessness

Doppelgänger or alter ego Psychology of horror and/or terror

Jane Eyre and the Gothic Plot

“The Female Gothic”variety of Gothic Tales exploited the topic of a Heroine in Distress.The main female
protagonist is pursued and persecuted by a villainous patriarchal figure in unfamiliar settings and
terrifying landscape. It was best presented in The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (published in
1794). Although Jane Eyre is not considered solely a Gothic novel, Charlotte Brontë certainly employs the
use of gothic elements throughout to add depth and meaning to Jane’s experiences. Among these
elements are remote locations, mysteries, supernatural encounters, intricate family histories, secrets,
and primordial manors, which add to the dark, mysterious mood and highlight the important moments in
the plot.

Architecture of the Mind

Jane Eyre’s Romantic Heritage

Some of the main characteristics of Romantic literature include:

a focus on emotions and inner world; interest in the past;

celebration of nature, beauty, and imagination; frequent use of personification; experimental

use of language and verse forms, including
rejection of industrialization, organized religion,
blank verse; and
rationalism, and social convention;
emphasis on individual experience of the
idealization of women, children, and rural life;
inclusion of supernatural or mythological
Conventional Romantic love plot

The story of the young heroine is, in many ways, conventional — the rise of a poor orphan girl against
overwhelming odds, whose love and determination eventually redeem a tormented hero. Yet if this all
there were to Jane Eyre, the novel would soon have been forgotten. In writing her novel, Charlotte
Brontë did not write a mere romantic potboiler, or a mediocre work of art aimed at commerical success.
Her book has serious things to say about a number of important subjects: the relations between men
and women, women's equality, the treatment of children and of women, religious faith and religious
hypocrisy (and the difference between the two), the realization of selfhood, and the nature of true love.

One of the most popular of all English novels

The book is not a tract any more than it is a potboiler. It is a work of fiction with memorable characters
and vivid scenes, written in a compelling prose style. In appealing to both the head and the heart, Jane
Eyre triumphs over its flaws and remains a classic of nineteenth-century English literature and one of the
most popular of all English novels.

A combination of Gothic and Romantic

It is identifiable by certain characteristics of each element.The Gothic displays overblown language,

bizarre characters, melodramatic incidents, menacing castles, decaying manor houses, wild landscapes,
madness and secrets. The plot usually contains elements of the supernatural. The mood is usually
suspenseful and mysterious. An innocent heroine is often threatened by a horror of some sort.

Thornfield Hall may be modeled on two Manor houses that Brontë was familiar with, Nortan Conyers
and North Lees Hall. History books described the mistress of North Lees Hall as one Agnes Ashurst who
was thought to be insane and locked up in an upstairs room. This woman died in a fire as Bertha did.

Gothic residence

Thornfield is representative of a Gothic residence with its presence of Grace Poole and Bertha’s howling
in the middle of the night. Regardless of the factual information of the settings mentioned in this novel,
Brontë describes each vividly to enhance the Gothic atmosphere with the reference to stock Gothic
elements such as moonlight, stormy weather and dark hallways.

Setting & Timing

The action takes place in Northern England during the mid 19th century. The novel covers a span of
approximately 12 years.

Brontë uses a succession of several main settings, primarily individual house settings for the plots main
action. Each setting is described vividly to create an atmosphere as well as to give the illusion of realism.

Each setting also corresponds with a distinct phase of Jane’s life.

The main setting is Gateshead, the home of Jane’s Aunt, Mrs. Reed with whom the orphaned Jane lives.

At the age of 10 she is sent to Lowood, a charity school for orphans.

At the age of 18, Jane goes to Thornfield to serve as a governess to Adele Varens.

When she learns of Rochester’s marriage, she flees to Moor House where she is taken in by Reverend St.
John Rivers. Towards the end of the novel she finds Rochester at his second home, Ferndean
Manor.Brontë does not use the real names for the places presented in the novel, however Lowood
Institution is believe to be modeled on the Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge in Yorkshire where
her sisters Maria and Elizabeth had died due to the unsanitary conditions.

The Byronic Hero

Another characteristic of the Romantic genre is the secluded, isolated hero, who has a flaw that severs
his ties from society. This hero is commonly known as the Byronic Hero, who is often prone to violent
outbursts and known for being cynical, arrogant, having a ‘dark’ personality, being self critical,
sophisticated and highly intelligent. This hero also appears to suffer from an awareness of his past
actions. Mr. Rochester’s character closely resembles that of a Byronic Hero in the novel. Mr. Edward


There are thirty eight chapters in the novel and three distinct parts. Each part traces a pattern of conflict
and resolution where Jane is faced with various obstacles she must strive to overcome. Running through
each of these sections is Jane’s desperate effort to find a true home where she feels a sense of

They can be classified by their behaviour and the role they happen to play in Jane Eyre’s life (antagonist
vs. symphatetic, “bad” vs. “good”, major vs. minor). The other classification can be done according to
their gender and age (male vs. female, old vs. young), or their social or family status (relatives, spouses,
children, lovers, friends, servants, etc.)

Quite an unusual heroine

Jane Eyre is described as plain-featured, and not a beauty, with an elfin look. Jane describes herself as,
"poor, obscure, plain and little." Mr. Rochester once compliments Jane's "hazel eyes and hazel hair", but
she informs the reader that Mr. Rochester was mistaken, as her eyes are not hazel; they are in fact
green. She is an orphaned girl caught between class boundaries, financial situations, and her own
conflicted feelings.

Character of Jane Eyre

She appears to be intelligent, imaginative, and principled young woman, Jane defies many restrictive
social conventions, especially those affecting women. She learns in due time to temper her passions with
self-control — in the end, she controls her feelings with judgment based on self-respect and Christian
humility Although she meets with a series of individuals who threaten her autonomy, Jane repeatedly
succeeds at asserting herself and maintains her principles of justice, human dignity, and morality. She
also values intellectual and emotional fulfillment. Her strong belief in gender and social equality
challenges the Victorian prejudices against women and the poor. Some critics view Jane as the very
epitome of conventional provincialism, a woman oppressed by Victorian patriarchal ideologies; whereas
the others find in her a power, self-determination, and iconoclasm that smacks of early feminism.

Feminist Criticism

Female literary studies focused on specifically female themes, genres, even styles, but also on the origins
and development of larger female traditions.

Marginalization and privatization of the protagonist

In the opening chapter of Jane Eyre, a picture of “marginalization and privatization of the protagonist”
has been shown. Jane aligns herself to the racial other when she says that she sits like a “Turk” or like an
“Indian”. She repeatedly “inserts herself into the margin”. When Jane withdraws to seclusion to read, in
her “self-marginalized uniqueness, reader and Jane become one - both are reading.”

Post-Colonial Responses

Feminisr re-readings of Jane Eyre also ignited a lively discussion in emerging Post-Colonial Criticism and
Theory in 1980s and 1990s.

Some of the best texts, in fact, reflect several simultaneous positions in regard to theoretical
assumptions and analyses, be it from overtly or combined, yet distinctly Marxist /Materialist, or Cultural
Theory / New Historicism; or Feminist / Post-Colonial points of view.

Some knowledge on Colonies

In her childhood and adolescence in the late 1820s and 1830s, Charlotte Brontë wrote hundreds of pages
of fiction set in an imaginary British colony in Africa. Her stories demonstrate some knowledge of African
history and of the recent history of British colonialism in Africa.

Other aspects of Bronte's juvenile stories suggest her knowledge of events in the British West Indies as

Colonialism in other books

Colonialism is also present - and used figuratively - in each of Bronte's major novels. In both Shirley
(1849) and Villette (1853), the men with whom the heroines are in love either leave or threaten to leave
Europe for places of European colonization, and both men imagine their relationships with colonized
people as standing in for their relationships with white women. In The Professor (1846), white women's
resistance to male domination is more overtly figured as "black." The novel begins as an unreceived
letter, whose intended recipient has disappeared into "a government appointment in one of the
colonies.“ William Crimsworth's own subsequent experiences among the young women of a Belgian
pensionnat are represented as a parallel act of colonization.Crimsworth discreetly compares his Belgian-
Catholic girl students to blacks whom he must forcibly keep under control. He likens one Caroline, for
example, to a runaway West Indian slave when he describes her curling, "somewhat coarse hair," "rolling
black eyes," and lips "as full as those of a hot-blooded Maroon.

"Even in the two existing chapters of Bronte's final and unfinished novel Emma (1853), race relations
seem to be about to play an important figurative role: the heroine's suddenly apparent blackness
suggests her social disenfranchisement due to her gender, age, and social class.The two chapters are set
in a boarding school and focus on a little girl, known as Matilda Fitzgibbon, to be of a race, or at least a
physical appearance, which renders her susceptible to the following insult:

" 'If we were only in the good old times,' said Mr Ellin, 'where we ought to be - you might just send Miss
Matilda out to the Plantations in Virginia - sell her for what she's worth and pay yourself.'

Colonial references

Colonial territories are referred to in many nineteenth-century novels.In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park
(1814), Sir Thomas Bertram's wealth derives from his sugar plantations in the West Indies, which he visits
in the course of the novel. In W. M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1847), Jos Sedley returns from India with
enormous amounts of money, and there is a fellow-pupil at Amelia Sedley's school who is clearly of
mixed race. The aspects of Jane Eyre that would be susceptible to a post-colonial approach are its
connection with the West Indies, with the island of Madeira and with India: Rochester is sent to the West
Indies as a young man and is tricked into marrying Bertha Mason. There is a sense that her madness is
somehow related to her birthplace, which is thus represented as wild and barbaric. The life in Madeira in
the novel is a source of wealth, accumulated by John Eyre and passed on to his niece Jane. The imagery
of slavery is both pervasive and closely tied to colonial actualities. When Rochester narrates the story of
his life to Jane,his words take on a startling resonance in the context of the story he has just told.
Rochester acquired a West Indian fortune by marrying a Jamaican wife and subsequently lived in Jamaica
for four years. A wealthy white man living in Jamaica before emancipation would undoubtedly have had
slaves to wait upon him, and his Jamaican fortune would of course have been the product of slave labor,
so when Rochester discusses what it is like to buy and live with slaves he knows what he is talking about
India is St. John Rivers' intended missionary destination, where he hopes to bring the light of Christianity
to a heathen country and to its “Hindoostani” natives. Its need of such enlightenment is insisted upon in
the novel and so too are its dangers for English people. It seems to be regarded as almost inevitable that
Jane would soon die if she went there and the same fate seems to await St. John at the end of the book.

Race issues in Jane Eyre

The figurative use of race is very important to Jane Eyre the figure is enacted on the level of character. In
representing an actual Jamaican black woman, Brontë finds herself confronting the non-figurative reality
of British race relations.

Class and gender oppression

And Brontë's figurative use of blackness in part arises from the history of British colonialism: the function
of racial "otherness" in the novel is to signify a generalized oppression. But Brontë makes class and
gender oppression the overt significance of racial "otherness," displacing the historical reasons why
colonized races would suggest oppression, at some level of consciousness, to nineteenth-century British

Spivak on Bertha

Spivak describes Bertha as at once a white woman and a colonized "native," that is, as what she terms,
with little definition, a "native 'subject.'

She is thus able to designate Bertha as either native or white in order to criticize both Bronte's Jane Eyre
and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea as manifestations of exclusive feminist individualism.

The story from Bertha's perspective

Jane Eyre, she argues, gives the white Jane individuality at the expense of the "native" Bertha;

Wide Sargasso Sea, on the other hand, she contends, retells the story of Jane Eyre from Bertha's
perspective and thus merely "rewrites a canonical English text within the European novelistic tradition in
the interest of the white Creole rather than the native."

Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy in Jane Eyre

Susan Meyer thinks that the historical alliance between the ideology of male domination and the
ideology of colonial domination which in-forms the metaphors of so many texts of the European colonial
period in fact resulted in a very different relation between imperialism and the developing resistance of
nineteenth-century British women to the gender hierarchy.

Making sense of Bertha Mason Rochester

An interpretation of the significance of the British empire in Jane Eyre must begin by making sense of
Bertha Mason Rochester, the mad, drunken West Indian wife whom Rochester keeps locked up on the
third floor of his ancestral mansion. Bertha functions in the novel as the central locus of Brontë's
anxieties about oppression, anxieties that motivate the plot and drive it to its conclusion. The conclusion
settles these anxieties partly by eliminating the character who seems to embody them. Yet Bertha only
comes into the novel after about a third of its action has taken place. As she emerges, anxieties which
have been located elsewhere, notably in the character of Jane herself, become absorbed and centralized
in the figure of Bertha, thus preparing the way for her final annihilation.
Ambiguity of race

Bertha's odd ambiguity of race - an ambiguity which is marked within the text itself, rather than one
which needs to be mapped onto it - as directly related to her function as a representative of dangers
which threaten the world of the novel.

Bertha Mason

She is the heiress to a West Indian fortune, the daughter of a father who is a West Indian planter and
merchant, and the sister of the yellow-skinned yet socially white Mr. Mason. She is also a woman whom
the younger son of an aristocratic British family would consider marrying, and so she is clearly imagined
as white - or as passing as white - in the novel's retrospective narrative.

What race Bertha belongs to?

Critics of the novel have consistently assumed that Bertha is a white woman, basing the assumption on
this part of the narrative, although Bertha has often been described as a "swarthy" or "dark" white
woman. But when she actually emerges in the course of the action, the narrative associates her with
blacks, particularly with the black Jamaican antislavery rebels, the Maroons. In the form in which she
becomes visible in the novel, Bertha has become black as she is constructed by the narrative, much as
Matilda Fitzgibbon becomes black in Emma.

Bertha Mason Rochester

Descriptions of Bertha

Even in Rochester's account of the time before their marriage, when Bertha Mason was "a fine woman,
in the style of Blanche Ingram: tall, dark, and majestic," there are hints, as there are in the early
descriptions of Matilda Fitzgibbon, of the ambiguity of her race.

Immediately after Rochester describes Bertha as "tall, dark, and majestic," he continues: "her family
wished to secure me because I was of a good race."

“White but not quite”

Rochester's phrase achieves a significance beyond its immediate reference to his old family name. In this
context the phrase suggests that Bertha herself may not be of as "good" a race as he.

Bertha is the daughter, as Richard Mason oddly and apparently unnecessarily declares in his official
attestation to her marriage with Rochester, "of Jonas Mason, merchant, and of Antoinetta Mason, his
wife, a Creole."


The ambiguity of Bertha's race is marked by this designation of her mother as a "Creole." The word
"creole" was used in the nineteenth century to refer to both blacks and whites born in the West Indies, a
usage which caused some confusion: for instance, in its definition of the word the OED cites a
nineteenth-century history of the U.S. in which the author writes:

"There are creole whites, creole negroes, creole horses, &c.; and creole whites, are, of all persons, the
most anxious to be deemed of pure white blood."
When Rochester exclaims of Bertha that "she came of a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three
generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard!" he locates both madness
and drunkenness in his wife's maternal line, which is again emphatically and ambiguously labeled
"Creole." By doing so, he associates that line with two of the most common stereotypes associated with
blacks in the nineteenth century.As Bertha emerges as a character in the novel, her blackness is made
more explicit, despite Rochester's wish to convince Jane, and perhaps temporarily himself, that "the
swelled black face" and "exaggerated stature" of the woman she has seen are "figments of imagination,
results of nightmare." But when Jane describes to Rochester the face she has seen reflected in the
mirror, the description of racial "otherness" are very evident: she tells him that the face was

Racist language

The emphasis on Bertha's coloring in this passage - she is emphatically not "pale" but "discoloured,"
"purple," "blackened" - the reference to rolling eyes and to "swelled," "dark" lips all insistently and
stereotypically mark Bertha as non-white. Jane's use of the word "savage" underlines the implication of
her description of Bertha's features, and the redness which she sees in Bertha's rolling eyes suggests the
drunkenness which, following the common racist convention, Bronte has associated with blacks since her
childhood. Brontë finished writing Jane Eyre in 1846, eight years after the full emancipation of the British
West Indian slaves in 1838. But the novel itself is definitely set before the emancipation, which was
declared in 1834 but only fulfilled in 1838. In 1846 it was evident that the British West Indian colonies
were failing rapidly, and the focus of British colonial attention was shifting to India. While the novel's use
of colonialism is most overtly figurative, nonetheless it in part does engage colonialism on a non-
figurative level.

Dark-skinned people

Jane Eyre associates dark-skinned peoples with oppression by drawing parallels between the black
slaves, in particular, and those oppressed by the hierarchies of social class and gender in Britain. The
narrative function of the dark-featured Bertha and of the novel's allusions to colonialism and slavery has
a certain fidelity to history, although as the association between blacks and apes reveals (to take only
one example), these analogies are not free from racism. In addition, this use of the slave as a metaphor
focuses attention not so much on the oppression of blacks as on the situation of oppressed whites in

Blanche Ingram

The haughty Blanche, with her "dark and imperious" eye, whose behavior makes Jane so painfully aware
of her own social inferiority, seems mainly to illustrate class oppression.

Yet when Mrs. Fairfax describes Blanche to Jane, she emphasizes her darkness: "she was dressed in pure
white," Mrs. Fairfax relates, she had an "olive complexion, dark and clear," "hair raven-black ... and in
front the longest, the glossiest curls I ever saw."

When Jane first sees Blanche, she too emphasizes her darkness - "Miss Ingram was dark as a Spaniard,"
Jane notes - adding that Blanche has the "low brow" which, like dark skin, was a mark of racial inferiority
according to nineteenth-century race-science. Rochester directly associates Blanche with Africa: he
might be speaking of Bertha when he tells Jane, with unnecessary nastiness, that his apparent fiancée is
"a real strapper ... big, brown, and buxom; with hair just such as the ladies of Carthage must have had.
"Racial "otherness" becomes also the signifier of the oppressor. By using dark-skinned peoples to signify
not only the oppressed but also the oppressor, Brontë dramatically empties the signifier of dark skin in
her novel of any of its meaning in historical reality and makes it merely expressive of "otherness." By
assigning these two contradictory meanings to the signifier "non-white," the novel follows this logic:
oppression in any of its manifestations is "other" to the English world of the novel, thus racial
"otherness" signifies oppression.

During the period of Rochester's and Jane's betrothal, Brontë continues to use the imagery of slavery to
represent Jane's lesser power in the relationship. But she veers away from making a direct parallel with
the British enslavement of Africans by associating Rochester's dominating masculine power over Jane
with that not of a British but of an Eastern slave master.

This part of the novel is rich in images of Turkish and Persian despots, sultans who reward their favorite
slaves with jewels, Indian wives forced to die in "suttee," and women enslaved in Eastern harems.The
novel persistently displaces the blame for slavery onto the "dark races" them- selves, only alluding to
slavery directly as a practice of dark-skinned people. At one point, the novel uses strong and shocking
imagery of slavery to describe the position of wives, but despite references to such aspects of British
slavery as slave markets, fetters, and mutiny, the scenario invoked represents not British colonial
domination but the despotic, oppressive customs of non-whites. Rochester has just compared himself to
"the Grand Turk," declaring that he prefers his "one little English girl" to the Turk's "whole seraglio."

The ending of the novel

In the ending of the novel, Bronte creates the world she can imagine free of the forms of oppression the
novel most passionately protests against: gender oppression and the economic oppression of the lower-
middle class. In the novel's utopian closure lies much of the revolutionary energy that made its
contemporary readers anxious: the novel enacts Brontë's conception of a gender and middle-class

"I am,my own mistress."

The mutilation of Rochester (which interestingly has made critics of the novel far more uneasy than the
killing of Bertha) and the loss of his property in Thornfield redistributes power between him and the
newly-propertied Jane.

Jane tells her former "master" emphatically that she is now both independent and rich: "I am," she says,
"my own mistress."