“Jane Eyre” is a seminal piece of feminist fiction. Jane’s conflict is the conflict of any woman in a patriarchal society: the battle for true independence and freedom in the confines of a society that denies her any avenue to reach it. The central conflict of the novel with Bertha Mason, Rochester’s “mad” wife, is a confrontation with her own nature. Bertha is a picture of what she has repressed and caged within herself — her anger, her hunger, her rebellion — and what she could become if she submits.
Yet, it is the very crux of the novel, that Jane is any woman who struggles against a suffocating society, that belies some of its harshest criticisms. Jane is not an everywoman; she is a white, lower middle class woman whose emancipation is far from universal (Plasa, 2000.)
Charlotte Bronte takes on an individualist approach to systems of oppression — Jane does not necessarily seek to dismantle the social hierarchy, or to alter her place in it, but to vindicate her own worth. She is largely unconcerned with the lower classes in service or the colonized states that are often alluded to; instead, it is Jane’s socially precarious position as a woman in the lower middle class that she champions, to the detriment of those below her social standing. Her concern with the oppressed only go as far as they are self-serving.
But, that does not mean that Jane does not align herself with the oppressed when a metaphor serves to sharpen the image of her own suffering. But, even then, Bronte removes the onus of oppression off the British. Before her marriage to Rochester, Jane recoils when he compares himself to a “Grand Turk,” preferring his “one little English girl” to a “whole seraglio.”
“I’ll not stand you an inch in the stead of a seraglio…. [I]f you have a fancy for anything in that line [slavery], away with you, sir, to the bazars of Stamboul without delay; and lay out in extensive slave purchases…”
“And what will you do, Janet, while I am bargaining for so many tons of flesh and such an assortment of black eyes?”
“I’ll be preparing myself to go out as a missionary to preach liberty to them that are enslaved—your Harem inmates amongst the rest…and you, three-tailed bashaw as you are, sir, shall in a trice find yourself fettered amongst our hands: nor will I, for one, consent to cut your bonds till you have signed a charter…” (page 339.)
Jane closely aligns herself with the commodified women, British or otherwise. However, in the context of the entire novel, this seemingly fierce and sympathetic metaphor falls apart (Bloom, et al., 2007.)
Charlotte Bronte wrote “Jane Eyre” just seven years after the “trade” was banned in England (although owning enslaved people was still legal.) When “Jane Eyre” took place, the English colonies were actively participating in the sale and use of slave labor. And yet, when comparing Rochester to a slave owner, Jane refers to him as a “Grand Turk,” knowing very well that Rochester was in the British Colonies in the early 19th century, meaning that he is more than likely literally “bargain[ed] for so many tons of flesh.” (This adds a dark edge to his statement that, “Hiring a mistress is the next worse thing to buying a slave: both are often by nature, and always by position, inferior: and to live familiarly with inferiors is degrading.” Rochester is not speaking metaphorically. He is likely speaking with disgust towards actual enslaved people that he has lived with, bought, and sold.)
Bronte, instead of referencing the actual slavery that Rochester has participated in, defers the weight of that abomination to another culture. Rather than address British imperialism, she equates his “despotic” domination over the women in his life to something characteristic of non-white people. Again, when he threatens to “attach her to a chain” (page 341), Jane calls him a Sultan, when she simply could have called him what he is: a British imperialist. Through multiple repressions of British involvement in the slave-trade, and deferment to other nations, we begin to see what Bronte is doing: making slavery into a non-white issue and distancing enslavement from British history. (Bloom, et al., 2007.)
This is a central flaw in applying Jane’s experience to women at large. When she is rebellious, she is aligned with women of color, and Bronte has no issue calling Jane a slave until it comes to condemning the slavery that supported the British Empire. It is not as if those things are ignored; Jane is referred to as a slave multiple times. Her greatest anxiety is returning to a state where her self-governance is taken from her, and maybe that makes her defense of the “seraglio” so fierce. And yet, the liberation of the lower middle class is her aim, and the liberation of the slaves that she uses for hyperbole is not. It is a defense that stems from her own fear of being caged, not for the fate of others.
Even within the text, Jane’s experience is, in its own, less severe way, limited and exploitative. The text itself recognizes that she does not represent a universal female experience. Instead, she leans upon the oppression of other classes and races of people to bolster her own suffering, while tip-toeing around addressing Rochester’s racism and racialized misogyny, as well as the oppression of those who are also exploited by British imperialism and society. Rather than recognize, even dismissively, those wrongs done by the British, those transgressions are projected onto other people and other places. They are a problem that can only be recognized in the context of the distant past and “Heathen” nations. Jane’s passions may “may rage furiously, like true heathens” (page 252), but the concern for those heathens ends at the metaphor.
Plasa C. (2000) ‘Silent Revolt’: Slavery and the Politics of Metaphor in Jane Eyre. In: Textual Politics from Slavery to Postcolonialism. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230286719_4Bloom, Harold, and Susan Meyer. “‘Indian Ink’: Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy of Jane Eyre .” Essay. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, 43–70. New York, NY: Chelsea House Publishers, 2007.