Racism, Ableism, Exceptionalism, and Imperialism: Jane Eyre as Antifeminist

Essay by Lindsey Palmer

Art by Maggie Lu

In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane’s Progress,” Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar quote Richard Chase: “Well, obviously Jane Eyre is a feminist tract, an argument for the betterment of governesses and equal rights for women” (338). This essay will argue that the novel is not at all this straightforward, and by some definitions, can be considered antifeminist. There are three overarching reasons for this critique, being: the racist and ableist treatment of Bertha Mason, particularly through Gilbert and Gubar’s reading of the novel; the depiction of other women in the text and Jane’s exceptionalism as a single outlier among them; and the religious privileging of St. John’s “God-given” destiny over Jane’s, despite its situation in the British imperial project. While Jane Eyre may be considered protofeminist for presenting a heroine that was free-thinking and independent for her time, it falls short of a feminism that includes an agenda of systemic, structural change targeted at all forms of oppression.

An argument that a text is antifeminist must necessarily begin by defining feminism. One of the most expansive and relevant definitions comes from bell hooks’s Feminism is for Everybody: “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (1). hooks’s own words stand in defence of this definition: “Practically, it is a definition that implies that all sexist thinking and action is the problem… It is also broad enough to include an understanding of systemic institutionalized sexism” (1). Crucially, it is also much more inclusive than many “white” or “Liberal” feminisms, in that it targets oppression broadly, for all reasons; thus, oppression on grounds of race, class, sex, sexuality, ability, etcetera, are all in opposition to feminist thought. 1An overview of the various definitions and types of feminism is beyond the scope of this paper, and I will refrain from debating what constitutes “feminism” aside from assuming it to be anti-oppression, intersectional, and invested in systemic change, as per hooks.

By this definition, Jane Eyre can be considered antifeminist on the treatment of one character alone – the first Mrs. Rochester, Bertha Mason. Bertha is a “disabled female subject who is a casualty of patriarchal, colonialist, and ableist hegemony (Nygren 117); as a mad, Creole woman (Brontë 290), Bertha is placed at multiple intersections of oppression and depicted as an animal and dehumanized. On seeing Bertha, Jane thinks, “What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal” (293). Bertha is systematically disempowered due to her race: “As a colonized body, brought to England by her husband, Bertha is without familial support or much power under the law” (Nygren 118). Moreover, Rochester seems to imply his treatment of her has something to do with her racialized body, telling Jane that if Jane herself had ever become mad, he would still love her (Brontë 301) and blames this difference on Bertha’s nature being “wholly alien” to his own (306). He says this was due to Bertha’s tastes and cast of mind, yet the use of “alien” also points to her otherness as Jamaican. 

Regarding her mental illness, Bertha is literally left voiceless, unable to articulate herself beyond her growls and laughs. As Elizabeth J. Donaldson recounts, “madness itself offers women little possibility for true resistance or productive rebellion… Marta Camerino-Santangelo argues in her aptly titled, The Madwoman Can’t Speak: Or, Why Insanity Is Not Subversive, Bertha Mason’s madness only ‘offers the illusion of power’ (1998, 3)” (101). Her physical stature and strength do little to counter the constraints of her positionality, and Rochester can easily subdue her (Brontë 293). While Rochester protests that he is “bound” to Bertha (306), she is quite literally constrained; Rochester conjures the trope of the shackled husband while his wife is imprisoned away from her home and family in an attic. Alexandra Nygren further critiques Rochester: “[He] argues that Bertha’s mental illness is a product of her genes, but also that ‘her excesses had prematurely developed the germs of insanity’ (261). By framing Bertha in such a manner, he at once both excuses his own ill treatment of her and shifts the ‘blame’ of disability onto Bertha herself… refusing to acknowledge his own culpability” (118-9). He thus blames Bertha for her own madness and disregards her trauma, of which he is a part, as a factor in her mental illness. 

Beyond Bertha’s direct treatment, there is also violence in the symbolic interpretation of her as Jane’s “dark double” by Gilbert and Gubar (360). They see Bertha as “the angry aspect of the orphan child, the ferocious secret self Jane has been trying to repress” (360). This reading not only deprives Bertha of agency, attributing her actions to Jane’s desires (359), but also posits Bertha’s story as a cautionary tale rather than a tragedy: “while acting out Jane’s secret fantasies, Bertha does… provide the governess with an example of how not to act” (361). This becomes more problematic with Bertha’s death, as Jane’s anger “will not be exorcised until the literal and symbolic death of Bertha frees her from the furies that torment her and makes possible a marriage of equality [and] wholeness within herself” (362). In this reading, Bertha “must play out her role, act out the transformation of her ‘self’ into that fictive Other, set fire to the house and kill herself, so that Jane Eyre can become the feminist individualist heroine of British fiction” (Spivak 251). This negates a feminist reading, or at least one within a feminism of a united fight for change, rather than the raising of one woman at the cost of another.

Finally, Bertha Mason “and the madwoman in general, [become] a compelling metaphor for women’s rebellion,” but “when madness is used as a metaphor for feminist rebellion, mental illness itself is erased” (Donaldson 100-2). The novel’s depiction of Bertha’s madness not only silences her but increases the stigma around mental illness. Donaldson foregrounds the “matrilineal legacy” of Bertha’s madness, as well as her ethnic identity and physical disorder, as her madness is attributed to her mother, a Creole (106). This “is in keeping with the novel’s anxious relationship to female and to disabled bodies,” as also evidenced in Adèle’s inherited defects from her mother (106).  “Psychiatry… unfairly pathologizes women” (100), and Donaldson makes clear that Jane Eyre does the same. As such, Bertha’s representation erases disability at the same time as it situates it in the female body; it is antifeminist in both its ableism and its anxiety about gendered bodies.

Gilbert and Gubar describe Jane as a heroine who refuses “to submit to her social destiny” (338), and her story as a “distinctively female Bildungsroman in which the problems encountered by the protagonist… are symptomatic of difficulties Everywoman in a patriarchal society must meet and overcome” (339). While the previous discussion questions whether these problems might be better phrased as the difficulties of Every-white-able-bodied-Englishwoman, we might also ask, what of the other women? How are the female characters in Jane Eyre, other than Bertha, portrayed? 

Adèle Varens, Blanche Ingram, and Grace Poole are described as “important negative ‘role-models’ for Jane” by Gilbert and Gubar, “and all suggest problems she must overcome before she can reach the independent maturity which is the goal of her pilgrimage.” Adèle and Blanche both represent Jane’s struggles in a “society that rewards beauty and style,” while Blanche has the additional advantage of a “respectable place in the world” (350). Grace might pose similar questions given Jane’s musings that she may have once had a relationship with Rochester, though from the reverse perspective, making Jane question the value of appearances (351). Jane certainly feels no comradery or solidarity with Blanche or Grace; she thinks, “Miss Ingram was a mark beneath jealousy: she was too inferior to excite the feeling” (Brontë 185), while she reassures herself that she is different from Grace – a lady, not a servant (157). Georgiana and Eliza, Jane’s childhood enemies, grow up to be polar opposites and call one another “vain and absurd” (235) and “selfish, heartless… the spy and informer” (236) respectively, neither an unreasonable accusation. While a reader might look to Miss Temple or Helen Burns for positive examples for Jane, Gilbert and Gubar call both “impossible ideals,” one a Victorian “angel-in-the-house,” and thus hardly a feminist role model, the other an ideal of “self-renunciation, of all-consuming (and consumptive) spirituality” (345-6). These unattainable archetypes are thus unable to have lasting comradery with Jane and disappear from her story early; they cannot walk the path towards “mature freedom” with Jane (Gilbert and Gubar 339).

Feminism, in contrast, does not strive for the betterment of one individual woman at the expense of others; it endeavours to create systematic, structural change for the improvement of all peoples’ lives.2This is not to suggest that feminist movements have never been problematic in this regard, but that (especially radical) feminisms recognize the issue of sexist women as well as men. See Susan Brownmiller’s “The Enemy Within” in Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader, edited by Barbara A. Crow (New York University Press, 2000, pp. 117-21) for further discussion, and “Feminist Class Struggle” in bell hooks’s Feminism is for Everybody (pp. 37-43) for an account of divisions based on class, race, and sexuality within feminism. Jane’s story is one of exceptionalism in which she leaves all these “lesser” women behind. Comparatively to contemporary critiques of 90’s discourses of “Girl Power,” Brontë presents Jane as an exceptional individual that stands apart, which is highly problematic from a feminist perspective. As Jessica K. Taft explains concerning various advertisements,

These examples, on the positive side, emphasize girls as potentially powerful people… However, in failing to address the social factors of race, class, gender, sexuality, and physical ability, the ads and articles mobilize Girl Power discourse to hide current injustices rather than helping girls to analyze oppression or even acknowledge social problems. Instead, they place the responsibility for achievement on the shoulders of each individual girl.

Taft 74, emphasis added

Jane Eyre does involve issues of class but as highlighted previously, handles other listed frames of oppression very poorly. Crucially, Jane’s success is her individual responsibility and achievement; because of her willpower in leaving Rochester to be with him at the right time and her determination to follow her own assigned spiritual course, Jane attains her great happiness. While class issues are present, the story dwells little on the power of Jane’s endowment from her uncle to enable her marriage of equals with Rochester. Jane says, “I told you I am independent, sir, as well as rich: I am my own mistress,” (Brontë 435) but this fortuitous turn of fate is hardly credited as facilitating her happy ending. Jane’s success in attaining all she desires is depicted as purely her own.

Perhaps the only women Jane has solidarity with are Diana and Mary, whom Maria Lamonaca calls her “models of divinely-inspired womanhood” (254). Unfortunately, their literal familial connection undercuts their potential for abstract “sisterhood” with Jane; a feminist text might be expected to have sisterly ties between many woman, consistent efforts to lift one another up without resorting to familial responsibility, and yet Brontë does the exact opposite. She gives Jane women to look up to, whom she can educate herself with, then makes them her cousins, such that their ties belong to the family and not to shared womanhood. In fact, the female character with the most potential for a feminist reading is Adèle, for while she begins “spoilt and indulged” (108), she is nurtured and guided by Jane: “As she grew up, a sound English education corrected in a great measure her French defects; and when she left school, I found in her a pleasing and obliging companion: docile, good-tempered, and well-principled” (450). Adèle best suggests the potential that women have when given the necessary opportunities, though within the imperialist, pro-British frame of the novel. 

Nonetheless, the success of two women, one described as singular and exceptional, and the other gaining moderate standing with the assistance of the former, stands against a cast of female characters variously insane and violent, vain and inferior, gluttonous, silly and spiteful, and unattainably perfect. Jane Eyre contains no suggestion that the lot of women as a whole should be improved, or that there are structural factors contributing to the faults these women possess or the ideals they are forced to uphold. Jane has her own happy ending then retreats into “spiritual isolation in a world where such egalitarian marriages as [hers] are rare, if not impossible. True minds… must withdraw into a remote forest… in order to circumvent the structures of a hierarchal society” (Gilbert & Gubar 369). She does not attempt to promote such marriages or egalitarian ideas generally. As Gilbert and Gubar astutely observe in the case of Grace Poole, “women in Jane’s world, acting as agents of men, may be the keepers of other women. But both the keepers and prisoners are bound by the same chains” (351). Women in this story are complicit in the subjugation of other women, Grace Poole through her job detaining Bertha, Blanche Ingram in her disdain for the lower class, and Miss Temple in her implicit lesson to Jane to control her emotions and rage and behave as a respectable lady ought. Through the example set by its characters, Jane Eyre, like the advertisements against which Taft warns, has the potential to “inhibit girls’ connection with one another, reduce the possibilities for social analysis and critical thinking, and thus hinder girls’ social and political engagements (74). 

The third overarching reason Jane Eyre is an antifeminist novel is how it handles religion, specifically in an imperial context. In “Jane’s Crown of Thorns: Feminism and Christianity in Jane Eyre,” Maria Lamonaca says the novel “could be considered a message of radical spiritual autonomy for women… Jane’s spiritual bildungsroman requires that she develop a moral and ethical agency independent of male control. Yet Jane Eyre’s conclusion leaves open the possibility that Jane, despite her efforts, has failed to reconcile the conflicting demands of domesticity and faith” (247). Jane is able to resist religion as a vessel for male domination and control, although “both Rochester and St. John cloak their agendas in religious language – that is, both presume that their desire to control Jane is compatible with God’s will” (247). She shows that women “must experience God directly, ‘through the heart’” (252), defying conventions of Brontë’s time that “represented women as incapable of discerning God’s will for themselves,” capable of connecting with God only through a male spouse (247-8). However, the “redemptive, Evangelical overtones” of her renewed relationship with Rochester suggest Jane is responsible for his spiritual salvation, (257) complying to the trope of women “saving” bad men. Moreover, despite finding her own spiritual independence, saving Rochester requires her to lead a Victorian domestic role, becoming the angel-in-the-house she saw in Miss Temple and thought she could never uphold. “Like any good household angel, Jane ‘delights in sacrifice’… Jane has forfeited her ability to perform heroic, visible acts of self-renunciation” (258). 

Herein lies the imperial element, for while Jane cannot visibly perform heroic, spiritual acts, another character can. In contrast to Jane, St. John’s “spiritual destiny” is much more visible as a missionary:

If Jane and St. John have each discerned God’s will for themselves, why is St. John “called, and chosen” (502) to his heroic missionary endeavours… while Jane, called to “mind [more] earthly things,” is presumably relegated to the second or third rank of God’s faithful? If Jane’s religion is… merely a strategy for personal empowerment, then clearly this religion has failed her by the novel’s end.

(258)

Not only does the ending minimize Jane’s supposed “God-given” path with Rochester, and privilege St. John’s masculine, heroic destiny, it also raises the British Christian imperial mission to the highest standard. As Gayatri Spivak argues, “it should not be possible to read nineteenth-century British literature without remembering that imperialism, understood as England’s social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English” (243). While Bertha brings this topic into play as an imperial subject, it is through St. John that Christianizing imperialism is presented as an essential “good” in Jane Eyre, and at the expense of Jane’s own feminine, unobtrusive, Christian vocation.

To neglect the imperial, exceptionalist, racist, and ableist elements of Jane Eyre would be to fail to consider the novel as a whole and the context in which it was written. In light of them, Brontë’s work cannot be considered a feminist text, particularly according to bell hooks’s definition. Through the treatment of Bertha Mason, the colonized, pathologized female Other, Jane’s relationships with the other women she encounters, and the advancement of St. John’s religious destiny over Jane’s, it is clear that Jane Eyre is antifeminist. Considering the novel as a product of its time shows Charlotte Brontë to be forward-thinking and independent, yet mired in the imperial notions of her era; to consider the text a feminist one would be to limit the possibilities of radical feminist ideologies today and their potential to unravel systems of oppression globally. 

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Donaldson, Elizabeth J. “The Corpus of the Madwoman: Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Embodiment and Mental Illness.” NWSA Journal, vol. 14, no. 3, 2002, pp. 99-119. 

Gilbert, Sandra M. & Susan Gubar. “A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane’s Progress.” The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press, 1980, pp. 336-371.

hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Routledge, 2015. 

Lamonaca, Maria. “Jane’s Crown of Thorns: Feminism and Christianity in Jane Eyre.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 34, no. 3, 2002, pp. 245-263.

Nygren, Alexandra. “Disabled and Colonized: Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre.The Explicator, vol. 74, no. 2, 2016, pp. 117-119.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 12, no. 1, 1985, pp. 243-261.

Taft, Jessica K. “Girl Power Politics: Pop-Culture Barriers and Organizational Resistance.” All About the Girl: Culture, Power, and Identity, edited by Anita Harris, Routledge, 2004, pp. 69-78.

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1. An overview of the various definitions and types of feminism is beyond the scope of this paper, and I will refrain from debating what constitutes “feminism” aside from assuming it to be anti-oppression, intersectional, and invested in systemic change, as per hooks.
2. This is not to suggest that feminist movements have never been problematic in this regard, but that (especially radical) feminisms recognize the issue of sexist women as well as men. See Susan Brownmiller’s “The Enemy Within” in Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader, edited by Barbara A. Crow (New York University Press, 2000, pp. 117-21) for further discussion, and “Feminist Class Struggle” in bell hooks’s Feminism is for Everybody (pp. 37-43) for an account of divisions based on class, race, and sexuality within feminism.