After being widely celebrated as the cult text in the decades following the second wave of feminism, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre has now become one of the paradigmatic texts of postcolonial studies. The novel is the most widely discussed Victorian narrative by scholars of British colonial discourse, so much so that it seems to have become the text every postcolonial critic has to cut her teeth on today. Contemporary feminist and postcolonial critics typically cite Jane Eyre as the epitome of the metaphorization of racial and cultural differences. (1) They argue that Bronte's use of the metaphors of mastery and enslavement to articulate domestic oppression subordinates colonial to sexual oppression and empties slavery of its racial implications. Further, critics agree that, while the novel is somewhat self-conscious about class and gender restrictions, it effectively erases racial differences by depriving its West Indian character of any textual significance other than as Jane's foil or alter ego. (2) Bertha's sole function is thus to define--through contrast--the consistent and coherent female subject-under-construction and ultimately to undergo erasure so that the sovereignty of the central narrating subject can be established. As an incarnation of sexuality in its most bestial and violent form, the West Indian character is thus seen as the projection of Victorians' general, and Bronte's more specific fear about the colonizers' own possible racial degeneration.
According to this influential and well-developed strand of criticism, the dramatization of an individualist quest for self-definition in women's fiction replicates rather than revises the dominant terms of colonial self-representation because any assertion of identity is necessarily based on a "sacrificial logic," that is, a logic whereby the consolidation of the self entails the assimilation/exclusion of the object/Other by the subject. (3) Specifically, Jane Eyre's postcolonial critics foreground the ways in which it is paradoxically the trope of sympathy that provides the grounds for the complicity between the novel's feminist and imperial processes. They recognize a revolutionary potential in Jane's identificatory gestures toward her racial others, but they see this possibility as ultimately failing to live up to the expectations it raises (Azim 176; Kaplan 171-72; Sharpe 40; 52). One of these moments of potentiality is Jane's famous reverie on top of the roof when she draws a parallel between her own situation and the oppression suffered by womankind and the "millions" that constitute other oppressed groups (96). Another episode, similarly identified as an embryonically empowering but ultimately aborted moment, is the ten-year-old Jane's identification with black slaves at Gateshead when, overcome by a sense of injustice at John Reed's treatment of her, she uses the figure of a "revolted slave" to establish a parallel between class and race oppression (8-11). According to Firdous Azim and Jenny Sharpe such expressions of sympathy fall flat because their main function is not to establish a common identity between various oppressed sections of humanity so much as to enhance the contrast between the female individualist and her "uncivilized" others. (4)
Sympathy is thus read as a humanist value that ultimately functions either to corroborate or to disguise the workings of imperialist power. Indeed, if a subject's identity is ineluctably determined by what the subject opposes, and if the two terms of the opposition (subject/other) are always defined asymmetrically as well as reciprocally, then sympathy can only serve to confirm the subject's superiority or to obscure the existing hierarchy. In keeping with this logic, postcolonial and feminist interpretations of Jane Eyre read the heroine's professions of sympathy for "native" women as contributing to the establishment of Jane's central narrative voice and individuated self at her Other's expense. (5) Jane's story is read as a typical Bildungsroman in which the protagonist fulfills the Victorian fantasy of upward mobility and, in a more or less linear process, gains a coherent and masterful sense of self which characterizes middle-class subjectivity (Armstrong 187; Azim 173-74; Spivak 270). (6) Her development repeats Rochester's trajectory of advancement from a penniless younger son to the owner of Thornfield (and of Bertha's 30,000 pounds), and her articulation of imperialism is seen as serving--if not replicating--his.
By presenting the text and its heroine as collaborators in the discursive enterprise of empire, however, these readings ignore the ways in which the author's and the narrator's contradictory position as lower middle class women within a metropolitan society necessarily inflects Jane's representations of female and racial otherness. They present not only women's writing but also women's resistance to male structures of power as deeply complicitous with the discourse of colonialism. (7) Azim, for instance, claims that "whether the narrative subject is male or female, the movement is always towards the obliteration of the Other, represented in terms of class, race or sex" (108 emphasis mine). (8) Similarly, Deirdre David is struck by the "commanding manner in which [Jane] has conducted her life and told her story" and argues that Jane puts the Victorian governess' "physical toughness, moral high-mindedness, and innate bossiness" in the service of British imperial expansion (77-78). (9) For Sharpe, Jane resolves the tension between her subjective desire for self-determination and the principle of self-sacrifice, which is linked with women's role in the domestic sphere by differentiating herself from her Eastern sisters, who are passive and without agency (52). (10) These readings construct Jane either as denying her position as Other in order to identify with Rochester, or as simply conforming to stereotypical patriarchal female roles. The premise that Jane's subject-constitution occurs at the expense of her female Other overlooks the role Bronte assigns to Rochester's mediation in the process. Jane's negotiations and appropriations of images of racial and Oriental female otherness differ from Rochester's and mark her partial difference from the colonialist self. She appropriates the racial categories Rochester debases and illuminates their status as manipulable and conflicting representational discourses. The racial/racist ideologies deployed in the novel are thus complicated--if not disrupted--by their articulation within gender differences. The narrator Jane, I argue, does not unproblematically adopt the male colonial discourse represented by Rochester, but rather challenges such discourse to replace it with an alternative form of female power. The particular kind of feminine authority embodied by Jane promotes the "powers of distance" and helps her to adopt a critical distance towards the self as well as towards the mores and manners of her times. (11) Such denaturalizing attitude towards social norms and conventions is, as Amanda Anderson argues, a legacy of Enlightenment ideals of rationality and detachment but does not, as is too often assumed, automatically result in forms of domination and control.
It is now a critical commonplace that "to understand how gender and [race]--to take two categories only--are articulated together transforms our analysis of each of them" (Kaplan 148). Although postcolonial interpretations claim to subscribe to this tenet, their condemnation of Jane Eyre's representation of race remains singularly unaffected by the novel's sexual politics: whether the narrative is seen as critical of, or complicit with, the dominant gender ideologies does not seem to have any bearing on what has become a predictable reading of Jane Eyre. If two divergent readings of the novel's gender politics can reach the same conclusion about its colonial meanings, then chances are that the ways in which gender transforms our understanding of race have been largely ignored.
Jane Eyre's progress, I argue, does not blindly reproduce colonial discourses; rather, more troublingly, it depends on the same kind of imperialist rhetoric that the male colonial discourse propounds. The novel's critique of gender relations is not only far from feeble or hesitant, but it also undermines many of the stereotypical and racialized assumptions Rochester constantly draws upon for self-vindication. Jane Eyre's postcolonial critics argue that Jane's autonomy becomes established through the negation of her Other and that in making the identities generated by this logic of exclusion appear "natural" obscures the system of power/language which constitutes her. By contrast, I argue that the discursive strategy that articulates Jane's subjectivity through tropes of otherness is not rendered transparent in the novel. While Bronte's references to slavery, harems, and subaltern women cannot be analyzed apart from the West's self-sustaining and naturalized topos about its others, deploying the references in the narrative nonetheless disrupts the expectations raised by these same Victorian cultural codes. Instead of interpreting Jane Eyre as the triumphant ascent of a female individualist, I read it as a narrative that illustrates the ways in which representations mediate the heroine's relation to herself as well as to others. Jane's growth is not a story with a beginning, middle, and an end so much as it is a mediated process of continual deferment and development. Moreover, by pointing out the discordant effects and significations that can derive from the same discursive event, the novel ultimately offers a dissenting commentary on the "naturalized" representations that the imperial and dominant signifying system promotes.
I am not trying to absolve Charlotte Bronte of complicity with the ideological processes of imperial domination and consolidation. The metaphorization of race emblematized by the numerous parallels the narrative draws between Jane and her other, Bertha, arguably falls within the framework of colonialist discourse insofar as it takes away from the literal reality of racial oppression by subordinating it to gender. Nevertheless, I argue that the contradictory impulses of gender in the text ultimately complicate these appropriations of images of racial otherness. While it is true that the recourse to the West Indian Other turns Bertha into Jane's foil, it nonetheless (albeit indirectly) makes us identify with the exploited. Moreover, the fact that Jane's "self-making" is, as I will show, patterned after an Oriental woman's assertion of identity also challenges the text's sacrificial logic. Like her favorite heroine, Sheherazade in The Thousand and One Nights, Jane relies (albeit with a twist) on storytelling as a means of delaying an evil, thus turning her Oriental other into an exemplar and undoing the "us" and "them" opposition.
I. "But it was always in her": Metaphors of Slavery in Jane Eyre
In the opening scenes of the novel, Jane's nine-year-long quiescence under the Reeds' treatment finally gives way to open rebellion. Troubled by her inability to communicate her thoughts, the girl resorts to an outrageous comparison between her own situation and the harshness and humiliation of slavery she has just read about in Goldsmith's History of Rome. In the child's distressed mind, the violence of slavery is what comes closest to the physical and mental torture she has had to endure: "'You are like a murderer--you are like a slave-driver--you are like the Roman emperors!' I had read Goldsmith's 'History of Rome,' and ... had drawn parallels in silence which I never thought thus to have declared aloud" (8). Jane first strikes back at her young tormentor, John Reed, and later verbally assaults Aunt Reed herself: "Like any other rebel slave, [she] felt resolved in her desperation, to go all lengths" (9). Even the starkest punishment--a night spent locked up in the haunted Red Room--does not quell the "mood of revolted slave" (11), which …