"Am I a Monster?": Jane Eyre among the Shadows of Freaks

Article excerpt

Is it an Animal? Is it Human? Is it an Extraordinary Freak of Nature? Or is it a legitimate member of Nature's Work?

--The Illustrated London News, 29 August, 1846

In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell [...].

--Jane Eyre

For Charlotte Bronte's readers, a generation indulging their appetite for monstrous marvels, the attic scene on the third floor of Thornfield in Jane Eyre might have been surprising, but not unfamiliar. When Rochester reveals the existence of his mad wife Bertha Mason, Jane Eyre and her wedding party are led into "a wild beast's den" (336), their eyes drawn toward a dark figure:

 
   In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran 
   backwards and forwards. 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: 
   but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled 
   hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face. (321-22) 

Rochester's audience is witnessing a scene that, in image, rhetoric, and form, echoes many nineteenth-century displays of anomalous bodies-giants, dwarfs, Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, fat ladies, living skeletons, wild men, and noble savages--in taverns, on street corners, in upper-class houses or courts, or in metropolitan exhibition places like Leicester Square and Egyptian Hall in London. Bertha's entrance recalls that of the "Hottentot Venus," one of the most notorious figures in London freak shows, who would emerge "like a wild beast, and [was] ordered to move backwards and forwards, and come out and go into her cage, more like a bear in a chain than a human being" (qtd. in Altick 269). The suspense surrounding Bertha's appearance echoes the provocation in advertisements such as that of "the Wild Man of the Prairies" in The Illustrated London News cited above. Though the show, the first of the "What Is It?" exhibitions staged by the famous showman Phineas Taylor Barnum, was promoted particularly with the appeal of the "missing link"; Barnum's advertisement, like many nineteenth-century freak show advertisements or handbills, established the attraction by emphasizing how the freak body borders on the boundaries of human and animal.

Yet the astounding power of this scene relies on more than the images from nineteenth-century freak shows. Significantly, the scene achieves much of its dramatic effect and intensity by evoking the entwined narrative forms that produce freak shows, including, as Rosemarie Garland Thomson notes, the advertisement account of the freak's "extraordinary" life and identity, the showman's pitch that introduces the exhibited body by emphasizing its "deformity" or "anomaly," the staging that involves performances monitored by the showman, and the display that functions to establish the distance between the "civilized" spectator and the freak (Introduction 7).

With the rhetoric of a freak show host, Rochester introduces Bertha, highlighting her "exotic" background and hybrid inheritance as the "anomalous": "Bertha Mason [...] came from a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard!" Describing himself as both a "civilized" host and a human victim of deception, Rochester invites his audience to see her as the monstrous: "You shall see what sort of a being I was cheated into espousing, and judge whether or not I had a right to break the compact, and seek sympathy with something at least human" (320). In Bertha's "goblin cell" (336), Rochester enacts the performance of a man and a "clothed hyena," making Bertha a supporting player:

 
   [T]he clothed hyena rose up, and stood tall on its hind-feet. …