Edward Rochester and the Margins of Masculinity in 'Jane Eyre' and 'Wide Sargasso Sea.'

By Kendrik, Robert | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview
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Edward Rochester and the Margins of Masculinity in 'Jane Eyre' and 'Wide Sargasso Sea.'


Kendrik, Robert, Papers on Language & Literature


Though Edward Rochester is neither the central figure of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre nor of Jean Rhys's complement text Wide Sargasso Sea, he nevertheless occupies a crucial position in each text - in Jane Eyre, he is the desired object of Jane's romantic "quest" (Friedman 119), while in Wide Sargasso Sea he is the immediate manifestation and enforcer of the network of patriarchal codes (sexism, colonialism, the English Law, and the "law" which demarcates and creates sanity and insanity) that imprisons Antoinette Cosway. Though the literary and political relationship between Rhys's and Bronte's texts has received increasing amounts of attention in the past decade, the emphasis on defining the relationship between Jane and Antoinette/ Bertha as either antagonistic or complementary has failed to give due consideration to the changing role of the man who profoundly influences and irrevocably alters their lives. Though the changes that occur in the characters of Antoinette and Jane have been much noted and discussed, the efforts of feminist readings to chart Antoinette's and Jane's rearticulations of their relations to the patriarchal discourses embodied by Rochester have not explored fully the possibility that Edward himself rearticulates and redefines his position as a masculine subject, as he reexamines the ethical implications of the masculine prerogatives that he has enjoyed and abused. This question must be addressed if the depth and potential of Bronte's ethical revision of gendered subjectivity in her "original" work, and the reaffirmation of this re-vision is Rhys's "supplement," are to be recognized, for the novels of Bronte and Rhys offer intriguing representations of how Victorian subjects lived at odds with the dominant cultural narratives of class and gender.

In "Breaking the Master Narrative: Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, "Ellen G. Friedman has read Rhys's Rochester as "at least in part, greedy and sadistic" (119). The Edward Rochester depicted at the end of Part Two in Rhys's novel is indeed a selfish, hateful man who, one should hope, could not elicit anything but a carefully distanced pity on the part of the reader. Unable to deal with the "threat" presented by an environment which cannot be contained within the narratives of self-definition in which he participates, he becomes violently defensive as he attempts to negate and delegitimize Antoinette and her Caribbean world, whose recognition of his mastery is perhaps only provisional:

I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it. (Rhys 172)

What Edward has lost is, of course, the belief in the essential, unquestionable nature of phallic power, and by extension his recognition of himself as a male subject. Alongside Antoinette's narrative, Rhys presents the anti-Bildungsroman of the young Edward Rochester. He has left England as a younger son of the landed gentry (though the Rochesters are quite wealthy, the family is not titled), but without money and holdings of his own he does not fit his class's narrative of a mature male subject. Presumably, the mercenary marriage to Antoinette Cosway Mason will enable Edward to assume his "proper" place, but as Rhys's novel illustrates, this marriage threatens some dissolution, some ultimate inability to imagine himself within the dominant ideological frame as a "mature" or "whole" male subject.

This frame can best be understood by the model presented by Kaja Silverman in Male Subjectivity at the Margins. Complementing Althusser and Lacan, Silverman argues that ideological identification is the result of the entry into the various symbolic discourses which constitute the lived relation to the world (34).

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