M/Othering the Children: Pregnancy and Motherhood as Obstacle to Self-Actualization in Jane Eyre

By Lemaster, Tracy | Genders, June 2008 | Go to article overview

M/Othering the Children: Pregnancy and Motherhood as Obstacle to Self-Actualization in Jane Eyre


Lemaster, Tracy, Genders


"Children can feel, but they cannot analyze their feelings."

--Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (24).

"Neither Charlotte nor Emily Bronte was, at the time of writing Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, in a position to experience or even anticipate actual motherhood."

--Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing (88).

[1] It is astonishing given the countless theoretical approaches to Jane Eyre, particularly feminist interpretations, that the criticism lacks and even resists a reading of Jane as a latent mother who struggles with the precepts of pregnancy and maternity. Although multiple critics pay deserved attention to Jane's nightmares of children, most interpret the dreams as repressed and unresolved memories of Jane's girlhood. Yet few critics note the less abstract and even somewhat blatant interpretation of Jane's resistance to a perceived confining and difficult social role of mother, one she intermediately occupies as governess. Jane's famous feminist declaration of equal opportunity and mobility for women is conceived in the context of Jane reflecting on her employment as a governess. This speech is consistently juxtaposed with the immediately following scene of Grace Poole's enigmatic laughter yet rarely with the immediately preceding scene of Jane's indifferently "cool" relationship to Adele and her criticism of people who romanticize the mother/child connection as "parental egotism" (113-14). These preliminary points critique Victorian sentimentalization of maternity that recur in Jane's ensuing feminist monologue. While many critics have deconstructed the novel's self-reflexive narrative structure to reveal the emotional and inarticulate child in contrast to the controlled and knowledgeable adult, none interpret this correction and censure by the adult Jane of her childhood self as parental. Yet Jane sees her primary role as governess is to discipline Adele's emotions and outbursts, disparaging these tendencies through pseudo-parental responsibility she internalizes and externalizes. Finally, Jane's infantilized treatment by Rochester bespeaks a fascinating Oedipal reading as a father and daughter relationship, which I too engage as symbolizing the dual woman/child identity that Jane resists in its literal form as mother but fetishizes in its figurative form. Yet critics who read Jane as child-like overlook her concluding empowerment and control through care-giving as a pseudo-mother to Rochester in his vulnerable state, a reading that works with, not against, her prior infantilization. These several oversights, in addition to biographical work that denies Charlotte Bronte the capacity to conceptualize herself as a mother and emphasizes her violent morning sickness during pregnancy, ultimately marginalize what is a very prevalent focus on Jane's conflicts with maternity.

[2] I will present a feminist formalist evaluation of Charlotte Bronte's consistent exploitation of children--stylistically in dream, rhetoric, and monologue, structurally in undercutting, retrospective narration, and literally in plotlines that blur and exploit adult/child distinctions--to portray Jane as fearful of pregnancy and motherhood, two roles she partially occupies as governess and infantilized woman. Jane functions indirectly as a mother to the suffering yet threatening "baby-phantoms" that recur in her dreams; to Adele, as governess where "she was committed entirely to [her] care"; to herself, in the narratological split where the adult-Jane corrects and critiques the child-Jane; to Rochester, in his concluding physical demise; and eventually to her own child that is absent in voice and scene (113, 231). Yet these several portrayals lack the care and comfort of stereotypical motherhood, where each is sequentially themed as surreal, cold, domineering, emasculating, and absent. Bronte thus enacts a theme of resistance to a terrifying and subversive motherhood for Jane that recasts her famous feminist soliloquy as a statement on motherhood.

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