The Other Case: Gender and Narration in Charlotte Bronte's 'The Professor.'

Article excerpt

Male novelists who use female narrators have been praised for their insights into "feminine psychology," yet we seldom expect women writers to represent masculinity from a male point of view. In her recent work on feminism and narratology, Susan Lanser considers "the social properties and political implications of narrative voice," claiming that "female voice"--the grammatical gender of the narrator--"is a site of ideological tension made visible in textual practice" (4-5). This tension is conspicuous in novels published in the nineteenth century: a strict literary double-standard reflects a cultural double-standard that devalues feminine discourse in the public sphere. Like everything else, narrative voice corresponds to the cultural needs of Victorian society, and so an age comparatively rich in literary heroines (and in women writers) still finds the masculine voice more representative, and, supposedly, more rational, more "objective." Because narrative voice carries the burdens of Victorian gender polarization--in its representation of male or female language and the expectations it raises about masculine or feminine plots(1)--grammatical gender in a Victorian novel is as ideologically constructed as the gendered body inhabited by the author.

If narrative voice is a site of ideological tension, it is even more difficult to construe when a male voice is adapted self-consciously by women writers who call themselves "Currer Bell" or "George Eliot." Indeed, because narrative authority conforms to rather than challenges "hierarchical, patriarchal norms" (Cohan & Shires 146) we can gain insight into the ways women who use male narrators understand gender relations, and how they reproduce masculinity--and with it, dominant discourse--in the choice of male language, preoccupations, and pursuits.

In her first novel, The Professor, Charlotte Bronte uses a first-person male narrator, and, as I will discuss, critics have tended to see this as both an artistic error and an elision of her feminist voice. But whether she takes a male or female narrator, Bronte is no less intent on examining the encoding of gender in nineteenth-century discourse. Specifically, the male voice provides an opening to confront a central issue for Bronte--power--which is different from her explorations of powerlessness in her later heroine-centered novels. In The Professor, she is learning what it is to have the power of authorship, and therefore it is consistent that she should go inside the system to attempt to represent the source of that power.(2)

Many psychoanalytic approaches to The Professor accept the "feminization" of the male narrator as the woman writer's personal experience of subordination translated into a pseudomale voice. Though this helps in understanding biographical issues and the so-called "female imagination," such readings tend to overlook how the appropriation of the male voice may challenge a tradition of androcentric narrative and Victorian patriarchal hegemony. As Terry Eagleton explains, one interpretation of feminism "is not just that women should have equality of power and status with men; it is a questioning of all such power and status. It is not just that the world will be better off with more female participation in it; it is that without the 'feminization' of human history, the world is unlikely to survive" (150). Bronte engages this concern by using an intrinsically authoritative male voice to tell a story that is not about a heroine's traditional growth into power, but instead authorizes a masculine growth out of power by asserting the need to temper male authority with "feminine" social virtues, usefully defined by Susan Morgan as "gentleness, flexibility, openness to others, friendship, and love" (19). At the same time, however, Bronte describes the practical and psychological obstacles to this "feminization" for men who are subject to ideological constraints, particularly the insistence on sexual difference. …