Unsuspecting Storyteller and Suspect Listener: A Postcolonial Reading of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre

Article excerpt

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. …