The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability

By Frawley, Maria | Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, May 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability


Frawley, Maria, Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies


David Bolt, Julia Miele Rodas, and Elizabeth J. Donaldson, eds. The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 2012. isbn 13 978-0-8142-1196-0. Xiv + 196 pp. $34.68

"There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." The memorable opening sentence of Jane Eyre quite wonderfully helps to usher in a novel replete with interest to disability scholars, emphasizing as it does the eponymous heroine's sense of immobility, and, as the opening scene unfolds, her prickly yet energetic response to all that restricts and confines her. In a preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë described the novel as "a plain tale with few pretensions" (33). It is anything but, as the response it engendered upon publication in 1847 and the hundreds of articles and books written about it since well evidence.

The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability has the advantages and disadvantages of intervening in scholarship on the novel at this particular juncture in its long and distinguished history. Taken together, the essays that make up the volume help readers to appreciate that disability inflects and informs the novel in a wide range of ways-not exclusively, as may have been assumed, in the two dominant characters alluded to in the title (Bertha Mason, the "madwoman," and Mr. Rochester, the "blindman"). In one of the volume's most innovative readings, for example, Julia Rodas reads the novel through the lens of autism, finding not only Jane Eyre herself, "in her aloneness," to evidence many of the condition's most distinguishing features, but also to suggest ways of seeing other characters-Jane's cousins and St. John Rivers-as "on the spectrum" (69) and, through all of them, to advance to a new understanding of "the political and social meanings of the individual" (62).

Yet the title for the volume is aptly chosen, for criticism on Jane Eyre-particularly in the last few decades-has been profoundly influenced by responses to Brontë's representation of these two characters (i.e. Bertha Mason and Mr. Rochester) and, significantly, by their shared status as in some essential way "impaired." Hence the disadvantage the authors of the volume face is the need to navigate their way through a very dense underbrush of scholarship-predominantly feminist, postcolonial, and Marxist-to arrive at an understanding of just how a disability reading not only functions as a critique of existing scholarship on Jane Eyre but also, and more importantly, advances interpretation of the novel. Sometimes the multiple critical lenses obscure rather than bring into focus, as when David Bolt, in a fascinating essay on how ocularcentric assumptions operate in the novel, writes that "criticized by Toril Moi for leaving patriarchal aesthetics intact, Gilbert and Gubar's classic feminist commendation of the novel is problematized by Dale Spender's point about epistemology" (34). Bolt moves on here to probe the ocularcentric epistemology at work in Brontë's novel, particularly in her portrayals of alterity, but the layering of multiple critical lenses at times disrupts the argumentative momentum. In a similar fashion, D. Christopher Gabbard's important contribution on custodial care and caring labor in Jane Eyre references six critical arguments in its opening paragraph.

The navigation through decades of influential scholarship is nevertheless necessary, for, as Lennard Davis points out in his foreword, while many of the most influential readings of the novel are valid, they are either wrong on basic facts about disability or they "simply metaphorize disability" (x). Davis makes a good case that disability studies readings precede, not succeed, identity-based readings of the novel and describes the central claim of this volume as

that the massive tradition of scholarship around Bronte's famous novel has largely been content to read the disability of Rochester and Bertha (and other representations of disability in Jane Eyre) as static symbol rather than as complex embodiment with meaning, context, and potential beyond that scribed to the blindman or madwoman tropes. …

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