Nineteenth-Century Disability:  Cultures & Contexts

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre.jpg

Image

"You are altogether a human being Jane?  You are certain of that?"  Jane stands facing the viewer, clasping Rochester's hand, who is seated in a chair with his back to the viewer. F.H. Townsend illustration to the second edition of Jane Eyre, 1847, Chapter 37.  Image in the public domain courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Introduction

Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 sensation, Jane Eyre, ends with a dramatic climax in which the hero is blinded and maimed. This ending is often read as a symbolic castration.  Richard Chase first proposed this Freudian reading of Rochester's disabilities in a 1948 essay, arguing that "Rochester’s injuries are, I should think, a symbolic castration. The faculty of vision, the analysts have shown, is often identified in the unconscious with the energy of sex."[1] Peter Pickrel summed up the argument thus: “Charlotte Brontë’s spinsterish sensibilities were such that his [Rochester’s] rampant sexuality had to be tamed before he could become a suitable husband for a nice early-Victorian heroine like Jane Eyre”.[2]  Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert found that the opposite was true thirty years later, and that though Brontë really did wish to castrate Rochester, the urge came from her anger at being a woman author in a patriarchal society rather than from her spinsterish inability to handle her hero's sexuality.[3] 

Recent disability studies readings of Jane Eyre, collected in The Blindman and the Madwoman, have overturned this critical chestnut.  Critics have found an erotics of care-giving in the Jane-Rochester dyad, and an emphasis on interdependence.  In this scene from the penultimate chapter of the novel, Jane returns after an absence to find Rochester has been blinded and maimed in an attempt to save his estranged wife from a fire she has set to Thornfield.  Rochester is surprised to find that Jane finds him as attractive as ever. Far from suggesting that Rochester’s sexuality has been tamed,  the couple’s playful banter and the tactility of their rapport now that Rochester is blind and must feel Jane to see her suggest an erotic side to disability.

Notes

[1] Chase, Richard. “The Brontës, or, Myth Domesticated.” Forms of Modern Fiction. Ed. William Van O'Connor. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1948.  108-109.

[2] Pickrel, Peter. "Jane Eyre: The Apocalypse of the Body." ELH 53.1 (1986): 165-82.

[3] Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. “A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane's Progress.” The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

Primary Source Text

“It is time some one undertook to re-humanize you,” said I, parting his thick and long-uncut locks; “for I see you are being metamorphosed into a lion, or something of that sort.  You have a ‘faux air’ of Nebuchadnezzar in the fields about you, that is certain, :  your hair reminds me of eagles’ feathers; whether your nails are grown like birds’ claws or not, I have not yet noticed.”

 “On this arm, I have neither hand nor nails;” he said, drawing the mutilated limb from his breast, and shewing it to me.  “It is a mere stump—a ghastly sight!  Don’t you think so, Jane?”

 “It is a pity to see it; and a pity to see your eyes—and the scar of fire on your forehead; and the worst of it is, one is in danger of loving you too well for all this; and making too much of you.”

“I thought you would be revolted, Jane, when you saw my arm, and my cicatrized visage.”

“Did you?  Don’t tell me so—lest I should say something disparaging to your judgment.  Now, let me leave you an instant, to make a better fire and have the harth swept up.  Can you tell when there is a good fire?”

            “Yes; with the right eye I see a glow—a ruddy haze.”

            “And you see the candles?”

            “Very dimly—each is a luminous cloud.”

            “Can you see me?”

            “No, my fairy:  but I am only too thankful to hear and feel you.”

            “When do you take supper?”

            “I never take supper.”

            “But you shall have some to-night.  I am hungry:  so are you, I dare say, only you forget.”

Summoning Mary, I soon had the room in more cheerful order:  I prepared him, likewise, a comfortable repast.  My spirits were excited, and with pleasure and ease I talked to him during supper, and for a long time after.  there was no harassing restraint, no repressing of glee and vivacity with him; for with him I was at perfect ease, because I knew I suited him:  all I said or did seemed either to console or revive him.  Delightful consciousness!  It brought to life and light my whole nature:  in his presence I thoroughly lied; and he lived in mine.  Blind as he was, smiles played over his face, joy dawned on his forehead:  his lineaments softened and warmed. 

Source

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Richard Nemesvari. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1999 [1847]. 537-538.

Date

1847

Further Reading

  • Bolt, David, Julia Miele Rodas, and Elizabeth Donaldson, eds.  The Madwoman and the Blindman:  Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability Columbus, OH:  Ohio State University Press.

  • Carpenter, Mary Wilson. “Blinding the Hero.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 17.3 (2006): 52–68

  • Chen, Chih-Ping.  "Am I a Monster?": Jane Eyre Among the Shadows of Freaks.” Studies in the Novel.  34.4 (Winter 2002):  367-384.

Contributor

Karen Bourrier


Collection

Citation

Brontë, Charlotte, “Jane Eyre,” Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts, accessed March 30, 2017, http://www.nineteenthcenturydisability.org/items/show/36.

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