** Spoiler warning for those of you who do not know what happens and is revealed midway through the novel**
My reading of Jane Eyre has led me once again to consider this question. And it is a hard one to answer, at least I struggle with it every time I come across it. When we read of certain preconceptions in classics, ideas that we think are prejudiced and/or racist now, that show the prevalent ideas about different races, or men and women, at the time, what do you do? Are you allowed to criticize it, or should you let it pass as something that was inherent to the time in which the book was written?
Perhaps it is my current reading of postcolonial literature and the many times in which Jane Eyre is named as an example in these books that has made me pick up on this, I am unsure. Also, I am not at all claiming that my thoughts are original, I know many have probably thought about it before me. But this is my blog and I want to write about my own thoughts, the things I thought about while reading a novel..
The thing is, should we consider it a coincidence that Bertha Mason is a Creole women described in the following manner:
“Bertha Mason is mad: and she came of a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard! – as I found out after I had wed the daughter.”
Throughout the book, she is also called “intemperate and unchaste” and Jane Eyre considers her laugh to be “as tragic, as preternatural a laugh as any I ever heard”.
Combine these and you get the image that was often used in the circles of colonialists and missionaries when it came to people in the West-Indies (some of these were also applied to other groups of non-European peoples): they were lazy, mad, like children, prone to drinking and had loose sexual morals. Especially women, with their combined unequal status of being both female and non-Western were often painted in this light.
So now the real question: should we care that such images are prevalent in Jane Eyre? Should we censure it? Should we hold Charlotte Brontë accountable to them? I am unsure, but I do not think so. She was after all, an author from the time in which such ideas were considered normal, she might not even have realised what she was reinstating. However, I do feel the idea that “she couldn’t help herself, it was simply normal for her to think in this manner” is sometimes too easy and at the very least does not mean that as a reader, I should be unaware of the ideas that help inform this novel. So my temporary solution would be that we should not judge an author too harshly, and yet, that as readers, we are entitled, and in some cases should strive to, point out these issues. I do realise that sometimes having to think about such issues can take away from the pleasure of reading the novels, which makes it all the more tricky to set such a goal for myself. I would like to just let go and read at times. And yet, I also do not want to be a passive reader. What do you think?
On a related note: I guess I should really give Wide Sargasso Sea a try, shouldn’t I? I am just a little afraid of really really disliking Rochester after reading it.