Jane Eyre: Madness, Prejudice and “Responsible Reading”?

** 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.

49 thoughts on “Jane Eyre: Madness, Prejudice and “Responsible Reading”?

  1. Chrisbookarama

    Bronte was a product of her time and place. As a reader, we have to accept that. We can’t go back in time and change things. One thing I hate about historical fiction now is how writers try to make their characters more acceptable to modern readers by making them act in ways they wouldn’t. We get a more accurate picture from a classic written in the time period- warts and all. Does it bother me? Yes. But it’s the job of the reader to interpret the story through the eyes of someone of that time. It’s work but it’s worth it. Should we be aware of those issues? Absolutely. It adds layers to the reading experience.

    I’m reading Villette right now and she is awful to the French and Catholic people in much of the story and ‘Ra-ra Britain. Aren’t we the best?’. And it does get tiresome and annoying but that was what an English minister’s daughter of the time would have seen things. Putting aside modern sensibilities is hard but necessary when reading classics.

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  3. Nishita

    That’s a very good point you bring up, and I am not sure of where I stand. I remember reading the book and being very sad at the treatment meted out to the poor woman -locked up in a room for years for something she couldn’t even control!

    But that book was full of all sorts of cruelties – towards orphans, mad women, the poor…that I somehow missed the racism in it.

  4. nymeth

    I think we should care, and I think Charlotte Brontë is accountable – to me, the fact that she was a woman of her times matters, but doesn’t really change that fact. However, I think none of this means Jane Eyre shouldn’t continue to be read and loved. I love the book for the story it tells, for the possibility it raises in terms of gender roles, and most of all for the emphasis on Jane’s independence – personal and financial. It can be hard to reconcile this with the terrible portrayal of West Indian people, but I think the effort can only make us better readers. Basically I just want to paraphrase everything Chris said at this point (I love how she said “warts and all”, hehe)😛

    As for Wide Sargasso Sea, I found it a brilliant book and I’d definitely recommend it. I managed to keep that Rochester separate from the one in Jane Eyre in my head, and I think you will too.

  5. Yvette

    I’ve lately been reading some books written in the 1930’s/40’s and come up against this sort of racist attitude, but I tend to shrug my shoulders and say: oh well, it was the times and they didn’t know better. Still, in some cases, it is jarring. Especially when it comes from a writer I admire.

    I’m not one who thinks Rochester’s mad wife was treated badly. After all, what was the alternative? Left to rot in Bedlam or a Bedlam-like hell? He does take care of her to the best of his abilities AND he does try and save her life at the end. Let’s face it, if he’d really been a cad, he could have disposed of her quite easily and none the wiser.

    In JANE EYRE, I am more appalled at the portrait Bronte paints of the treatment of children, orphans and the poor.

    Haven’t read WIDE SARGASSO SEA for the same reason – I’m afraid it will change my view of Rochester. But I did see the film. It stars the gorgeous Nathanial Parker (of Inspector Lynley fame). It’s, of course, set in the tropics and VERY steamy, but not because of the weather. : )

  6. Amateur Reader

    One could forget the author entirely and judge the novel as a work of art (which includes how the ethcis of the novel). Chris, are you reading how Charlotte Brontë sees thngs, or is it Lucy Snowe? How can the reader tell the difference?

    Why is letting go and reading the same as passive reading?

    1. Chrisbookarama

      It’s hard to tell since Charlotte lived in Brussels as a teacher and student. Lucy is a teacher in a fictional French country. Who is speaking Bronte or Lucy? It’s a blurry line and I keep thinking ‘Charlotte’ when I should think ‘Lucy.’

  7. Christy

    I would posit that in every age, there are injustices we see, and some we ignorantly (or not so ignorantly) perpetuate. Bronte is to be commended for highlighting the injustices suffered by the orphans in Lowood, and the precarious situation of a young woman trying to make her way independently in her time. And yet, she reveals in her writing an ingrained prejudice against Bertha’s Creole heritage. It’s good to cringe a bit at that, I think, but not feel guilty for enjoying the book all the same.

  8. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    Great question! And it always makes me wonder what sort of things will be judged in works from today. After all, we might like to think we’ve achieved perfection, but we likely have flaws of our own that we don’t even notice. This doesn’t excuse bad attitudes and actions or prejudice in the least, but rather helps us understand the people of the time. I’ve read arguments to clean up racism in classic children’s books as well and it makes me cringe.
    It’s also something I think about with Gone with the Wind. I love the book ever so much but the racism is appalling and a little hard to take. Yet at the same time, it illuminates, perhaps, the exact mind frame of the Southern people and eliminates author intrusion or moralizing. (since I have no idea if it’s Scarlett’s viewpoint we get or Mitchell’s)

    1. Chrisbookarama

      I thought of that too, Amy. In 100 yrs, some future reader will say of our modern writers, “Can you believe what they thought about X? How could they think that way? We’d never think that way about X now.” And think how morally superior they are to us! Who knows what those beliefs will be.

  9. Jillian

    I do think it’s up to us to notice the slanted views of the times in novels we read, but I don’t believe it’s fair to hold the author ‘accountable.’

    Reading is a way to see through the author’s eyes — to actually go back to that time.

    I ran into the same conundrum reading Little House on the Prairie. It made me angry, the way Native Americans were viewed. I couldn’t enjoy the story.

    But that wasn’t Wilder’s view alone; it was the view of the times. And I’d rather have truth. I’d rather honor history, as ugly as it is, in many cases, than hear a pretty version of it and never know the real way people were treated, even subtly. I’d rather have the truth.

    And in so many ways, it’s the author’s job to give us that truth.

  10. Amanda

    First, I can’t hold authors accountable for what was common thought at the time they wrote. I feel it’s unfair to them.

    Second, I read Wide Sargasso Sea not long after reading Jane Eyre, and while I liked the book, I couldn’t relate it to JE at all. The Rochester in it acts absolutely nothing like the one in JE, not even in the section he narrates himself. He felt like a completely different person, and I actually sympathized with his character in WSS which is not what I expected. If I tried to see WSS as a prequel or associate of JE, it seems like a really poorly written book, but once it’s standalone in my mind, I enjoyed it. Just food for thought.

  11. amymckie

    What a great post Iris! Love the discussion.

    First of all, I do think these works are a product of their time, but I don’t think that completely lets them off the hook. I think they should still be read and enjoyed, but we also need to see the prejudices so that we can see how far we’ve come and learn to keep reviewing our own prejudices as well. Because Amy is right, at some point later on people will say about our times how we had all these horrid ingrained prejudices!

  12. Jenny

    I’ve actually heard a lot of people say they never felt the same about Mr. Rochester after reading Wide Sargasso Sea. That’s why I haven’t read it. I’ve made the choice not to expand my reading horizons in that one direction. I have loved Jane Eyre since I was eight years old, and I don’t want to lose it.

    My general rule of thumb about authors and their time-period prejudices is that if I love them and their books, I subscribe to your view about people being creations of their times. And if I hate them and their books, I judge them for their prejudices. :p

  13. Emily Jane

    This is a really difficult question to grapple with, one I’ve often considered but haven’t come to any final conclusion about. I think I basically agree with some of the other commenters here that acknowledging someone as being a product of their place and time is necessary, but does not magically absolve their responsibility for the harmful views they perpetuate in their work. Not everyone in that particular time and place would have felt the same way, anyway. Which, you know, sounds good but in practice works for me the way it works for Jenny—depends on how much I like the author/book and how forgiving I feel toward them!

  14. Nicola

    Interesting point. As I’m usually immersed in literature from another century it’s true that racist/sexist/homophobic comments jar when you read them even allowing for time and place. With Jane Eyre I think it is the young woman’s naivety which enables her to deride the older woman as ‘mad.’ Wide Sargasso Sea is a wonderful novel although many of the characters are not likeable.

  15. Stephanie

    I agree that Bronte, like any of us, is a product of her time and place in many ways. As such I don’t judge her too harshly. I read Wide Sargasso Sea in high school, and I thought it was lovely.

  16. Becky

    I actually really liked Wide Sargasso Sea. Don’t ever see the film, as it glorifies a whole other side of the relationship that is annoying. The book was really good though.

  17. bookssnob

    I don’t think it’s fair to judge period writers for expressing the common opinions of their times. The term ‘racist’ wasn’t even in use at that time, let alone ‘feminist’ or ‘colonialism’. It is very easy for us to consider ourselves ‘enlightened’ and to judge past generations as lacking morally when it comes to their views on the world, but we have to appreciate the context of their world and what was commonly taught, imposed, and believed within it. If you are never taught that something is wrong, how can you be expected to come to the belief that it would be? We have no idea how OUR common beliefs are to be perceived in 100 years’ time, after all.

    Charlotte Bronte is not any more or less racist than anyone else of her generation, and should be read within her own social context, not ours. Wide Sargasso Sea is a marvellous interpretation from a modern perspective of the Jane Eyre story, but it’s just an interpretation. I would never let it colour my reaction to the original novel, as Jean Rhys had no idea of Charlotte Bronte’s own thought processes and intentions. You can’t criticise Charlotte Bronte for theories and interpretations that modern feminist and post colonialist readings have imposed on her words. We can read into what she wrote all we like, but we have to remember that ultimately we will never understand her own thought processes or be able to read her novel from the point of view of a contemporary reader, so anything we do read into it will be adding something to the novel that Charlotte Bronte could never possibly have thought to express.

    I love Jane Eyre for the story alone. While I have studied it from a feminist and postcolonial perspective, and find such theories fascinating, I will never allow them to detract from the essential beauty of the novel.

  18. jane

    I agree with several of the above comments in that it’s just not fair to judge someone without considering the context in which they lived and wrote. Jane Eyre was a radical novel but it was still written a long time ago in another world. Context is everything. I think in many ways a Roman slave-owner is less morally reprehensible than a modern business owner who fails to pay a living wage. It’s horrible to think that the views espoused in historical novels were that way, but they were, and we can learn a lot about them from writers of the time. I’m so glad we have the lens of literature through which to view the past.

    Wide Sargasso Sea is wonderful and Jean Rhys has an awful lot to say about the race issues. She herself had an absolutely fascinating life in which race played a huge part (she was of mixed race parentage herself) and is a gifted and thoughtful writer. I think (although it’s obviously hard to say!) that I would love Wide Sargasso Sea whether or not I’d read Jane Eyre.

    Great post Iris!

  19. Violet

    Reading from feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial theoretical viewpoints, Jane Eyre is a veritable minefield of sexism, classism, and racism. I think it’s a text that is ripe for deconstruction, for teasing out the threads of cultural assumptions Charlotte incorporates in her novel. I’ve always read it less as a love story and more as a social commentary. I think the Bronte sisters’ novels have endured for so long because they can be read in many different ways, including as a means of highlighting Victorian social injustices and cultural assumptions.

  20. Jeanne

    Anyone who needs a cure for Rochester malaise after Reading Wide Sargasso Sea should read Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, and it will bring the love for Rochester rushing back…

  21. LifetimeReader

    What a wonderful post! Great question. I’ve been wrestling with this issue a lot–in sort of a different way–because of my plan to read the old classics. (WHY exactly am I reading all these books full of outdated and often quite offensive views of various peoples/cultures/etc.?! One of the reasons is to get the allusions that more modern writers are making–but obviously that is not the whole story.) There is something so powerful about books like Jane Eyre. I think it was the first book I ever read (at 12yo or so) that really analyzed a character who wanted to be good (not just well-behaved). Although our definition of “good” might change, our interest in playing out the question doesn’t change at all, does it?

  22. Eva

    I think I’ve finally managed to put what I think into semi-coherent form…

    Western culture is too obsessed with binaries. Rather than saying ‘this is a magical book’ OR ‘there is racism/sexism/etc. in this book,’ why not just say ‘AND’? I don’t think an acknowledgment of the problems in a book, or in the worldview of its author, suddenly invalidates the whole reading experience. But completely writing off these problems is dishonest as well, and saying Bronte’s racism shouldn’t count because that’s what her society said devalues those who suffered from her society’s racism. It also devalues the feelings of West Indian readers who might pick up Jane Eyre today and feel excluded due to the racism in the book.

    1. Eva

      Whoops: meant to add a bit more there!

      So basically, a reader shouldn’t completely dismiss the racism/sexism/etc. from a classic simply to feel better about one’s own love for it. But no book is perfect, and loving one that has a less savoury side does not make you an irresponsible reader.

    2. bookssnob

      Eva, I see your point – but, I have to say, I think the concept of ‘racism’ as we would apply it is simply not relevant within the context of novels written in a time when the idea that one could even BE ‘racist’ did not exist.

      From our modern point of view, yes, what she depicts could be perceived as being racist. I am sure that some people could be offended by her depiction of Bertha, a Creole, as mad, but Bertha’s madness is never really blamed on the fact that she is not white – she is not mad BECAUSE she is a Creole – this perception has been blown out of the proportion of the textual evidence there is to support it by modern critics.

      All of these politically correct sensitivities we seem to now feel obliged to read into everything poisons the original texts and turns their authors into people they weren’t. I don’t think saying we have to understand the context of the time ‘devalues’ the experience of those who were oppressed and treated awfully by white people under colonial rule and slavery. We know they were treated badly. We know it was terrible and wrong. No one is denying this.

      In our society, racism has become unacceptable. We have a standard of moral codes and accepted behaviours that have identified that treating people differently, whether that be negatively or positively, because of the colour of their skin, is wrong. We have a definition of what racism is, we have a definition of why racism is unacceptable, and if you do express racist opinions, you are marked out as being a bigot and would be judged negatively by others.

      This was not the case in the Bronte’s time. The common, accepted moral code was that White people were superior. Just as much as someone espousing racist views would be considered terribly wrong and unjust today, someone espousing the view that all races should be treated equally in the Bronte’s day would have been regarded with disbelief and horror.

      As such, Charlotte Bronte, in her depiction of Bertha, was not being racist. She didn’t know how to be. It really annoys me when people pick apart Victorian novels and say ‘they were so racist’ – no, they weren’t, not in the context of their world. And saying they weren’t doesn’t make ME racist either. You simply cannot put modern values onto period literature. We can’t expect people to have developed views that were years ahead of their time.

      We have no idea how our common ideas and beliefs and attitudes will be perceived in years to come. I wouldn’t want to be judged by the standards of a society 200 years in advance of ours and considered lacking because of it, and as such I afford my predecessors the same respect. It’s not about dismissing racism or not valuing victims of racism, it’s about understanding the world of the author, and appreciating that our modern sensibilities are wholly out of place in a world where our accepted value systems simply did not exist.

      1. Iris Post author

        I do agree with you that you cannot point back in time and call it “racism” as such. I always feel that there is such a sense of feeling superior when we point to people that lived in a different era and say “they were so racist”, while they did not know the concept of racism. (I have had long & even longer discussions about this with a friend who studies postcolonial theories as well. We basically agree, but it is such a difficult issue that you can still argue about it for weeks… Bnd for me, thinking about the issues I have as a contemporary reader with a certain book, does not mean the book is spoiled for me. I do agree that picked apart a book can go too far (I admit, I zone out a lot when I have to read postcolonial readings of certain texts – and most of the time I have not read those particular literary texts so there is less danger of them being spoiled). But all of that to me personally does not mean that I do not want to be aware of the things that the book implicates and thus of the ideas that people had at the time.. If that makes sense?

      2. Eva

        I’m not sure you did see my point.😉 I love a lot of Victorian authors (not Charlotte Bronte), and I never said that they’re evil for not matching my “modern” belief that all races are equal (I will point out that there were historically people who also believed the races were equal). In fact, I’m not even judging them. And I never said Charlotte Bronte WAS racist. But the ‘racism’ (noun) apparent in her writing still exists. Yep, it was commonplace at the time. But arguing that it’s not racism, defined as “the belief that the genetic factors which constitute race are a primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” because Victorians didn’t use the word seems silly. Would you say that there was no discrimination against women in the 19th century because Victorians didn’t use the word ‘sexism’? Racism is not a modern value; it’s not a value at all. In the “a principle, standard, or quality considered worthwhile or desirable” sense of a value, anti-racism, the striving to overcome racism, would be a value. But racism, the word, denotes a paradigm and does not attach judgement. *Awareness* of racism, and disdain for it (which I don’t believe is as widespread as you do, but that’s not relevant) is certainly a modern value, but that’s different.

        As someone who has never analysed a text in my life, and who reads all kinds of classics for pleasure, I don’t believe my awareness that racism exists poisons anything. I find it quite easy to separate these two things, as I said in the beginning of my comment.

      3. Jason Gignac

        Racism is a very charged word now, because it’s NOT just used as a descriptor, but rather as a label. Saying a person is a racist is not a simple descriptor, it’s become a value judgement – ther eis something bad about this person.

        I would agree that to say that a person was ACTIVELY racist, perhaps, would be inaccurate, if tlakign about, say, Charlotte Bronte. In many ways, she did not choose to be a racist, these were inherited attitudes. To say she WASN’T racist, purely on semantic views feels inaccurate. But, like Amanda said in an earlier comment, I’m not sure you could hold her responsible for that.

        But, at the same time, the very reason that we think of books as having literary value (arguably, I understand), is because of their universality. To judge a book as bad because it comes from a time incompatible from our own, sure, that’s not a particularly useful way to view the world. But, to just give a racist or sexist attitude a pass because they’re from a long time ago, I think, misses the an opportunity to understand both the strengths and the limitations of what you’re reading. To understand, for me, that making Bertha a monster involved making her black, making her immoral, making her foreign, making her mentally ill, those things can teach me a great number of things. On one hand, it tells me that she wanted the monster creature to be a guttural level of horrifying – not horrifying because of it’s actions, but because of it’s intrinsic nature. What is Ms Bronte trying to tell me about ‘monsters’ then? That we need to be frightened and careful of them because of what they are, not what they do? This is one of the big questions of literature – with OR without racism, and one that, if I don’t understand the racist nature of what she’s saying, or if I ignore it simply as an artifact, I miss. It’s the sort of thing that makes me look for parallels: in my own day, for instance, what would I see this way? Would I be uncomfortable, for instance, knowing that my neighbor had, say, a proclivity towards being attracted towards children, even if they had never acted on those desires, adn didn’t want them? Is a person a monster because of what they are, or what they do?

        At the same time, understandign the racism teaches me something about the person and the book itself. Racism, Sexism, and other such attitudes are things that areinterfaced with a very particular part of the brain, and it raises questions to me – what does it say that in order to clarify this conflict, she has to draw on this part of the brain? Does it make the argument more suspect? It gives me the opportunity to see things she, perhaps could not. It makes me think, again, if her brain naturally feel to an illogical or ingrained assumption about the world at large, is that because this is where this kind of fear just cOMES from? Does that warn me that, maybe I should examine my own sort of ‘gut level fears’ of people, and think about them? The juxtaposition of, for instance, racism and fear of mental illness makes us ask questions about our current attitudes towards the latter – do we treat it the same way? Is this an opportunity to grow as people, to reimagine mental illness, the way we wish Bronte could have reimagined racial boundaries?

        Finally, there is a good deal to learn about racism itself. II really enjoyed Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but it also taught me a WHOLE LOT about how invasive racism really is, how even people who were fighting it believed it, in so many ways. Or, reading Herland, seeing the radical anti-sexism placed right alongside a tacit interest in Eugenics, made me ask qeustions about the black and white way we tell history – to understand feminists and abolitionists and all the other heroes of history in a way that makes htem more human, and helps understand the way social change and learning REALLY works, you know?

        I guess, what I’m saying is that saying ‘the author is a racist’ as a value judgement is not necessarily useful (except perhaps as self-protection). But saying ‘the author is a racist’ as an insight into their character can be VERY useful. Understanding historical context should help us understand, rather than excuse the attitudes of the past. And, the attitudes we still have today. Literature should make us ask hard questions, about ourselves, not just taciitly approve or attack, the people in our collective past.

        1. Eva

          That’s why I used the noun racism as opposed to the adjective racist: I think the latter is far more charged w/ connotations (and accusations) than the former!🙂

          Anyway, other than that I loved what you said Jason. I feel my only reply is: ditto! It’s not the insanity that makes Bronte’s depiction of Berthe racially charged; it’s everything else.

          1. bookssnob

            Eva, I only connote ‘racism’ with the adjective, not the noun, so I misunderstood you. Sorry!🙂

            I would never ‘give a pass’ to sexist or racist attitudes in a period novel; I too think it’s important to learn from past mistakes. However, at the same time, I also think it’s important that we understand the prevalent attitudes and belief systems of the times we’re reading about, and understand the authors within the context of their society. For example, if a modern day author wrote something that was filled with racism, I would be disgusted. If someone from the 17th century wrote something that was filled with racism, I would still be uncomfortable, but I would be prepared to appreciate that their attitudes came from a place of ignorance due to living in a society that is nowhere near as culturally and racially diverse as ours, and that had values so alien to the ones we hold now that our modern value system cannot be applied to it.

            I just think we need to be wary of placing judgements and labels, is all. So many times I read ‘Charlotte Bronte was a racist’ in discussions of Jane Eyre, and it annoys me because the term ‘racist’ implies wilful bigotry and I don’t think Charlotte Bronte was this at all.

            1. Eva

              Then I think we’re coming from the same place.🙂 Like you, I would avoid a modern author whose books contained racism while I don’t do the same to older ones. I didn’t realise there were lots of discussions of ‘Charlotte Bronte is a racist’ going on, so I can understand why that would get frustrating!

  23. Lucy

    I don’t think Charlotte Bronte was racist, just a product of her time. It’s unlikely that she would have ever have come into contact with anyone from the Caribbean, or from anywhere else outside of Europe for that matter, so she was largely ignorant. Besides, it is clear that Bertha’s immorality is a result of her mental illness, not her race and Jane has plenty of sympathy for her, even after the revelation of her existence means that Jane cannot marry Rochester. Also, I don’t think that there was a great deal else that Mr Rochester could have done for Bertha. Considering the fact that she is highly dangerous, violent and has a penchant for setting things on fire he didn’t have much choice, and a mental ayslum would have been far worse.

  24. chasing bawa

    I love discussions like this and I’m glad you brought it up. I think it’s inevitable for modern readers to question the views of authors because we live in an age where we discuss these issues. However, I do think that we can’t really judge the authors who are a product of their times, just as we are of ours. That doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them but to just keep things in context. And I do think it’s good practice to discuss issues that make you feel uncomfortable or don’t agree with as it’s part of the process of reading as you digest the material within your own mental framework.

    I also read Wide Sargasso Sea many years after reading Jane Eyre and liked it a lot, although, like Nymeth, I separated the two Rochesters.

  25. Charlie

    “I would like to just let go and read at times.” I often think this too, but I also agree with you that thinking on things when you read is a good idea.

    Whether it was just for the romance or not I found Charlotte Bronte tolerant of other things enough (for example disability doesn’t turn Jane Eyre away at the end) to think that the race issue probably wasn’t so much intended as simply the way she thought because of what her society thought. I wonder how people in future will view the way we think now and consider it wrong, so it’s difficult to decide on things like this. And you have to also consider how much might’ve been artistic license.

    Whether we can condemn or not (because in some cases from the same period I’d say you definitely can) it can still make for a good discussion, as shown here.

    1. Charlie

      That said of course, disability is made a big thing when it’s a mental illness, though there is some goodness that Rochester still provides somewhat, even if he doesn’t treat his wife properly.

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  28. Sasha

    You know how crazy I am about this book, and I’ve already told you that I haven’t commented much because I’ve only been nodding dazedly. That said, I have to share my experience with Jean Rhys’ retelling:

    I hated it. And my mother hated it too.

    I am too loyal to Jane Eyre to even consider an alternative. There was something so smarmy and obtrusive about Wide Sargasso Sea — it’s not only the way she trampled on everything I held sacred, but also the feel of it, how I was reading it. I can’t coherently explain it. It just felt really wrong, haha. I know a lot of people love that novel. But it’s seriously faced the wrong way on my shelves now. I can’t even bear to see its spine!

    I am weird, yes.

  29. cbjames

    Interesting conversation here. I’m largely in agreement with Jason and Eva.

    I’m always bothered by the “product of their times” defense. It assumes that everyone held the same value system, which is simply never true. It also places one group of people firmly in charge of these values. There were plenty of non-whites living in Victorian England, certainly in the rest of the world. Did they share these values?

    The “product of their times” arguement also ignores the constant struggle within any value system. People are always in conflict over value systems, that’s how they change, yes. If everyone simply remained “a product of their times” we’d still have the same values Charlotte Bronte displays in Jane Eyre. We don’t because many, many people, inlcuding many in Charlotte Bronte’s day, objected to the status quo, even at the risk of being dismissed as “politically incorrect.”

    That said, Jane Eyre is still a wonderful book. So is Wide Sargasso Sea. You should read it.

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  32. Bindu

    Great post!

    And Eva said everything that I was about to say! And as Jason said, context should help us understand, rather than excuse a problem.

    Did anyone notice the condescension of French people as well in the book?

  33. Bindu

    Nice post!

    And Eva said everything that I was about to say! And I agree with Jason: context should help us understand rather than excuse a problem. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is going on my TBR list!

    Did anyone notice the condescension of French people as well in the book?

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  35. Anonymous

    i love jane eyre and i still do, i hardly think charlotte could be blamed for the racism in her book,if any.as for rochester,i think he has acted a true husband to his wife he kept her at a cost,and at the end he even lost his limb and sight soley for her sake.what more could bertha have asked for?


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