Do not speak if you do not want to be silenced

Women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

When Charlotte Brontë created Jane Eyre, it was as a subject already enmeshed within a system of micro-relations of power: the terms in which Jane can construct a sense of self are determined by the ways of thinking and talking about subjectivity available in her culture. Nevertheless, poor, plain, and friendless as she is, she will push against those power relations by striving for precisely the mental and moral freedom, the real interests and creative power for which, Weininger claims, ‘the real female element has neither the desire nor the capacity’.

A woman’s demand for emancipation and her qualification for it are in direct proportion to the amount of maleness in her. . . . Emancipation . . . is not the wish for outward equality with man, but . . . the deep-seated craving to acquire man’s character, to attain his mental and moral freedom, to reach his real interests and creative power. I maintain that the real female element has neither the desire nor the capacity for emancipation in this sense. (Otto Weininger, Sex and Character [1903/1906]).

Jane’s goal is to claim her place as an independent, autonomous, self-identical self—the birthright of the freeborn Cartesian subject. The ultimately insoluble contradiction with which she wrestles, however, is that by entering into the logic of bourgeois subjectivity—‘l was not heroic enough to purchase liberty at the price of caste’ (26)—she locates herself inside a culture in which woman’s voice can be heard only when it speaks in the language of rationality, which is precisely the language that constructs her as having nothing to say.

Alternating between a radical discontent and a willingness to accept the story that has been written for her by her culture, Jane fails to break through the limits that keep her in her place as a woman precisely because she fears a loss of social status. At the ideological intersection of class and gender, Jane Eyre, simultaneously defiant and obedient, polices her own rebellion.

Perhaps this is the reason ‘Grace Poole’ laughs following Jane’s statement of frustrated longing on the roof at Thornfield in the passage quoted above. The monosyllabic Grace and her non-signifying alter ego in Bertha seem intuitively to understand better than Jane Eyre the relationship of women to ‘rational’ language and the tales that are available for women to tell. The irony in the Medusa-like laugh that Jane hears as she restlessly paces Bertha’s storey and opens her inward ear to the ‘tale that was never ended—a tale [her] imagination created, and narrated continuously’ (114), and that had goaded her, forced her to enter into life, is that Jane’s tale is already contained within Bertha’s gothic story.

Do not speak

The realist text depends on an assumption of a non-contradictory reality in which subjectivity is given and fixed but capable of development within the terms of the available discourses. Jane Eyre is a rebellious child who, as she matures, learns to control her rebellious instincts and to contain her scandalous desires within an acceptable social pattern. She can then marry and live happily ever after, blest, in her own words, ‘beyond what language can express’. Order is restored.

Beyond language, the second Mrs Rochester’s story remains a blank page waiting to be written. The life of a good woman, as Mary Elizabeth Braddon will put it, ‘must be a white unblemished page’ that ‘all the world may be free to read’ (Aurora Floyd, 88). The good woman must disappear, paradoxically, to be seen.

The smooth flow of conventional plotlines is distorted, however, by the ‘restlessness [that] agitated [Jane Eyre] to pain sometimes’ as she aspired to ‘do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for [her] sex’ (76). Having wrongly assumed that she can occupy the place held open for the rational Cartesian subject, Jane is confronted again and again with her encasement as a woman within a culturally devalued body that marks her as having no capacity for rational thought. Consequently, in the ruling ideology of the day, Jane’s ‘illicit’ ambition to forgo making puddings and knitting stockings in favour of ‘a craving to acquire man’s character, to attain his mental and moral freedom’ cannot be rational and consequently will not be listened to.

Jane Eyre is thus located in an agonisingly cramped space between two non-signifying positions: the ‘proper’ woman with nothing to say and the ‘irrational’ woman as indecipherable text. Do not speak if you do not want to be silenced.

But for the lonely, deeply unhappy child, Jane Eyre, speaking out as she did to John Reed, Mrs Reed, and Reverend Brocklehurst frees her temporarily from the prison house of her miserable existence; it allows her soul ‘to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, [she] ever felt’ (26). Unfortunately, it also gains her an association with rebellious subjects (revolting slaves, Guy Fawkes[1]) that makes her life even more miserable. So that, after each liberating outburst, Jane’s passionate desire to belong, to be ‘respectable, proper, en règle’ (61) dictates and enables her return to her ‘proper’ place, in which silent acquiescence is expected of both women and children.

The child Jane learns early to discipline and punish her own ‘transgressions’ and to silence herself. When she fought back against John Reed’s attack and for her pains was imprisoned in the red room, she remained unrepentant as long as her blood ‘was still warm’ and ‘the mood of the revolted slave was still bracing [her] with its bitter vigour’ (15). Defiantly aware of the injustice of her treatment and the legitimacy of her anger, she even plans her revenge: ‘never eating or drinking more, and letting [her]self die’ (16)—the ultimate revenge fantasy of the powerless. But in a pattern that becomes more familiar as her story progresses, as soon as her ‘habitual mood of humiliation, self-doubt, [and] forlorn depression fell damp on the embers of [her] ire’ (13), Jane, as she had been taught to do, recuperated her own anger as wickedness, and that wickedness as the cause of her isolation.

The same pattern of revolt and recuperation governed her first confrontation with the Reverend Brocklehurst. Even with her incarceration in the red room still fresh in her mind, she refused to be intimidated when confronted with the massive black columnar figure standing erect in Mrs Reed’s breakfast room. Bearing down with the full weight of his authority—as adult, as man, as reverend—Brocklehurst attempted to scare the ‘miscreant’ Jane into compliance by threatening her with hell; Jane defeated his smug platitudes with her superior wit—she will avoid falling into the pit of hell by keeping in good health and not dying.

With Brocklehurst out of the way, in a ‘passion of resentment’, she turned on Mrs Reed. She was impelled, she says, to speak, she ‘had been trodden on severely, and must turn. . . . It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that [she] had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty’ before Mrs Reed gathered up her work, and ‘abruptly quitted the apartment’ (26).

Her triumph, though transitory, is complete; having out-reasoned Brocklehurst and forced Mrs Reed to retreat, she was left alone, ‘winner of the field’. Standing on the rug where she had vanquished the mighty, wolfish phallus, having turned on her persecutors and claimed the position and the power of the speaking subject, Jane ‘thrilled with ungovernable excitement’ (38).

Her triumphant exultation as winner of the field is, predictably and painfully, brought to an end by her learned self-discipline; the compulsion to speak out was again replaced with ‘the pang of remorse and the chill of reaction’ (39). Having refused the quiet submission demanded of women and children, Jane was reminded, after ‘[h]alf an hour’s silence and reflection’, of the ‘madness’ of her conduct and the ‘dreariness of [her] hatred and hating position’ (32). Her first real taste of vengeance turned sour as she reinterpreted her passionate outburst, recuperating her anger not only as wickedness now but as madness. Her punishment is further exclusion; she is alone again when she craves human contact, and the ‘ridge of lighted heath, alive, glancing, devouring’ that was her mind as she ‘accused and menaced’ Mrs Reed, becomes ‘black and blasted’ after the flames of her anger have died.

Importantly, although she had argued ‘reasonably’ with Brocklehurst, she reserved her passion for Mrs Reed; in part this is attributable to Jane’s, and to some extent Jane Eyre’s, perception of woman as warder of the ideological prison house. The irony, and the tragedy, of Jane Eyre, is that Jane, putative rebel, is being groomed to take Mrs Reed’s place, to discipline her own ‘transgressions’, to despise her own passion, and to become the prisoner of her own desire to belong.

Equally, the adult Jane must distance herself from the ‘irrational’ woman who speaks out/out of place—the ‘nag’, the ‘harridan’ and the ‘shrew’—and from those ‘virulent passions’ (18) that she has been fighting to control at least since Mrs Reed first ordered her to be locked in the red room. In short, she must establish her distance from what Rochester called a nature ‘gross, impure, [and] depraved’—the first Mrs Rochester. To the extent that she can achieve those distances, and using the quiet influence of the ‘proper’ lady to appeal to reason, Jane believes that she retains at least the right to claim a place for herself as a rational speaking subject. But this, as Butler says, is a tragic misreading of the social map of power: ‘a misreading orchestrated by that very map according to which the sites for a phantasmatic self-overcoming are constantly resolved into disappointment’ (Bodies That Matter, 133). In this game, there’s a snake for every ladder.

Jane’s tragic misreading leads the woman who had paced the roof at Thornfield yearning for a power of vision ‘which might overpass [the dim skyline], which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life [she] had heard of but never seen’ (114) to Ferndean. There, she is confined to live ‘deep buried in a wood’ in a house for which no tenants could be found ‘in consequence of its ineligible and insalubrious site’. In essence, she sets up home in a house that wasn’t good enough to house the first Mrs Rochester, as Rochester himself had explained:

I possess an old house, Ferndean Manor, even more retired and hidden than [Thornfield], where I could have lodged [Bertha] safely enough, had not a scruple about the unhealthiness of the situation, in the heart of a wood, made my conscience recoil from the arrangement. Probably those damp walls would soon have eased me of her charge: but to each villain his own vice; and mine is not a tendency to indirect assassination, even of what I most hate.

Her never-ending tale and the vision that fed it, both her physical vision that yearned to take in the distance beyond the horizon and her mind’s eye that dwelled on ‘whatever bright visions rose before it’, are limited now by the encircling forest—and by her prenuptial agreement to mind her own (domestic) business: ‘Don’t turn out a downright Eve on my hands. . . . Encroach, presume, and the game is up,’ as Rochester warned her. So that when Jane Eyre, who all her life has been impelled to speak, becomes the second Mrs Rochester, her narrative moves ‘beyond what language can express’ and abruptly ends.

Silent revolt

From the moment that the circle turns, that the book is wound back upon itself, its identity receives an imperceptible difference which allows us to step effectively, rigorously, and thus discreetly, out of the closure. Redoubling the closure, one splits it. Then one escapes furtively, between two passages through the same book, through the same line, following the same bend.

Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la différence.

The best way to conceive the classical plural is then to listen to the text as an iridescent exchange carried on by multiple voices, on different wavelengths and subject to a sudden dissolve, leaving a gap which enables the utterance to shift from one point of view to another without warning.

Barthes, S/Z.

Jane Eyre is the story of a failed revolution, as Jane’s association with Guy Fawkes, another famously failed revolutionary, suggests: Guy Fawkes did not blow up the Houses of Parliament or the ideological system they represent any more than Jane Eyre will explode the ideological limits that contain her as a middle-class English woman. Fawkes’ failure is still commemorated today across England by his burning in effigy every 5th November—the anniversary of his attempted revolution and of his arrest, and the very day on which St John Rivers discovers Jane’s identity as an Eyre/heir. As a result of this discovery, Jane, now a financially independent woman, believes she can escape from the cultural restrictions that have stifled and dwarfed her, and present herself to Rochester as an equal (once Bertha is out of the way), her revolution successfully completed.

On the same day, however, that possibility is undermined by the heavily significant gift that St John brings her—a copy of the newly-published Marmion.[2] The intrusion of a new gothic tale into Jane’s story at this late stage provides one of many lessons offered by the text that the young Jane Eyre cannot recognise, but that the mature, narrating Jane has clearly learned. In Scott’s poem, the nun Constance de Beverley, in order to win the man she loves from another woman, conspires with him to perjure herself (the position into which Rochester attempts to place an unwitting Jane) and finds herself, for her pains, bricked up alive inside the walls of his castle. Her fate is echoed by Bertha Mason’s imprisonment in her attic and, pointedly, by the pun in her last name. The same echo resonates with supreme irony, when Rochester himself acts out a charade with Blanche Ingram in which ‘bride’ plus ‘well’ equals Bridewell, a prison. It’s echo can be heard, tragically, when Jane, as the second Mrs Rochester, disappears behind the dank and decaying walls at Ferndean, asking herself ‘can there be life here?’

Gothic fairy tale

Jane’s genre-bending story, masquerading as a realist romance mapped out across the text’s multiple contradictions and Jane’s own contradictory desires, hangs suspended between a romantic fairy tale and a gothic nightmare. Within the fairy tale, her return to Rochester brings to a close what is often described as ‘the greatest love story ever told’. In the gothic nightmare, however, unable to recognise her relationship to Bertha, or at least their shared interests, Jane inserts herself into the space that Bertha has vacated by her act of self-immolation—leaving Thornfield Hall a smouldering ruin but the ideology it represented untouched. At Ferndean Manor, the narrative that had run continuously in Jane’s head since childhood and in which she had attempted to construct an autonomous self to equal Rochester’s Cartesian birthright, apparently runs out. Jane Eyre—whose most powerful act of rebellion has always been to speak out, whose strength has been the power of her language—when it comes to her life at Ferndean, has not a word to say about it. All fairy tales end with marriage and the rest is silence.

Or is it?

Instead of the ‘happy-ever-after’ story the young Jane is trying to tell us, we see a narrative structured as an unresolved dialectical exchange between at least two voices: the younger, narrated Jane Eyre who struggles to close her fairy tale for ‘sunny imaginations’, and the older narrator who refuses precisely that closure and, along with it, the suffocating tranquillity she had forcefully dismissed as she haunted Bertha’s storey/story:

 [I]t is in vain to say that human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. (96)

These words and the words that follow, her famous declaration of a longing for independence quoted at the opening of this chapter, are written tellingly in the present tense, suggesting at least the possibility that they are spoken from inside Ferndean by the mature, narrating Jane, leaking through the opening she has forced into the language of her text. There is consequently another voice behind the young Jane’s sudden and unexpected silence. A voice still fermenting rebellion. But it is a voice, like the madwoman’s language, that has been displaced and decontextualized in its account of a continuing revolution by one of the ‘millions . . . in silent revolt against their lot’.

Textual closure, in bringing together, as the second Mrs Rochester, the mature narrating Jane and the young woman produced within the narrative, would forestall the disruptive instability suggested by the contradictions between the narrator and the young woman whose story she is telling, and between the novel, Jane Eyre, and its subject, Jane Eyre. The effect of fixing her identity as Mrs Rochester, leaving her no language with which to compose herself, is, in theory and practice, the same as silencing Bertha Mason by labelling her ‘mad’ and disallowing her language as irrational.

The novel refuses closure, however, by winding back on itself in a narratological model that seems ‘to follow the developmental pattern of a Bildungsroman whilst in actuality offering the very reverse of a progressive, linear history. . . . Jane’s life is a history of eternal recurrence’ (Shuttleworth, 158). A recurring circuit—an eyre is an itinerary or circuit, particularly a judge’s circuit[3], and hence a journey with no end—simultaneously suggests both the extent to which Jane is caught up in the terms of the hegemonic discourse that constitutes her as a bourgeois woman and the possibilities for breaking out. For Jane Eyre, doubling the attempted closure that contains Jane splits it, providing an opening through which the novel’s multiple contradictions can breathe life into the cramped narratological space between blank page and indecipherable text.

Within this bifocal perspective, the eyre that Jane travels is both the closed circuit of hegemonic discourse and the open road revealed by the ‘imperceptible difference which allows us to step effectively, rigorously, and thus discreetly, out of the closure’. Structurally, it contains both Jane Eyre’s failed rebellion—her story ends in precisely the stasis and suffocating tranquillity she feared—and Jane Eyre’s success in prising open an apparently seamless narrative that locked the protagonists of the fairy tale and the gothic novel into their respective asylums. Through the ‘sudden dissolve leaving a gap to enable the utterance to shift from one point of view to another, without warning’ the decontextualized voice of protest and silently fermenting rebellions can still be heard.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Guy Fawkes was one of a group of provincial English Catholics who planned, and failed, to blow up the British Houses of Parliament during the State Opening on 5th November 1605, when the King would be present. They would thus have killed the King, the Members of Parliament, and, theoretically, the system they represented and upheld. The rebels believed that this would have been the catalyst that would bring about a Catholic revolution. We’ll never know; Fawkes was discovered, and the plot fell flat.
[2] Interestingly, in view of the reference to Guy Fawkes with which it is associated, Marmion’s publication date places these events in or around 1808, more than a century after the failure of his putative revolution and a generation or so before the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829; the primary aim of Fawkes’s putative revolution was yet to be achieved.
[3] In medieval England, an Eyre was a circuit travelled by an itinerant justice (a Justice in Eyre). I am indebted to Alison Outland for pointing out this specific meaning of ‘eyre’ to me. The association suggested between Jane and justice is interesting in view of the judgements and punishments meted out in the course of the book. Brocklehurst loses his power over the school and its inhabitants; John Reed dies as a consequence of his dissolution; St. John Rivers dies in India suspecting he is not one of the chosen; Mrs Reed, who could not love Jane, dies unloved by her own children. Rochester, who tried to make Jane the occasion of his adultery, loses his hand and his sight in an echo of the Book of Matthew: ‘And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out. . . . And if they right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee’ (Matthew 5: 29-30). Jane Eyre, that is, visits a biblical retribution on Jane Eyre’s ‘master’.

 

 

 

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About Dr. Jeannette Boyne

Dr. Jeannette Boyne: former out-of-work actor, former working academic and Mellon Fellow, current contributing editor of leftbucket.com, born in Ballyfermot, raised in Birmingham, educated by Columbia (the university, not the country). The old cliché says that journalism is the first draft of history; as Jeannette sees it, the job of an online journal like leftbucket is to provide its first edit. View all posts by Dr. Jeannette Boyne →