Jane Eyre - Race
The autobiographical premise/first person narrative of the governess, Jane Eyre, allows an ethnocentric viewpoint that varies in its representation of race and, in consequence, significance. The two most obvious representations of race are through Bertha Mason and St John Rivers, but Charlotte Bronte also uses subtle language to connote racial stereotypes. It has been suggested that Charlotte Bronte uses representation of race as a metaphor for class and gender inequality. It is also important to note the significance of the representation of race on the nineteenth- century novel’s readership, predominately white middle class women, to our own contemporary post-colonial ideas of race and British imperialism. Jane Eyre represents race as negative, but it is important to consider nineteenth century ideology and culture that was exceptionally scared of racial differences; imperialism often only reinforced these anxieties. Charlotte Bronte reveals her ethnocentricity in the novel when it is read today, this would have varied significantly to her contemporary audience in a time when imperialism was not seen as a stain on British history as it often is today. Bronte also uses race ironically to highlight snobbery and class prejudice in Victorian England. The representation and significance of race in Jane Eyre help to show some the inequalities that existed in nineteenth century England and some of the struggles to break away from them.
The racial representations of Bertha Mason are significant as the reader sees her through Jane’s eyes before we hear her story. The images are strong and animalistic.
‘a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched growled like some strange, wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, his its head and face.’ (Bronte, Chapter? p.308)
Jane’s meeting with Bertha Mason is loaded with animalistic imagery as Bertha Mason ‘gazed wildly’ (Bronte, 309) at Jane and biting of her husband is an animalistic act. Jane is dehumanises Bertha with the description turning her into something ‘wild’ and ‘grizzled’ and then is more sinister with ‘goblin’ and ‘vampire’ (Vol II, C10), clearly signalling the Gothic. The reader then identifies this as the ‘discoloured’, ‘savage face’ that tears Jane’s veil in Chap. 25.
‘the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments! … the lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrowed: the black eyebrows widely raised.’ (Bronte, 299)
Bronte’s representations of race here show Bertha Mason as non-white and conform to racist 19th century stereotypes. However, the representation of Bertha Mason’s ethnicity becomes more ambiguous as Rochester reveals their story. She is described as a Creole, which at the time could have meant black or white. As her father was an ‘old acquaintance’ of Rochester’s father and as she is white enough to marry a wealthy English man the reader can assume she is predominately white. Although ambiguous as a ‘Creole’ Bertha Mason does become blacker as…