Post-colonial criticism of Jane Eyre
This approach to literature has emerged with the decline of the colonial empires which had been established during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, largely as a result of the expansionist aspirations of European states in territories on other continents. As a theoretical approach, post colonialism asks readers to consider the way colonialist and anti-colonialist messages are presented in literary texts. It argues that Western culture is Eurocentric, meaning it presents European values as natural and universal, while Eastern ideas are, for example, inferior, immoral, or "savage." A postcolonial approach to Jane Eyre might begin by considering the following questions: What does the novel reveal about the way cultural difference was represented in Victorian culture? How did Britain justify its colonialist project by imaging the East as "savage" or uncivilized? What idea does the text create of "proper" British behaviour? Tentative answers to these questions can be discovered by examining the novel's representation of foreign women, especially Bertha Mason, and the colonialist doctrines of Jane and of St. John Rivers.
The colonies in nineteenth century literature
Colonial territories are referred to in many nineteenth-century novels:
- In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814), Sir Thomas Bertram's wealth derives from his sugar plantations in the West Indies, which he visits in the course of the novel
- In W. M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1847), Jos Sedley returns from India with enormous amounts of money, and there is a fellow-pupil at Amelia Sedley's school who is clearly of mixed race
- In Dickens' Great Expectations (1860-1), the criminal Magwitch is transported to Australia, where he makes a fortune
- At the end of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Mary Barton (1848), some of the characters move to a new life in Canada
- At the end of Dickens' David Copperfield (1849-50), the feckless Mr. Micawber emigrates to Australia, where he becomes successful.
The focus of post-colonial criticism
Post-colonial critics of these novels would emphasize that:
- These places are seen as remote and unknowable, representing difference and otherness
- The narratives of these novels never follow the characters who travel to these distant places
- They are often seen as sources of wealth with little concern as to how that wealth is obtained or the lives of slaves – on, for instance, West Indian sugar plantations
- They are seen as ‘dumping grounds' for criminals whom society wishes simply to expel rather than to deal with them in a more constructive manner, as with Magwitch in Great Expectations
- For novelists, as in Mary Barton and David Copperfield, the colonies sometimes provide a convenient narrative solution for characters who, for one reason or another, cannot be fitted into a future in this country.
Examples of post-colonial literature
As former British colonies have become independent in the years since 1945, new voices have emerged, anxious to relate the story of colonization from the point of view of the colonized:
- The best-known example of this approach is Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys, which, as well as telling the story of Rochester's first wife from her own point of view, also seeks…