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Jane Eyre is written from the first person standpoint. How does this affect our judgement of the protagonist Jane?
Jane Eyre is narrated by its title character and so presents us with a story from a sole point of view. When the novel was first published it included the subtitle, ‘An Autobiography,’ thereby drawing further attention to its narration by one person very much involved with the story to be told. The nature of the narrator and their relationship with the reader has a great effect on how we judge their character, and Jane Eyre is no exception. Jane Eyre provides us with a narration of events and dialogue, as well as an account of her thoughts and feelings.
The novel can be classified as a bildungsroman, as it charts the growth of Jane from a child into a young woman. This particular genre of the novel capitalises on the first person narrator and as a result creates a story that is extremely sympathetic to the plight of the protagonist. As a child at the very beginning of the novel, Jane utters to herself the words ‘Unjust! – unjust!’ (p17) and it is impossible for the reader not to constantly recall these words as Jane suffers at the hands of her cousins and later at Lowood School. By reading an account from a first person narrator we are privy to not just a narration of events, but also of internalised emotions. In this respect, it is often easy for this type of narration to become biased and extremely subjective. We are able to understand how Jane feels, but must rely on her perception when it comes to the feelings of others.
It is true that Jane’s narration is a very personal account and as a result is often selective, with Jane recounting experiences that stick in her memory, ‘I remember well the distracting irritation I endured from the cause every evening’ (p62). However, because of the way Bronte characterises Jane – of good moral nature and of constant character – we accept her as a credible narrator. Our sympathy and bias towards her cause is aided by the fact that we are given an insight into Jane’s life right from her childhood. This means that we can relate to her and sympathise with her situation, knowing where she has come from and what drives her.
There is no illusion presented in the novel that we are reading an unbiased version of events. In fact, the narrator of Jane Eyre makes the relationship between reader and herself very clear, frequently bringing attention to the our position as reader ‘True, reader, and I knew and felt this’ (p79). The power of the narrator becomes very clear as the novel progresses, with Jane Eyre often speculating on her role as narrator, ‘A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader – you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote’ (p95). She draws the reader into the story and in doing so identifies the reader as someone akin to a companion or friend. Again, this tone of narration enables us to connect and empathise with the narrator. We experience events as Jane remembers them, and are given explanations at the same point in the story as she would have received them.
Jane relies heavily on language and story-telling as a means of expressing herself, this is clear from the very beginning of the novel when our first glimpse of her comes while she is reading a book, ‘Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting’ (p10-11). In turn she becomes a great storyteller of her life. This is also as a result of being confined as a child; she is rarely given the opportunity to explain herself, ‘Be seated somewhere, and until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent’ (p39). Consequently, Jane tends to develop an affinity with those who take to storytelling like Bessie, and is repelled by those who do not, like St John. When talking of Mary Ann Wilson, the importance she grants communicative relationships becomes clearer:
‘She had a turn for narrative, I for analysis; she like to inform, I to question; so we got on swimmingly together, deriving much entertainment, if not much improvement, from our mutual intercourse’ (109).
This attitude enables the reader to accept Jane as a character telling a story as truthfully as she can through her own eyes, and also very aware of the entertainment value of a story.
This limited understanding of events can become problematic with regard to our judgement of Jane when it comes to the treatment of Bertha. Bronte had an unquestioning belief in the assumptions of imperialism, a belief that would obviously colour her views and sympathies for characters such as Bertha, as seen through the eyes of Jane Eyre. Consequently the focal characters of the novel become Jane and Mr Rochester, forcing Bertha into the peripheral role of obstacle to the desired marriage. This pro-imperialist stance means that Jane consistently refers to the character of Bertha as bestial, irrational and violent:
‘What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.’ P291
Such a character fits perfectly into a gothic novel and her presentation succeeds in bringing us closer and feeling more empathy for the plight of Jane and Rochester. It is extremely easy to sideline the character of Bertha and give her little thought other than as another hardship in the life of Jane. We see her in relation to Jane and not as a character in herself. Indeed, she is frequently addressed as it, and we are given little insight into her life before Thornfield Hall. When we do receive information about her, it is largely biased towards Rochester. For example, the act of bringing Bertha back to England is portrayed as an act of duty to God and humanity. As a character in love with Rochester, Jane is able to narrate his behaviour and actions in a positive light.
Jean Rhys tackles the issue of Jane Eyre’s subjectivity and treatment of Bertha in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys disputes Bronte’s English assumptions about colonial otherness by writing Bertha into the story, but this time with more than a minor role. As stated by Jean Rhys in the book Jean Rhys and the novel as women’s text:
‘why should she think Creole women are lunatics and all that? What a shame to make Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, the awful madwoman, and I immediately thought I’d write the story as it might really have been. She seemed such poor ghost, I thought I’d try to write her a life.’( p128)
By focusing on the story of Bertha (given the name of Antoinette) Rhys is able to justify her behaviour and give her a history and character of her own unrelated to Jane Eyre. As a result we are able to place Jane and Rochester into a bigger picture, as opposed to reading them through blinkered vision.
By shifting sympathy to the character of Antoinette, it seems that Rhys is suggesting that she was previously misrepresented by Bronte. However, given the time that Bronte was writing in and the fact that she is presenting the views and opinions of one female character, this seems a little unfair. Bronte was focusing on providing a voice to Jane Eyre, not to the Creole female in the attic. As a nineteenth female writer, Bronte was – like Bertha – restricted by circumstances and what could not be done in life ran parallel with what could not be written. This meant that Bronte would not have been in a position to question a woman’s role without writing against the grain of contemporary religious beliefs and societal convention (largely influenced at the time by imperialism). Bronte’s novel is as much a sign of the times as a personal narrative.
Communication is of great importance to Jane throughout the novel, to the extent that she frequently judges other characters on their narrative ability, granting favour to those who prove good narrators. In the same way we grant favour to Jane Eyre for her position as a credible narrator. There will always be gaps in a story, be these knowledge gaps or selected omissions and this is particularly the case when it comes to first person narrations. But as Jane notes in relation to Mary Ann Wilson, there is always one person who narrates and another who analyses; one who informs and another who questions. In the case of Jane Eyre, it is left to the reader to analyse and question once they have read the novel, not necessarily judging the character of Jane, but considering the issues it raises.
Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre (Penguin, 1994)
Harrison, Nancy, Jean Rhys and the novel as women’s text (University of North Carolina Press, 1988