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Mary Wilson’s Formal Blog Post on Jane Eyre

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“That is my wife,” said he. “Such is the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know-such are the endearments which are to solace my leisure hours! And this is what I wished to have” (laying his hand on my shoulder) “this young girl, who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell, looking collectively at the gambols of a demon.  I wanted her just as a change after that fierce ragout.  Wood and Briggs, look at the difference! Compare these clear eyes with the red balls yonder – this face with that mask – this form with that bulk…”

In her novel, Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte utilizes the concept of the disabled character in a number of ways which serve to dehumanize, demonize and portray the disabled as a direct opposition to concepts of normality or able-bodiedness.   For instance, the character of Bertha Mason is often referred to as “it” or “the creature” rather than as a human.  She is a figure shrouded in mystery, and rather than developing her character fully, she is used as a stumbling block for the relationship between Jane and Edward.  As suggested in “Narrative Prosthesis,” this disabled character is only developed as a stock character to aid in the narrative of the romance between the two able-bodied characters (although Edward‘s acquisition of a disability further complicates matters).  Bertha, who is never allowed dialogue throughout the novel, becomes synonymous with disaster, pain and misery.  Her self-inflicted demise creates not sorrow, but rather the opportunity for Edward’s redemption and happiness with Jane.
In addition to dehumanizing Bertha, Bronte also places her in opposition to concepts of normality.  As evidenced in the above quotation, Bertha’s differences are not seen as human variation, but as diametrically opposed to the “normal.”  This supports a key argument in “Narrative Prosthesis,” which was that literature often uses disability as a contrast to perfect bodies, thus forcing a stigmatizing interpretation of the disabled.
While Bronte clearly demonizes Bertha, however, the plight of Edward and the development of his disability are used in a different manner.  In contrast to Bertha, who is portrayed as sub-human and insane, Edward’s disability signifies his heroic actions to rescue his slaves from the burning mansion.  His is a disability which is to be pitied rather than feared, as is evidenced in the treatment of his character as one who is kindly and brave, yet miserable.  Indeed, descriptions of Edward are laden with sympathy and pity, such as when he is referred to as “caged,” “burdened” or “poor.”
Although Edward is seen as a more fully developed character than Bertha, it is interesting to note that similarities exist in terms of how their disabilities are described.  For instance, both Bertha and Edward have their conditions described in animalistic terms, as she is often likened to a beast or creature and he is described as a “fettered and wronged wild beast or bird.” This treatment of Edward’s disability is particularly interesting because, while his character is fully human, the description of his body suggests animal-like qualities.
Edward can also be seen as similar to Bertha in that both characters have disabilities which are treated as narrative aids that help advance the plot.  While Bertha is used as a stumbling block, Edward’s disability can be seen as a condition which brings Jane and him together.  For instance, in conversing with the newly disabled Edward, Jane states “I love you the better now, when I can be really useful to you, than I did in your state of proud independence.”
In conclusion, Bronte’s treatment of disability is laden with both the rhetoric of fear and that of pity, which serves to further stigmatize the interpretation of the disabled as either demonic (as with Bertha) or dependent (Edward).

Written by mwilson11

September 20th, 2010 at 11:40 am