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Matt Blakley’s Formal Blog Post #1: Disability & Passivity

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“If you did, it would be such in a grave, quiet manner, I should mistake it for sense. Do you never laugh, Miss Eyre? Don’t trouble yourself to answer — I see you laugh rarely; but you can laugh very merrily: believe me, you are not naturally austere, any more than I am naturally vicious. The Lowood constraint still clings to you somewhat; controlling your features, muffling your voice, and restricting your limbs; and you fear in the presence of a man and a brother — or father, or master, or what you will — to smile gaily, speak too freely, or move too quickly: but, in time, I think you will learn to be natural with me, as I find it impossible to be conventional with you; and then your looks and movements will have more vivacity and variety than they dare offer now. I see at intervals the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage: a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there, were it but free, it would soar cloud-high. . .” (162).

For me this passage was the most revealing regarding Jane, Rochester and their relationship/positioning as characters. Rochester depicts Jane’s actions as timid, fearful, or maybe even aloof, blaming this restraint on the Victorian social norms of gender superiority. He also discloses Jane’s emotional disabilities (here I’m offering that disability manifests itself in numerous ways within literature) or insecurities due to her social class/position. This sense of repressed insecurity coupled with her sanctioned social obedience creates an irrepressible desire for self-agency, something that I think Rochester is intrigued (turned on) by. Because of this desire for agency Rochester both sympathizes and empathizes with Jane, maybe indirectly seeing himself in her struggle– someone trying to rid themselves of guilt and expectation.

Using this particular scene merely as a starting point, I’d like to offer that Charlotte Bronte does a good job resisting the stereotypical and literary disability of the passive “hopeless romantic,” or the “lady-in-waiting” figure by inverting the passivity within Jane and Rochester’s relationship. Throughout the chapters we were assigned, the first half — before Bertha — Jane could be depicted as passive, much like a female’s eggs are depicted in some science books, and the second half — after Bertha — as a rejection of that passivity. I position Rochester here as a male’s sperm: active, dynamic, or fertile. Before Bertha is revealed, Rochester employs Jane, forcing her into a submissive or passive position where she is often just waiting for Rochester to tell her what to do, or in the scene I offer above, is summoned. Even once the two fall in love Jane still acts passive, especially about Rochester’s ambiguous past. In short, she is the passive one disabled by her submission to society.

Once Jane learns about Bertha, Bronte uses this as a breaking point for Jane to confront all the insecurities or pressures disabling her from her sense of success or happiness. She leaves Rochester and within the year’s absence, Jane confronts her society’s overt social norms of gender inequality and social class by developing self-agency and financial independence. Once she reunites with Rochester, he has become blind and the stereotypical egg statically awaiting its valiant sperm. Bronte has flipped the relationship’s dynamics, contrasting the social realities of the setting’s expected relationships. And ironically, Jane has rid herself of her “disabilities” while Rochester’s character developed one. I also find Rochester’s loss of sight ironic because in the passage above, as in most of the chapters, Rochester believes he is the one with the answers, that he is fertile, that he can see better and more clearly than Jane. However in the end it is with Jane he regains partial sight and lives what seems to be a fulfilled life.

My question(s) for you guys is/are (haha I’m starting to write like Foss): Do you think Jane is “disabled” by her society? If no, why? If yes, do you think this sense of disability further perpetuates the notion that disabilities are really just social constructs?

Written by Matthew

September 19th, 2010 at 6:12 pm