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Helen’s Class Summary: September 20th, 2010

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Today’s class began with the great tragedy of the Blackboard reward quizzes: some, like the woeful author of this essay, neglected to take the Jane Eyre quiz until the hour before class, or, rather, the ten minutes before class started. When Dr. Foss attempted to reboot the closed quiz for our benefit, it rudely deleted itself. Amid cries of despair, Foss, with the kind of poise only accessible to people whose children are in school, promised to ask the illustrious Reverend Jim Groom about it, and said he would let us know when the quiz was once again available. Moving swiftly forward, we began our large group discussion about Bertha Mason and her portrayal in Jane Eyre; later, in small group, we talked of Rochester’s disability.  Our class discussion focused upon reading Bertha’s disability as an identity that dehumanizes her, as well Jane and Rochester’s reactions and relationship to Bertha; in small group, we concentrated upon the problematic way in which Rochester’s disability functions at the end of the novel.

To preface our discussion, Dr. Foss cited “The Madwoman in the Attic” a feminist article from the late 1970’s by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, which posits that, in Victorian literature, there is a temptation to portray female characters as either angels or villains. We used this idea to address the contrast between Bertha and Jane’s characters, and the way that disability may intersect well with Gilbert and Gubar’s feminist reading of this text. Bertha is portrayed as a dark, hulking, almost spectral figure with features so unspeakable that, in true Victorian fashion, they are left completely undescribed. Jane, dissimilarly, is pale, thin, and plain, a sensible and well brought-up young lady with whom Rochester has many illuminating conversations, while Bertha’s mind is described as “…common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher, expanded to anything larger…” (p. 324). Bertha is entirely dehumanized by Rochester, less worthy to him, even, than his dog, Pilot. Rochester’s first wife is reduced to the role of spectacle: when Jane stares at Bertha, Jane is reminded of how normal Jane herself is.

For all that Jane is “good, gifted, and lovely” (334) to Bertha’s “manic upstairs” (335), Jane and Bertha do have some characteristics and life experiences in common. Jane has numerous encounters with extended confinement in her childhood, like her near-incarceration in the red-room in chapter II of the novel, which haunts her well into her adult life, and her tenure at Lowood School, which was little more than a jail. Jane experiences anger in these situations that could be considered similar to Bertha’s fits of rage, and perhaps Jane understands Bertha all the better for her experiences with confinement. She certainly pities Bertha, and says to Rochester: “you are inexorable for that unfortunate lady; you speak of her with hate—with vindictive antipathy. It is cruel—she cannot help being mad.” (318). This raised another question in our discussion: does Bertha behave like a wild animal because it is a function of her disability, or is Bertha simply living up to the role of the madwoman in the attic that Rochester has prescribed for her? When we discussed Richard III, we asked ourselves a similar chicken-and-egg question about whether Gloucester was naturally evil, or if his physical disabilities forced him to take up the mantle of a cruel and ruthless man.

Rochester’s attitude toward Bertha seems to change after she has been officially labeled as “mad.” Despite numerous protestations that he does not despise his wife for being mad but rather for being wicked, he was faithfully married to Bertha until he discovered that something diagnosable was wrong with her. Rochester claims to be capable of great love, but not of great love for Bertha. Foss raised an interesting question: does Bertha actually lose her status as a human being when she, apparently, loses her mind? Rochester seems to relegate her to the status of mistress: on page 234, Rochester says, “To tell me that I had already a wife is empty mockery: you know now that I had but a hideous demon.” Bertha certainly suffers the contempt, then, that Rochester’s other mistresses do. The class was reminded of the treatment of the disabled during more medieval times, when property could be taken over by a lord or another property owner when the actual owner was deemed unfit to oversee their own land.

Before Rochester is blinded unwittingly by Bertha, he tries to seek for himself a kind of spousal prosthesis: he is emotionally crippled, and in Jane he sees the kind of person who could look after him and perhaps cure him of his less desirable character traits. Bertha, on the other hand, exacerbates his worst characteristics, and Rochester believes that his treatment of Bertha and his disregard for the sacrament of marriage are the reasons he is stricken, by God, with blindness. In our small groups we discussed the problematic nature of Rochester’s blindness being dealt to him by a judging God rather than simple accident: this kind of thinking holds all disabled people accountable for their disability, and presumes that they have some sort of character defect that manifests itself outwardly though disability. We talked about how this is a narrow and fearful reaction on the part of non-disabled people. If there is universal morality or a just God to punish disobedience or defectiveness, then disability is avoidable, and therefore explainable and less frightening.
Whether Bertha’s mental disability led her to behave like an animal or if Rochester’s treatment of her is to blame, she provokes very dissimilar, though illuminating, reactions from Jane and Rochester. Jane empathizes with and pities Bertha; Rochester sees her as little more than a nuisance, a burden that he knows to be beneath him. Jane blames the disability for her behavior, while Rochester is compelled to believe that a natural wickedness has left her in this condition. Indeed, Mr. Fairfax, upon becoming blind, blames defects in his character for his plight, rather than the woman who inadvertently inflicted the damage. The disabled people portrayed in Jane Eyre are judged and punished, Bertha through incarceration and Rochester through his blindness.

Written by Helen

September 21st, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Jane Eyre question, plus reward quiz

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I was thinking about adding this in to my blog post, but my ideas about this aren’t fully formed so I thought I would pose a question: when I was reading Jane Eyre the passage about Edward becoming blind reminded me of the Davis piece we read earlier which connected blindness in literary characters with insight and wisdom.  Do you think this applies to Edward’s character, and if so, how?

Also, how do I get to the reward quizzes? I can’t find the link. Please help!



Written by mwilson11

September 20th, 2010 at 11:51 am

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

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

Julianna Truslow’s Formal Blog Post on Jane Eyre Excerpts

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” nor do I mean to torment you with the hideous associations and recollections of Thornfield-Hall — this accursed place — this tent of Achan — this insolent vault, offering the ghastliness of living death to the light of the open sky — this narrow stone hell, with its one real fiend, worse than a legion of such as we imagine. Jane, you shall not stay here, nor will I. I was wrong ever to bring you to Thornfield-Hall, knowing as I did how it was haunted. I charged them to conceal from you, before I ever saw you, all knowledge of the curse of the place; merely because I feared Adèle never would have a governess to stay if she knew with what inmate she was housed, and my plans would not permit me to remove the maniac elsewhere — though I possess an old house, Ferndean Manor, even more retired and hidden than this, where I could have lodged her safely enough, had not a scruple about the unhealthiness of the situation, in the heart of a wood, made my conscience recoil from the arrangement. Probably those damp walls would soon have eased me of her charge: but to each villain his own vice; and mine is not a tendency to indirect assassination, even of what I most hate.”  –Mr. Rochester, Vol. II Chapter VII

Hate the Personality, Not the Madness

Mr. Rochester uses many dark words to describe Thornfield-Hall.  He continually paints for Jane a depiction of evil over the house.  However, Jane and the reader are able to realize where his insults are truly pointed.  Due to the types of insults Mr. Rochester uses, it makes it obvious he is not insulting the house, but rather his wife.

In the passage, “nor do I mean to torment you with the hideous associations and recollections of Thornfield-Hall — this accursed place — this tent of Achan — this insolent vault, offering the ghastliness of living death to the light of the open sky — this narrow stone hell, with its one real fiend, worse than a legion of such as we imagine”, Mr. Rochester insults his first wife at every moment he can manage.  The ways in which he does this makes the reader know that he hates her because he was tricked into a marriage with someone truly evil.  It’s interesting that the tent of Achan is mentioned, because that bible story has to do with a man keeping money for himself and is later stoned to death.  Mr. Rochester seems to feel that he is equal to Achan on some level because he ended up where he is due to his family’s greed.  He also refers to his wife as a “fiend, worse than a legion”.  He obviously feels that she has some sort of ties to hell, but since Mr. Rochester has some form of disability himself, he does not connect disability to hell, just his wife.

As much as Mr. Rochester seems to hate his wife, disability is not the reason for this hatred.  His wife, Bertha Mason, actually is a horrible person and tries to harm all around her.  Her actions are a result of her disposition.  She can be related to Richard in Richard III.  Much like Richard, Bertha Mason uses her disability as an excuse for the actions she takes.  She is clearly capable of keeping her composure, as seen when Mr. Rochester and her have their first meetings.  If she was the same level of cruel then, she would not have been allowed in public.

Mr. Rochester despises Bertha because of who she is, a woman filled with loathing for any and all around her.  Bertha does not care for anyone in life, merely for revenge, much like Richard. Therefore, Mr. Rochester does not hate her because of her madness; rather the madness is a catalyst for his hatred.

Written by Julianna Truslow

September 19th, 2010 at 1:52 pm