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Hailed as a feminist novel, Jane Eyre represents the Victorian female struggle for independence and autonomy. A bildungsroman, Bronte skilfully brings to light the oppression and inequality facing women in the 19th century, inspiring feminists and writers alike including the Creole writer Jean Rhys; author of Wide Sargasso Sea published in 1966. Following her fascination with Charlotte Bronte’s critically acclaimed novel, Rhys sought to uncover the shrouded mystery surrounding the ‘mad woman’ Bertha Mason who in Wide Sargasso Sea is known as Antoinette Cosway Mason. Through a feminist and Marxist critical analysis, the extent of the exploitation and marginalisation of women is thoroughly unravelled.
Significantly, both novels are autobiographical, incorporating many elements of the authors’ lives. Feminism in Bronte’s time was just beginning to take root although it was not yet fully established. Bronte consequently had to use the male pseudonym ‘Currer Bell’ in order to have her novel published as female authors were not taken seriously enough due to the patriarchal ‘norms and values’ of the nineteenth century. Once published, Victorian male critics deemed the novel ‘anti-Christian’ and ‘rebellious’ against Victorian ideals of ‘femininity’ and ‘domesticity’ which highlights the sexism of the 19th century. Through a feminist critical reading, the misogyny of men is prominent throughout much of Jane’s life. From her tyrannical cousin John Reed to the ‘hypocritical’ and cruel Brocklehurst, Jane is constantly reminded of her ‘orphan’ and ‘female’ status in society; with the disheartening knowledge that the only means of escape is through ‘flight’ or ‘starvation’. This is reflected in Victorian society in which women had no equal rights and subsequently, no ways to escape oppression. In both novels, Rochester exercises his dominant male power and authority over the protagonists. This is clear in the way he changes Antoinette’s name to ‘Bertha’, essentially erasing her ‘identity’ and autonomy. Furthermore, despite proclaiming to Jane that she is his ‘equal’ and his ‘likeness’, he wants to adorn her with a ‘diamond chain’ around her ‘neck’ and ‘bracelets’ on her ‘fine wrists’ which is a symbol of ownership. The expensive wedding ‘veil’ is another representation of the ‘unequal’ status between Jane and Rochester which Bertha Mason ‘rips apart’ into two and “trampled on them” exemplifying Jane’s inner struggle between her ‘love’ for Rochester and her Christian morals. Jane is also unwilling to be imprisoned in a lifetime of domestic servitude as merely a ‘mistress’. Upon securing Jane’s hand in the promise of ‘marriage’, Rochester attempts to assume the all-encompassing role of a ‘misogynistic’ Victorian husband seeking to gain full ownership of his wife.
The ‘Madwoman’ Bertha Mason is a pivotal character in both novels acting as the central confrontation in Bronte’s novel. In Jane Eyre, she is presented as the antagonist and is seen as an obstacle to Jane’s happiness, but little else is known about her. She represents the gothic element of the novel as she aimlessly drifts through the ‘gloomy’ halls of Thornfield in the dead of night, setting fire to Rochester’s bed. Bronte cleverly uses gothic language to create a ‘female voice’ and in turn provides female representation in an otherwise male-dominated style of writing. One of the ways she does this is by giving Jane a ‘gothic imagination’ when she reads ‘Bewick’s History of British Birds’ containing images of ‘the cold and ghastly moon’ and the ‘black horned thing’ which provokes terror in young Jane. There is also a gothic element in Jane’s ‘unjust’ and traumatising experience in ‘the red room’ which symbolises the jane’s deep-set anger and frustrations as well as the restrictions and entrapment of Victorian women in the confines of the male-dominated space. With the use of the motif’s fire and ice, Bronte subtly expresses the turbulent emotions of Jane which go beyond what is considered acceptable in traditional Victorian society. In many ways, Bertha Mason is a juxtaposed character to Jane Eyre reflecting Jane’s innermost desires and passions that she must keep ‘locked up’ in order to conform to society’s expectations. Gilbert and Gubar describe Bertha as Jane’s ‘truest and darkest double’ which is evident in Bronte’s symbolism of mirrors leading up to Jane’s wedding. When Jane looks at herself in the mirror, she sees ‘a robed and veiled figure’ that ‘seemed almost the image of a stranger’. Jane struggles to operate within conventional social limits and knows that transgressing social norms leads to imprisonment. Therefore, Bronte is demonstrating how women in the patriarchal Victorian society cannot freely express themselves without being labelled as ‘crazy’. In contrast, Bertha chooses to no longer be ‘confined’ in ‘the attic’ so she chooses the only possible route of escape which is ‘death’.
The power imbalance in the novel is strongly evident in the relationships the protagonists have with Rochester. Through a Marxist critical reading, the class struggle is found rife in Victorian society as well as in the Caribbean. Jane represents the ‘proletariat or ‘working class’ and is conscious of the class difference between herself and Rochester stating, ‘I like to serve you, sir, and to obey you in all that is right”. This demonstrates Jane’s awareness of the barrier between a ‘governess’ like herself and Rochester who belongs to the affluent class, the ‘bourgeoisie’. In addition, Mrs Fairfax, aware of Rochester’s bigamous intentions, seeks to dissuade Jane by highlighting the class differences of the two, stating “equality of position and fortune Is advisable in these cases”. The idea of a wealthy man intending to betroth a governess was almost unheard of at the time and it represents the strict segregation of social class in the 19th century.
Wide Sargasso Sea is set after the abolition of slavery which created heightened tension amongst Ex-slave owners and former slaves. The Cosway family, who were former slave owners, are left with little money and surrounded by rising animosity against them because of their white-creole descent; often being referred to as ‘white niggers’ by the English and ‘white cockroaches’ by the black inhabitants. Antoinette’s family, upon regaining wealth through Annette’s marriage to Mr Mason, find themselves once again amid hostility. The antagonism between the two groups represents the Marxist theory of ‘class conflict’ between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie which Karl Marx believed will eventually occur in a capitalist society. This ‘class-conflict’ occurs during the burning down of the Cosway estate in Coulibri by their indignant black neighbours symbolising a ‘proletariat uprising’.
Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea illuminate the narratives of unconventional women in their thirst for ‘equality’ and independence. Jane brings to light her disagreement for traditional gender roles and held the feminist belief that traditional Victorian ‘women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their’. In turn, the ‘victimized’ Antoinette ‘Bertha’ mason escapes her inhumane confinement in the ‘attic’ through death and subsequently escapes from the chains of patriarchal oppression.