Study Guide

Jane Eyre Foreignness and "The Other"

By Charlotte Brontë

Foreignness and "The Other"

Volume 1, Chapter 2

I was a discord in Gateshead Hall; I was like nobody there; I had nothing in harmony with Mrs. Reed or her children, or her chosen vassalage. If they did not love me, in fact, as little did I love them. They were not bound to regard with affection a thing that could not sympathize with one amongst them; a heterogeneous thing, opposed to them in temperament, in capacity, in propensities; a useless thing, incapable of serving their interest, or adding to their pleasure; a noxious thing, cherishing the germs of indignation at their treatment, of contempt of their judgment. I know that had I been a sanguine, brilliant, careless, exacting, handsome, romping child—though equally dependent and friendless—Mrs. Reed would have endured my presence more complacently; her children would have entertained for me more of the cordiality of fellow-feeling; the servants would have been less prone to make me the scape-goat of the nursery. (1.2.30)

Even at the very beginning of her life, Jane doesn’t really fit in with her surroundings; she’s an outsider from the start. What seems to set her apart her and make her different from her aunt’s family and household is her sense of injustice and her inability to let unfairness wash over her.

There also seems to be no possibility of compromise, of integrating a "heterogeneous thing" like Jane into an otherwise homogenous household. Those who are unlike in temperament, the novel implies, will always be incapable of living in harmony. It’s important, then, to find people to live with who may be different in class, bloodline, or situation, but are the same in attitude. (Hint, hint!) We also see in this passage how willing—almost eager—Jane is to characterize herself as different, as distinct.

Volume 1, Chapter 14

[W]e descended, Adèle wondering whether the petit coffre was at length come; for, owing to some mistake, its arrival had hitherto been delayed. She was gratified: there it stood, a little carton, on the table when we entered the dining-room. She appeared to know it by instinct.

"Ma boîte! ma boîte!" exclaimed she, running towards it.

"Yes, there is your ‘boîte’ at last: take it into a corner, you genuine daughter of Paris, and amuse yourself with disembowelling it," said the deep and rather sarcastic voice of Mr. Rochester, proceeding from the depths of an immense easy-chair at the fireside. "And mind," he continued, "don’t bother me with any details of the anatomical process, or any notice of the condition of the entrails: let your operation be conducted in silence: tiens-toi tranquille, enfant; comprends-tu?" (1.14.3-5)

Reading Jane Eyre, it can be easy to overlook the novel’s interest in the French while we’re thinking about Bertha Mason’s origin in the West Indies or St. John Rivers’ desire to go on a missionary trip to India. Of course, these British colonies and their foreignness are being directly contrasted with the foreigners next door—the French.

Adèle’s obsession with superficial things—fancy clothes, presents, and her appearance—is stereotyped in the novel as her inherent "Frenchness" or Parisian nature. At the very end of the novel, Jane tells us what happened to Adèle: "a sound English education corrected in a great measure her French defects." So we definitely have a sense of Jane Eyre as a novel with a nationalist bias—Englishness is considered normal and everything else needs to conform to it.

Volume 2, Chapter 3

Seated on the carpet, by the side of this basin, was seen Mr. Rochester, costumed in shawls, with a turban on his head. His dark eyes and swarthy skin and Paynim features suited the costume exactly: he looked the very model of an Eastern emir, an agent or a victim of the bowstring. Presently advanced into view Miss Ingram. She, too, was attired in oriental fashion: a crimson scarf tied sash-like round the waist: an embroidered handkerchief knotted about her temples; her beautifully-moulded arms bare, one of them upraised in the act of supporting a pitcher, poised gracefully on her head. Both her cast of form and feature, her complexion and her general air, suggested the idea of some Israelitish princess of the patriarchal days; and such was doubtless the character she intended to represent. (2.3.11)

Rochester and Blanche act out a Bible scene in their game of charades, only to make it obvious to Jane that both of them have a certain weird foreign look to them anyway that makes it easy for them to play-act a Middle Eastern scene. Making it a scene from the Bible puts it in a sort of middle ground: it’s "foreign," because it’s "Eastern," but it’s also familiar, because it’s Judaeo-Christian. It’s a case of "we have seen the Other, and it is us."

Volume 2, Chapter 10
Jane Eyre

"It seemed, sir, a woman, tall and large, with thick and dark hair hanging long down her back. I know not what dress she had on: it was white and straight; but whether gown, sheet, or shroud, I cannot tell."

"Did you see her face?"

"Not at first. But presently she took my veil from its place; she held it up, gazed at it long, and then she threw it over her own head, and turned to the mirror. At that moment I saw the reflection of the visage and features quite distinctly in the dark oblong glass."

"And how were they?"

"Fearful and ghastly to me—oh, sir, I never saw a face like it! It was a discoloured face—it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!"

"Ghosts are usually pale, Jane."

"This, sir, was purple: the lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrowed: the black eyebrows widely raised over the bloodshot eyes. Shall I tell you of what it reminded me?"

"You may."

"Of the foul German spectre—the Vampyre." (2.10.73-81)

If we subtract Jane’s ignorance and fear from this weird description, we figure out that Bertha has a dark-colored face, large lips, and black eyebrows. A little later in the novel, we learn that Bertha’s mother was Creole, which means that she had a multiracial background. So Jane is using a supernatural creature, the vampire, as a metaphor to describe a woman of color.

By depicting Bertha’s features in monstrous, supernatural terms, Jane characterizes herself as "afraid of the batlike undead" instead of "afraid of racial difference." Yeah, that’s the way to deal with your fear of the unknown: turn it into something from a horror movie. (For a reading of what’s going on with the horror-movie stuff here, see the discussion of Quote #9 in "The Supernatural" section.)

Volume 3, Chapter 1
Mr. Edward Rochester

"These were vile discoveries; but except for the treachery of concealment, I should have made them no subject of reproach to my wife, even when I found her nature wholly alien to mine, her tastes obnoxious to me, her cast of mind common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher, expanded to anything larger—when I found that I could not pass a single evening, nor even a single hour of the day with her in comfort; that kindly conversation could not be sustained between us, because whatever topic I started, immediately received from her a turn at once coarse and trite, perverse and imbecile—when I perceived that I should never have a quiet or settled household, because no servant would bear the continued outbreaks of her violent and unreasonable temper, or the vexations of her absurd, contradictory, exacting orders—even then I restrained myself: I eschewed upbraiding, I curtailed remonstrance; I tried to devour my repentance and disgust in secret; I repressed the deep antipathy I felt." (3.1.68)

At several points Rochester seems to admit, subtly, that the real reason his marriage to Bertha failed is "irreconcilable differences": they just didn’t get along. If you took this passage and substituted the word "niece" for "wife," it could easily express Mrs. Reed’s attitude toward Jane when she was a child. At Gateshead, Jane was the "heterogeneous thing," the one thing that’s not like the others; in Bertha and Rochester’s marriage, Bertha is in the same sort of othered position.

"One night I had been awakened by her yells—(since the medical men had pronounced her mad, she had, of course, been shut up)—it was a fiery West Indian night; one of the description that frequently precede the hurricanes of those climates. Being unable to sleep in bed, I got up and opened the window. The air was like sulphur-steams —I could find no refreshment anywhere. Mosquitoes came buzzing in and hummed sullenly round the room; the sea, which I could hear from thence, rumbled dull like an earthquake—black clouds were casting up over it; the moon was setting in the waves, broad and red, like a hot cannon-ball—she threw her last bloody glance over a world quivering with the ferment of tempest. I was physically influenced by the atmosphere and scene, and my ears were filled with the curses the maniac still shrieked out; wherein she momentarily mingled my name with such a tone of demon-hate, with such language!—no professed harlot ever had a fouler vocabulary than she: though two rooms off, I heard every word—the thin partitions of the West India house opposing but slight obstruction to her wolfish cries." (3.1.75)

Aww, poor Rochester. He goes to Jamaica to get in on the whole colonial-exploitation thing, marries a woman to get rich, and he doesn’t like her and she has mental problems. Now he has to deal with hot weather and mosquitoes and that pesky Bertha screaming and screaming at night because he’s imprisoned her in their house. These British colonies sure are a hellish experience... for the overlords using them to get rich quick.

"A wind fresh from Europe blew over the ocean and rushed through the open casement: the storm broke, streamed, thundered, blazed, and the air grew pure. I then framed and fixed a resolution. While I walked under the dripping orange-trees of my wet garden, and amongst its drenched pomegranates and pine-apples, and while the refulgent dawn of the tropics kindled round me—I reasoned thus, Jane—and now listen; for it was true Wisdom that consoled me in that hour, and showed me the right path to follow.

"The sweet wind from Europe was still whispering in the refreshed leaves, and the Atlantic was thundering in glorious liberty; my heart, dried up and scorched for a long time, swelled to the tone, and filled with living blood—my being longed for renewal—my soul thirsted for a pure draught. I saw hope revive—and felt regeneration possible. From a flowery arch at the bottom of my garden I gazed over the sea —bluer than the sky: the old world was beyond; clear prospects opened thus:—

"'Go,' said Hope, 'and live again in Europe: there it is not known what a sullied name you bear, nor what a filthy burden is bound to you.'" (3.1.78-80)

Have you ever felt convinced that the problem wasn’t you, it was the crumby place you lived? Rochester can’t be to blame here; it’s not like he got himself into this situation with Bertha in the West Indies. The problem must be Jamaica itself. If he goes back to Europe, everything will be good and civilized again. There’s no chance that he himself was the original problem and that wherever he goes he’ll take it with him.

Ugh. This guy.

Volume 3, Chapter 8

In leaving England, I should leave a loved but empty land—Mr. Rochester is not there; and if he were, what is, what can that ever be to me? […] Of course (as St. John once said) I must seek another interest in life to replace the one lost: is not the occupation he now offers me truly the most glorious man can adopt or God assign? Is it not, by its noble cares and sublime results, the one best calculated to fill the void left by uptorn affections and demolished hopes? I believe I must say, Yes—and yet I shudder. Alas! If I join St. John, I abandon half myself: if I go to India, I go to premature death. (3.8.114)

Jane’s conviction that going to India would kill her—and the novel’s implication that it does kill St. John later—just shows the British prejudice against it. According to this messed-up line of reasoning, a little English angel like Jane could never survive in India, which is, let’s face it, that worst possible thing: not English.

Mr. Edward Rochester

"This parlour is not his sphere," I reflected: "the Himalayan ridge or Caffre bush, even the plague-cursed Guinea Coast swamp would suit him better. Well may he eschew the calm of domestic life; it is not his element: there his faculties stagnate—they cannot develop or appear to advantage. It is in scenes of strife and danger—where courage is proved, and energy exercised, and fortitude tasked—that he will speak and move, the leader and superior. A merry child would have the advantage of him on this hearth. He is right to choose a missionary’s career—I see it now." (3.8.31)

Rochester used a British colonial outpost (Jamaica) as a get-rich-quick scheme. St. John, on the other hand, is planning to use a British colonial outpost (India) as a sort of adventure playground. Ah, the many different kinds of exploitation!

Mr. Edward Rochester

He chuckled; he rubbed his hands. "Oh, it is rich to see and hear her?" he exclaimed. "Is she original? Is she piquant? I would not exchange this one little English girl for the Grand Turk’s whole seraglio, gazelle-eyes, houri forms, and all!"

The Eastern allusion bit me again. "I’ll not stand you an inch in the stead of a seraglio," I said; "so don’t consider me an equivalent for one. If you have a fancy for anything in that line, away with you, sir, to the bazaars of Stamboul without delay, and lay out in extensive slave-purchases some of that spare cash you seem at a loss to spend satisfactorily here."

"And what will you do, Janet, while I am bargaining for so many tons of flesh and such an assortment of black eyes?"

"I’ll be preparing myself to go out as a missionary to preach liberty to them that are enslaved—your harem inmates amongst the rest. I’ll get admitted there, and I’ll stir up mutiny; and you, three-tailed bashaw as you are, sir, shall in a trice find yourself fettered amongst our hands: nor will I, for one, consent to cut your bonds till you have signed a charter, the most liberal that despot ever yet conferred." (2.9.129-132)

It’s lucky that Rochester thinks Jane is just as good as a whole seraglio (like a harem), because apparently he’s a "serial monogamist"; we know he’s had at least four sexual partners—Bertha, Céline, Giacinta, and Clara—and probably others, too, and that he was aiming at bigamy this time.

So, even though he relies on oriental stereotypes to talk about his own horniness, Rochester the English gentleman is the real consumer of "tons of flesh." Notice Jane’s suggestion that she could be an insurrectionary missionary—maybe there’s some foreshadowing there? Eh? Eh?