Jane Eyre, power shift and the other mad woman

The mood for period drama struck some time last week and I satisfied it by watching the 1983 BBC miniseries version of Jane Eyre starring Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke. Independence is a pivotal theme in Jane Eyre and each reading/watching leads to thoughts on this. Bronte’s concern with this is clear right from the beginning but comes into sharp focus when Jane leaves Thornfield Hall after her marriage to Rochester is abruptly called off. She has to leave him because staying would be contrary to her code of ethics. She sets off into the world with only a few coins and no job. One can only imagine how bereft and alone she must feel at this point.

Then, in Murphyesque style, she loses her belongings on the coach and is rendered penniless and destitute. She sleeps in the open, hunts for a job in vain and is finally reduced to wandering the streets and begging for food and shelter. This sequence underlines Jane’s almost manic refusal to let go of her independence, her refusal to depend on the man she loves and signifies the strong (for those times) gender statement that Bronte was making.

But interdependence is a natural state of humankind. When in dire circumstances such as destitution and illness, it is natural to turn to somebody one considers close. The will Jane exercises in not turning to Rochester, who she knows would do everything to help her, is quite phenomenal — and in my view, somewhat unnecessary in real life. But of course, it’s not real life. It’s a novel and Bronte is using it to further the narrative, and more importantly, as a device for character growth.

It is necessary to the novel that Jane is finally forced to depend, ironically, on strangers for her very survival. Some twists and turns and much soul-searching later when she finally returns to Rochester, it is with an altered viewpoint, a somewhat more mellow approach to independence. And in a cruelly mischievous flip of the coin, Bronte switches the power balance. Jane finds that not only is she Rochester’s equal (which makes her feel better about the relationship) but his better. Having unexpectedly inherited money, she is rich while he has lost his house in a fire. She is healthy and he is blind and crippled.

Although Rochester regains sight in one eye a few years later, he never fully recovers and this makes him a very interesting study in ‘taming’ a man. For Rochester is a lot like the male version of Shakespeare’s ‘sweet Kate’, isn’t he? In the early part of their relationship, he is moody and haughty, even cruel or sadistic in bits, certainly willful. By the end, he is a broken man forced to depend on Jane for even the basics, symbolically castrated as this article talks about.

Mr. Rochester continued blind the first two years of our union; perhaps it was that circumstance that drew us so very near–that knit us so very close: for I was then his vision, as I am still his right hand. Literally, I was (what he often called me) the apple of his eye. He saw nature–he saw books through me; and never did I weary of gazing for his behalf, and of putting into words the effect of field, tree, town, river, cloud, sunbeam–of the landscape before us; of the weather round us–and impressing by sound on his ear what light could no longer stamp on his eye.

The Byronic hero’s serrated edges have been smoothed and softened by this dependence. He has dropped his mind games and is meek as a lamb. Almost as consolation, Jane has also changed. She has grown to realise that interdependence is not such a bad thing and she expresses this in the last chapter when she talks about her marriage to Rochester.

I have now been married ten years. I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest–blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully is he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

But I can’t help wondering how she would have handled it if the circumstances had been different. If she had arrived in Thornfield to find the mansion intact and him entertaining people in his parlour, a beautiful woman at the piano, a retinue of servants. This is how he lived before she left, after all, and none of this served to diminish his need for her. But his need for her (emotional) was not enough then. Does it help her to discover a more stark and palpable need (physical, practical), something that will affect the two of them every minute of every day? And what does this say about her as a woman? That she needs to feel needed? Merely being loved is not enough. That she can overcome the tremendous insecurities of being a poor orphan girl only when the person she loves also has wounds that are demonstrably as grave?

Why did Bronte find it necessary to add physical torment to Rochester’s already burdened soul? Except that it would establish Jane as the powerful one in the relationship more firmly. And this then is the foundation for lasting happiness? Bronte seems to leave no room for doubt because Jane writes a retrospective of ten years of their marriage in the last chapter–and by her account, all is glorious. I wonder what Rochester would have said.

The power balance in relationships is a delicate thing, constantly kept in line by both partners dancing around each other, playing the same games, fitting into accepted scripts. The overlapping spaces between need and control, dependence and demand are many and shifting. In this context, Jane Eyre is extremely interesting and lends itself to endless discussion and speculation. No wonder it has spawned such marvelous offshoots as Wide Sargasso Sea. It would be fun to read one that explores Jane’s darker side — the other mad woman in the book.


Filed under Books, Film

8 responses to “Jane Eyre, power shift and the other mad woman

  1. A fantastic deconstruction! I believe there was a version of the story that Bertha Mason writes… would you know if this is true? Everyone just wrote her off as The Mad Wife, but I’m sure she had a story to tell as well.

  2. OJ: Wide Sargasso Sea is the version written from Bertha’s point of view. It’s by Jean Rhys.

  3. @Anu: Ah okay. Must read.

  4. Screen Sifar: Thank you.

  5. 101dreams

    Anindita…. Thanks for this piece… It’s a very interesting perspective and one that I’d never considered.

    Also, I’ve added you to my blogroll so that I can keep track of your writing whenever I visit my blog. I hope that’s alright.


  6. And now that I am on study leave, I feel like reading Wide Sargasso Sea. 🙂

    Wouldn’t you know, the exams are on Augustan literature and Metaphysical poetry? 😉

  7. Honestly, I like and definitely trust your article in here. I’m hoping more author will have a similar thinking like you.

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