F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

Charlotte Brontë - "Jane Eyre" - 1847

The poetics of Gothic horror at play in Jane Eyre function through the text’s portrayal of Bertha Rochester as a symbol of metropolitan anxiety surrounding putative Creole impurity and thus of Jamaica as a symbolic space of corruption and libidinous savagery.  Bertha haunts Thornfield as a spectral figure whose “curious laugh […] passed off in a clamorous peal that seemed to echo in every lonely chamber” (Brontë 102), though it takes on “a demoniac” (Brontë 144) quality when presaging her escapes and acts of violence.  Indeed, when at last Jane, Brontë’s governess protagonist, confronts Bertha directly, Bertha appears as a “clothed hyena” who “stood tall on its hind feet” (Brontë 290).  Jane “could not, at first sight, tell […] [w]hat it was, whether beast or human being” (Brontë 290), and Gayatri Spivak suggests that through “Bertha Mason, the white Jamaican Creole, Brontë renders the human/animal frontier as acceptably indeterminate […] through the axiomatics of imperialism” (247), thereby “weaken[ing] her entitlement under the spirit if not the letter of the law” (249).

The anxiety surrounding Bertha’s indeterminacy resonates with Rex Nettleford’s concept of negrification, which “implies a metropolitan European perspective of the African essence in the New World and more generally of the creole culture” (184) whereby the Africanness of the Caribbean taints the Europeanness of the Creole colonizer, as when Jane recounts Bertha as with “a discoloured face – it was a savage face” (Brontë 280).  Indeed, in his 1774 History of Jamaica, Edward Long describes “negroes” in a manner that resonates with Brontë’s portrayal of Bertha, such as his description of “negroes” as having “a covering of wool, like the bestial fleece, instead of hair” (352) and Jane’s description of Bertha as having “a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane” (290).  Furthermore, in Rochester’s description of his wife – even before her ostensible descent into madness – he describes “her nature [as] wholly alien to [his]” and “her cast of mind common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher” (Brontë 303) just as Long describes negroes’ “faculties of mind” as “void of genius” and “almost incapable of making any progress in civility” as they ultimately “remain in the same rude situation in which they were found two thousand years ago” (353).  Rochester also ascribes to Bertha “vices [that] sprang up fast and rank” (Brontë 304), mirroring Long’s assertion that negroes “have no moral sensation, no taste but for women, gormandizing and drinking to excess” (353). In this anxiety surrounding white Creole negrification in the British cultural imagination, though that negrification plays out on the body of the white Creole woman Bertha, its symbolic source as contagion is the black slave population of Jamaica.

The aesthetics of European Gothic horror at play in Jane Eyre resonate with Ann Radcliffe’s contemporaneous theorization of terror and horror as genres.  For Radcliffe, terror arises through “uncertainty and obscurity” that “leaves something for the imagination to exaggerate […] to nourish its fears and doubts” (6).  Indeed, “not knowing is the primary source of Gothic terror” (DeLamotte 24), and as such, Bertha’s initial spectral presence/absence infuses the text with an atmosphere of terror.  Once Jane confronts Bertha directly, however, Bertha becomes a figure of Gothic horror as her now unambiguous presence “nearly annihilates […] the faculties” (Radcliffe 5) in that it dismantles the place Jane feels she comes to occupy in Thornfield and with Rochester.  Thus, for Jane, Bertha’s “evil Other cannot be fully acknowledged […] as the self behind the self concealed, simply because it is not the self at all:  it is the Other” (DeLamotte 163), and “[t]he psychic, moral, spiritual, and intellectual energies expended in the engagement with the [Other as] forces of violence are generated by an anxiety about boundaries” (DeLamotte 19) that are colonial.  The poetics of Gothic horror in the narrative tradition function through the colonial anxiety of negrification that frames Bertha as a white Creole Miranda who occupies a demonic role that interrupts Jane’s understanding of Thornfield and prompts her to flee following her confrontation with Bertha.

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1962.
DeLamotte, Eugenia C. Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic. Oxford
     UP, 1990.
Long, Edward. The History of Jamaica, or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of That
     Island: with Reflections on Its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products,
     Commerce, Laws, and Government
. Vol. 2. T. Lowndes, 1774.
Radcliffe, Ann. “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, vol.
     16, no. 1, 1826, pp. 145-52.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Critical
, vol. 12, no. 1, 1985, pp. 243-61.

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