David Bolt, Julia Miele Rodas, Elizabeth J. Donaldson, eds. The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012. 208 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8142-1196-0.
Reviewed by Emmeline Burdett (University College London)
Published on H-Disability (December, 2014)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
This book is a very welcome addition to the canon of Brontë studies, and will also be of great interest to anyone in literary studies more generally. Its eight chapters offer illuminating, if sometimes contradictory, insights into how “disability” in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847) may be understood without resorting to the tired clichés of “disability as metaphor” that abound in traditional literary criticism. As the disability studies scholar Lennard J. Davis writes in his foreword to the book, after reading it one wonders how it has actually been possible to absorb Jane Eyre without giving serious consideration to disability. After all, there have been numerous other readings of the text—feminist, colonialist, and Freudian, to name but a few. In these readings of the novel, as well as in more traditional literary criticism, impairment tends to be seen either as a metaphor or as a personal misfortune of no wider significance, with the result that it is not really seen at all. This has also been the predominant approach taken by those who have adapted the novel for film, stage, or screen.
Chapter 1 is Elizabeth J. Donaldson’s “The Corpus of the Madwoman: Towards a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Embodiment and Mental Illness.” Donaldson argues that the romanticization of “madness” by feminist writers and critics is unhelpful, as it turns mental illness into a metaphor just as surely as regarding amputation as a metaphor for, say, castration results in a situation where the reality of an impairment is ignored, and consequently goes uninterrogated. Donaldson begins by noting the level of importance with which the pseudo-sciences of phrenology and physiognomy are treated in the novel. Both were highly popular in the mid-nineteenth century and Brontë herself expressed significant interest in them. The basic premise of these two allied beliefs is that inward character can be “read” by observing the outer features of the head (phrenology) and the face (physiognomy) and relating them to guides found in manuals on the subject. Their relevance to Bertha Mason’s madness is, as Donaldson writes, that “physiognomy was used to discern madness and idiocy, two mental states that were often discussed in tandem” (p. 20). Donaldson points out that though modern neuroscience is in many ways very far removed from nineteenth-century phrenology, in fact both rely on “mapping” the brain. This is important for the feminist theory of disability that Donaldson wants to advance, as theorizing within women’s studies has tended to focus on understanding Bertha’s insanity as a response to the social circumstances in which she finds herself. In this form of theorizing, Bertha’s insanity is almost metaphorical, as it is solely a manifestation of her unhappy situation. Donaldson writes that this is insufficient and unhelpful, as “the physical barriers that exist for wheelchair-users are quite different from mental competency requirements that restrict the right to vote or to refuse medication. The barriers confronting people with severe mental illness and cognitive disabilities are more complicated because they involve the concept of the self that is the very foundation of our political system” (p. 29). In essence, Donaldson’s argument is that to continue to argue that Bertha’s insanity does not exist as a real entity is to do a disservice to the character, the novel, and the social situation in which Bertha, or her real equivalent, would have been situated. Donaldson’s approach will do much to improve understanding of both Bertha, and of the society she would have inhabited.
The second chapter, by David Bolt, focuses on ocularcentrism in Jane Eyre. Bolt approaches many of the questions he raises by discussing them in relation both to Brontë’s portrayal of the blinded Mr. Rochester and to Rudyard Kipling’s portrayal of Dick Heldar, the blind character in his novel The Light That Failed (1891). This decision was taken because critics and literary scholars have generally been of the opinion that the two novels are ideologically opposed. Jane Eyre is often seen as a proto-feminist novel, while The Light That Failed promotes a very active and masculine ideal. Nevertheless, argues Bolt, both novels are underpinned by questionable attitudes toward visual impairment. These attitudes manifest themselves in various ways. For example, Heldar and Rochester are described as “groping” in order to find their way around. As Bolt points out, this term has connotations of lecherousness. Taking literary scholar Terry Eagleton’s remark that, in Brontë’s novels, “‘almost all relationships are power struggles,’” Bolt argues that the word “groping” “perpetuates the idea of a blind Other who is out to impregnate the sighted Self” (p. 37). Similarly, in both novels, the blindness of Heldar and Rochester has been read as a form of castration—a loss of traditional male power. Bolt quotes Georgina Kleege’s assertion that “‘Rochester’s blindness allows Jane to rise in power’” (p. 41). This emasculation also has practical consequences: Rochester and Heldar are described as being helpless, while the possibility of their being seen as legitimate husbands and lovers is similarly canceled out. The problem with this is that Jane Eyre marries Rochester when he is blind, in (one presumes) full knowledge that his sight may not return. In addition, Rochester can (and does) tell Jane that he wants a wife, as opposed to a housekeeper or nurse. This renders Bolt’s description of Rochester’s post-blindness “loss of the capacity for love” problematic (p. 46). Finally, Bolt makes an important point about the ocularcentric assumption that melancholia is the natural response to blindness, from which a blind character can only be rescued by the intervention of a sighted savior. As Bolt writes, “the blindness-darkness synonymy is ... ocularcentric, it takes the visual perspective as a measure by which all others are judged, for it can only be from the subject position of people with vision that darkness looks like blindness” (p. 48). Bolt ends his chapter with a clarion call for scholars and readers of Jane Eyre to recognize this ocularcentrism, and to join him in treating the novel’s depiction of visual impairment as the legitimate area of study it undoubtedly is. After all, the trope of the blindman is premised on the notion that the experience of only part of the human population needs to be taken into account and the outcome imposed on the whole. Like Kipling, Brontë portrays someone who has a visual impairment, but takes into account only the experiences of people who do not have visual impairments. The result is a diminished character who augments the status of the sighted protagonist. This, I feel, opens the door to much fascinating and valuable future inquiry. For example, Brontë herself had a visual impairment (she was extremely short-sighted) and yet she seems to have written about Rochester’s blindness from the perspective of a fully sighted person, despite not being one. This is perhaps commensurate with her habit, in her early fiction, of writing in the first person as a male protagonist. The topic needs further investigation.
In the following chapter, “On the Spectrum: Reading Contact and Affect in Jane Eyre,” Julia Miele Rodas develops her theory that Jane is on the autistic spectrum. Rodas takes as her starting point Elizabeth Rigby’s notorious review of Jane Eyre, which was published in the Quarterly Review in 1848. Rodas notes Rigby’s mention of Jane’s idiosyncratic nature, and her description of it as “‘principles that you must approve in the main, and yet with language and manners that offend you in every particular’” (p. 51). Rodas then states that, ever since the publication of Rigby’s review, readers and critics have remarked on “the idiosyncratic nature of Jane’s feelings and reactions, on her unconventional approach to relationships, and on the singularly remote, withdrawn or unattractive quality of her social intercourse.” Jane’s “idiosyncratic nature” then becomes the basis for Rodas’s claim that Jane is “an individual on the autistic spectrum” (p. 52). Rodas cites various episodes from Jane’s early life at Gateshead in which both she and other members of the Reed household express the feeling that Jane is “odd”—she is akin to nobody in the house, and hence feels that she does not belong there. This argument is particularly striking when Rodas makes it in relation to Jane’s aunt, Mrs. Reed. Rodas quotes Reed’s comment that she “‘hated it [Jane as a baby] the first time I set my eyes on it—a sickly, whining, pining thing,’” and argues that “Mrs Reed’s reaction to the baby is uncharitable, certainly, but ... it is clearly something in the baby’s very being which irks her, some real but insubstantial irritation” (p. 54). This presupposes both that Reed’s attitude to Jane was entirely rational (when in fact it was based on her reluctant promise to her husband on his deathbed that she would give sanctuary to his orphaned infant niece) and also that the Reeds and their servants took a neutral attitude to Jane until such time as she alienated them by her oddness. (By contrast, the novel paints a picture of a household in which, as far as the Reeds and their servants were concerned, the only facet of Jane’s identity was that she had been taken in by Mrs. Reed, something of which she had to be regularly reminded. This is not likely to foster a sense of belonging.) Thus Rodas’s argument is a disturbing one; she pathologizes Jane while asserting that nothing in her circumstances could possibly have contributed negatively to the development of her character. Having had formative experiences that were entirely negative, Jane was at best improperly socialized, being deprived of the society of her peers and of congenial people who accepted her for who she was. Rodas generously discussed this chapter with me at Liverpool Hope University, and among other things, she pointed out that the Brontës had an extremely unconventional and isolated upbringing, which was not good training for successful socialization. It is therefore unsurprising that any lack of comprehension of other people would have filtered into their lives and consequently, into their literature. I do accept this argument, and I appreciate that it opens up an important line of inquiry. Nevertheless, I feel that Jane’s situation is not covered by this, as she is a character subjected to prolonged emotional abuse. It is likely that Rodas’s approach may be motivated partly by a desire to rescue autism studies from the idea, propagated by such texts as child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self (1967), that autism is caused by parental neglect and, specifically, maternal frigidity. It is understandable that Rodas may have felt that, by pointing to Jane’s circumstances, she would be ploughing a too Bettelheimian furrow, but her explanation of Jane’s behavior remains deeply problematic. I do suggest that it would have been preferable to have made Jane’s independence of mind the main focus of the chapter. In other words, it is striking that Jane’s treatment at the hands of the Reeds and their servants did not have the effect of making Jane endorse their view of her. Particularly in a child, this requires an unusual degree of self-belief. I further argue that, had Rodas pursued this line of inquiry, the result might have been a chapter in which her argument, that autism is a legitimate facet of human experience and not a tragic personal deficit, was greatly bolstered.
Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 differ somewhat from the proceeding chapters in that they take themes and apply them to the whole novel rather than focusing on one particular character. The themes in question are those of male embodiment (chapter 4); discourses and portrayals of “caring” within the novel (chapter 5); biblical models of disability in Jane Eyre (chapter 6); and illness, disability, and recognition (chapter 7).
In chapter 4, Margaret Rose Torrell argues that “when the boundaries of woman’s identity are redrawn in the novel, the borders of manhood, the other side of the binary, are also adjusted” (p. 72). While Torrell makes valid points about both masculinity and femininity being social constructs, I question their relevance to the theme of the book, particularly as she argues that in showing Jane caring for the disabled Rochester, Jane Eyre subverts traditional masculine and feminine roles. This may be so, but the claim sits uncomfortably with the other chapters, which, in their various ways, demonstrate the need to look at disability on its own terms, not as something that is merely metaphorical or emblematic.
In chapter 5, D. Christopher Gabbard explores the roles that “care” plays in Jane Eyre. He argues that “Bertha is merely the text’s first disabled character ... [and] one begins to understand that the text presents two phases of caregiving—the first featuring Rochester and Bertha, the second Jane and Rochester” (p. 92). Those receiving “care” are not passive in this chapter; Gabbard contends that Jane actually learns from Bertha, and that this process takes place in the attic of Thornfield Hall. The attic is termed a “contact zone,” where Jane observes Rochester’s grudging “care” for Bertha—an understanding that is deepened after Jane’s own experiences of loving care at Moor House.
Chapter 6 is Essaka Joshua’s discussion of biblical influences on Jane Eyre. A reader unacquainted with the Bible might think that there is little to say here, beyond remembering Jane’s report that on seeing his son for the first time, following the partial restoration of his sight, Rochester had “acknowledged that God had tempered judgment with mercy.” This clear equation between impairment and sin is not inspiring if one wants to embark on a disability studies reading of the novel’s biblical references. Nevertheless, Joshua makes extensive use of John 9 to argue that blindness, although sent by God, is not intended to be punitive, but rather a means whereby Rochester attains spiritual insight and is brought up to a level where he is spiritually equal with Jane.
Chapter 7, by Susanna B. Mintz, concerns “illness, disability and recognition” in Jane Eyre. Mintz asserts that the novel is revolutionary in the ways in which it forswears using characters’ physical appearances as a metaphor for their moral worth. The most notable example of this is when the hypocritical Mr. Brocklehurst shows Jane to the other Lowood inmates, saying, “‘No signal deformity points her [Jane] out as a marked character. Who would have thought that the Evil One had already found a servant and agent in her?’” (p. 134). Mintz writes that “with subtle irony, Brontë has one of her more detestable characters articulate a central principle of the novel: that the signs of the body bear no stable relation to personal character” (p. 135). Interestingly, however, beyond one description of him “verging on the grotesque” (p. 78), Mintz does not extend her analysis as far as the question of Jane’s cousin John Reed’s obesity. This is, I think, the example that does not fit Mintz’s theory, but a discussion of it would have been illuminating, particularly given that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, a fact of which Brontë would presumably have been well aware.
In chapter 8, Martha Stoddard Holmes explores how dramatizations of Jane Eyre have portrayed Rochester’s impairments—his blindness and mutilation after the fire at Thornfield Hall. This chapter brings the book full circle, both referring to previous chapters and demonstrating vividly how the insights gained from the various chapters could be used to enrich future adaptations of the novel. Among the many interesting points she makes is that, while filmmakers show Rochester’s blindness, it is rare to see him as a blind amputee, as he is in the novel. The chapter shows beyond doubt that filmmakers are hamstrung by the same preconceived ideas about impairment as other people in society. It also casts doubt on any idea that attitudes invariably become more enlightened over time—Holmes makes the point that, while in 1847 Brontë could easily imagine that a blind amputee could be a sexual being, the same cannot often be said for twentieth- and twenty-first-century filmmakers and viewers. Part of me would have liked an additional chapter discussing the portrayal in film and television of Bertha, but, armed with the many insights gained from this book, readers will be in an excellent position to consider this for themselves, as well as eager to return to the novel to consider it anew.
. Terry Eagleton, “Jane Eyre’s Power Struggles,” in Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontes (London: Macmillan, 1998), 30.
. Georgina Kleege, Sight Unseen (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 71.
. I am using the Everyman edition of Jane Eyre (London: Penguin, 1994). The novel shows that during the Gateshead section (thirty-four pages), Jane is specifically informed that her position in the household is insecure and inferior no less than six times—by her cousin, John Reed; by Bessie, the nurse; by Abbot, the lady’s maid; and by the visiting Mr. Brocklehurst. She tells the reader, “These words ... were not new to me: my very first recollections of existence included hints of the same kind” (p. 7). Page 8 contains the information about Mrs. Reed’s promise to her husband on his deathbed.
. Ibid., 456.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-disability.
Emmeline Burdett. Review of Bolt, David; Rodas, Julia Miele; Donaldson, Elizabeth J., eds., The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability.
H-Disability, H-Net Reviews.
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