Orientalism in Jane Eyre

by , 2004

According to Edward Said, "the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience." (1-2). The European has become recognized simply as someone who is not 'oriental.' Throughout the novel Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë maintains typical anglocentric assumptions about the 'other.' The orient is involved in the novel two ways: non-oriental people and ideas are occasionally given oriental traits, and oriental people are described in a stereotypical fashion. Jane Eyre, the occidental Englishwoman, along with Mr. Rochester and Blanche Ingram are, in certain instances given oriental traits. By doing so, Brontë is not transforming these occidental characters into oriental ones, but is instead giving them a sense of otherness either in general or at that particular moment in time. Bertha Mason is an obvious example of the sexually passionate, uncivilized exotic woman. Brontë goes even further by separating out the English from the rest of Europeans. Adèle and her mother are looked down upon because of their French heritage. Finally, Brontë describes an oriental location, India, as a harsh, distant land.

Brontë's first mention of the orient comes early in the first chapter and serves to identify Jane as an outsider. Jane says, "I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk" (20). By identifying her with a Turk, an oriental, Brontë quickly connotes Jane's status as an outsider. By sitting like a Turk, Jane is sitting like a non-European, like someone who does not belong. Her status in the Reed family as an outsider mimics the oriental's status in society as an outsider. Later in the novel, after Jane finds her place in society, Brontë does not continue to identify Jane with the Turks. The comparison is only made to stress her outsider status within the Reed family.

Blanche Ingram is given oriental features in order to distinguish her beauty as different from all the other girls'. When Jane begins painting a portrait of Blanche, she reminds herself to "remember the raven ringlets, the oriental eye" (164). Blanche's oriental eyes give her a sense of attractive exoticism, but do not make her all together oriental. She still has a face the color of "smooth ivory," (164) a "Grecian neck and bust," (165) and a name which represents the color white. Blanche clearly remains an occidental character, only with slight oriental traits. Her exotic nature was again highlighted when the group was playing charades and she "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" (186). This description works in two ways: first, as a literal depiction of what she was wearing for the game and, second, as an identifier that Blanches was going to be separated from the others in this group somehow. By dressing her as an oriental, Brontë is able to show Blanche as somewhat of an outsider to the group.

Similarly, Mr. Rochester is dressed in oriental fashion while playing charades and is given oriental eyes that set him apart from the group of Europeans as somewhat exotic. Mr. Rochester, when playing charades, was "costumed in shawls, with a turban on his head" (186). Just like the description of Blanche Ingram, this one is used to both literally depict what he was wearing and to separate him symbolically from the group. In addition, he is given oriental traits: "His dark eyes and swarth skin and Paynim features suited the costume exactly" (186). Not only is he dressed like a Muslim, but his own characteristics look pagan as well. And, earlier, when Jane was painting the portrait of Blanche, she must stop herself from reverting to Mr. Rochester's oriental eyes as a model (164). The similar oriental depictions of Mr. Rochester and Blanche take them out of the group and associate them with each other. It is a technique that Brontë uses to suggest to us that they are somehow connected.

Brontë depicts non-English characters in a very traditional negative orientalist light. An obvious example is the way in which Bertha is described. Mr. Rochester says of her: "Bertha Mason is mad; and she came of a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a mad woman and a drunkard!" (288). The Creole family is the mad family. The animal-like woman who is locked up in the attic comes from an exotic, crazy family and not a wholesome English one. There are no other West Indian families described to act as a counterargument to the suggestion that being Creole is equivalent to being crazy. Brontë closely relates the two characteristics to each other in the novel. In addition to her insanity, Bertha is given an oversized sexual appetite. Mr. Rochester again describes her poor characteristics: "What a pigmy intellect she had -- and what giant propensities!" (302). Bertha, the oriental woman, is unintelligent and has uncontrollable desires. We learn what those desires are later in Mr. Rochester's description when he says that she was "a wife at once intemperate and unchaste" (302). Unlike the good, solid, dependable English woman, Bertha was a drunk and was sexually promiscuous. There are no other female oriental characters in the novel to counteract the negative opinion that we are given of Bertha. The stereotypes of oriental woman being inferior to English women are certainly sustained throughout Jane Eyre.

Even French characters were looked down upon by Brontë in her anglocentric work. Little Adèle and her mother, Céline Varens, were both described as intellectually inferior to the English women. Céline, like Bertha, was given the characteristic of hypersexuality. While acting as Mr. Rochester's mistress and receiving his gifts, her heightened sexual appetite causes her to have an affair with an army officer in the very apartment which Mr. Rochester was paying for. After he discovered what she had done, he said that she "was not worth contending for: she deserved only scorn" (149). The inability of non-English women to control their sexual urges is called scornful by Mr. Rochester, and by Brontë through his voice. Adèle, although too young to be overindulgent in sex, is portrayed as less than intelligent. Jane says of her, "She had no great talents, no marked traits of character, no peculiar development of feeling or taste which raised her one inch above the ordinary level of childhood" (115). In this seemingly unbiased interpretation of Adèle's talents, Jane says that she is in no way remarkable. In contrast, some of the poor English peasant girls that Jane would later teach would be spoken of more highly. Adèle is also portrayed as being very materialistic. She is overeager to receive her present from Mr. Rochester when he returns home (124). The depictions of Adèle and her mother, when put together become remarkably like that of Bertha, though not as extreme. These non-English women are described as being overly sexual and unintelligent. Brontë's view of the world is very anglocentric.

The final description that we get of the orient comes as a result of St. John Rivers' plan to go to India as a missionary. Brontë makes India seem like an incredibly faraway and dangerous place and never once questions the right that an English missionary would have to go there evangelizing. Jane says that, "if I go to India, I go to premature death" (395). India is seen as such a different world that Jane does not even think that she would be able to survive there. She questions whether or not she should go on the mission trip not based on whether forcing Christianity on others was justified or not, but instead on her relationship with St. John Rivers. The happy ending of the novel comes in the form of Jane choosing to stay in the safe, secure, civilized England and not jeopardizing herself by traveling to the harsh orient.

Certainly, Jane Eyre was not written as a discourse on imperial policy or foreign relations. However, throughout the novel Charlotte Brontë did, perhaps unconsciously, sustain anglocentric beliefs about the orient. She uses oriental traits to signify otherness, even in occidental characters. None of her non-English characters are exemplary people. Rather, the oriental women she describes are overly sexual and unintelligent. And, finally, Brontë contrasts the safe, secure England with the harshness of faraway places like India and the West Indies. All of these little pieces work together to create an idea of the orient as something inherently non-European and, therefore, 'other.'