Colonialism and Gender

Charlotte Brontë, from Jane Eyre (1848)

Charlotte Brontë's novel, Jane Eyre engages the subject of colonialism in a number of ways. Rochester's mad wife, Bertha Mason, is half Creole, the daughter of a West Indian planter whom Rochester marries in Jamaica. Jane Eyre obtains her small fortune through her uncle, John Eyre, who had made the money in Madeira. Jane's cousin, St. John Rivers, tries to persuade Jane to come with him to India as a missionary and his wife. The passage below, a conversation between Jane and Rochester, in which Rochester tries to buy clothes for Jane for their upcoming wedding, uses the image of the harem to portray Jane's sense of her position.


* * *

Glad was I to get him out of the silk warehouse, and then out of a jeweller's shop: the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation. As we re-entered the carriage, and I sat back feverish and fagged, I remembered what in the hurry of events, dark and bright, I had wholly forgotten — the letter of my uncle, John Eyre, to Mrs. Reed: his intention to adopt me and make me his legatee. 'It would, indeed, be a relief,' I thought, 'if I had ever so small an independency; I never can bear being dressed like a doll by Mr. Rochester, or sitting like a second Danae >> note 1 with the golden shower falling daily round me. I will write to Madeira the moment I get home, and tell my uncle John I am going to be married, and to whom: if I had but a prospect of one day bringing Mr. Rochester an accession of fortune, I could better endure to be kept by him now.' And somewhat relieved by this idea (which I failed not to execute that day), I ventured once more to meet my master's and lover's eye; which most pertinaciously sought mine, though I averted both face and gaze. He smiled; and I thought his smile was such as a sultan might, in a blissful and fond moment, bestow on a slave his gold and gems had enriched: I crushed his hand, which was ever hunting mine, vigorously, and thrust it back to him red with the passionate pressure —

'You need not look in that way,' I said: 'if you do I'll wear nothing but my old Lowood >> note 2 frocks to the end of the chapter. I'll be married in lilac gingham — you may make a dressing-gown for yourself out of the pearl-grey silk, and an infinite series of waistcoats out of the black satin.'

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 — you 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.'

© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback   :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page