Critical Essays A Postcolonial Approach to the Novel


As a theoretical approach, postcolonialism asks readers to consider the way colonialist and anti-colonialist messages are presented in literary texts. It argues that Western culture is Eurocentric, meaning it presents European values as natural and universal, while Eastern ideas are, for example, inferior, immoral, or "savage." A postcolonial approach to Jane Eyre might begin by considering the following questions: What does the novel reveal about the way cultural difference was represented in Victorian culture? How did Britain justify its colonialist project by imaging the East as "savage" or uncivilized? What idea does the text create of "proper" British behavior? Tentative answers to these questions can be discovered by examining the novel's representation of foreign women, especially Bertha Mason, and the colonialist doctrines of Jane and of St. John Rivers.

One of the colonialist goals of this novel is to create a prototype of the proper English woman, someone like Jane who is frank, sincere, and lacking in personal vanity. This ideal is created by Jane's attempt to contrast herself with the foreign women in the text. For example, both Céline Varens and her daughter are constantly criticized in the novel for their supposed superficiality and materialism. According to Rochester, Céline Varens charmed the "English gold" out of his "British breeches," a comment that emphasizes his supposedly British innocence and her wily French ways. Supporting this idea, Jane comments that Adèle has a superficiality of character, "hardly congenial to an English mind." Jane's final ethnocentric comments in relation to little Adèle are significant: "a sound English education corrected in a great measure her French defects." Only through a good English lifestyle has Adèle avoided her mother's tragic flaws: materialism and sensuality, characteristics the novel specifically associates with foreign women. Jane's comments imply that the English, unlike their French neighbors, are deep rather than superficial, spiritual rather than materialistic.

But Jane's position is more conflicted than Rochester's: As a woman she is also a member of a colonized group, but as a specifically British woman, she is a colonizer. When she claims Rochester gives her a smile such as a sultan would "bestow on a slave his gold and gems had enriched," she emphasizes the colonized status of all women. Insisting that he prefers his "one little English girl" to the "Grand Turk's whole seraglio," Rochester points to Jane's powerlessness, her reduction to sex slave. Rather than becoming slave, Jane insists she will become a missionary, preaching liberty to women enslaved in harems. Her comments show the dual position of European women: both colonized and colonizers. While Rochester reduces her to a colonized "doll" or "performing ape," her comments show her Eurocentric understanding of Eastern culture: She implies that she'll be the enlightened Englishwoman coming to the rescue of poor, abused Turkish women. All women are enslaved by male despotism, but the British woman claims a moral and spiritual superiority over her Eastern sisters.

This difference becomes intense in Jane's representation of Bertha Mason. Bertha's vampiric appearance suggests she is sucking the lifeblood away from the innocent Rochester, who tells Jane he was as innocent as she is until he turned twenty-one and was married to Bertha: His goodness was taken by this savage woman. An insane Creole woman, Bertha represents British fears of both foreigners and women. The "blood-red" moon, a symbol of women's menstrual cycles, is reflected in her eyes, suggesting her feminine, sexual potency. Unlike Jane, Bertha refuses to be controlled; a woman whose stature almost equals her husband's, she fights with him, displaying a "virile" force that almost masters Rochester. Post-colonial critics argue that Bertha, the foreign woman, is sacrificed so that British Jane can achieve self-identity. Their arguments suggest Rochester isn't as innocent as he claims; as a colonialist, he was in the West Indies to make money and to overpower colonized men and women. Notice how both Jane and Rochester emphasize his ability to control Bertha's brother, Richard. Much of Rochester's critique of Bertha hinges on her sexuality and exotic excess. When he first met her, Rochester's senses were aroused by her dazzle, splendor, and lusciousness. But he later found her debauchery to be his "Indian Messalina's attribute." Thus, the characteristics that first attract her to him, her sensual excesses, soon repulse him.

The representation of Bertha presents native peoples in the colonies as coarse, lascivious, and ignorant, thus justifying St. John's missionary role: Bertha is a foreign "savage" in need of British guidance and enlightenment. Just as Jane retrains the minds of her lower-class students in England, St. John will reform the values of the pagans in India. Both characters perpetuate a belief in British, Christian-based moral and spiritual superiority. But St. John's inability to "renounce his wide field of mission warfare" shows that his colonialist impulse isn't based on compassion or mutual understanding, but on violence — violating the minds of native peoples, if not their bodies. For twenty-first-century readers, St. John's missionary zeal is morally suspect, because it shows his participation in the colonialist project, which resulted in violence against and violation of native peoples. St. John's coldheartedness suggests the brutality and self-serving function of colonialism. Jane claims St. John "forgets, pitilessly, the feelings and claims of little people, in pursing his own large views"; imagine the damage he will inflict on any native people who resist him. Like Jane, they will be repressed by his merciless egotism. St. John spends the rest of his life laboring for "his race" in India. A great warrior, St. John sternly clears the "painful way to improvement" for the natives, slaying their prejudices of "creed and caste," though obviously not his own. In his zealous Christianity, he sees the Indians as an inferior race and hopes to implant British values in their supposedly deficient minds.