The Literary Treatment of Racism – Lola Rose

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The literary treatment of racism in the works of Jane Eyre and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

‘The black slave narrators sought to indict both those who enslaved them and the metaphysical system drawn upon to justify their enslavement. They did so using the most enduring weapon at their disposal, the printing press’ (Cutter: 210). Despite this, black authors are often oppressed or, moreover, irreverently criticised for speaking the truth about the confined and tyrannised experiences of slavery. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Jacobs: 1861) is a clear depiction of this. Jacobs published her odyssey during a period when African Americans were still largely subjugated to slavery and so her book became marginalised due to white audiences dominating 19th-century reading. Jacobs used narrative strategies, which exploited sentimental terminology, to persuade white audiences to read and react sympathetically to slave accounts. Specifically, to appeal to the support of those white women in the North that lived in states that had outlawed slavery and were founding the abolitionist movement. Scrutinising the works of Jane Eyre (Brontë: 1847), post-colonial theorists provide answers to why the literary treatment of race, in both the works of Brontë and Jacobs, highlighted that black narratives were silenced because of the historical period within which they were published. Jane Eyre, although never directly addressing the representation of racial difference, had a large part to play in the othering effect that was common in contemporary literature. Colonial discourse allowed white European authors to believe that they held higher universally moral standards than other marginalised racial groups. This meant that the western orientalist construction of the so-called ‘other’ played down the absence of black significance in the likes of Jane Eyre. This can be seen, specifically, in the depiction of Bertha’s ambiguous ethnicity. The equivocalness of her character, compared to that offered by orientalists’ prominent treatment of white lead characters, demonstrates how power dynamics define how skin colours have an upper hand over the narrative. Colonial binarism is amplified through this, as Britain was anxious and resisted the welcoming of hybridity and creolisation. The dominating white driving force behind the works of Brontë, is crucial to our understanding of why the absence of race had such a large role to play within the fictional narrative of Jane Eyre, compared to the autobiographical approach to slavery in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. This essay will examine how freedom versus constraint, sexual virtue versus sexual abuse and the oppression of ethnic characters contribute to literary society’s understanding of racial culture within western texts.                                     

‘Questions of race, slavery and racial violence are everywhere’ and pervade even in the most ‘apparently “innocent” literary works’ (Bennet & Royle 1994: 216). Published only fourteen years after the abolition of slavery in most of the British Empire, Jane Eyre, therefore, is not exceptional. The subservience behind Jane and Rochester’s relationship ultimately alludes to that of a slave’s relationship with their master. However, it is evident that Jane’s character cannot be compared to that of Jacob’s non-fictional enslavement. This is because Jane, a white educated woman, was not abided by law to stay within her master’s threshold. Despite this, the theoretical construction of race within Brontë’s work holds strong pungency due to the entrapment of Bertha, Rochester’s concealed Jamaican wife. Exploring her character is essential in understanding how the conception of race and literature can interact with each other. Bertha’s creole ethnicity resembles how colonial discourse silenced those that were not consciously associated with being from an accepted social group. ‘By contrasting the two women, Rochester makes it clear that Bertha should be understood as the other of Jane’ (Bennet & Royle 1994: 209). The women resemble complete opposites of one another, both mentally and physically, due to Bertha’s grotesque, animalistic physiognomy. As a result of her congenital insanity, she is kept locked away in Rochester’s attic to remain unseen by the outside world and her voice remains silenced. The readers never truly understand Bertha’s character, due to Jane’s continuous lack of interest of the subject. Canonical literacy works, particularly English works, repeatedly undergo this dangerously subtle racial othering to augment eurocentrism. Throughout the book, Rochester repeatedly contrasts Bertha’s appearance with Jane’s: ‘look at the difference! Compare these clear eyes with the red balls yonder – this face with that mask – this form with that bulk’ (Brontë: 339). Bertha’s somewhat demonic fabricated image, compared to that of Janes angelic spirit, creates a clear distinction between colonised subjects being placed at the lowest rank of the social order. What is even more peculiar about this mistreatment is that Jane, often regarded as a proto-feminist, never attempts to question the reason why Rochester keeps Bertha isolated from society and instead, seemingly fears her presence. Jane also frequently racially profiles Bertha’s character by making comments on her dark features. When describing her appearance to Rochester she recalls how she saw ‘a discoloured face’ with ‘fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments’ and ‘black eyebrows widely raised over the bloodshot eyes’ (Bronte: 327). Associating ethnicity with fear is extremely problematic for Jane’s character. It perpetually sets in motion the acceptance of dehumanisation of ethnic minorities, so as to exclude them from the westernised acceptance of white precedence.

As a result of Bertha’s severe confinement and Rochester’s abusive ruling over her, Bertha commits suicide. However, even after Jane learns of this, she continues to remain ignorant of Rochester’s tyranny and marries him. After Bertha’s death, there is, again, little to no mention of her absence and her character remains silenced. Rochester and Jane instead appear to be relieved, as they were now legally allowed to marry each other. It is worth noting that before Jane united in marriage with Rochester, she was fortune to inherit £20,000 (‘equivalent to about 1.9m today’, Emery: 2016). This came as a bequest from her uncle, John Eyre, whose ‘tainted wealth derived from slave labor and imperialist exploitation’ (Rodgers: 341). Instead of questioning the money’s origins, Jane welcomely accepts it. Jane’s failure to question her sharing of this colonial inheritance creates a concealed tone of essentialism for the Caucasian audiences and critics that dominated the printing press in the Victorian era. This, in consequence, further allowed for a disturbingly common obsessive classification of racial exclusion. Hegemonic white discourse, therefore, allows for the construction of ethnic identity within literary works to be marginalised, which further amplified Brontë’s Eurocentric vision.

Although Jane Eyre is widely regarded as a ‘pivotal text for feminists’ (Griesinger: 29), its lack of intersectional feminism throughout the book resembles the alienating effect of otherness that Jacobs experienced as a black female slave in North Carolina. In contrast to the stereotypical depiction in western culture deeming ethnic women like Bertha, as inhumane and deranged creatures, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, instead, serves as documentary evidence of the true brutality of life under slavery. The voice of Jacobs, named Linda in the narrative to conceal her identity, argues throughout much of the novel that ‘Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women’ (Jacobs: 66). This is because the specific evils of slavery vary across different areas and extremes and any female slave was under constant threat of rape and fear of sexual harassment from their masters. White phallocratic discourse allowed slave owners to continually abuse their powers by taking advantage of the subordinate sex they owned. From early in the novel and in Linda’s life, the reader witnesses this take place when she recounted how her master, Mr Flint, ‘peopled my young mind with unclean images’ to ‘corrupt the pure principles’ (Jacobs: 26) of her adolescence. Focusing on the oppression of women, is a tactic Jacobs put in place to obtain empathy and support of female abolitionists who read and responded to slave narratives. Topics such as Linda’s recount of sexual abuse, the fracturing of her family and her fight to be free from her master all serve as an attempt to relate to the idea of universal female oppression. This epitome and denotation of patriarchal factors, constructs via text, unity with the white women readers who understood the nature and power men held in their society. Destabilizing orthodox standards of female conduct by replacing it with rebellious black female subjectivity, that worked against the political and cultural institution of slavery, addresses both the oppression of race and womanhood into one conclusive whole.

Racial literary criticism is a factor Jacobs incorporates when speaking on religiously influenced books written by clergymen who aimed to diminish white northerners understanding of the horrors of slavery. Jacobs’ demythologized books, such as the South-Side View of Slavery, by arguing that these texts assured white audiences that slavery was a ‘beautiful “patriarchal institution”’ which further jeopardised the view that ‘slaves don’t want their freedom’ (Jacobs: 64). These religious privileges supposedly granted them, instead, the love of God. Creating literary falsehood in such a traumatic historical period allowed for a distorted image of slavery to be understood by its white audiences. It also seemingly adds to the prejudiced ‘doctrine that God created the Africans to be slaves’ (Jacobs: 40). This was a concept that many slave owners and clergymen engrained into the minds of African Americans, which in turn caused many to be manipulated into believing it was true. For example, Linda’s grandmother, Aunt Martha, discouraged Linda from disobeying her master’s wishes and was opposed to the idea of her fleeing from the South. Aunt Martha played a complex role within the religious and domestic themes of the narrative, as she was a former slave who would rather have seen Linda stay within the South to avoid breaking Christian principles and tearing her family apart. This obeyance came from slaves fearing the consequences of acting out against their religion. Such acts resulted in many slaves being tricked into believing their mistreatment was justified, but also tricked white audiences into believing their racist actions were accepted by God. Christianity placed black people at the lowest rank of social order which, in turn, played a large part in the mistreatment of slaves abuse by their religious owners. Thus, Jacobs’ addressed the topics of female domesticity, sexual oppression, family sacrifice and the inability to be an identifiable self to engage with white female audiences who could, to some extent, relate to Jacobs’ experiences as a woman, but not as a slave. Deconstructing false slave recounts by incorporating intersectional feminism through this bond of sisterhood exhibited Jacobs’ aim to ‘arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage’ (Jacobs: 3). Jacobs literary skills, therefore, allowed black female authors to write themselves back into history and revise the dominant white social order.

Sexual virtue in Jane’s relationship with Mr Rochester, in contrast to the sexual abuse and oppression of Linda’s contrived connections with her master, furthermore, adds to the superior affirmations of whiteness within European literature. Jane implicitly compares her life to that of a slave throughout the book. At Gateshead, during Jane’s youth, she refers to her cousin as a ‘slave-driver’ (Brontë: 13) after he assaults her. Later, when she is taken to the red room, she adds to this misconception by titling herself as a ‘rebel slave’ (Brontë: 15). Continuing this pattern, in Thornfield Hall, Rochester tells Jane that ‘Hiring a mistress is the next worse thing to buying a slave’ (Brontë: 359). Portraying a connection of Jane’s suffering with the traumatic experiences caused by slavery creates an extremely dangerous and ignorant outlook with regards to the treatment of oppression. This is because Jane willingly pursued a romantic relationship with Rochester, despite his discourteous mannerisms. Of course, Linda’s experiences with her lecherous master differed greatly, as she was by law, forced to stay within his presence and was powerless against his lustful desires. The themes of religious abuse are yet again presented to the reader’s attention through Mr Flint’s indomitable use of his faith to justify his actions against the mistreatment of black women. He often referred to the power God gave him to pollute Linda’s mind into believing that she ‘was made for his use’ and thus her ‘will must and should surrender [to] his’ (Jacobs: 18). In consequence of corrupt legislation, this unholy dictation was indeed true for slaves. Linda and black women throughout the South had no choice but to capitulate to their white master’s unrequited romance, as they were in constant fear of retribution. Linda only evades rape and further unwarranted suffering after fleeing to the North. Even after her escape, she lives in constant fear that her former master will track her down.

Jane’s escape from her master’s manor in Brontë’s novel, showcases a startling comparison of racial privilege. Jane, although erroneously made to resemble a slave’s position, does not experience any of the physical and sexual abuse that Linda encountered. Jane’s escape from Thornfield Hall, was only because she wished to break free from the eternal triangle of Rochester’s elopement with Bertha. Despite this, her emotional kinship to her master leads her to return to his presence after Bertha’s death. Thus, Jane’s story ends with love and freedom to express her virtuous lusts, whereas Linda remained prohibited from ever experiencing such liberty. Brontë’s failure to address the freedom and privilege of white people’s status within the British Empire thereby obfuscates the true history of colonial oppression and the problematic issues arising within European society’s imperialist influences. Thus, this absence and inability for Western authors like Brontë, to address the privileged position of racial hierarchy within literature through this fictional narrative, further allowed critics to question its intentions.

It can be concluded from this that black voices, particularly those that are female, have been silenced due to the colonial perspectives dominating much of western literature, which preferred to ignore the real exclusion and oppression of slaves. Thus, the troubles of Jane and her attempts to overrule the patriarchy are foregrounded by Brontë to appeal to white female audiences. In comparison, the sufferings of Bertha are portrayed much less sympathetically. Despite Jane Eyre being regarded as a classic feminist novel, Bronte’s thin treatment of Bertha’s slave-like existence demonstrates the prevailing racial prejudice of that time. In Incidents, Jacobs also concentrates on the oppression of women to appeal to a white female audience. However, this was a tactic employed to encourage northern women to join the abolitionist movement. Jacobs foregrounds the psychological suffering of black women because a more pointed and generalised depiction of slavery would not have appealed to a white readership. In contrast, Brontë did not need to take her audience into consideration, as she was confident of her success as a white author. Literature was never created with black audiences in mind and white precedence took over any consideration to give black voices a platform to speak against the system. Thus, Brontë’s novel attempts to portray Jane’s experiences with that of a slave but fails to acknowledge the reality of slavery. In comparison, Jacob’s memoir does from first-hand experience, depict the true consequences of white tyranny in the American South.

Lola Rose, June, 2022

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