Thinking about fiction

A blog about fiction and imagination, from a philosopher


"If one loves stories, then one would naturally love the story of the story" Lorrie Moore

Is Jane Eyre a racist?

Is Jane Eyre a racist?

 I recently read a compelling essay in Lit Hub,  by Tyrese L. Coleman, about reading Jane Eyre as a black woman. In it, Coleman describes both her love of classic 18th and 19th Century literature, and the alienation she experiences at times in relation to its casual, culturally-sanctioned racism - racism unnoticed by most white readers at the time of writing, and by many now too, I assume. In particular, Coleman describes how increasingly dislocated she felt as she read the work Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and began to notice the close associations Brontë draws between madness, "savagery" and the Creole ethnicity, in delineating the character of Bertha (or - to give her true name in the book, before she is renamed by her white English husband - Antoinette).

Critics have argued over whether to take these associations as unproblematically assented to by Brontë, or rather as being evoked by her with some sort of ironic distance.  Feminist scholars such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have made a lot of the contrast between Victorian Jane, embodying all the socially approved womanly virtues of modesty, chastity, passivity and forbearance, and Antoinette, her violent, sexual, dangerous "double", literally locked away upstairs, just as the sexual and angry parts of Jane are metaphorically locked away inside her. But even so, this interpretation has seemed to many to treat the character of Antoinette merely as a symbolic object, whose culturally attributed characteristics as a black woman - being "exotic", being "other", even being "monstrous", and so on - count as her sole contribution to the work. Effectively, blackness is instrumentalised in a denigrating way, sending a distressing message to black readers in particular who engage with the book, and forcing them to feel at odds with the narrative voice, as Coleman recounts. (For a modern-day version of a similar phenomenon, see the 'gay-people-as-terrifyingly-weird-serial-killers' trope recurrent in many films from the 90s).

In considering the treatment of Antoinette in Jane Eyre, working out what Brontë's intentions were in writing the work certainly makes a contribution.  For instance, in this analysis, the author asks whether Brontë was aware, as she wrote, of an 1844 public report proscribing imprisonment for the mentally ill; speculating that if she was, this should make a difference to how we evaluate Rochester's actions in imprisoning Antoinette. However, tracing authorial intentions is not the only piece of the puzzle here; for after all, clearly people can be racist without intending to be, and may even be thoroughly convinced that they are not. And stories can be racist even though their authors think otherwise.

However, in my view, the question of whether Jane Eyre, the work, is racist should be distinguished from a different question: which is whether the character Jane Eyre is a racist. I'll explore that question now.

In last week's post, I identified two commitments of intentionalism, the theory of plot interpretation for which I advocate. The second of these, (roughly speaking, minus a few tweaks) was as follows:

 2. Nothing gets in to the plot that wasn't intended by the author to be imagined by readers.

If we add to this the apparently reasonable assumption that, in creating Jane as a character, Brontë didn't intend readers to imagine that Jane was racist, then it follows from Commitment 2 that Jane can't be a racist, even if she says very racist things (which she plainly does, as detailed by Coleman). I assume that Brontë didn't intend readers to imagine that Jane was racist, partly because I assume that Brontë was unaware of her own racism, let alone that her characters might appear that way; and partly because I assume that Jane is intended to be a virtuous, idealised figure, albeit also complex and repressed. If this is right, and Commitment 2 is right, then it isn't part of the plot that Jane is a racist, even though someone who said identical things in the actual world would be. That is, what determines whether a fictional character is racist is ultimately a matter of what the author who created that character intends readers to imagine about him/ her/ it; whereas what determines whether a person is racist is ultimately a matter of what that person says, thinks and does.

No doubt this seems counterintuitive to some, but I think it's coherent; and of course we are still allowed to complain loudly about the work's racism (and Brontë's). And it should also be stressed that I'm not saying that it need be a positive part of the work's plot that Jane is not a racist - the matter simply looks indeterminate, so that whether or not she is a racist is not specified at all, and so not relevant to the plot.

The alternative position - that we count Jane, the character, as a racist in any case, independently of what Brontë intended - signals adherence to a general strategy which, in the long run, faces its own problems. Once we start attributing characteristics to fictional entities as we would their real-life counterparts, based on what is explicitly described about them, then, for instance, we have to treat Agatha Christie's Miss Marple as suspiciously unlucky in the number of deaths that happen around her, and very possibly responsible for some of them, given her constant proximity; Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster as an intellectually stunted manchild, with probable ADHD, who is almost definitely slowly dying of alcohol poisoning to boot; Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbevilles as a moping, passive, misery guts (well, ok, I'll give you that one); and Hergé's Tintin as having some strange disease which means he never facially ages. 

I realise many critics have lots of fun discussing characters in these terms. But even so, we should baulk at treating them as features of the plot - or in philosophers' terms, as fictional truths - for in many cases their consideration would needlessly interfere with the otherwise proper functioning of the narrative. Once one thinks of Bertie Wooster as hopelessly alcoholic, The Code of the Woosters can't really be that funny; once one thinks of Miss Marple as a potential mass murderer, the series loses its gentle charm. And arguably, once one thinks of Jane Eyre as a racist - that is, one imagines this as an attribute of the character, as part of the plot - she can no longer function as the outwardly idealised exemplar of virtue upon which a lot of the rest of the themes of the book depend. 

One thing that clouds the issue here, I think, is that very often an author will explicitly describe a set of first-order characteristics as belonging to a character, and intentionally imply by them, in a way they hope is clear to the reader, some second-order characteristics. This can be done quickly, via use of well-understood codes, as when gay men in 1940's dramas are sometimes described as 'confirmed bachelors'; or in a more leisurely way, via signalled dramatic irony, as when, through the course of Madame Bovary, Emma is clearly shown by Flaubert to be a self-deluded monster (though the narrator never says as much, and often says the opposite). And sometimes it need not be actually clear whether a given set of secondary characteristics is intentionally implied by an author or not, so that critical discussion can follow about this. But even so, where there is good reason to think that a set of characteristics is not positively intended as implied, we should not think of them as 'in' the fictional scenario described; or so I suggest. 

Constructing feelings towards fiction

Constructing feelings towards fiction

Listening to the dead

Listening to the dead