Reading ‘Jane Eyre’ While Black

Bronte’s Jane Eyre is without doubt a classic, but reading the famous novel as a black person can feel insensitive at times. Let’s unfold our conflicting feelings.

Classics

It almost goes without saying, but Jane Eyre is a classic, and probably will be forever. I remember reading it in my junior year in college and falling in love; in fact I still have that same copy (dog ears and all). However, my feelings began to swiftly change as the novel progressed and we were introduced to ‘Bertha’. I didn’t read Jane Eyre for British Literature, instead for Caribbean Literature; my professor at the time wanted to illuminate the blatant racism and xenophobia Bertha faced. Oh and illuminate she did, Bronte wasn’t even trying to hide her racism. As a black Jamaican woman myself, I felt like someone just punched me in my gut. Here I was gushing over these characters and the antagonist is some stereotypical crazy black woman from Jamaica? Worst out of body experience ever. Often times black people become attached to or fall in love with classics that either don’t see us or don’t represent us in a positive light. So we’re left confused and hurt about the books or movies we once loved. This forces us to reexamines these ‘classics’; asking ‘do we cancel them?’ or better yet ‘how do we learn from them?’. Let’s examine the dark parts of Jane Eyre everyone seems to skip over, as well as look into Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (A prequel to Jane Eyre written by Jean Rhys), and give back a voice to those often unheard.

The Book Trail Jane Eyre - The Book Trail

Image via Book Trail

In 2020 you can’t talk about Jane Eyre without bringing up Wide Sargasso Sea (a must read FYI); it gives the much needed perspective of Antoinette (a.k.a. Bertha), which paints a much more detailed picture. In a nutshell, Bronte’s book is so compelling because it’s a story about an underdog who gains independence, gets the guy, beats the odds and has her happily ever after. The power dynamic between her and her beloved Rochester changed so much that Jane even says at the end “No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh”. Due to inheriting her uncle’s fortune, Bertha burning down Rochester’s estate and damaging his eyes; Jane ends the novel far better than where she started, but the same can’t be said for Bertha. It’s Bertha’s suicidal  sacrifice that allows Jane to climb the social ladder, without Bertha Jane wouldn’t have gotten her happy ending. So we’re given a white protagonist who profits off of a black character. We see a repeat of this in history when black women assist in movements like Women’s Rights just for their white counterparts to reap the benefits.

 

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette started off well off, and it’s through her marriage with Rochester that he takes advantage of her, and renames her Bertha, forbidding her to indulge in her culture, and worst of all, takes her against her will from Jamaica to England; locking her in his attic like she’s property. Rochester colonizes Antoinette and turns her into the ‘crazy’ woman we see in Bronte’s novel. She didn’t have agency like Jane, her future and power lay in a marriage with a man who tried to change her at every turn. This is the dehumanization and brutalization of black women that has become so normal today; we catch glimpses in Bronte’s novel, but Rhys’ novel explores what must have led to the tragic events in the former.

Jean Rhys — The Dailies — RIGHT ON WRITER'S BLOCK
Image via Writer’s Block

Bertha represents many things, the enslavement that comes with being a Victorian bride (I mean she does rip up Jane’s veil to shreds) or quite plainly how black women are seen in the media. We’re seen as dangerous, threatening or crazy. So do we shove all our copies of Jane Eyre into our attics? Well I’ll let you personally decided. Me personally, part of me will always love Bronte’s classic, but I can’t or won’t ignore its discriminatory undertones. Great art doesn’t have to come at the expense of black characters. These current times are really important, but we must remember black voices matter and black representation matters.

Featured image via Paychecks & Balances