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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Jane Eyre a Sexist and Racist Book?

From this article about books on the AP reading lists in Britain comes a surprising charge of racsim and sexism against Jane Eyre. It is not that we have not seen such claims before but they were never elicited by so slight a stimulus.

I was especially surprised by the charge of anti-semitism. During one of their bantering sessions Jane asks the 'favour' of having her curiosity gratified. Rochester bristles at this, and remarks that he would prefer she requested half of his estate. "Do you think I am a Jew-usurer, seeking good investment in land?" Jane says. The writer of this article infers that Jane is 'insulted' when she says this and cites this as proof of the novel's anti-semitism. The context of the quotation has been a little trimmed in the article. The passage in the novel reads: 'Now King Ahasuerus! What do I want with half your estate? Do you think I am a Jew-usurer, seeking good investment in land?' A footnote here explains that this is an allusion of Esther 7 in which the Persian King Ahasuerus offered to fulfill the Esther's every wish 'even to half of the kingdom.' Her request is that he spare her people because his adversary was the usurer Haman. This is not the dropping of a malicious stereotype but an allusion to Jewish history, where she is defining herself as Esther to his Ahasuerus (and possibly casting Blanche Ingram as Haman).

The sexism of the book is contained in this charge: Jane Eyre, the purported feminist hero, cannot possibly imagine finding happiness outside the service of her love and master. The easy answer is to re-read the book. She was perfectly capable of imagining herself as an independent schoolmistress when Rochester asks if she has no secret hope (read looking for happiness in love). She prospers in her Morton school, and when St.John Rivers reprimands her repeatedly for being too happy she declares that she has just cause to, and will be happy and 'as contented as a queen.' To imagine that losing someone she loves deeply is something to deplore is inexplicable to me. There is no detailed explaination of why she believes Jane is so dependent so I cannot carry this further, but discussion as always is most welcome in the comments.


Anonymous said...

Being Jewish and Israeli myself, I understand the writer of the above article, considering the rising anti-Semitism of the last few years. But to claim that Charlotte Bronte was an anti-Semite is something that I cannot agree with. When Jane speaks, she expresses the general idea of Jews of the time. She also lived in a small community, and I am quite sure she never saw a Jew in her life. It has been often claimed that Dickens was an amti-Semite,but some of his Jewish characters are not so monstrous as sometimes they are portrayed. Fagin, in Oliver Twist is a thief, but he has compassion for his boys, unlike Bill Sykes, who murders the woman he "loves" for money.When one reads, for example, a 19th century novel, one has to understand that it was written in a certain time and place, and in modern times we can make our own distinctions regarding Jane Eyre and even Dickens.

Brontëana said...

I agree that bringing up the issue is important but I also believe that if it is not raised in a valid charge (this is clearly a misreading of the passage due to a lack of reference to Esther) it trivialises anti-semitism in general. The next time someone raises the issue, it will seem less valid. This happens with sexism as well, when serious cases of sexism are ignored because of the way the term is used indiscriminately.

About Dickens I am not sure where I stand. I have not read Oliver Twist yet, but I found the portraits of Jews in Great Expectations disturbing. If only I had considered this issue a few hours from now- I am about to attend the first session of a seminar in Victorian literature focussing on depictions of Judaism!

mysticgypsy said...

The writer says that "I’ve decided that requiring the reading of old books chock-full of outdated social prejudices is, though aggravating at times, acceptable — to the extent that those prejudices are considered and discussed without glossing over them as “signs of the times.”

But isn't this what a good literature class aims to do? Also, there are many issues to discuss in a novel than just racism and discrimination.
In a Bronte seminar I had a while ago, a lot of students were aggravated at the overt racism found in Charlotte's novels. One girl could not stop deriding Villette. People ought to be more open minded, read the novel with regard to the context in which it was writtne, and yes, accept that perhaps the writer was biased, but then which one of us is not?

I also think that Dickens sympathizes with Fagin, especially towards the end.

"if it is not raised in a valid charge... it trivialises anti-semitism in general"
Yes! This applies to all forms of claims of discrimination.

Brontëana said...

to mysticgypsy:

I was just considering Villette! I hesitated to recomend it to a Catholic friend of mine after I had read it for the first time. I worried that it might offend her (she was studying to enter a convent at the time). She LOVED it! I was just saying to someone that I don't find Charlotte's comments about the French offensive because it seems obvious to me that she is expressing deep frustration and feelings of persecution she felt while in Brussels. Her Monsieur Paul puts it so well, when he tells Lucy that he loves Protestantism in her, although he is a devout Catholic. Even on the first read, when confronted with the venom of the narrator's commentary on Catholicism, I kept wondering: but why is this narrator so fond of M. Paul if she hates Catholics so utterly? It seems to me that in this case the narrator is not carrying the author's beliefs.

Liz said...

I recall reading at the time that the uproar surrounding Dickens’ portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist was such that (possibly contrite) he created the character of Riah in Our Mutual Friend, the benevolent Jew who sheltered Lizzy Hexam and the doll’s dressmaker. So, if Dickens was anti-semitic, the public was not. George Eliot, of course, wrote Daniel Deronda to investigate and explain the Jewish condition. The only other mention of Jewishness in Bronte is a perfectly positive one - in Villette, when she gets Graham’s letters sealed in a bottle, she says:

‘I then made a little roll of my letters, wrapped them in oiled silk, bound them with twine, and, having put them in the bottle, got the old Jew broker to stopper, seal and make it air-tight. While obeying my directions, he glanced at me now and then suspiciously from his frost-white eyelashes. I believe he thought there was some evil deed on hand.’

We know that CB had an unofficial rule not to write about things beyond her ken – it seems to be the case here.

Brontëana said...

to Liz:

I was going to say how few references there are to Jews in Jane Eyre when I realised my mistake. The word 'Jew' appears only once, I believe, but there are a lot of references to Israelites- positive and negative, and most taken from the Old Testament. Both Blanche and Rochester are described as being Jewish in appearance (Blanche in the charade scene seems in character as 'an Israelitish princess' and she flirts with Rochester about desiring a 'Levantine pirate' ). And of course Rochester also plays an Israelite in the charade scene.