A Dialogue of Self and Soul:
Plain Jane’s Progress
SANDRA M. GILBERT AND SUSAN GUBAR
The authors of The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination (1979) are both distinguished feminist critics: Sandra Gilbert is a Professor at the University of California, Davis; and Susan D. Gubar a Distinguished Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Indiana University. They have also collaborated on No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Sex Changes and Letters from the Front with the aim of using feminist criticism to understand the achievements of British and American women in modern times. More recently they have also co-authored a collection of poetry, Mother Songs (1995), for and about mothers. The Madwoman in the Attic was a landmark in feminist criticism. It focuses almost exclusively on the issue of gender in relation to women, though it refers brieﬂy to the ambiguous class position of governesses such as Jane Eyre. The authors analyse the intertwined processes of female rebellion and repression in the narrative and highlight in particular the reading of Bertha Mason, the mad wife, as the symbol of Jane’s repressed passion. This was later to become an accepted interpretation of Bertha. In relating the novel to Charlotte Brontë the writer, they see the text as ultimately half-optimistic for women’s future in the prospect of a marriage of equals. Others were to read the ending as a compromise with contemporary patriarchal ideals of marriage.
Reprinted from The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 336 –71. 46
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A DIALOGUE OF SELF AND SOUL
[ . . . ] Unlike many Victorian novels, which begin with elaborate expository paragraphs, Jane Eyre begins with a casual, curiously enigmatic remark: ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.’ Both the occasion (‘that day’) and the excursion (or the impossibility of one) are signiﬁcant: the ﬁrst is the real beginning of Jane’s pilgrim’s progress toward maturity; the second is a metaphor for the problems she must solve in order to attain maturity. ‘I was glad’ not to be able to leave the house, the narrator continues: ‘dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight . . . humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority’ (ch. 1).1 As many critics have commented, Charlotte Brontë consistently uses the opposed properties of ﬁre and ice to characterize Jane’s experiences, and her technique is immediately evident in these opening passages.2 For while the world outside Gateshead is almost unbearably wintry, the world within is claustrophobic, ﬁery, like ten-year-old Jane’s own mind. Excluded from the Reed family group in the drawing room because she is not a ‘contented, happy, little child’ – excluded, that is, from ‘normal’ society – Jane takes refuge in a scarlet-draped window seat where she alternately stares out at the ‘drear November day’ and reads of polar regions in Bewick’s History of British Birds. The ‘death-white realms’ of the Arctic fascinate her; she broods upon ‘the multiplied rigors of extreme cold’ as if brooding upon her own dilemma: whether to stay in, behind the oppressively scarlet curtain, or to go out into the cold of a loveless world.
Her decision is made for her. She is found by John Reed, the tyrannical son of the family, who reminds her of her anomalous position in the household, hurls the heavy volume of Bewick at her, and arouses her passionate rage. Like a ‘rat,’ a ‘bad animal,’ a ‘mad cat,’ she compares him to ‘Nero, Caligula, etc.’ and is borne away to the red-room; to be imprisoned literally as well as ﬁguratively. For ‘the fact is,’ confesses the grownup narrator ironically, ‘I was [at that moment] a triﬂe beside myself; or rather out of myself, as the French...