- The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability ed. by David Bolt, Julia Miele Rodas, and Elizabeth J. Donaldson
The Madwoman and the Blindman is a landmark: the first disability-studies collection devoted to a single text. Already the iconic novel for any analysis of Victorian gender roles, the marriage plot, and colonization, Jane Eyre now becomes equally central to disability work. The Madwoman and the Blindman makes Jane Eyre the place to seek constructions of impairment, health, caretaking, and recovery in the nineteenth century.
The Madwoman and the Blindman’s very title does important work by pairing Bertha with Rochester and arguing for the equal importance of their life-changing impairments. This book makes madness important in itself, rather than a symbol of colonial subjection, repressed rage, or feminist rebellion. To be a madwoman is to be a person with particular qualities, subject to specific treatments, at precise moments—not to be removed from daily life but to be experiencing an important aspect of it. Elizabeth J. Donaldson insists on reading madness as “a neurobiological disorder” (30), and the wonder is that scholars have spent so long arguing it to be anything else. Meanwhile, David Bolt’s electrifying article calls out Jane Eyre for its “ocularcentrism,” its consistent assumption that blindness equates with castration, contagion, and melancholia. Literary scholars, Bolt concludes, have no excuse for such regressive and ableist readings. Donaldson and Bolt rightly call for critics to read this novel by respecting the realities of madness and blindness.
One outstanding article—worth the price of the book in itself—is D. Christopher Gabbard’s “From Custodial Care to Caring Labor: The Discourse of Who Cares in Jane Eyre.” Gabbard reveals a growing consensus towards humane medical treatment of the insane in the 1840s. Rochester’s imprisonment of Bertha, therefore, was meant to shock readers as a brutal and archaic act—a fact that Jane Eyre herself gradually becomes capable of articulating as she learns real caregiving through the Riverses, eventually becoming able to offer a better, more respectful type of care to Rochester himself.
Moreover, two of the most eminent disability studies scholars writing today offer work that frames this collection. Lennard Davis’s foreword lucidly explains why it is so crucial to read the experience of disability in its own terms instead of making it eternally a metaphor for something else. Martha Stoddard Holmes brings her characteristically meticulous care to bear on depictions of Rochester’s body in various film adaptations of Jane Eyre, showing how “screen productions…interpret and critique” the body of a blind amputee who enters the novel by spraining his ankle (163). [End Page 261]
Perhaps the most provocative article is Julia Miele Rodas’s diagnosis of Jane Eyre as a person with autism, based on Jane’s much-remarked oddness, social isolation, prickliness, and silence. This is a politically interesting move that challenges the reader to figure out how we want to analyze autism. Rodas wants to enshrine Jane Eyre as a member of a proud lineage for people on the spectrum. However, this approach assumes that autism is a transhistorical essential truth, and other disability activists prefer to regard it as a particularly modern catchall category (I have heard one call it the “hysteria of our time”) that reveals how we perceive affective and cognitive experience.
Almost all the articles in this collection show some of the stresses of writing the first studies in a nascent field. It is clear that many of these authors fear that readers will think their work is undertheorized, since they devote much space to painstakingly explaining well-known theoretical constructs, and equally worry readers will see them as politically retrograde, since they so carefully assert their postcolonial and feminist alignments. Reading The Madwoman and the Blindman, I wished that I could convey more confidence to its participants. I wanted to assure them that they were indeed doing important and necessary work—that this book is a major event, and...