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  • From the Red Room to Rochester's Haircut: Mind Control in Jane Eyre
  • Judith Leggatt (bio) and Christopher Parkes (bio)

The control of the imagination is at stake in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Throughout the novel, Jane comes under the power of people and institutions that want to break her spirit. While tyrants such as Aunt Reed, Brocklehurst, Rochester, and St John Rivers want to turn Jane into a personal servant, Lowood Institution wants to turn her into a servant of the wage labour economy. In response to these attempts to control her, Jane’s romantic visions of an open untamed landscape, such as the moors, allow her to escape the feeling of being enclosed and commodified. The central dilemma of Jane’s struggle is whether or not she can enter into society on terms that will allow her some measure of freedom within the social order. Her final settlement at Ferndean is the result of her struggle for such a balance. Here, she appears to be doubly free; she has the freedom that comes with having an employable skill and money in the bank and the freedom that comes with being a romantic figure living on the outskirts of civilization. But how free is she really? Many feminist critics have recognized a lack of freedom in Jane’s marriage to Rochester, the way it threatens to remove her from the working world and turn her into a stereotypical Victorian angel in the house. For example, in Uneven Developments: [End Page 169] The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England, Mary Poovey argues that Jane’s retirement form the working world reflects the almost universal Victorian assumption “that women would work only out of necessity” and “the belief voiced by conservatives that women’s proper work was moral superintendence and (unpaid) domestic labor” (158–59). Jane’s marriage to Rochester would appear to trap her in the same oppressive patriarchal system the novel critiques.

While it is appropriate to read the ending as one built upon compromise and constraint, this essay shifts the focus away from Jane as angel in the house to Jane as agent of the modern nation-state. As that agent, she is able to live at Ferndean only because she has negotiated a complex deal with the state, one that insists she become an active participant in darker forms of control, such as those in use at Lowood school. Nancy Armstrong argues that the female domestic space of nineteenth-century novels is an apolitical space: “As it became the woman’s sphere, then, the household appeared to detach itself from the political world and to provide the complement and antidote to it. And in this way, novels helped to transform the household into what might be called ‘counterimage’ of the modern marketplace, an apolitical realm of culture within the culture as a whole” (48).

Our reading of the novel will demonstrate, however, that the version of the nineteenth-century household constructed at the end of Brontë’s novel is not an apolitical space. Ferndean cottage may be a domestic space set back in the woods, but inside this space Jane works for and helps maintain the larger space of the English nation. The novel presents a modern view of the nation-state in which all spaces, even domestic ones, are part of a larger network of discipline. It presents a shift away from patriarchy, a shift that is marked by the ascendancy of benevolent mother figures, such as Bessie, Miss Temple, and Jane herself, but the assumption of the reins of power does not mark a clear-cut liberation for these women when they are then charged with making others conformable. The purpose here is to give Brontë credit for her hard-headed approach to the position of women in nineteenth-century society, an approach that says that in the modern nation-state women will find a more active role in the production of culture but that the role will also demand that they become implicated in the larger mechanisms of social control.

Much of the novel traces the movement away from tyranny as a mode of discipline. Foucault outlines, in Discipline and Punish...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1913-4835
Print ISSN
0317-0802
Pages
pp. 169-188
Launched on MUSE
2008-06-20
Open Access
No
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