- The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability ed. by David Bolt, Julia Miele Rodas, Elizabeth S. Donaldson
The Madwoman and the Blindman is the first edited collection in disability studies to focus on a single text. The essays seek to reassess several critical chestnuts about disability in the novel, including that Rochester’s blinding and maiming represent a symbolic castration, that Bertha’s madness is empowering and transgressive from a feminist point of view, and that Rochester’s disabilities disempower him so that he and Jane can enjoy a more equal marriage. These clichés have informed our reading and teaching of Jane Eyre for more than thirty years. The essays, which offer fresh readings of physical and cognitive difference in the novel—most prominently, but not limited to, Bertha’s madness and Rochester’s maiming—combine disability studies with approaches ranging from psychoanalysis to Biblical studies to film studies.
Some of the strongest essays in the volume call our attention to the way that disability affects not only the disabled character but also relations between characters. Susannah B. Mintz uses the psychoanalytic theory of recognition to argue that the novel offers the possibility of interactions between characters that recognize and accept the frailties of the troubled body. D. Christopher Gabbard shifts our attention to caregiving, arguing that the novel represents a larger cultural shift from a “custodial care” approach, represented by Rochester’s treatment of Bertha, to a “caring labour” approach, represented by the Rivers family and by the Jane-Rochester dyad. Gabbard reminds twenty-first-century readers that institutionalizing Bertha, rather than keeping her at home in the custody of a nurse with a fondness for drink, would have been seen as the humane and progressive thing to do by the 1840s. Martha Stoddard Holmes’s chapter on film adaptations of Jane Eyre likewise analyzes the role of disability in the relationship between Jane and Rochester. Stoddard Holmes notes that Rochester’s amputation is almost never represented on screen, while his blinding is, and that most screen versions add extra dialogue to the ending, in which Rochester expresses his anger at being disabled while Jane pities him. This dialogue, not present in the novel, leads Stoddard Holmes to argue that anger and pity are the necessary conditions of a happy ending and marriage in the film versions.
A strength of the volume is its introduction of new theoretical and historical contexts for our reading of disability in Jane Eyre. Elizabeth J. Donaldson questions whether Bertha’s madness offers the possibility of “true resistance or productive rebellion” (14), revisiting her impairment in relation to historical discourses such as that of phrenology, which stress the connection between the mind and the body. Essaka Joshua provides a nuanced analysis of Biblical sources for the representation of disability in the novel. She argues that Brontë emphasizes Biblical passages that present disability as a route [End Page 217] to salvation rather than a stigma, enabling a positive reading of Rochester’s disabilities. Margaret Rose Torrell focuses on masculinity, arguing that, by the end of the novel, the disabled Rochester embodies a “radical alternative to the conventional model of disembodied and oppressive masculinity” (73), transforming his India-rubber-like hardness back into flesh.
Victorianists invested in historical approaches to the novel may be put off by the anachronistic characterization of Jane Eyre as autistic or Eliza Reed as obsessive-compulsive. However, Julia Miele Rodas’s chapter, “On the Spectrum: Re-reading Contact and Affect in Jane Eyre,” provides a fresh view. Rodas argues that because the novel is narrated from Jane’s perspective, we are apt to accept at face value her assessment of others as uncongenial. Yet, as Rodas points out, there are rather a lot of characters, including not only her cruel Aunt Reed but also, for example, a roommate at Lowood who talks too much (63), whom Jane finds unsympathetic. Situating these scenes in the context of the novel’s first reviewers, who found...