Exploring Blindness and Marriage Law Through the Brontës

In an English Symposium panel on the Brontës, graduate students Gina Schneck and Ian McArthur explored themes in feminist theory and disability studies in works such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

IMG_3249PROVO, Utah (March 19, 2015)—What more can be said on Victorian masterminds Anne and Charlotte Brontë’s novels that hasn’t already been said? At one of many English Symposium panels, graduate students Gina Schneck and Ian McArthur delved into scholarship to present their own unique observations on Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Gina Schneck is an English graduate student and president of the English Graduate Student Association studying 19th century American women’s literature. In her paper Schneck argued that the scholarly discussion of disability in Jane Eyre is inadequate and that disability studies should encompass metaphorical disability in addition to literal disability in analyzing blindness in Brontë’s novel.

“While scholars have accurately identified Edward as a focal point of disability in the novel and have moved toward a more positive reading of his blindness, they have yet to pinpoint Jane’s metaphorical blindness – her naivety – as disability,” Schneck said.

In her paper Schneck suggested that looking at literal and figurative disability in Jane Eyre revealed that Jane and Edward are both blind, and that it is only through overcoming their blindness that they eventually have a successful marriage.

“Jane argues the soul has an interpreter in the eye,” said Schneck. “So it is in Rochester’s eyes that Jane sees energy, decision, will and an influence that quite masters her.”

Schneck argued that it is only after Rochester is blinded by the fire that the couple can come together as one pair of eyes. She said that though many scholars claim that Edward’s blindness costs him happiness and love, the language Jane uses to describe Edward’s reaction to his blindness suggests that the opposite is true.

Schneck said that Brontë’s novel reveals that physical blindness is useful in that it unites the two protagonists, and that it is even less of a disability than the metaphorical blindness that had prevented Jane and Edward from fully understanding one another.

“Jane and Edward’s journey involves overcoming metaphorical blindness in regards to each other, with Edward’s physical blindness serving as a tool that perpetuates their success,” Schneck said.

She concluded, “In this respect, one character is not privileged over the other. They are equally blind, and they can equally see.”

IMG_3250To conclude the panel, Ian McArthur, a graduate student studying Victorian literature, examined both Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, arguing that the juxtaposition of Tenant’s Arthur and Jane Eyre’sRochesterreveals the oppressive effect of marriage legislation on not only women but men as well.

“While Arthur acts as the jailer over his wife, Rochester is very much a prisoner alongside Bertha,” McArthur said. “Critics haven’t really dealt with Rochester all that much either, unless noting how he affects Jane. While Rochester and Arthur do not often find themselves in the critical limelight, marriage law often is.”

McArthur added that during the 1800s men had complete control over their families, which is the source of Arthur’s power over Helen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. He argued, however, that Rochester is affected by the marriage law in an entirely different way and that though he is just as immoral as Arthur by definition, his circumstances make him a hero rather than a villain.

“They are the Victorian bad boys and would have been on the careful Victorian mother’s watch list of dangerous male friends. Think leather jackets, motorcycles and switchblades,” McArthur joked of Arthur and Rochester. He added that the most damning similarity between both characters is that they are adulterers.

“Rochester is deceiving two women, not just one, and is an attempted bigamist. He almost seems worse than Arthur,” McArthur said. “Why then is he the tragic hero and Arthur the inebriated villain? Why are we led to care about Rochester’s redemption and cross our fingers for Arthur’s death?”

McArthur also wondered why Charlotte Brontë, as a female writer writing from the perspective of a female protagonist, gave Rochester redemption through the novel.

McArthur argued that he did not care so much for Rochester’s morality or immorality but rather his circumstances and the way Brontë chooses to present him.

“He’s moody, romantic and fierce – not charming, handsome or youthful. He is very much like his house – full of mystery, tragedy and passion. He rides dark horses, scowls at fires and makes absurdly astute comments about Jane’s gothic heart,” McArthur said.

McArthur said that these characterizations are what rescue Rochester from what he calls “literary purgatory” and that the circumstances he finds himself in because of British marriage laws make him a prisoner rather than a villain.

“By seeing Arthur as a comparative foil, it becomes apparent that Charlotte’s presentation of Rochester is what makes the difference,” McArthur said. “In action, they are almost identical, but in circumstance they couldn’t be more different. In Arthur’s case, marriage legislation grants him power; in Rochester’s, it enslaves him.”

McArthur concluded, “Charlotte’s masterful reversal of Gothic tropes shows that Rochester’s wrongdoings are the result of a vicious law and not a vicious temperament.  Forward-thinking and breaking gender expectations, Charlotte’s novel champions the freedom of all individuals and not just one gendered group.”

Other panel topics at this year’s English Symposium included Mothers and Masculinity, Scary Stories, The Romantics, Rhetoric, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Memory, Faith and Religion, Race and Religion, Teaching Composition, Fiction and Poetry, Utopia and Dystopia, Nonfiction, Fairytale Fiction, Linguistic Meditations, Religion Across the Centuries, Fiction and Christianity, Edgar Allen Poe, James Joyce, fiction, nonfiction and poetry readings by undergraduate contest winners, multi-genre readings by graduate contest winners, and selected papers from the forthcoming issue of Criterion, as well as a Three-Minute Paper competition for both graduate and undergraduate students.

For more information about the titles of papers and names of presenters, visit the Scholars Archive.

–Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)