Jane Eyre was published in 1847 and quickly became a literary triumph of its age and every age after (were it not, I wouldn’t be writing this paper). However, for it to become a success, it must have filled a crucial role. Not only does it adopt the newly in-vogue style of writing for the Victorian era, but it is also increasingly topical. I’m not going to talk about gender relationships (that’s what the last journal was for). Now I’m going to talk about race, because I’m that kind of person. Y’see? at the time Charlotte Brontë was penning the inane fascinating ramblings of one Jane Eyre, England was busy owning just the whole dang world. They’d already had colonies established in the Caribbean (it’s important to note for later that Jamaica happens to be in the Caribbean), Africa, South Asia, and of course Snakes’ England, Australia. Don’t forget, England owned these places, so it’s more than likely that the people of England felt a sort of dominion over these foreign fields and/or people.
I say “more than likely” because literary theorists (read: nerds) at the time already had a word for that feeling you get when your country is cooler than the countries is owns: colonialist discourse (Tyson, 419). Nowadays, we call it colonialist ideology because I like to think we now look back on the people of old and scoff and their hat-backwards ways. To sum it up, colonialist discourse/ideology basically describes how white people are better (or, at least more metropolitan) than the other non-white people living in other, non-white places. While it’s generally not cool, the point I want to emphasize is that “[the colonizers] ignored or swept aside the religions, customs, and codes of behaviour of the peoples they subjugated. So the colonizers saw themselves at the centre of the world; the colonized were at the margins” (Tyson, 419).
It sounds like I’m rambling, but bear with me real quick. All this comes to a tee in Jane Eyre, on page 192 after a “quite troublesome” “old woman” comes into Mr. Rochester’s abode:
“What is she like?” inquired the Misses Eshton in a breath.
“A shockingly ugly old creature, Miss; almost as black as a crock.”
“Why, she’s a real sorceress!” cried Frederick Lynn. “Let us have her in, of course.”
Earlier in the page, Lady Ingram dismisses this mysteriously old lady as an imposter. It’s only when they learn her skin colour that they agree she can possibly read fortunes. (I’m assuming here that it’s not because of her shocking ugliness as Jane is also not too pleasant on the eyes, but that certainly doesn’t entitle her to magical powers.) It certainly doesn’t help that this lady is from the mysterious realm across the great sea: Jamaica.
Voodoo is an actual religion practiced in the Caribbean. It actually includes practices such as fortune telling. But, in typical colonial fashion, Brontë plays off this religious ritual as a literal parlour trick. The ladies (and one guy) at Rochester’s party go all crazy to hear their fortunes, like it’s some sort of “chance of fun” (Brontë, 192). What makes it worse is it’s not just some lowly immigrant selling out to cultural appropriation in order to make a quid. I mean: it seems like that when Jane “must cross [her palm] with silver, I suppose” (Brontë, 197). But the big reveal comes a page later when Jane realizes that it was Mr. Rochester the whole time, and the two of them share a giggle at just how joyous cultural appropriation is.
Works Cited: Brontë, Charlotte, Margaret M. Smith, and Sally Shuttleworth. Jane Eyre. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.