Colonialism and the Gothic in Rochester’s Relationships

It goes without saying that Mr. Rochester is an explicitly sexual figure, who has had numerous romantic/sexual relationships in the past. He has a wife, he has had multiple mistresses, and there is even the possibility that he has an illegitimate child (his reasoning for not claiming Adele as his own is simply that she doesn’t look like him – he never denies the implication that he slept with her mother). Rochester is a sexually powerful character who does not attempt to control his desires, though he does go about fulfilling them in a controlled, thought-out manner (such as his plan to use Blanche Ingram to test Jane’s devotion to him). The novel draws on gothic tropes to allow this explicit reference to Rochester’s sexuality and provide space to discuss such taboo topics, in a way which other, non-gothic texts would not. The gothic can also be seen in the power imbalance between Rochester and Jane. When Jane enters his life, it is as his ward’s governess, and the language she uses emphasizes their relative positions to each other: she consistently refers to Rochester as “sir” and “my master,” never allowing the reader to forget their employer/employee relationship. Even once Jane becomes Rochester’s love interest, she strives to maintain their professional relationship: “I will not be your English Céline Varens. I shall continue to act as Adele’s governess: by that I shall earn my board and lodging, and thirty pounds a year besides” (Brontë 267). This determination to continue ‘earning her keep’ both emphasizes Jane’s desire for independence and the inherent power imbalance between her and Rochester. It also leads to interesting questions of agency – if she quits her place as Adele’s governess and becomes financially dependent upon Rochester as his wife, Jane must sacrifice her agency to “become a part of [him]” (Brontë 298). If, however, she retains her position as his employee, she will still be financially dependent upon him, though in a more traditionally masculine, professional sense. Regardless of her choice, if Jane remains at Thornfield the power imbalance must continue.

Along with the gothic tropes of sexuality and power, a colonialist theme can be traced through Rochester and his partners. He seems to have a love and desire for ‘exotic’ women, or at least, women who are not of his native English country, and he could perhaps be read as a sexual/romantic colonizer. His love life begins in the West Indies with Bertha Mason, and can be traced back to England through his various European mistresses (Brontë 305-306) until he meets Jane. While France, Italy, and Germany are perhaps not as ‘exotic’ as the West Indies, and do not fit as neatly into the colonialist theme, it is telling that Rochester never found a mistress or a partner among English women (at least, until he meets Jane). The argument could be made for his ‘relationship’ with Blanche Ingram; however, it is clear that he is only interested in her as a way to make Jane jealous and test her loyalty and devotion to him. Jane herself is a particularly unique love interest when compared to Rochester’s past partners. While she is English, she is also ‘othered’ and separate from the other women in Rochester’s life through her desire for independence, her strong will, her intelligence, and (in a more gothic sense) her close association with the supernatural. Despite her Englishness, Rochester senses that Jane is ‘exotic’ in her own unique way.  

Questions of power, vulnerability, control, and agency can be approached from both a gothic and a postcolonialist perspective. Though the approaches differ, they both lend themselves to discussing the juxtaposed roles of powerful and vulnerable, colonizer and colonized; the character of Mr. Rochester shows the conflation of these perspectives in the way he acts as a powerful, sexual, colonizer of ‘exotic’ women.

4 thoughts on “Colonialism and the Gothic in Rochester’s Relationships”

  1. Juliana, you bring up a lot of really great points in this post! After reading it, I kept thinking about the way gothic themes and sexuality are intertwined, especially early on. Bertha sets Rochester’s room on fire, which leads to Jane entering his room to save him. This gothic moment explicitly demonstrates the threatening aspects of Rochester’s sexuality. Jane is both physically and metaphorically entering into his soiled bedroom, which has already been controlled and charred by another woman. Perhaps the gothic was an exterior force that tried to warn Jane early on about sexual danger in instances like this, but she couldn’t pick up on it because she was so invested in Rochester.

  2. Great analysis! I was also interested in the connection between the Gothic and colonial ideas. Although you could approach Jane Eyre from either the Gothic or postcolonial lenses, both perspectives I agree that in this novel both are closely intertwined. The gothic occurs where the ideas of colonization occurs and vice versa. One of the ideas appears to act as a cover for the other. It could have helped soften or hide the more radical ideas from the other making it a more manageable read for 19th century readers.

  3. I love this, and had never really thought about it before! It’s so interesting that Rochester is never romantically coupled with English women before Jane. The closeness between Bertha and Jane becomes really interesting through this lens– Adèle (and Rochester) has been brought from the continent to the wholesome English garden and air of Thornfield, but even there the exotic and therefore dangerous lurks in the attic (and, arguably, in Jane’s own nature) in the form of Bertha Mason. The connection between Jane, Bertha, and the physical restraints imposed on them (to varying degrees) by Rochester seem relevant in this light. Rochester has two very secluded properties, Thornfield and Ferndean, both of which isolate their inhabitants and limit their horizons. At Thornfield in particular (we see so little of Ferndean) both Bertha and Jane stand atop the battlements, either explicitly (Jane) or presumably (Bertha) conscious of the ways that all they can see is the limit of all that they can experience because of the limited mobility given to them by employer/husband. Jane is so conscious of Rochester’s ability to physically and emotionally restrain her that she sneaks out of the house in the early morning; Bertha doesn’t have that option and commits suicide at the end of the novel. Movement, exoticism, gender, and Rochester’s need for control all seem to intersect here in a really interesting way.

  4. Wow, this is a really neat post! I enjoyed how your analysis of Rochester’s romantic/sexual relationships covered themes of both the gothic and colonialism (two of my favorite concepts to explore in literature and film). I think the point that struck me the most was your observation on how, yes, Rochester does have intense sexual desires (like the gothic male figures) but he makes a conscious decision to act on them, despite his status as a landed gentry and a member of the elite, “propriety” perpetuating class, and is very calculated about it. The whole gypsy chapter really was out of left field for me—I straight up thought, “bruh,” when Rochester revealed himself. In addition, your paragraph on Rochester’s sexual exploits being lowkey like imperial/colonialist conquests was an idea that didn’t cross my mind during my reading of Jane Eyre, but now it just makes total sense. He really does brag about his love life to Jane (ugh, who does that when they’re proposing to someone??) and drop this not-so-subtle note on how experienced and playalistic he is. At least he’s inclusive. JK. Gotta love Rochester.

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