Spivak and Why Bertha’s Humanity is a Hard Question

Spivak’s primary argument is for an imperialist reading of feminism with the ultimate goal of “incit[ing] a degree of rage against the imperialist narrativization of history, precisely because it produces so abject a script for a female we would rather celebrate” (658). The “female we would rather celebrate” refers to Jane Eyre. The way Spivak constructs her argument is though the dichotomy of sexual reproduction versus soul making. She suggests that imperial constructions of “native” females (females from the impossible country) are more likely to engage in sexual reproduction, while “othered” females (females from the colonized country) must engage in soul making. She gives the example of Bertha Mason. Bertha is seen as being between an animal and a human because she Jamaican Creole. Therefore, Bertha is an imperially other (or lesser being) seen only as having a half formed (human) self. She needs to “make/ develop a soul” in order to be seen as an (equal?) individual to someone like Jane who already enjoys the imperial luxury of being recognized as someone with a soul.

The way I eventually came to understand this article (summarized in the first paragraph of this post) made me think about one of our in-class discussions: How do we/ can we analyze Berta Mason as a human being, rather than a psychological inverse of Jane? I remembered how much I struggled. I remembered thinking, “of course we should be able to view her as an individual,” yet I felt like I never had a full picture of her as a human. I kept getting sidetracked by the animalistic wat she was described. Spivak’s article helped me understand why I might have struggled so much: I couldn’t see past the imperial viewpoint held by the majority of the characters. I let their descriptions cloud my judgement. To the imperial characters, Bertha is an othered figure, someone/something not like them. They do not acknowledge Bertha’s humanity because she, as a lesser imperial figure, is a lesser human (if human at all).

 

 

Image of humanity
Image of the “other”

Dickens and Brönte: Class Morality and the Inbetweens

Class dynamic (and their relative morality) is a central theme in both Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre, yet these two texts display this theme differently. Dickens focuses his novel on the oppression of one group (working class) by another (the aristocracy) leads to revolution and the creation of an indiscriminate legal system. The working class characters such as Mr. Cruncher and the Mr. and Madam Defarge are less adherent to moralistic customs. Mr. Cruncher doesn’t approve of his wife praying and he is a body snatcher. The Defarge’s are planning a social coup, in which Madam Defarge is arguably the main organizer and after they succeed they are chief coordinators in the death of many individuals (the guard who gets his head cut off and the attempted execution of Charles Darnay, for example). The middle class individuals: Lucy, Charles Darnay, Miss Pross, Sydney Carton, and Mr. Lorry, are portrayed as socially upright. Miss Pross is a doting mother figure to Lucy. Lucy is the daughter-wife-mother trifecta of womanhood. Charles Darnay, Mr. Lorry, and Dr. Manette are all hard working business men who attempt to provide for the women (particularly Lucy). (I don’t mention the Marquis because he is an aristocrat and is likely shaped by growing negative sentiments towards the aristocracy.)

On the other hand, Brönte uses a first person “boundary” character (someone who straddles the class line due to particular socio-economic circumstances) in order to express the outright and subtle disregard for governesses (Poovey, 126). The moral interaction of class that is fairly well delineated in Dickens is undone in Jane Eyre. Jane is a moral character, one who does not tell lies, learns to be religiously minded thanks to her friend Helen, and is diligent in her work (if she is to be believed as a first person narrator, which is always questionable). While Jane is supposed to be of the middle class, many (upper) middle class characters such as Mrs. Reed, Mr. Brocklhurst, and Lady Ingram show disdain towards her. Her moral character seems to align with a middle class ideology. However, Jane is not fully within the middle or working class causing her to fall into a limbo from which (no matter her actual moral character) cannot fulfill middle or working class moral ideologies.

Some of the reasons this stark contrast may exist between Brönte’s portrayal and Dickens’ work is their biography. Dickens’ is more directly concerned with the notion of revolution and legal changes because he was a legal clerk, and Brönte is more concerned with the status of governesses because she was one. Another difference could be temporal. These two novels were written ten years apart. I have not yet decided on how these two depictions of class (and their appended morality) should be read but there is a question raised by the similarities and differences between these representations.

Bookends: The Parallel of Winterbourne and Daisy

Daisy Miller contains a variety of moments in which the texts seems torn about how Daisy should be received. Peter Brooks mentioned in his article, “Reading for the Plot” that “Plot is the principle of interconnectedness and intention which we cannot do without […] even such loosely articulated forms as the picaresque novel display devices of interconnectedness, structural repetitions that allow us to construct a whole.” His notion of structural repetition is an interesting lens through which to examine the repetitive structure of Daisy Miller and inquire as to why these structures might exist.

Daisy Miller contains a “bookend” scene structure, scenes that are nearly identical that appear at both the beginning and end of the novel. The novel begins with “[Winterbourne] was some seven-and-twenty years of age; when his friends spoke of him, they usually said that he was at Geneva ‘studying’. When his enemies spoke of him they said- but after all, he had no enemies […] What I should say is, simply, that when certain people spoke of him they affirmed that the reason of his spending so much time at Geneva was that he was extremely devoted to a lady who lived there- a foreign lady- a person older than himself” (James, 3). At the end of the novel a similar description is repeated: “Nevertheless, [Winterbourne] went back to Geneva, whence there continued to come the most contradictory accounts of his motives of sojourn: a report that he was ‘studying’ hard- an intimation that he is much interested in a very clever foreign lady” (64). The scene is phrased like contradictory gossip, similar to the gossip or doubt surrounding Daisy throughout the novel. It might be crazy, but what if the story’s presentation of Daisy Miller is a direct reflection of the story’s supposed narrator, Frederick Winterbourne?

The way this book seems to gossip about Winterbourne at the beginning and end remind me of the way Winterbourne considers Daisy. The terms he uses are contradictory, both unflattering and flattering. “She was very quiet, she sat in a charming tranquil attitude; but her lips and eyes were constantly moving” or “ He felt sorry for her- not exactly that he believed that she and completely lost her head, but because it was painful to hear so much that was pretty and undefended and natural assigned to a vulgar place among the categories of disorder” are two examples of contradictory descriptions that are assigned to Daisy (11, 54). The contradiction remains a similarity between the two characters until Winterbourne decides that he no longer cares what is true about Daisy: “A sudden illumination had been flashed upon the ambiguity of Daisy’s behaviour and the riddle had become easy to read. She was a young woman whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect” (59-60). Winterbourne’s decision to stop respecting Daisy destroys the “protection” of contradiction surrounding her and exposes her to judgment. The judgment upon Daisy breaks her connection with Winterbourne that had existed through their similar contradictory presentation making her useless in the novel. No one (except an omniscient author) could pass judgment on Winterbourne in the same way he passed judgment on Daisy so he is forced to return to Geneva, a limbo between acceptance and rejection; a place of contradictory existence. 

Lucie as Light

Lucie goes to see her father shortly after they speak of her impending marriage. She goes to him in the dark while he is sleeping. This scene is very similar to the scene in which Lucie first meets her father. They are in a dark room. She advances towards him in the dark. Both passages portray her as a spectral figure moving through the dark like an angel of light. For example, in the passage where Lucie first meets her father the novel describes how the light shifts from the face of Doctor Manette to the face of Lucie (51). She becomes “like a spirit beside him” (51). The later passage in which Lucie is checking on her father in the middle of the night she places a “needless candle” to one side and continues “creep[ing]” forward leaving the “shadow[s] at a distance” (231). Lucie is the figure that creates commonality between the two scenes. She is the ethereal creature that appears at the side of the Doctor when he most needs her.  She is a guiding force out of the darkness. She is the light. However, in the first scene she is the light arriving and in the latter she is the light leaving.

Lucie’s ethereal nature as a light has an impact on the mental health of others, particularly her father. The Doctor is unconscious in both situations of Lucie’s appearance. He is “unconscious of the figure [Lucie] that could have put out its hand and touched him” when she moves toward him in the room above the wine-shop (51). He moves from a state of being unconscious of her presence to being cured by it. The second scene is less psychological in his unconscious; he is physically asleep (231). However, the second scene has the Doctor moving from a consciousness of Lucie, their conversation about her upcoming marriage, to an unconscious state. The move from conscious to unconscious, unlike the move from unconscious to conscious, causes a reappearance of Doctor Manette’s illness for the nine days after she departs for the first half of her honeymoon. I believe Lucie’s ability here described in two paralleling cases concerning the mental health of her father, could also potentially be used in relation to other characters like Charles Darnay or Sydney Carton, though future research will have to be done in order to verify if these suspicions are reasonable or fanciful.