Unconventional Narration: It Runs in the Family

In the nineteenth century, the Bronte sisters took the literary world by storm, with the release of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and her younger sister, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

In Wuthering Heights, the story of Catherine, Heathcliff, and the remainder of the Earnshaw and Linton families is told through a narrator finding out information from another narrator. To break that down, Lockwood is learning about the characters and their stories through Nelly, their former servant, and he is attempting to tell the story that he heard from a first-hand witness. So, basically, he is the secondary source, telling the story with some things lost in time – whether that’s Nelly’s fault for over-embellishing or his own for misinterpreting the complexity of the events.

Emily’s sister Charlotte, however, took a different approach of story-telling. In Jane Eyre, an older Jane is recounting her life. Although a fictional character, Jane’s story is being told in the form of a memoir within a story. Wuthering Heights adopts a similar style of a “story being told within a story” with the complexity of the narrators. In Wuthering Heights, I would definitely argue that Lockwood and Nelly are unreliable narrators, because they are both flawed in their story-telling, as mentioned above. Though many people wouldn’t consider Jane to be an unreliable narrator, I would argue the opposite, since her story is not being told in the present tense and as an older version of herself, her reflection and perspective of the events that happened may be more skewed than if they were told in the present tense.

Both stories are being recounted from past events, which makes for unreliable narrators, one is being told from a first-hand account, the other is being told from a second-hand account. For me, making the connections between these two novels stylistically enabled me to think about narration impacted the story-telling of each one, and whether or not having non-conventional styles affected the how I perceived the events of each story. Though different texts, the connection between the two styles of narration that the two Brontes used do have one main thing in common: they’re both stories-within-stories and frankly, can be quite complex.

Ahead of the Times: Disability Studies in Jane Eyre

Although Disability Studies (the study and framework based around disabilities, both physical and mental, and what roles they play in society, or cultural perception) didn’t come to fruition until the late 20th century, I think that it can be used to analyze the character of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, a nineteenth century novel.

We get introduced to the character of Bertha in Chapter 26, when Mr. Rochester is explaining to Jane why their wedding got interrupted – and more importantly, why a woman who was his ex-wife had been living in the attic that was deemed “insane.” Rochester describes Bertha’s insanity to Jane, that he had “been awakened by her yells – since the medical men had pronounced her mad […] I was physically influenced by the atmosphere and scene and my ears were filled with the curses the maniac still shrieked out; wherein she momentarily mingled my name with such a tone of demon-hate, with such language! No professed harlot ever had a fouler vocabulary than she! (302)

What intrigues me about this quote, and the way Mr. Rochester handled the situation with his ex-wife is that there seemed to be a lot of ignorance when it came to mental health in those days. Obviously, Bertha was crazed and a lunatic, as she was yelling in the night and exhibiting other sickly behavior while married to Rochester, but locking her in an attic doesn’t seem like the best solution to me. Even though “medical men” were mentioned in this passage, who I assume are the professionals that diagnosed Bertha as “crazy,” the care and treatment of people with mental disabilities wasn’t something that was prioritized. After all, would a doctor today really advise locking a mentally insane woman in an attic? Sure, there are things like solitary confinement for really mentally ill patients today, but would Bertha really be qualified as such if she was being treated? To me, Bertha’s side of the story and her illness is ironically being silenced by her screams and needs to be heard. I can’t help but wonder if Bertha would be considered this insane if given the proper treatment, and why exactly did mental illness have such a stigma at the time?

How Gender Roles Are Defied in Jane Eyre

“I am glad you are no relation of mine: I will never call you aunt again as long as I live […] You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so: and you have no pity […] People think you a good woman, but you are bad; hard-hearted. You are deceitful!” (49)

“Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty.” (49)

In this passage, we see Jane defy her aunt, or as we would say in the 21st century, “drag” her. This stood out to me as especially significant because up until this point in literature (for the most part, I don’t want to discount any other works that may be less well-known or that I’m forgetting), we haven’t seen a female character speak her mind as bluntly, or to the extent that Jane doing in this passage. After so many years of being controlled by her aunt, Jane defies the role of women, and also children in this narrative—normally, women were supposed to stay silent and obedient, much like children.

What is interesting here is that even though Aunt Reed is a woman, most of the qualities Jane attributes to her are ones that wouldn’t have been used to describe a female: “without one bit of love or kindness,” or “you are bad, hard-hearted.” As shown in another text from this time period, Daisy Miller, women were supposed to maintain an image of being kind, gentle, and nurturing. However, Jane and her Aunt go against these traditional female roles here—but for different reasons. As mentioned previously, many of the adjectives used to describe Aunt Reed are not the typical “feminine” descriptors. Rather, Aunt Reed is taking on a more masculine, authoritarian role through her oppression and control of Jane.

In the second passage, where we hear an older Jane muse on her outburst, she seems liberated by her own actions. As a young female, Jane shows the reader her strong-willed, determined, and simply put: badass self. Whether it was meant to be a feminist statement or not, I, for one, felt that this passage would have opened up the 19th century reader to the notion that yes, school girls are capable of defending themselves too.

The Allure of Daisy Miller

When Winterbourne first meets Daisy Miller, he is immediately awestruck by her beauty and passive yet “flirtatious” nature. Speaking generally, what stood out to me is how quickly Winterbourne was willing to drop everything and tell his aunt how he wanted to run away with Daisy—all of which he seemed to want based on seeing her. On an analytical level, this suggests his physical infatuation with her is what is driving the relationship. This is shown throughout the novel, beginning with some of their first interactions. Upon meeting Daisy, Winterbourne is constantly mentioning how she is an American woman, and how physically attractive he believes American women to be. how he has never been with an American woman before. Winterbourne remarks “Never indeed, since he had grown old enough to appreciate things, had he encountered a young American girl of so pronounced a type as this. Certainly she was very charming; but deucedly sociable! Was she simply a pretty girl […] or was she also a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person? Winterbourne had lost his instinct in this matter, and his reason could not help him. […] But this young girl was not a coquette in that sense; she was very unsophisticated; she was only a pretty American flirt.” (12) In this passage, he seems to be acknowledging that yes, she’s American, and yes, she’s pretty—however, besides those two things, she doesn’t have very many redeeming qualities. He calls her “unsophisticated” and notes how she only seems to have her flirtatious nature going for her. Instead of seeking out qualities that one would typically look for in a mate, Winterbourne doesn’t seem to care that in his eyes, all Daisy has going for her is her physicality.

Daisy’s allure as a beautiful, American woman is what seems to get her further in her relationship with Winterbourne, which is noticeable when they are on the boat to Chillon. It is said that “She was apparently not at all excited; she was not fluttered; she avoided neither his eyes nor those of any one else. […] People continued to look at her a great deal, and Winterbourne took much satisfaction in his pretty companion’s distinguished air. […] He quite forgot his fears, he sat smiling, with his eyes upon her face.” (28) This passage shows how Winterbourne is wanting to be with Daisy because of the image she gives off to others—he relishes in the appeal of his female companion, taking pride in how others are looking at her and must be jealous of how he has such a beautiful woman. Daisy’s lack of an emotional connection with Winterbourne is forgotten whenever he looks at her, because it is her face that shapes their relationship, or rather, lack thereof.

Some of the language that is used to describe Daisy not only in these two passages, but throughout the entire book is “flirtatious” or “coquette.” I find this language to be ironic, considering her way of flirting usually takes the form of avoiding Winterbourne and ignoring what he has to say. These words to describe her are perhaps an illusion of Winterbourne’s and correspond to the image that he has created in his head of her based strictly based on assumption and observation. He seems to be in lust with an idealized version of Daisy, rather than the “real” Daisy who lacks substance.

The Setting of Tellson’s Bank

“Thus it had come to pass, that Tellson’s was the triumphant perfection of inconvenience. After bursting open a door of idiotic obstinacy (stubbornness) with a weak rattle in its throat, you fell into Tellson’s down two steps, and came to your senses in a miserable little shop […]” (51)

In this passage, although it has been mentioned before, the reader is being formally introduced to Tellson’s, a bank that becomes a central setting in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. What immediately stuck out to me in this description of Tellson’s is that Dickens describes it as “the triumphant perfection of inconvenience.” Not only is the statement an oxymoron, but it also ties into the background of one of the main characters, Lucie. As an orphan who was told that her parents were dead, Lucie ended up being taken from France to England, where she was raised at Tellson’s Bank. What makes this significant is that in the novel, Lucie is often referred to as a being with what was culturally known as “perfection” at the time (and for the most part, still is when it comes to standards of beauty for women)—young, fair, radiant, well-mannered. In a novel about a dark time in history, although she is not meant to be in England, Lucie, a Frenchwoman, represents the hidden beauty in a time of strife being the “triumphant perfection of inconvenience” by being accidentally sent as something that the gloomy setting of Tellson’s needs.

From a historical standpoint, the bank could be described as such a miserable place because it is a bank, which at the time of the French Revolution, was not a particularly thriving location, as most of France was suffering from extreme hunger and property. The vivid description of the atmosphere, namely how upon entrance, one is likely to fall down the stairs and how it is a “miserable little shop” relates to the other characters that are associated with it. Because of the economic disparity at the time, it is described as a place where documents and money go to die. However, money is not the only thing that is going to die at Tellson’s. Namely, Mr. Cruncher, who resides outside of Tellson’s and is a body-snatcher contributes to the death and inhumanity of the bank; as his “profession” of digging up dead bodies quickly becomes one of his more identifiable character traits, This adds to the characterization of the setting of Tellson’s as a location where things go to die—whether it be documents or people, or in Cruncher’s case, people who are already dead.  My big point is that in a book about the French Revolution, it makes sense that one of the central settings has a connection to death and being miserable, however, if one looks far enough, one is able to find beauty within it.