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Silence in Jane Eyre

Symposia, The Politics of Sacred Texts

Like all sacred texts, Jane Eyre does not simply offer clear, direct answers to the questions I ask of it. It requires, rather, the work of exegesis.

A year ago, I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement and leave my job. That’s all I’m allowed to say about it.

I had a fantasy that when I left that job, I had disrupted their system of awful behavior. I thought that maybe by making them give me something for my silence, I made them hurt just enough to make them think about what they did. It turns out that I gagged myself at negligible cost to them, and that the entire ordeal was, for them, unpleasant, but utterly forgettable. Part of what has become clear as the conversation around “Time’s Up/Me Too” gets both louder and more nuanced is that my experience is far from unique. There is a system in place to silence women who have had the gall to be mistreated, and it is enabled by those in power who aware of misbehavior and stay silent.

In wrestling with this experience, I turned, as many do at difficult times, to a kind of scripture. For the last several years, I have been treating Bronte’s Jane Eyre as a sacred text; bringing questions to it and seeing what answers it can give me. Presumed in my experiment is that sacred is an act, not a thing. If I can decide that Jane Eyre is sacred that means that it is the actions that I take that will make it so. The decision to treat Jane as sacred is an important first step, surely, but that is all the decision is; one step. The ritual, the engagement with the thing is what makes the thing sacred, a process of exegesis, faith, and prayer.

The questions that I want to ask Jane Eyre at this moment are 1) How do we make things right by the victims who have come forward in this Time’s Up moment? And 2) what do we do about the women who are still trapped?

Like all sacred texts, Jane Eyre does not simply offer clear, direct answers to the questions I ask of it. It requires, rather, the work of exegesis. In many ways, Jane Eyre is a tale of two women, Jane and Bertha. Jane’s story is the one that fills the 600-page novel. We learn of her childhood, her education, her employment. We learn about her family and friends. We are inside her head as she tells us her story, one of nuance and complexity.

Bertha’s plot points in the novel are simple. As soon as Jane moves to Thornfield Hall to act as a Governess, it is clear that something is not right in the mansion. There is random, ghostly laughing heard from somewhere unseen and undeterminable. Mr. Rochester’s bed is set on fire while he is asleep in it. A visitor named Mason is attacked in the middle of the night; bitten or stabbed. After Jane and the master of the house, Rochester, become engaged, someone sneaks into Jane’s room, stares Jane in the face, and then cuts up her bridal veil. On the day of the wedding, all of these events are revealed to be the work of Bertha, Rochester’s mad wife, for whom he has cared by locking in the attic.

After Jane learns of Bertha’s existence, Rochester offers to take care of Jane financially and have her act as his mistress, offering to move with her to France, where no one will know that they are not married. He offers her, in other words, a kind of NDA that purports to assure her financial stability and happiness, while offering no guarantee from him, no legal protections. Instead of accepting this offer, Jane does something very brave and bold and decides to leave on her own, in the middle of the night and with almost no money. She struggles terribly for a time, but ultimately learns she has inherited a fortune, and is able to return to Rochester in a position of considerably-increased agency. Jane ends the novel wealthy and reunited with her lover, while Bertha ends with her head “bashed on cobblestone”.

When I sat down to embark on an experiment of treating Jane Eyre as sacred, I knew that Bertha would give me problems. I am someone who has all but left traditional religion because I do not find that it appropriately accounts for people’s suffering. So, I was nervous that my favorite novel would come up short for me in the same way that religion does. Bertha, I feared, would not have a theological justification for her suffering that was strong enough to satisfy me.

I have been treating Jane Eyre as sacred, with regularity and some rigor for four years now. And Bertha and I have gotten much closer in that time. She has meant many things to me at different moments. But at this moment, Bertha is the unheard women yet to be accounted for in this current reckoning of ours. She is our warning, our caution and our yet-to-be-dealt-with responsibility. Bertha is the woman who is still unable to speak to even worse crimes being perpetrated against her, even in this revolution. Bertha is the silent, marginalized woman who is only seen when a more powerful woman comes forward, but whose options are still nearly impossibly few. When she sets the fire in which she is killed, she is seeking an end to her imprisonment at any cost, even that of her own life. Bertha isn’t the secret in the attic of Jane Eyre. Bertha is the truth at the heart of Jane Eyre.

Reading Jane Eyre in the middle of this revolution, I am confronted by a thousand questions. Do we judge Jane for leaving Bertha locked in that attic in order to seek her own freedom? Should we read Rochester’s injury in a fire set by Bertha as a kind of punishment or penance, or is he ultimately just another person in a position of power whose misdeeds do not prohibit him a happy ending? An at the novel’s end, I am still left with the questions I posed earlier: how do we make things right by those who have come forward and what do we do about those are still trapped?

Jane Eyre does not sufficiently account for the suffering of the most marginalized, most vulnerable among us. But maybe it is not up to the things that we treat as sacred to do that work, but up to us to try to do it. Or maybe that is the point of sacred texts; to be insufficient and leave us to do our work in the real world.

One signs an NDA for lots of reasons. I signed in part because I was suddenly unsafe in my job, could not return, and needed the money offered as part of the NDA to survive until I could figure out a next step. Given that it was not in any way my fault that I was now unsafe in my job, that seemed fair. But I also signed the NDA in exchange for a gesture. I signed it because I hoped that what I got in exchange was a gesture that the leadership of the organization understood what they did wrong and would do better.

It is a year later, and I have heard many reports that things are exactly the same in that attic. I thought by having them give me something in exchange for the NDA I was burning the place down. But it turns out I’m not nearly as cool as Bertha – I made no structural damage. But I take comfort in the fact that just because I cannot talk about things I’ve signed away doesn’t mean that I can’t talk about Bertha.

Symposium Essays

The Authority of the Book

…any consideration of the question of the political implications of naming certain scriptures ‘sacred’ will be severely limited if it is not attentive to sacred scriptures qua material (or digital) books.

John Howell

Nahodishgish, or The Midnight Monument

Perhaps most crucially, one needs to know by whose authority any particular “text” is so named.

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