Jane Eyre and the Unnamed Narrator of Rebecca as Innocent Victims

February 11, 2019 by Essay Writer

A female victim in Gothic literature is typically innocent, unworldly and powerless, a useful stereotype creating tension and drama as well as encapsulating ideals of male desire. Jane Eyre has lived a sheltered life, unexposed to worldly dangers such as evil, insanity and true love. However, her demands for equality and responses to mistreatment show her to be independent and passionate. Similarly, the unnamed narrator of Rebecca embodies many characteristics of the conventional Gothic victim. Being self-deprecating, she experiences regular feelings of inferiority, both within her marriage and within society. Yet, by the end of the novel, she emerges as a headstrong, determined character who colludes with her murderer husband to achieve happiness.

Both characters develop during the course of the novel, overcoming their potential victim status. In the opening chapters of Jane Eyre, Bronte presents Jane as an innocent victim. She is mistreated by her aunt and John Reed who constantly remind her of her inferiority: “You are a dependent….you ought to beg and not to live here”. In Gothic style, she is punished by being locked in “the red-room” which Jane believes is haunted. Thus Bronte shows Jane as an innocent victim. She’s weak, powerless and unable to escape from her “prison”. Her reaction to the imprisonment is shown using short sentences and monosyllabic diction: “My heart beat thick, my head grew hot; a sound filled my ears”. Bronte’s tactile language demonstrates Jane’s terror and panic; the characteristic response of an innocent victim unable to control her fear. Furthermore, Bronte uses Jane’s defeatist attitude during her childhood to demonstrate her victimization as she accepts her powerlessness. She is self-pitying and self-deprecating when she speculates, “Why was I always suffering…..always accused, forever condemned?” and grows up without feeling love or approval.

The red-room becomes a recurring symbol. Jane is described as haunted by “the spasm of agony which clutched my heart when Mrs Reed….locked me a second time in the dark and haunted chamber”. Again her response is described in physical terms, almost melodramatically intense. Some structuralist critics have persuasively seen the red-room as a symbol of menstruation and suffering femininity, a place where Jane must learn to be submissive and obedient. Furthermore, Bessie’s threat to have Jane “tied down” in the red-room significantly parallels the experience of Bertha Mason, both female victims who have to be controlled. These structural similarities imply that Bertha is Jane’s passionate, sexual and fierce alter ego, suggesting that Jane learns to repress her culturally unacceptable wilfulness and rage. Jane as represents the ego whilst Bertha represents the id. Bertha acts on her natural urges and desires without thinking of the consequences. On the other hand, Jane restrains her passions and always makes a moral choice.

Jane’s time at Lowood contributes to her status as innocent victim. She is persecuted by Brocklehurst who calls her a “liar” and humiliates her by forcing her to “stand half an hour longer on that stool”. This episode presents Jane as a victim as, accused of being sinful, she is unable to defend herself. Jane is ensnared by oppressive 19th century beliefs about religion, women and social hierarchy. Bronte makes clear that her closeted existence at Lowood means she has lived a sheltered life and is therefore naive. Rochester realizes this and says “You have lived the life of a nun”. Jane’s education does not prepare her for later life due to Brocklehurst’s view that his girls must not “conform to nature”. This supports the assertion that Jane is presented as an innocent victim as her inexperience means she is powerless against the dangerous reality of the outside world.

Jane’s journey to find freedom, self-respect and acceptance ultimately allows her to overcome the patriarchal oppression characterized first by John Reed, then Brocklehurst and finally Rochester; an embodiment of Gothic masculinity which assumes power and control over an innocent female.

Jane is presented as a victim in her relationship with Rochester as well. He manipulates her into revealing her feelings towards him, cunningly trying to trick Jane into admitting her love by disguising himself as a gypsy. Later, Bronte shows Rochester goading Jane into accepting his marriage proposal with his urgency and reiterated commands: “Jane, accept me quickly. Say, Edward – give me my name”. Jane’s unhappy life means that she is suspicious of romantic affection and believes Rochester is joking: “I thought he mocked me”. When Jane attempts to escape from Thornfield after she discovers that Rochester is married, Rochester says he will “try violence” to stop her.

On the other hand, Jane does not fully embody the stereotype of innocent victim. Bronte presents a character that is passionate, independent, and ambitious although she struggles against the 19th century expectations of women. A woman was supposed to be passive and submissive to masculine authority; she was not meant to reveal anger or sexual desire. With the character of Jane Eyre, Bronte challenges these expectations by creating a heroine who is at least, if not more, intellectually ambitious and passionate than her male counterparts. She refuses to live a loveless life with Rivers, rejecting his attempts to make her feel guilty: “It was my time to assure ascendancy. My powers were in play and in force”. This language of power reveals the recognition of Jane’s autonomy. The balanced cadences and the god-like, magisterial imagery show how Jane is assuming authority. Furthermore, the burning of Thornfield and Rochester’s blinding symbolizes the ascent of female power and male emasculation. It seems Bertha, that transgressive female, is successful in her revenge on her oppressor: “She was on the roof….waving her arms above the battlements”.  

Throughout the novel Bronte presents Jane as strong and determined with her regular demands for equality: “Women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties…as much as their brothers do”. Although Jane is shown as passive and obedient in her role as a governess, having learned to confine her egotistical desires within the provenance of duty, she stands up for her beliefs and demands justice for all. The child Jane retaliates against John Reed’s mistreatment of her: “What a fury to fly at Master John!” Here, she is not passive and docile like the stereotypical Gothic victim although arguably the character is then the victim of punishment for refusing to acquiesce to her own humiliation. Again, Rochester meets his equal in Jane and his paradoxical assertion, with its undercurrents of sexuality, “Jane, you please me and you master me”, shows that Jane satisfies his desires and yet he feels her power over him. Bronte shows Jane refusing to submit herself to his authority. When she leaves Thornfield, Rochester attempts to emotionally blackmail her by saying she is “the instrument of evil” to the one she “wholly loves” and Jane responds by demonstrating her independence: “I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you”. Bronte shows the reversal of the power relationships and, exerting her own will, Jane achieves authority unheard of in her cultural context.

The unnamed narrator of Rebecca also seems to embody many characteristics of an innocent victim in a Gothic romance, Radway perfectly summing up the character: “she’s obsessed with her unexceptional appearance….sexually innocent and highly romantic…..marked by a self-deprecatory tendency”. The Girl suffers many of Jane Eyre’s social disadvantages, being impoverished and orphaned but a lady’s companion rather than a governess. Simple and unappealing, with her “straight, bobbed hair and youthful, unpowdered face”, the narrator is an ugly duckling, presented as the antithesis of glamorous Rebecca. Unlike Jane, the narrator is shown to be unadventurous when Beatrice asks “You don’t sail by any chance, do you?” and the Girl responds “No”. Similar to Jane Eyre, the text uses the physical environment to dramatize the protagonist’s situation; Maxim locating the Girl’s bedroom over the cultivated flower garden while Rebecca’s room overlooks the restless sea, implies that such passivity is desirable for the mistress of Manderley.

Du Maurier’s protagonist is regularly overcome by feelings of inferiority arising from frequent comparisons with Rebecca and the stress of Maxim’s unfamiliar, upper-class lifestyle. Clearly, like Jane, marriage is not one of social equals with Maxim prosaically stating that, “instead of being companion to Mrs Van Hopper you become mine, and your duties will be almost exactly the same”. The formal language and use of the word “duties” suggests a commercial transaction rather than a declaration of love.

Rochester’s marriage to the socially inferior Jane Eyre parallels this familiar theme of romantic novels in which women are presented as advancing through marriage. Like Jane, the Girl could be seen as being an innocent victim in her relationship with the older, more powerful Maxim, who continuously refers to her as a “child”. The narrator reveals that she has no concept of love and her response to Maxim’s proposal, “Yes of course. Romantic…….It was all very sudden and romantic”, highlights her naivety. The narrator is established as easy prey as, like Jane, she lacks the experience to realise when she’s being mistreated by Maxim. In the face of his exclamation, “To hell with this”, the Girl merely cries, reinforcing her status as a helpless victim.

Maxim is sometimes cruel and heartless in his mockery of the narrator which, Du Maurier suggests, worsens her feelings of inferiority: “be Alice in Wonderland…….you look like it now with your finger in your mouth”. Maxim infantilizes the Girl, comparing her to “Alice in Wonderland” reinforcing her status as an innocent victim as similarly, the character of Alice is child-like and curious. Du Maurier sustains the Gothic impenetrability of Maxim’s mysterious nature as the reader, who as in Bronte’s text, essentially shares the protagonist’s narrative perspective, is never certain whether he is joking.

There is a subtle threat of violence surrounding Rochester and Maxim which emphasises Jane’s and the Girl’s vulnerabilities. Maxim’s threatening presence makes tangible the Girl’s vulnerability; to the narrator’s request that he would treat her “like other men treat their wives”, Maxim replies “Knock you about, you mean?” The reader wonders whether Maxim is capable of physical cruelty which foreshadows his potential for murder.

Both texts use female characters to tempt the main protagonists to despair of romance, though to differing extents. As Jane’s insecurities are played on by Blanche’s hostility, the Girl is completely victimized by Danvers who is determined to keep Rebecca’s presence alive. Danvers manipulates the narrator into wearing the same dress that Rebecca wore to a party and this causes the Girl to believe her marriage is over: “Rebecca was still mistress of Manderley….I should never be rid of Rebecca”. Rebecca is a revenant in the Gothic tradition whose existence is felt throughout Manderley and it could be argued that the narrator is victimized by Rebecca’s immortal presence.

Danvers goads the narrator into jumping out of the window because her life is meaningless: “What’s the use of your staying here in Manderley…There’s not much for you to live for”. The Girl’s subdued response to these taunts reinforces her status as an innocent victim as she is weak and powerless to stand up to Danvers: “I stared at her…..stiff and wooden like a dummy.” Like Bertha, Danvers could be viewed as manifesting the protagonists’ repressed self. Rebecca has been seen as reflecting the Girl’s unfulfilled desires, an idea implied by the description of the Girl looking in the mirror and seeing Rebecca’s face smiling back.

Finally, it is implied that Danvers, another mad woman in the attic perhaps, sets fire to Manderley in an act of revenge for Rebecca. The narrator does not achieve her happy ending; she becomes homeless with a husband who has lost his identity and status. However, in each novel, the house (a symbol of patriarchal power) burns down and in each case, the female protagonist assumes an authoritative role on new ground. This seems to perhaps challenge the patriarchal narrative that success for women lies in marriage to a successful man who is part of the “Establishment”.

Like Jane, the narrator of Rebecca does not fully embody the stereotype of innocent victim in a Gothic text as she too develops throughout the novel. The turning point is when she learns Maxim’s secret and he notes that the Girl has lost her innocence: “It’s gone forever, that funny, young, lost look”. The Girl becomes stronger and, determined in her efforts to protect her husband, becomes murderous in desire, praying “Please God make Baker be dead”. The narrator now understands Maxim and demands that they go through Rebecca’s trial together. Like Rochester, Maxim is blinded and dependent on the Girl. When Maxim loses hope the narrator emerges as a cool-headed, capable woman and the traditional power relations are reversed: “Rebecca is dead. She can’t speak…..she can’t harm you any more”. The repetition of “She can’t” demonstrates the Girl’s confidence and defiance of the woman she previously admired.

In both novels, the journey from ingénue to powerful, married woman gives hope of transformation and creates drama and suspense. Undoubtedly, Jane Eyre and the unnamed narrator of Rebecca embody many characteristics of the innocent victim. Both novels exploit similar Gothic elements, in particular, the revenant who haunts the heroine and who is created by the protagonist’s socially unacceptable desires. For the first part of each story, Jane and the Girl are self-deprecating, submissive and powerless. Furthermore, they both have relationships with men who can be cruel, cold and threatening. However, as the novels progress, both characters emerge as intelligent, determined and capable, challenging Gothic stereotypes of victimhood. However, at the end of both novels, the characters have developed into more powerful females who have gained control of their lives and circumstances.

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