Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Imagined’ Indianness: Homogenized Othering as a Mimetic Response in Jane Eyre

Debarati Goswami, Independent Researcher, Virginia, USA


This paper problematises Charlotte Bronte’s historically specific, religiously biased and homogenized underrepresentation of Indianness, considering Hinduism as an exchangeable term for Indianness, in Jane Eyre and claims this homogenized Othering to be a mimetic response. It concentrates on the Self/ Other dichotomy constructed through the characters of Jane Eyre and St John, both representing the British and Christian Self, and their individual approaches of Othering Indianness which resulted in a Self/Other polarisation in the Christian Self itself. Considering Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, the objective of the paper is to study Bronte’s twofold way of homogenously Othering Indianness through Jane and St John, with an implication of doubly Othering the non-Hindu and non-Hindustani speaking Indians. It attempts to legitimize the novel as a quintessential discourse of British Selfhood besides being a mimetic response to the British social institutions which ‘constructed’ Jane as the marginalized “Other” in this autobiographical fiction.

[Keywords: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, homogenized Othering, René Girard, Theory of mimetic desire]

At a conference titled “Europe and its Others” at Essex, while articulating the European strategy of representing itself as the sovereign Self and its colonies as Others or “programmed near-images of that very sovereign Self” (Spivak b. 247) , in her essay “The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives”, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak proposed:

On a somewhat precious register of literary theory it is possible to say that this was the construction of a fiction whose task was to produce a whole collection of “effects of the real,” and that the “misreading” of this “fiction” produced the proper name “India” (para. 6).

By grounding its research on the mimetic aspect of the homogenised Othering of Indianness in Jane Eyre, this paper engages itself in problematicing Charlotte Bronte’s ‘constructed’ representation of Indianness in the novel. It prefers the use of the word ‘Indianness’ to ‘India’ as Bronte’s contemptuous Othering in the novel was meant for anything representing or containing the essence of the abstract notion of the colonized, ‘coloured’ object ‘India’ rather than for the landmass with well defined geographical referents called ‘India’.

Entitled Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, during its first publication, the novel narrates the journey of an impoverished and orphan eponymous protagonist towards the attainment of her Feminine Selfhood, battling against the conventional patriarchal institutions of family, educational institution, class hierarchy, marriage and even religion. According to Margaret Howard Blom, the novel “(T)races an individual’s desperate struggle against insuperable odds to establish and maintain a sense of her own identity and to satisfy the deepest needs of her nature” (Blom 87). The reception of the novel with wide global acclamation and the erudite interpretations of its various universally appealing themes consolidated its acceptance as a canonical text. However, Bronte’s constructed narrativization of a historically specific socio-historical scenario of India through a religiously biased and homogenized Othering of Indianness, with a specific underrepresentation of Hinduism, proves to be a problematic. An attempt to discover India or Indianness through its representation in Jane Eyre is bound to lead a reader, alien to Indian history, to a factitious understanding of the nation and its socio-historical past from the viewpoint of the “master narrative that could be called ‘the history of Europe’” (Chakrabarty 1). This paper, thus, accentuates on the homogenous Othering of the mainstream Hindu population of India and doubly Othering the marginalised Indians primarily by homogenizing its religious plurality, multiculturalism and multilingualism which together constitute Indianness. The itinerary of this research sequentially includes a textual analysis of the underrepresentation of Indianness through the characters of Mr. Brocklehurst, Jane and St John, Jane’s Othering of Indianness as a response to the British patriarchal institutions which ‘constructed’ her as the marginalized “Other” in the novel and a psychoanalytic interpretation of her homogenous Othering of the Indianness as a mimetic act on the basis of René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire.

As a quintessential discourse of Imperial subject construction, this novel has genuinely represented the British and Christian spirit and the sovereign Self through a meticulous Othering of Indianness, the paradigm of which was profoundly religious, besides being racial. As a testament to establish corroboration of this proposition one must critically focus on the denigrating words of Mr. Brocklehurst, “the black marble clergyman” (81), self-righteous and fastidious proprietor of Jane’s Lowood institution. In a Biblical reference, in her Preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, Bronte wrote, “Ahab did not like Micaiah, because he never prophesied good concerning him, but evil…” (xxxvii). This allusion justifies Jane’s contempt for Mr. Brocklehurst whose prime concern was to uphold the doctrines advocated by the Evangelical Anglicans in general and by the Methodists in particular (DeVere web) and who was entrusted with the responsibility of guiding Jane on a virtuous path by her aunt Mrs Reed. Like Micaiah, prophesying evil concerning Ahab, Mr. Brocklehurst despised Jane and once decried her for her lack of essential Christian virtues, in the following words:

(A) little castaway: not a member of the true flock, but evidently an interloper and an alien. You must be on your guard against her; you must shun her example; if necessary, avoid her company, exclude her from your sports, and shut her out from your converse. Teachers, you must watch her: keep your eyes on her movements, weigh well her words, scrutinise her actions, punish her body to save her soul: if, indeed, such salvation be possible, for (my tongue falters while I tell it) this girl, this child, the native of a Christian land, worse than many a little heathen who says its prayers to Brahma and kneels before Juggernaut — this girl is — a liar! (81).

From the perspective of this study, the above speech leads to at least two problems and one hypothesis. First, Bronte’s intention behind making Mr. Brocklehurst insolently refer to the shibboleths of Hinduism was a dissimulation, as Jane was not the signified but a signifier representing the polytheistic population whom the British needed to ‘watch’, ‘scrutinise’ and ‘punish’ for their heathen ways and guide them to ‘salvation’. Second, the insinuation drawn from the possessive determiner ‘its’ again highlights Bronte’s racial abandonment of the belittled population by reducing their identity to a homogenous, singular inanimate object. As the religious or communal group alluded to in the speech remains unspecified, the paper assumes that those polytheistic heathens stand the possibility of belonging either to the mainstream colonized elites group or marginalised communities or even to the ethnic groups of the British colonies. The rationale behind this assumption is that Bronte refers to some of the non-white or rather non- British races in the novel, the African slaves, Persians, Turks and Native Americans, besides Indians, and so it is difficult to specify the exact community she refers to in the speech. Susan Meyer calls this European notion of colonial culture and their tendency of alienating themselves from the colonized natives as “Eurocentric idea of colonized savages” (Meyer 45). Since Mr. Brocklehurst makes an allusion to the Hindu deities, from the standpoint of this research, the paper hypothetically claims that this speech has a disparaging allusion to the “colonized savages” and marginalised citizenry of the undivided nineteenth century India who definitely contributed to the omnium gatherum of Indian culture or Indianness although they were not considered as a part of the majoritarian population…Access Full Text of the Article

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