115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Rochester in Repose at Ferndean: Bluebeard Redeemed or the Abuses of Enchantment?

Emily Foster, Columbia University

In 1697, Charles Perrault published a discomfiting fairy tale that he had retrieved from French-European folk culture. In Perrault’s “Barbe-bleue,” or “Bluebeard,” a mature nobleman of wealth and power seduces, weds, confines, and grotesquely kills a string of luckless damsels. Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester is Bluebeard—a Gothic villain who receives no redemption in Perrault’s fairy tale, but is offered an uncanny form of salvation in the denouement of Brontë’s novel. 

Proposal: 

A self-described “unfeeling, loose-principled rake,” Brontë’s Mr. Rochester weds Bertha Mason meretriciously, appropriates her wealth, locks her away on the uppermost floor of his manor house, and then tries to seduce Jane Eyre.[1] Rochester selects Jane as Bertha’s successor in much the same way that all of Bluebeard’s wives succeed one another in a grotesque fantasy procession. Jane herself describes Thornfield as “like…some Bluebeard’s castle.”[2]

But Brontë presents us with two Rochesters: unredeemed and redeemed; rake and penitent; “before” and “after.” In the original Bluebeard tale, Bluebeard is killed and our damsel is rescued: end of story. There is no “after,” no Bluebeard 2.0. I hope to demonstrate that in the final chapters of Jane Eyre, Brontë supplies us with that Bluebeard 2.0, in the person of Rochester: a redeemed and reconstructed Bluebeard with a different—although perhaps equally unenviable—fate. When Bertha sets Thornfield aflame, Rochester is maimed and blinded is his attempt to save her. Critics have taken widely divergent views regarding Rochester’s maiming. Gilbert and Gubar interpret Rochester’s blinding and mutilation as a win/win, since they render our two lovers “equals” with “no fear of one exploiting the other.”[3] Less sanguine critics, such as Harold Bloom, view Rochester’s maiming as Brontë’s sadistic, displaced “vengeance upon Byron.”[4] I will explore whether the fate of Rochester in his incapacitated state of repose at Ferndean might not be more complicated, and far more uncannily Gothic, than prior commentary has acknowledged.

Jane Eyre depicts various forms of vision impairment: constricted or occluded ways of seeing, disabilities ranging from blindness (Rochester) to confinement in a tiny, windowless space (Bertha in the Thornfield attic; young Jane in the Red Room). In his blinded state, Rochester’s life resembles the same Gothic horror-show that he has inflicted upon Bertha. Left in literal darkness, Rochester now walks only “slowly and gropingly”: “all to him [is] void darkness.”[5] Within this “void” of “darkness,” Rochester is offered a form of redemption unavailable to Bluebeard: he is permitted to repent for his sins in the form of dependence on Jane.

We as readers likewise depend entirely on Jane as our narrator, which allows her to paint Rochester’s reliance upon her as matrimonial bliss, and their remote country estate at Ferndean as an Eden. But is Jane’s narratological vision 20-20, or is it distorted? Rochester, who is granted no more narrative authority in Brontë’s text than is Bertha Mason, cannot tell us his side of the story. And though Thornfield is regarded as one of the eeriest physical spaces in literature, it might appear relatively cheerful if closely studied side-by-side with Ferndean. I will explore this contrast between Thornfield and Ferndean as Gothic “spaces,” and examine whether Jane is a more menacing narrative presence than that contemplated in prior interpretations—while keeping the original Bluebeard’s castle, and the atrocities committed there, as a contextual backdrop against which Brontë arrays her characters.

[1] Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Penguin Classics, 2006), 359.

[2] Ibid, 126.

[3] Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic,2nd Ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 369.

[4] Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Interpretations: Jane Eyre (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), 3.

[5] Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Penguin Classics, 2006), 498.

Topic Area: