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Backwards Birth in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea(29 Jan 2015)
By Miss Louise Benson James

The womb is a primary Gothic emblem. For male Gothic writers, the womb figures as a space of simultaneous fear and desire, symbolising both creation, and death: the tomb. In the female Gothic, as Claire Kahane argues, womb imagery can suggest a female Gothic fear of woman becoming enslaved by her own body: ‘images of the womb as the mummy’s tomb, of penetration, impregnation, and childbirth as female Gothic terrors, committing women to an imprisoning biological destiny that denies the autonomy of the self. The Gothic fear is revealed as the fear of femaleness itself, perceived as threatening to one’s wholeness, obliterating the very boundaries of self’. 

There is a hitherto unexplored acute and repressed fear of birth, or more specifically, the reproductive functions of the female body, the fear of femaleness, in Jane Eyre. Jane employs numerous childbirth metaphors, always negative and more often than not violent and gruesome, for example: ‘I strangled a new born agony – a deformed thing which I could not persuade myself to own or rear’.  Most significantly, Jane has dreams which involve an infant, a ‘baby-phantom’ which she reads as a ‘presentiment’, ‘a sure sign of trouble’, a portent of doom.  I disagree with the critics who, like Gilbert & Gubar, read the infant as Jane’s own ‘orphaned alter-ego’. The dream indicates Jane’s fear of the experience of childbirth.

There is a significant doubling of Jane Eyre’s central Gothic figure, Bertha Mason, in that of the baby phantom. Just as Bertha makes her presence known through alternating cries and laughter, Jane says: ‘it was a wailing child this night, and a laughing one the next’.  Bertha is described as Rochester’s ‘filthy burden’ just as Jane is ‘burdened with the charge of a little child: a very small creature, too young and feeble to walk, and which shivered in my arms and wailed piteously in my ear’.  Jane compares Bertha to ‘the foul German spectre: the Vampyre’.  As Kahane points out, a baby figures as ‘another presence inside [a woman], growing on her flesh, feeding on her blood’, a vampiric, parasitical image.  Bertha and birth thus both function as fearful symbols, her name echoing Jane’s repressed fears. 

At the end of the novel, when Jane mentions her actual child, he is expressly referred to, not as hers, but as Rochester’s: ‘his first-born […] the boy had inherited his own eyes, as they once were – large, brilliant, and black’.  There is a noted absence of mention of Jane’s part in his creation: she has been inscribed into the wifely function of producing Rochester’s heir. As ‘bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh’, Rochester now has full control of her body.  Jane’s part in the baby’s creation is an act of surrogacy and does not merit description in the novel. McClintock states that ‘controlling women’s sexuality, exalting maternity and breeding a virile race of empire-builders were widely perceived as the paramount means for controlling the health and wealth of the male imperial body politic’.  As such Jane has fully assumed the position of Victorian woman of empire, fulfilling her duty by producing a child, a vessel for the imperial patriarch.

The ‘female Gothic terrors’ regarding the functions of the female body are not commented on by Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea. Rather, she looks at the male ‘fear of femaleness’ in the hostile, female, colonised landscape. In her novel, Rochester’s feminisation of the West Indian landscape demonstrates the engulfment fantasies/fears of the imperialist explorer or coloniser: a desire to penetrate the ‘veiled, female interior’, mirrored with an anxiety about being engulfed by the womb. McClintock states that for men, ‘the imperial act of discovery is a surrogate birthing ritual’.  As they came upon ‘virgin’ territories for the first time, explorers and colonists gave them a new name ‘to mark them as their own’.  Rhys’s Rochester explores the forest near Granbois. He is attempting to penetrate this alien landscape and discover something: ‘how can one discover truth I thought’.  Yet this impulse to discover and possess, to fulfil a ‘birthing ritual’, backlashes in the ‘hostile’ forest among the ‘enemy trees’. Rochester himself is engulfed by the landscape: ‘the undergrowth and creepers caught at my legs and the trees closed over my head’. He is then spat back out again, ‘delivered’ into the safe hands of the aptly named ‘Baptiste’. 

The Backwards Birth

Jane Eyre is ‘severed from Bessie and Gateshead’, a violent image reminiscent of birth: the severing of the umbilical cord.  From there, her life progresses as she gets older, into reason, maturity, and enlightenment, a conventional Bildungsroman development. Conversely, in Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette’s life begins with freedom in actual ‘remote and mysterious regions’, before she is transported to England on the ‘reverse Middle Passage’.  This phrase is suggestive of a birth canal, and her journey ends within a locked room, in a bed with ‘red curtains’, which she says she has slept in ‘many times before, long ago’.   This womb-like space indicates a forced return to the ‘primal and engulfing morass of the maternal’, a backwards birth, which inverts the Jane Eyre Bildungsroman narrative.  Rochester’s inability to penetrate the secret of the female forest and his fear of / desire for engulfment prompts him firstly to rename his wife Bertha, as if he has just discovered her, ‘birthing’ her anew, then to incarcerate her in his replica womb: the locked room on the third floor.

In telling the untold story of Bertha, Rhys’s dark double holds up a mirror to Brontë’s novel providing a new perspective on the figure of Gothic transgression and encouraging us to reject the legacy which placed her in the patriarchal replica womb. As such, her backwards birth of Jane Eyre is an exemplary literary critique of a Victorian text. Yet there is clear scope for further work by writers and critics, for example drawing out other repressive themes such as the fear of femaleness that I have identified in Jane Eyre.