The Colonial Subtext in Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Dickens’ Great Expectations

“It should not be possible to read nineteenth-century British literature, without remembering that imperialism, understood as England’s social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English.” The Victorian novel functions as an imperative examination of colonial ideologies. The colonial discourse that is established throughout Victorian literature formulates the concept of the alternate self or other. Both Great Expectations and Jane Eyre contain colonial subtexts and to some extent further shape significant aspects of the cultural discourse of the British Empire. Furthermore Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, both derive significantly from the imperial discourse in their stereotypical ways of representing the non-Western world. To what extent do Bronte and Dickens novels rely on colonial subtext to represent the non-Western world?

Bronte uses the character of Bertha Mason, who is a Creole by birth, as a vehicle for a colonial encounter in the novel. The figure of the Creole is utilized by Bronte solely to illustrate how colonial ventures brought the Creole into being. Bertha Mason is a product of colonial ventures; she is a commodity of curiosity, the racial other as it were. Bentley (1996:p198) argues that a Creole is “a mulatto(a), who is viewed upon with sympathy, revulsion and fascination. They stand at the place where nature and culture come unbound”. Bentley’s position indicates an access to colonial superiority, that a Creole is look upon with revolution; it is a racially inferior entity. Additionally a Creole is distinguished and differentiated from the ‘authentic’ native, symbolizing multiple points of dislocation. Bertha Mason, whose racial origins remain vague, is a character constructed and fashioned under these conditions. Her racial impurity is seen as an infection to which her insanity is attributed.

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In Jane Eyre, this meeting of people and divergent cultures (as characterized by the marital union of Rochester and Bertha) is negotiated and guided by colonial and commercial interests, and does not result in an amalgamation of races and cultures. Instead these racial and cultural differences are used to broaden and strengthen colonial constructions and to indicate the alternate of self and other. Consequently in Jane Eyre, the savage other of the colonial discourse is embodied by a Creole, a figure that has been brought into being by the hierarchical and dictatorial development of commercial colonization. The depiction of Bertha Mason is premised upon this notion of ‘othering’. Bronte tends to rely on the Manichean allegory of the colonial discourse in the representation of Bertha Mason. Furthermore her character, which is determined by the identity politics of the West, corresponds to the stereotypical depictions of native women as ‘demonized other’ which thrive and flourish in the literature of the Colonial period.

Rochester in his narrative, vocalizes Bertha to be a “hideous demon”, whose .”..cast of mind common, low and narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher, expanded to anything larger…” Rochester’s portrayal of native Bertha reflects on social Darwinism which positioned the African Woman next to the ape on the evolutionary scale- “What a pigmy intellect she had- and what giant propensities!” By emphasizing the suggestion of intellectual inadequacy, primitivism and barbarity of the racial other, Bronte insists on the philosophical moral and intellectual difference between the racial other and the native self. Further, by evoking the Manichean allegory of the colonial discourse Bronte is able to achieve a superior subjectivity for the Western woman. The figure of the white female subject is typified in Jane who is positioned as the antithesis of Bertha, the racial object other.

The savage/civilized, rational/irrational dichotomies of the colonial discourse are repeatedly highlighted by Rochester in his comparison between the two women, whose difference are illustrated in terms of facial, physical, racial and intellectual characteristics. In contrast to Jane who is given a human form Bertha is dehumanized: “Compare these clear eyes with the red balls yonder- this face with that mask- this form with that bulk” (JE, p.334). While savagery, insanity and sexuality defined as ‘other’ merge in the figure of Bertha Mason, Jane exemplifies all that is “good, gifted, lovely…” and fully compromises to Rochester’s “notion of an intellectual, faithful, loving woman” (JE, p.354). Thus, it becomes clear that Jane’s construction of subject hood as the intellectually and morally superior white woman is very much dependent on Bertha’s existence in this dehumanized form. Bronte uses Jane to position Bertha on the human/animal frontier, “One night I had been awakened by her yells…those are the sound of a bottomless pit.”, “a goblin in a wild beast’s den”, ” What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first site, tell: it groveled, seemingly, on all fours…like some strange wild animal.”

Rochester’s captivity of Bertha and his attempts at gaining control over her characterize the nature of colonial encounters for white men, which is about penetration and conquest of ‘virgin’ territories. This is also instilled with the dangers of ‘going native’ for it perpetually exposse them to the contact of so called ‘primitive savages’. It is implicated in the narrative that Rochester’s decline is initiated by his bad marriage to Bertha, who was by his own confession “dazzled” and “stimulated” by her “tall, dark, majestic” beauty prior to the marriage. Rochester admits to the fact that before he was rescued by Jane’s arrival he led a decadent existence after “Bertha Mason, – the true daughter of an infamous mother, – dragged me through all the hideous and degrading agonies must attend a man bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste.” Bertha typifies the wild, fierce, savage and erotic seductress of the colonial discourse that takes white men into her lure and corrupts and destroys them. In Bertha Mason’s case, politics of colonialism deny her any expansion beyond that of the predetermined colonial discourse. Bronte keeps Bertha shackled to her racial identity, and the colonial stereotypes that it evokes.

The epithets of colonial territories in both Great Expectations and Jane Eyre correspond well to the stereotypical representations of native lands in the Oriental discourse, as vacant, intimidating spaces devoid of any familiar markers of humanity and civilization, which is yet another means of rationalizing colonial rule.Rochester’s description of the Jamaican landscape is immersed with dark, negative imagery -“the air was like sulphur steams…Mosquitoes came buzzing in…the sea …rumbled dull like an earthquake- black clouds were casting up over it.” Similarly, Magwitch’s portrayal of Australia is infused with negative and hostile connotations. His description of the Australian landscape conveys the notion of it being a peripheral, vacant, barren area lacking in civilization -“When I was a hired-out shepherd in a solitary hut, not seeing no faces but faces of sheep till I half forgot wot men’s and women’s faces wos like,…” (GE, p.433) Therefore the myth of empty lands in the colonial discourse is devised by both the novelists, providing sufficient validation for the occupation and exploitation of the colonial territories.

However, in both the novels the significance of these colonies as a main source of affluence to England is underlined. In Jane Eyre, Jane’s attainment of both wealth and self-government is through her uncle in Madeira, which is a notorious and prominent slave centre. One of the ways in which she is made into a free and autonomous human being is through the inheritance of her uncle Reed’s Madeira vineyard. Which supply Jane with a capability to free herself from the restricted employment opportunities available to the impoverished genteel Victorian woman. Similarly Rochester’s marriage to Bertha is constructed around money acquired from the West Indian plantations she would bring him. A handsome fortune of thirty thousand pounds that the marital union with Bertha would entitle him to, is the foundation of their arranged marriage. Equally Magwitch, in Great Expectations, is facilitated by the wealth he amassed in Australia to make a gentleman out of Pip. Thus Pip’s ”Great Expectations” so to speak are founded on imperial/colonial wealth. The attitudes taken up by both the novelists propose that colonial territories are regarded as a vast, inexhaustible source of wealth which has supplied continuous short bursts of wealth in the colonial centre. Both novels unintentionally, perhaps, unveil the forceful economic exploitation of the colonies which lay obscured behind the veneer of the civilizing mission.

In Great Expectations London is shown as the imperial centre to which all the wealth from colonies floods in through the river Thames. The novel present a vivid and somewhat realistic image of the river Thames at the heyday of empire, congested with ships and boats, indicating the degree of travel and trade we had with the Orient. The Thames’ significance in the colonial mission is further underscored when it is presented as the means through which Magwitch returns to London from Australia and then plots his subsequent escape to America. The notion of London being the urbanized and industrialized ‘centre’ which is essentially set up in contrast to colonies like Australia that denote the undeveloped world, is yet another creation of the colonial discourse that we come across in Great Expectations.

Another attitude and reference emerges in Great Expectation, to suggest Britain’s imperial/colonial interaction through trade and travel with the Orient. Pip and Herbert both whom are busy in the imperial venture as businessman, of a shipping company, show a non- western world the ingenuity and intervention of so many British gentlemen. Imperialist logic establishes Pip’s fate at the novel’s closure, for Pip who has been an ‘idle’ gentleman is changed into a productive citizen when he joins the colonial mission as an employee of a shipping company in the East. By complying and conforming to the imperial/colonial enterprise and becoming a thriving agent therein, Pip emerges in the end as an ideal citizen of the empire who deserves Estella. Great Expectations therefore ends in a note which indicates that Dickens endorses the colonial mission.

Magwitch’s extradition to Australia and the prohibition placed on his return to England is quite noteworthy in the sense that it is “not only penal but imperial: subjects can be taken to places like Australia, but they cannot be allowed a ‘return’ to metropolitan space, which, as Dickens’s fiction testifies, is meticulously charted, spoken for, inhabited by a hierarchy of metropolitan personages.”(Said, 1993) Although, Magwitch, in his exile succeeds in converting himself into an industrious citizen of the empire, he remains an eternal foreigner whose access to the metropolitan centre is barred. His homecoming to London only warrant him capital punishment from the State. In Pip’s eyes, life at the periphery, the metaphorical edge, has taken away the finer elements of culture and civilized life from Magwitch and transformed him into a savage- “the influence of solitary hut-life were upon him besides, and gave him a savage air that no dress could tame…” (GE, p.454) Dickens does not query the final logic of colonialism that has deprived subjects like Magwitch a space for reintegration into the urban space, regardless of the industrious and productive role they play at the borders in the name of the British Empire.

In conclusion, both Jane Eyre and Great Expectations reproduce “a structure and attitude of reference” that is coherent, homogeneous and immanent in the cultural construction of the colonial discourse. Both novelists in no uncertain terms attempt to radically revise the stereotypes or explore the colonial realism.they are content with taking the assumed constructs of colonial discourse. At the closure of both novels, Bronte and Dickens’ lend affirmation to the imperial/colonial development and “instead of being an exploration of the racial Other, such literature merely affirms its own ethnocentric assumptions; instead of actually depicting the outer limits of ‘civilization’, it simply codifies and preserves the structures of its own mentality.”  Evidently Dickens’s and Bronte’s examination of the non-Western world is embedded and entrenched in them as a powerful discourse which sets the limits of their perceptions regarding empire, and their illustration of the colonial world is informed and fashioned by the above fact. As Said(1993) has stated, culture and the aesthetic forms it contains derive from historical experience and the individual writings of the Victorian era are very much a part of this relationship between culture and empire.


  1. Abdul R. Janmohamed, The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature.
  2. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 12, No. 1, “Race,” Writing, and Difference (Autumn, 1985), pp. 59-87
  3. Bentley, N. (1996) ‘White Slaves: The Mulatto Hero in Antebellum Fiction’. In Subjects and Citizens: Nation, Race and Gender from Oroonoko to Anita Hill. Edited by Morrit & Davidson. Durham: university of North Carolina Press.
  4. Said, Edward, ‘Culture and imperialism’(1993) London, Vintage 1994
  5. Spivak C, Gayatri. (1985) ‘Three Womens Texts and a Critique of Imperialism’, Critical Inquiry 12. in Ashcroft. B, Griffiths.G, Tiffin, H (1995) ‘The Post Colonial Studies Reader’,Routledge: New York.

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The Colonial Subtext in Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Dickens’ Great Expectations. (2017, Feb 05). Retrieved from