Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"You Are a Strange Child, Miss Jane"

In the comments to an earlier post, Shiva linked to this article in the online journal Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, titled "On the Spectrum: Rereading Contact and Affect in Jane Eyre." It looks at Jane's interactions with other characters, and her emotional expressivity. This latter quality, the article's author (Julia Miele Rodas, who is working on a book on disability in Jane Eyre) cautions, appears very different to us, the readers, who see Jane's emotions as she experiences them, than it does to the other characters, who see her characteristic impassive facade. To Rodas, this "flattened affect" she presents to the other characters constitutes Jane's "most obvious autistic characteristic":
It makes sense to explore further the appearance of Jane Eyre's autism by looking more closely at the impression of missed connection that frequently arises between autistic and nonautistic people. Nonautistic people often attribute this sense of disconnect to a mistaken belief that individuals with autism have little or no feeling, but indeed, the contrary is more likely true. Autistic persons typically experience intense sensations and emotions, but may habitually reduce the appearance of feeling or shield the self from a barrage of overwhelming external stimuli (including dialogue and other forms of communication) in order to preserve an integrated sense of identity. For "high functioning" autistic persons, this shielding may take the form of exceedingly effective social performance that can leave both self and other with a sensation of loss or failure. ...
Within Jane Eyre, there is substantial evidence that Jane, too, participates in similar autistically informed social exchanges. In adulthood, as Jane exerts increasing control over her passionate emotional life, reducing her affect and concealing her deeply rooted feelings with ever greater success, experienced readers tend to contextualize this process in terms of cultural history, understanding the narrator's extreme self-control, her apparent poise, as meshing with historically appropriate social conventions. Readers know, as Jane does, that a Victorian gentlewoman must not evidence feelings of passion, must not put herself forward, must not be seen to harbor ideas or opinions that are beyond her limited social scope. Because the reader experiences Jane's self-control from the inside, though, he always sees the roiling passions and rarely notices or questions the narrator's most obvious autistic characteristic, the silence and flattened affect, the autistic remoteness that other characters clearly experience. (emphases added; italics in original)
While I had been perfectly content to ascribe Jane's awkward, bookish remoteness to her childhood (she is, after all, an orphan reared by unloving and resentful relatives) and her station (she is a governess, which makes her at once servant and gentlewoman, and obliges her to display simultaneously the self-effacing deference of the one and the fine manners and haughty reserve of the other), Rodas finds in the character a still-deeper vein of strangeness. She points out other characters' frequent mystification by Jane's utterances and behavior, and musters a slew of other minor details to paint a tantalizingly autistic-like picture:
Having already touched on her experience of exclusion in childhood, an account that dovetails suggestively with narratives offered in modern autism autobiography, it may be helpful to reconsider the character of the adult Jane Eyre with a sense of autism in mind. With an interpretive gesture alert to autistic possibilities, all kinds of minor details and episodes, all manner of quirky characteristics, take on new significance. Jane's "Quakerish" appearance, her sense of aloneness at Lowood, even after many years of residence; the feeling of peace and wholeness she seems to derive from nature, from gardens, from plants instead of people; her silent impatience with a talkative roommate ("a teacher who occupied the same room with me kept me from the subject to which I longed to recur, by a prolonged effusion of small talk. How I wished sleep would silence her" [85; Ch.10]). The episode of homelessness between her residences at Thornfield and Moor House, failing to take valuables with her, forgetting the morsel of luggage she does take along, forgetting her newly discovered connections, are all strongly reminiscent of homeless experiences described by [Dawn] Prince-Hughes and Donna Williams, each of whom describes a sense of panic which induces them to leave places of comparative security. Think of Jane's sincere, but formal affection for Adele, the consideration of the girl's well-being as though from a distance. Jane's early period of engagement with Rochester, she provoking him into sparring with her continually, actively and consciously resistant to tenderer forms of affection, hints at a fear of conventional contact, a reluctance to connect sexually which is also a recurrent theme in autism literature. Even Jane's discreet relationship with Pilot, her acknowledgment of Rochester's dog as a seeming peer, as an individual worthy of respect, demonstrates an autistic sensibility, a connection to animals that echoes that of many other autistic persons.
I'm not convinced by all this that Jane has to be autistic --- there are too many other possible explanations for this constellation of traits --- but it is a lot of fun to play literary Spot-the-Aspie (or Autie). I actually wrote a paper (it was supposed to be a personal essay, not a serious critical work, don't freak out) very like this one about Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If I can find it (which I doubt I can; I suspect it was on my old computer which now belongs to my grandpa, having been wiped clean), I will post a heavily edited version here. (Heavily edited because the thing was a ten-page monster).

The thing that strikes me about Rodas's list is the extent to which I noticed similar traits in other Brontë characters. Emotional intensity, social roughness bordering on crudity, extreme self-possession and self-sufficiency, a disdain for frivolity and gossip, a love of nature, animals and solitude, bafflement when it comes to other people --- all of these appear in Gilbert Markham, the narrator of Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and all but the last appear in the hero and heroine of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. (Cathy and Heathcliff are not so much baffled by other people as they have determined those others' desires and expectations of them to be irrelevant). All three sisters' works feature heroes (and, in Tenant of Wildfell Hall's case, villains too) who display some or all of these traits, who are wild, intense, elemental loners whose passions are just too strong, too pure, to be squashed into the confines of socially acceptable expression. I suspect this arises more from the Brontës' lingering Romanticism and collective experience of frustrated passions than from a shared knowledge of (and desire to recreate in fiction) the broad autism phenotype.

Illustration taken from this site; artist unknown.


Julia Miele Rodas said...

Thanks for bringing this to your blog. Further to your observation of autie/aspie qualities in other Bronte work (though you don't mention Villete, which is, I think, the most evidently autistic book in the Bronte canon), I'd like to add that it seems to me from recent research that Emily must certainly have been autistic. Am hoping still to write about this at some point, though the current book project is taking a broader direction.

Lindsay said...

Hi, Julia Miele,

I didn't mention Villete because I didn't know about it. I've only read one work by each sister (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).

Sounds like I will have to check out Villete, though.

Anonymous said...

You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and hardly found any specific details on other sites, but then great to be here, seriously, thanks...

- John