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Phantom Past, Pure Future: Colonial Hauntings and Temporal Disruption in Jane Eyre

By Qian Xun Tie

While a linear reading of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre unfolds within the temporal and geographical confines of Great Britain, a post-colonial lens unveils the looming presence of its colonies. Much scholarly attention, notably Susan Meyer’s “Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy of Jane Eyre”, has been directed towards the analysis of Rochester’s West Indian wife Bertha Mason, whose racialization becomes a conduit for the spectral intrusion of British colonialism into the novel. It is crucial to note, however, that in conjunction with her proximity to blackness, Brontë writes Bertha as a paranormal entity, a phantom presence that haunts Thornfield Hall and its residents. I endeavour to reconcile these dual images by investigating the theme of the supernatural through Jacques Derrida’s theory of hauntology. By way of synthesis, I argue that memories of colonial trauma haunt the domestic spaces of Jane Eyre and subsequently disrupt the linear trajectory of Britain’s national history. As such, a central predicament of the novel revolves around the means to purge both its characters and their dwellings of the racialized other to restore a pure and untainted British past in order to transition into an untroubled future. 

In “Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy of Jane Eyre,” Susan Meyer illuminates the racial ambiguity and fluidity of Bertha. In Rochester’s retrospective account, Bertha is “a fine woman…tall, dark, and majestic” (Meyer 252, Brontë 260). As the daughter of a Creole, it remains unclear whether Bertha is as white-passing as her brother Richard. Nevertheless, Rochester notes that “her family wished to secure me, because I was of a good race,” suggesting his closer proximity to whiteness (Brontë 260). Yet, as Bertha descends into madness and is imprisoned by Rochester, Brontë’s descriptions of the character become more explicitly aligned with blackness. Jane, attempting to describe Bertha’s physicality prior to her wedding, tells Rochester: “‘Fearful and ghastly to me…It was a discoloured face—it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!’” (242). She then details Bertha’s skin as “purple” and her lips as “swelled and dark” (242). As Bertha’s subjugation in Thornfield Hall heightens in severity and she is physically chained to its third floor for ten years, her features—her face, skin, and lips—are coloured by colonial images of a racialized other. The stereotyped diction of blackness used to describe her physicality, especially with the word choice of “savage”, likens her less to an heiress of West Indian fortune and more to a slave (242). To this degree, Bertha’s racial identity, beginning from ambiguity and eventually reaching full blackness, is fluid. 

Brontë’s distinctive approach to racializing Bertha Mason reveals that she does not merely intend for Mason to represent individual oppression but also the collective oppression of many, including those subjected to slavery under British imperialism. As Meyer points out, Brontë progressively heightens Bertha’s darkness as she is increasingly oppressed in the hands of Rochester—an imperialist—and increasingly confined within Thornfield Hall—an estate built off colonial wealth—to the extent that her identity expands to embody the figure of the West Indian slave (Meyer 255). Indeed, throughout Jane Eyre, Brontë often steers the personal into the political by appealing not to individual bondage, but a collective one. The protagonist, for instance, declares that “Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot” (Brontë 93). Here, Brontë explicitly describes oppression as a shared condition rather than an isolated one. As Jane contemplates those who are “condemned to a stiller doom than [her’s]” and utilizes the diction of “revolt,” her reader is immediately reminded of the circumstances of Bertha (93). However, through the usage of numerical quantifiers, Brontë elicits not only the terror of a woman gone mad, but also the oppression of a collective, untethered, and revolting other across the sea. With the growing number of slave uprisings and the emancipation of the West Indies in 1838, the imagery of revolution points to a growing national anxiety surrounding Britain’s political realities (Meyer 254). 

While Meyer’s essay gestures toward the historic underpinnings of Bertha’s heightened blackness, I contend that, in addition to political unease, the evocation of the supernatural gives the novel a spiritual tilt (Meyer 254). Throughout Jane Eyre, Brontë not only portrays Bertha as a slave, but also a ghost who haunts Thornfield Hall. Just as her skin darkens after years of imprisonment, Bertha becomes increasingly ghostly: her laugh “demoniac,” her abode a “goblin’s cell” (Brontë 126, 264). In fact, images of blackness and ghostliness are often intertwined. Jane’s initial description of Bertha, for instance, refers simultaneously to her “discoloured” face and the “roll of the red eyes” (242). By intentionally placing racialized and paranormal language within the same descriptor, Brontë creates a character that is simultaneously and equally “savage” and “ghastly” (242). Just as Jane’s reference to the “millions […] condemned to a stiller doom” extends beyond hyperbole, the evocation of the supernatural holds deeper significance than mere metaphor (93). Bertha, in this way, is otherworldly not only by her West Indian origins but also by her spectral status. 

In Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, he posits the ghost as an expression of due justice.  “No justice,” he writes, “seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present […] before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead” (Derrida xviii). For Derrida, the past is not a static entity. The victims of colonialism and capitalist imperialism, despite their erasure, continue to influence and “haunt” the present. Elements of the past, which may be repressed or overlooked, persist as immaterial spectral traces. Hauntological politics, then, trouble the post in the Western postcolonial paradigm, envisaging the co-existence of the past and the present. A forward-facing national history, in this sense, is unsettled by the guilt of British colonialism; collective memories of trauma and unresolved crimes transcend linear temporality in the form of the supernatural. By adopting the figure of the ghost and appealing to the supernatural in conjunction with race, Brontë indicates that despite the emancipation of the West Indies at the time of writing Jane Eyre, the tinge of injustice nevertheless lingers. 

Indeed, ghostly spirits of the colonized, embodied but not confined to Bertha, engender the domestic spaces of Jane Eyre’s England. Observing Thornfield Hall, Jane wonders “what crime…lived incarnate in this sequestered mansion, and could neither be expelled nor subdued by the owner?” (Brontë 179). Here, Brontë attributes Thornfield’s hauntings to the “crime” of its owner. Rochester, who lived in pre-emancipation Jamaica for four years as an esteemed white man, certainly owned slaves in the New World (Meyers 259). The house, acquired from his West Indian fortune, is then a direct product of slave labour. Hence, the past crime Jane refers to here is the crime of colonialism, performed by and haunting its imperialist owner. 

Unable to be purged, the memory of colonialism accumulates within the mansion, layering the past into the present. Bertha’s attic, the source of Thornfield’s supernatural stirrings, is described as a “shrine of memory” that, “if there were a ghost…Thornfield Hall…would be its haunt” (Brontë 90). In this case, Brontë evokes a historical past that, read in the light of Bertha’s representation of slavery, gestures to a troubled present. The floor, with “wrought old-English hangings crusted with thick work” that portray effigies of an exotic land—“strange flowers, and stranger birds, and strangest human beings”— and elucidated by the “pallid gleam of the moonlight,” suggests a tainted English past that is illuminated through spectral shining (Brontë 90). Here, Brontë juxtaposes the familiar with the foreign, the pre-colonial with the post-colonial—the traditional English decor and the uncanny flora, fauna, and people, presumably collected from the West Indies. Through colonial contact, Englishness—its pure and stainless “tradition”—has also been imbued with the eerie and alien phantom of the other ( 90). ‘Crusted’ on its hangings, the presence of the colonized freezes Great Britain into a state of immobility: both from returning to an untainted past and progressing cleanly into the future. 

In this sense, time itself—as conceptualized as a forward-flowing notion—is disrupted by the novel’s colonial hauntings. Clearly, with the dual narration and existence of both young Jane and older Jane, Brontë already utilizes the form of the novel to evoke a sense of coexistence, as the present speaks to the past. The careful reader then can readily assume that Brontë does not structure Jane Eyre in a strictly linear manner, with a distinctive past, present, and future. Yet, in the case of colonialism, the past as existing in the present hinders a shift into the future. As Thornfield Hall continues to be permeated by the slave spirit of Bertha Mason, its residents are not only tormented by fear but barred from advancing through time. Rochester and Jane’s inability to marry exemplifies how a colonial past troubles temporality. As a female bildungsroman, Jane Eyre traces the growth of its protagonist through time, beginning from childhood and ending in marriage. However, Jane’s journey through time—her past as a girl and future as a woman—are distinguished not by age but via a rite of passage. Socially organized time, in the words of queer theorist Judith Halberstam, references  “conventional forward-moving narratives of birth, marriage, reproduction, and death” (Halberstam 314). The bildungsroman cannot end without a journey through time, and Jane cannot progress through time without a celebratory marriage. Thus, the inability of Jane to marry Rochester also means she cannot come of age. This immobilization is caused precisely by the haunting presence of Bertha. Due to his marriage to Bertha from his past in Jamaica, Rochester and Jane cannot legally marry. Although Rochester attempts to hide his crime and escape into an untarnished future by locking Bertha away and wedding Jane, the couple nevertheless cannot escape the haunting of his imperialist history and, as a result, remain suspended in time.

Ergo, a central predicament of Jane Eyre revolves around the struggle to remove  the presence of the past as a means for both its protagonist and the tainted Britain to restore the forward-facing flow of temporality. For Jane, the presence of the dark Bertha means having to become Rochester’s mistress, preventing her from properly traversing through time by passing the stage of marriage. Considering this possibility, she wonders “whether it is better…to be a slave in a fool’s paradise at Marseilles…or to be a village schoolmistress, free and honest, in a breezy mountain nook in the healthy heart of England?” (Brontë 306). On one hand, as Meyers elucidates, Brontë’s lexicon of slavery accords both her protagonist and her audience an, albeit questionable, vocabulary to describe female oppression (Meyers 250). Curiously, however, the author also introduces France as the “fevered” slave-owning nation and England as “free and honest,” again expanding the personal oppression of Jane into a representation of the national conundrum of post-colonial English identity (Brontë 306).

As Brontë makes clear that colonialism is not simply a national transgression but a continental one, she simultaneously poses France’s colonial activity as an instrument to reinstate a broken nationhood. Reestablished by Napoleon in 1802, slavery was legal and practiced in the French colonies until 1848: a year after the publication of Jane Eyre (Chatman 145). Therefore, although the two nations share the crime of colonialism, Brontë distinguishes Great Britain as less culpable on account of its earlier abolition of slavery by fourteen years (McPherson 28). It is evident, then, that despite the history of colonialism that haunts her characters and their abodes, Brontë nevertheless desires to absolve her nation’s guilt (Brontë 306). Yet, the only way of doing so according to the novel’s narrative logic is to remove the presence of the racialized other, just as Bertha’s removal allows Jane and Rochester to move forward with their lives. 

Jane Eyre ends with a restoration of linear time for its characters and England’s national history, with this restoration facilitated by the punishment of the imperialist Rochester and a reckoning with the past via religious exoneration. As Jane chooses to leave Rochester and Thornfield due to the discovery of Bertha, she turns to God, thanking his “providence for the guidance” (307). Additionally, when Thornfield Hall, the very source of colonial hauntings, burns down, Brontë frames the incident as God’s will. Rochester himself appeals to the religious as he recounts the fire: “Divine justice pursued its course; disasters came thick on me…I began to experience remorse, repentance.” (380). Here, the injustice of colonialism is served: the imperialist is punished for his crime by the destructive purge of fire. If the memory of the colonized is concentrated in the supernatural—the demonic Bertha—then the holy fire of God offers a direct counter to her haunting. As the supernatural is purged from Thornfield, the novel’s dilemma is resolved. Indeed, there is no trace, no more mention of spirits, ghosts, or the paranormal in the novel’s ending chapter. Dead, Bertha no longer hinders the legal wedlock of Jane and Rochester. Linear time, in this way, is restored; the past is cleansed from the present. The novel ends with Jane moving successfully from girlhood into womanhood, into the “marriage and reproduction” phase of her life (Halberstam 314). The imperialist, vindicated from his past, is reborn and free to move past his painful atonement. Rochester, though for some time punished with blindness, experiences the restoration of his sight, as he follows Jane in turning to God. This rejuvenation ultimately leads to reproduction—a son that inherits “his own eyes, as they once were—large, brilliant, and black” (Brontë 385). Evoking natality and a second birth, Brontë shows that the colonial sin can be absolved through God’s “mercy,” and suggests that Great Britain can move into its future untainted by its past (Brontë 385).  

While the memory of colonialism, realized through the supernatural, is used to disturb the temporality of the characters and England itself, a pivot towards religion ultimately purges its presence. The past, expelled by divine justice, is indeed bygone. Nonetheless, the reader is left to wonder whether it is truly possible to wash away the tinge and trauma of colonialism. The removal of colonial memory in Thornfield opens the door for Jane’s coming-of-age and Rochester’s rebirth, while Bertha remains dead. As I have argued, it is precisely her death that gives way for the protagonist’s happy ending. Yet, for Bertha, the novel nevertheless ends in tragedy. If the reader accepts that Bertha represents the memory of British colonialism, they must also reckon with the great unease of what the expulsion of her spirit implies—what the expulsion of a colonial history means for the millions that have suffered, and as Derrida indicates, continue to suffer from its rule. Though the future of England is clear at the end of Jane Eyre, the same cannot be said about its ex-colonies. 

Works Cited

Brontë Charlotte, and Richard J Dunn. Jane Eyre : An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. 3rd ed., Norton, 2001.

Chatman, Samuel L. “‘There Are No Slaves in France’: A Re-Examination of Slave Laws in Eighteenth Century France.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 85, no. 3, 2000, pp. 144–53. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Nov. 2023.

Derrida, Jacques, and Peggy Kamuf. Specters of Marx : The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Routledge, 2006.

Halberstam, Judith. “What’s that smell? Queer temporalities and subcultural lives.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6.3 (2003): 313-333.

McPherson, James M. “Was West Indian Emancipation a Success? The Abolitionist Argument during the American Civil War.” Caribbean Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 1964, pp. 28–34. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Nov. 2023.

Meyer, Susan L. “Colonialism and the Figurative Strategy of ‘Jane Eyre.’” Victorian Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 1990, pp. 247–68. JSTOR, Accessed 18 Nov. 2023.