NINETEENTH-CENTURY GENDER STUDIES
ISSUE 8.3 (WINTER 2012)
Jane Eyre and Zombies
By Jenn McCollum, Community College of Vermont
<1>“Forward,” according to Richard Altick, is a word that summarizes “the typical Victorian mind” concerning the future of the Empire (Altick 107). Moving forward meant several different things for Victorians – ranging from technological and scientific advancement, to the establishment of democratic values and women’s suffrage – but was uniformly aligned with Imperialist conquest. In his book Russia and the Eastern Question (1854) Richard Cobden, for example, clearly connects conquest to Empire in a way which reflects common mid-nineteenth-century discourse:
Cobden’s articulation of British conquest expresses a desire to align “the whole world” with English paradigms by fostering curiosity, “stimulating labor,” and inspiring “peace.” Moving forward came to mean something different in an age of conquest aided by technological and scientific advancement, than it had in the past. The effects of the Industrial Revolution, for example, filled London and Manchester with images of animate yet lifeless objects.(1) Steam plants, blast furnaces, and even electric light and photography served to give a lifelike vibrancy to inanimate materials: artifacts that were vital for England’s definition of itself as a world power. A preoccupation with the reanimated dead body as a representation of progress, then, does not seem so far-fetched, considering that the body was the power behind the anthropomorphic appearance of industry anyway. Yet, the (re)mobilized body that was so central to the rhetoric of national progress took many – sometimes contradictory –forms. The body in motion, as it appears in sundry mid-to-late nineteenth-century texts, is not always salubrious although it may be strong. In fact, oftentimes the body that performs the most important actions for progress in literature is not only sick, disabled, or sometimes deformed,(2) but dead. Reanimated dead bodies, in particular, gained such a voice in Victorian texts as a signal of forward movement, that its lack of critical attention is surprising. Dead yet poignantly active (like the machinery that filled urban spaces) the Victorian zombie-body was macabre yet capable of fueling the forward motion that was so pivotal for the Empire’s discourse of progress, particularly in its influence on – and by – changing ideas about gender and racial difference.
<2> As a knell of progress, dead bodies appeared mobilized and zombie-like (“zombic”) in an astonishing number of Victorian texts, such as Jane Eyre, which calls into question the recent trend of reading literary zombies as a twentieth-century sensation. While the written history of voodoo zombies in Western culture extends back at least as far as Robert Southey’s The History of Brazil (1819) – in which the word “zombi” first surfaces(3) – the “zombie” in literature is commonly imagined as a particularly postmodern creation.(4) In some ways the association between postmodernity and zombies makes sense. As David Lyon explains in his book Postmodernity (2009), postmodernism is defined by its “new” form of fragmentation in which the “boundaries of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture” are blurred, “hierarchies of knowledge” collapse, and “authority is dethroned” (Lyon 10). The postmodern idea of reality is created through subjectivity and reflexivity. In a word, the zombie is ostensibly “postmodern” because it veils the boundaries of conscious experience. Apparently unfeeling yet animated, a zombie is an apathetic being easily controlled by external forces (as in the classic voodoo prototype(5)) or a body dictated by the most carnal visceral desires (as in the George Romero breed(6)). The zombic body shows signs of exaggerated life despite – or perhaps because of – its deathly state. Like the Victorian double, it obfuscates self. But the Victorian double is notably not zombic since it tends to maintain consciousness once separated from the self.(7)
<3> The zombie, for Victorians, was not a manifestation only of the self and its other. Rather, it was an articulation of the vanishing of self entirely: a macabre dissolution of desire and awareness so deep that its body falls completely under the control of someone or something else. In his book The Conscious Mind (1996), David Chalmers argues that a zombie is “someone or something identical to me but lacking conscious experience all together” (Chalmers 94). Critics of zombic consciousness have extended Chalmers’s theory to include two related issues: the zombie’s position as an uncanny representative of human experience, and its role as a subaltern, postcolonial being. For example, robotics specialist Mashahiro Mori has placed zombies as the lowest point of what he terms the “uncanny valley:” they are considered less human than even a corpse despite – or perhaps because of – their ability to move. Kyle Bishop in his book American Zombie Gothic (2010) has asserted that:
Chalmers’s definition of a zombie as a twin who “judges he is unconscious” with assessments that are “utterly and systematically false” (Chalmers 192), suggests that zombic consciousness is undeveloped because “I have experiences and he does not” (199). Bishop’s work complicates Chalmers’s hypothesis by connecting the zombie-experience to slavery: a cultural experience that is rich in consciousness.(8) According to Bishop, although slaves, proletariats, and “the downtrodden” have “no will or mind of their own,” they nevertheless “are grounded in the need for realization and self-consciousness” (“Sub-Altern Monster” 145), which they can never achieve. Lack of consciousness – its own awareness of self or society’s cognizance of it – is the primary difference between a subject (or even a double) and a zombie. Despite the large body of nineteenth-century texts that present zombic characters, situations, gestures, or settings, critics mistakenly continue to analyze zombies as a uniquely twentieth-century construct.(9) Yet they were an integral part of the Victorian imagination, as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847)suggests. The zombie motif was used by many authors to question hegemonic doctrines concerning consequential issues of the time – such as gender, race, and conquest – which were bound up in questions of conscious experience and mobility.
<4> Like postmodernists, Victorians did not have one definition of consciousness, but rather a set of criteria that spanned a variety of different contexts. In fact, many mid-to-late nineteenth-century texts suggest that society-at-large had a new willingness to view consciousness – and conscious experience – in radical ways. As Walter Houghton has famously argued in his book The Victorian Frame of Mind (1957), Victorian consciousness was increasingly charged with loneliness, nostalgia, anxiety, fear, worry, guilt, and frustration alongside optimism. Such foreboding affected the social consciousness as citizens grew more likely to read consciousness as a kind of fiction: particularly of the gothic kind. In her book How Novels Think (2005) Nancy Armstrong observes that “the great tradition of Victorian fiction saw modern consciousness as the means to resolve the widening gap between self-fulfillment and what was socially acceptable” (Armstrong 146). The “widening gap” that Armstrong defines provided space for exploration of the consciousness in the nineteenth century. As George Eliot suggests in Daniel Deronda (1876), the Victorian consciousness was essentially unstable; “consciousness” was definable in the sense that almost every “individual” possessed one, but it was incredibly insecure in the sense that no one could clearly feel that her consciousness was stable or complete.(10) Jason B. Jones, who focuses on “historical consciousness” in his book Lost Causes: Historical Consciousness in Victorian Literature (2006), argues that Evans’s use consciousness has “an ontological, as well as epistemological dimension.” Her form of historical consciousness suggests that “there is an element of history that always exceeds our understanding.” According to Jones, Evans strives “neither to represent the real transparently nor to argue for simple fables of progress” (Jones 2). She, like many of her contemporaries, understood consciousness as a tainted state of being. In some ways, Evans’s sense of consciousness reflects “modern consciousness,” which is characterized by “conflicts that often create a neurotic structure” (Kawai 438). Furthermore, the unstable nature of Victorian consciousness could even be termed “postmodern” as, according to Toshia Kawai, postmodern consciousness is “self-reflective without content” (447). Such consciousness is swept up in questions of pure being. The brand of consciousness that Victorians tended to display through the arts was defined by its indefiniteness. Identifying an “other” brought Victorians no closer to understanding the “self” as a unified state of being. An inability to define consciousness teased out the possibility that it was, perhaps, empty: that the nature of consciousness was that it could be lost or even controlled by others.
<5> In some ways, the Victorian consciousness is best described as a zombic state: or, what W.E.B. Du Bois defines as double consciousness at the turn of the century. Du Bois’s definition of double consciousness refers expressly to Black Americans who feel their position as a subaltern: their “two-ness – [as] an American, [and] a Negro.” Black Americans have “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Du Bois 8). From the onset of his theory, Du Bois is clear that his brand of double consciousness arises from a couple of definite situations; it occurs in a subaltern individual who feels allegiance to two sometimes disparate orientations, and it resists breaking a person into parts. The body that suffers a Du Boisian kind of double consciousness remains whole despite the fact that “this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of ten thousand thousand people – has […] at times even seemed to make them ashamed of themselves” (10). Du Bois offers a genre of double consciousness that is vital to understanding the zombie in nineteenth-century fiction. Like the Black American in The Souls of Black Folk a Victorian zombie sees “his own soul r[i]se before him, and he s[ees] himself” as the marionette of another. Yet, eventually, “he beg[i]n[s] to have a dim feeling that, to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another” (11). While not all nineteenth-century literary British “zombies” are Black and even fewer are American, Du Bois’s theory articulates an awareness of the racialized or physically-marked other which permeated many consciousnesses during the Victorian period. That some Victorians feared their potential to be zombic in this way – or imagined themselves as capable of making such zombies of others – is clear through their texts, which built on earlier literature of the zombie.(11) Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, in particular, iterates many of the trends of zombification that other Victorian authors utilized.
<6> Most characters in Brontë’s Jane Eyre have an affinity with zombies. That Jane Eyre has been interpreted in the context of zombie-culture in such works as Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) makes sense because the theme of zombification is so prevalent in the novel. For example, Helen Burns displays such a high degree of emotional vacuity to contrast Eyre’s abundance of affect that she seems deprived of the mortal ability to feel. After Burns is brutally punished by Miss Scatcherd at Lowood, Eyre describes her shock at Burns’s propensity to suffer quietly (or not at all):
She presumes that Burns will eventually display the basic markings of a human in pain or embarrassment by showing “great distress and shame,” yet her “composed” and “grave” countenance reveals only a “silence” that produces “not a tear” from her eyes “to alter its ordinary expression” (63). Like a classic Vodou zombie,(12) Burns appears to have lost human characteristics while under the influence of a higher power. Her affinity to Christ (as a sacrificial figure) is a topic that many critics have addressed,(13) yet her parallelism with one of Christianity’s founding principles – zombic reanimation – has not been analyzed. For fifteen years following Burns’s death, Eyre notes that her plot “was only covered by a grassy mound;” but after she visits her friend in the graveyard as an adult, “now a gray marble tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name, and the word ‘Resurgam’” (91), which means “I shall rise again.” Although Eyre does not admit that she is the one who inscribes such ostentatious meaning on her friend’s grave, the resurgence of Burns in Eyre’s life – after death – suggests that Burns’s symbolic resurrection is bound up in Eyre’s experience. Immediately following Eyre’s reflection on the inscription on her friend’s tablet, she makes a very telling observation about her own manner: it has changed to mimic Burns’s; “I was quiet; I believed I was content: to the eyes of others, usually even to my own, I appeared a disciplined and subdued character” (92). For the first time in the novel, after Burns’s death Eyre is “quiet,” “disciplined,” and “subdued:” attributes that had never before pertained to her fiery character. Burns seems, at least momentarily, to live again in Eyre.
Dick symbolizes the same zombification to which Rochester is a victim; they are both men who have fallen under the influence of the monstrous, feminized power of the West Indies and British conquest. He, like Rochester, is a quintessential zombie with features that are “too relaxed,” eyes that are “large” but “vacant” and “wander” but have “no meaning,” and a body that is “inanimate” yet “unsettled.” Dick’s “odd look” has “no power” and, if these characteristics are not enough to suggest his zombic nature, his corpse-like state is emphasized by his “shrinking nearer [to the fire], as if her were cold.” The relationship between Dick’s and Rochester’s position is highlighted when Mason reacts with similar violence toward her brother as she does to her husband, suggesting that they share a common bond. That Rochester relates to Dick’s zombification is clear when, in an early conversation with Eyre, he articulates a desire to break free from his zombification. He observes that before travelling to the West Indies he “was a feeling fellow enough” and “once had a rude tenderness of heart” but fortune has “kneaded me with her knuckles,” manipulating Rochester into a “hard and tough” ball of Indian-rubber. He then beseeches Eyre, “Does that leave hope for me?” Eyre asks, “Hope of what, sir?” to which he responds: for a “final re-transformation from Indian-rubber back to flesh” (138). Rochester displays a desire to break free from his Vodou-master but appears wholly unable to accomplish freedom on his own.
<16> What is most progressive about Jane Eyre is that despite violent tugs in opposing directions, the protagonists of Brontë’s novel maintain wholeness due to their zombic double-consciousness. Victorians were enamored with this possibility, especially amidst the Empire’s colonialist itinerary. To apply Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness – which is clearly intended to express the unique position of Black Americans in the early twentieth century – to the predominantly white, male, and English experience of conquest which in many ways catalyzed the very problem that Du Bois stresses, has its obvious limitations. Nevertheless, this very point is a primary reason why Du Bois’s theory is so relevant. A social fear of difference – racial, gendered, cultural, etc. – is the foundation of Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness. Such fears certainly fueled – and were fueled by – the Empire’s designs. Nineteenth-century texts with the gothic stamp such as Jane Eyre have been most open to an exploration of the social fears of difference through interrogating of the boundaries of consciousness.(17) In particular, the gothic genre evidences a fascination with zombic consciousnesses, as it positions the dead body (and its afterlife) as the fulcrum of fear. Just as the “Negro problem” that Du Bois defines is ostensibly solved by asserting unity even in the face of the most disorienting forces, the goal of the Victorian zombie is to remain whole despite the mind’s or body’s sudden loss of sovereignty. What Du Bois’s subject must overcome is racial prejudice, which is not a too-far cry from the hurdles that many protagonists in Victorian texts must confront. Fears concerning racial difference were often posed in the discourse of gender debates in which certain racial characteristics would be feminized or masculinized, and hence labeled inappropriate or unnatural. In some ways, debates about race were also about gender, and vice versa.(18) A conversation about race and gender cannot be conducted in isolation, which is a point that Black feminist scholars such as bell hooks and Paula Giddings have argued. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s assertion that today race is frequently the language used to speak for hierarchies of difference such as gender, translates also to Victorian discourse – most notably, during the nineteenth century, in texts which utilize the zombie motif.
(1)The Victorian City (1973), edited by Jim Dyos and Michael Wolff, includes a number of essays that focus on various industrial developments in the Victorian period and how they affected culture.(^)
(2)Several texts in which consequential bodies appear sick, disabled, or deformed include Dinah Craik’s Olive (1850), Charlotte Younge’s The Heir of Redcylffe (1854), and The Pillars of the House (1873), Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), Charles Dickens’s “Doctor Marigold” (1865), Marion Evans’s Daniel Deronda (1876), Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878), and Marie Corelli’s Ardath (1889).(^)
(3)Southey describes the zombi as a kind of god in Brazilian culture in which the chief of Palmares Negros is called “Zombi:” “the name for the Diety” (Southey 24).(^)
(4)Reanimated corpses, although they were not called “zombies,” appear in non-fiction, historical literature as far back is the 12 century. See William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicarum (12th century), Geoffrey of Burton’s Life and Miracles of Virgin Saint Modwenn (12th century), Eyrbyggia Saga(13th century, anonymous), Sir Maxwell Herbert’s Chronicle of Lanercost (13th century), Richard Baxter’s Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits(1691), Richard Burton’s Kingdom of Darkness (1688), Henry More’s Antidote Against Atheism (1658), Joseph Pitton’s A Voyage into the Levant (1718), and Dom Calmet’s Treatise on Vampires and Revenants (1746).(^)
(5)In her book Tell my Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938), Nora Zeale Hurston describes that zombies, according to Vodou practice, are “bodies without souls […] called back to life again” (Hurston 179) through the use of “the drop of liquid that will make him a zombie” (189). Hurston claims that zombies are used primarily for labor (182-183).(^)
(6)Kim Paffenroth explains in her book Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth (2006) that George Romero birthed a cinematic zombie that has numerous characteristics. These zombies are corpses that have been reanimated from “mysterious radiation” or a disease or virus. They are autonomous beings, “not under the control of someone else” (Paffenroth 3). They are “killing machines” (3) rather than laborers. Zombies increase their numbers, eat the living, and are generally slow-moving.(^)
(7)For example, when the unnamed narrator of Marie Corelli’s A Romance of Two Worlds (1886) doubles herself into the sacred spiritual realm, her consciousness is heightened. Doubling allows her to actualize her situation. When Kate Ede doubles herself as Serpolette in George Moore’s A Mummer’s Wife (1885), she achieves (like Hyde from Stevenson’s tale) a stronger, more violent consciousness: one that is hardly submissive or apathetic.(^)
(8)According to Franz Fanon in his book Black Skin, White Masks (1967), part of the Negro slave consciousness is his need to become like his Master.(^)
(9)Critics who have recently examined the zombie trope, such as Kyle William Bishop, Jacque Lynn Fotlyn, and Edna Aizenberg, tend to focus on twentieth-century literature.(^)
(10)Daniel Deronda exemplifies the period’s emphasis on sentient experience, as the protagonists’ actions revolve almost entirely upon the word “consciousness.” See my article “A Harleth’s Progress: Toward a Definition of Victorian Consciousness” (More than Thought 2010) for an in-depth discussion of Evans’s use of consciousness.(^)
(11)There a large number of texts that may have inspired the Victorian trend of using zombies. However, the three which seem most relevant are The Epic of Gilgamesh (7BC), Lazarus’ resurrection in the New Testament (2 AD) – and Robert Browning’s analysis of it in “An Epistle” (1855) – and Phlegon of Tralles’s tale of Philinnon (2 AD) – particularly Goethe’s reworking of this tale as “The Bride of Corinth” (1797).(^)
(12)In many ways, Queen Victoria’s England was steeped in the discourse of zombification: in the position of both Vodou master and puppet. In its earliest Western incarnation, the “zombi” referred to the Vodouism which English imperialists apprehended during Europe’s conquest of the Republic of Haiti in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. According to Ina Johanna Fandrich, Vodou – which exists in three distinct locations, including Benin, West Africa on the Caribbean island of Haiti, and Southern Louisiana – is “one of the oldest religions on the planet,” which “emerged under the trauma of slavery as an assertion of resistance;” it is a “religion ‘from below’” (Fandrich 10). As a result of oppression, the Vodou zombie – which is “silent, enslaved, and unable to connect with the dominant culture through any luminal space of discourse” (Bishop 141) – is a clear articulation of what Gyatri Spivak has termed “the subaltern,” according to Bishop. Like women who “cannot be heard or read” (Spivak 104) zombies are victims of epistemic violence due to their lowly position in the hierarchical structure of power. A zombie “sits on the cusp of death, and beliefs that mediate the phenomenon are rooted in the very heart of the peasant’s being” (Davis 57-8). While zombification is not a defining characteristic of Vodou, it is the orientation which burrowed itself most deeply in the Western imagination – particularly during the Victorian period – and continues to do so today. The motivation behind such overstatement arises from many sources. However, the lasting impression of the Haitian zombie materialized predominantly from its ability to couch the echoes of conquest and to symbolize the Empire’s position following the abolition of slavery. Haiti, and especially its zombies, represented a suppression of identity during the nineteenth century, unveiling a pernicious portrait of the type of subjects that Victorians, in particular, both feared and desired. A certain degree of zombification was necessary to fulfill England’s colonial vision: to become increasingly “civilized” as compared to other countries. For example, British government demanded docile and epigonic citizens who unquestionably complied with the national dogma. On the other hand, such zombification held dire consequences which threatened to undermine the superiority of such a government, as “Vodou was commonly represented as the ultimate antithesis of ‘civilization’” (Dubois 92) due to its affinity with the subaltern other.(^)
(13)See Joshua Essaka’s “‘Almost my Hope of Heaven:” Idolatry and Messianic Symbolism in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre” (Philology Quarterly 81.1) and Alison Searle’s “An Idolatrous Imagination? Biblical Theology and Romanticism in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre” (Christianity and Literature 56.1).(^)
(14)In her essay “A Stranger Within the Gates: Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Irishness” (Victorian Studies 44.3), Sara Maurer explains that St. John “is transformed in India into the promise of the second coming,” suggesting a “colonial reconfiguration of faith” (Maurer 532) which bolsters British colonization.(^)
(15)A similar idiosyncratic depiction of a heroic man being thrown from his horse before a woman occurs in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871) when a Knight comes to seize Alice as his prisoner, causing her anxiety and fright from the fall rather than the mission to capture her.(^)
(16)In Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, for example, the reanimated body of the Egyptian and androgynous “Beetle” does not meet the same criteria as Eyre and Rochester due to its non-British roots. The same can be said of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.(^)
(17)As Marshall Brown argues in his book The Gothic Text (2005), traits of the Gothic genre are defined most succinctly by examining Kant’s treatment of a consciousness as inarticulate (and unarticulated). In Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798) Kant locates at least two kinds of consciousness of the self, named “empirical self-consciousness” and “transcendental apperception,” that have various levels of intricacy. The predominant characteristic of both forms of consciousness, and the one that Brown relates to the Gothic most, is that these two forms of consciousness are fully realized when “nothing manifold is given” (Critique 135). As Phillip Neujahr has convincingly argued, Kant’s forms of consciousness lack compatibility across his works. Nevertheless, for Brown this manifold nature and the abstraction in representations of Kant’s consciousness is a defining characteristic of Gothic tales.(^)
(18)The intersectionalities between race, gender, and nationality have been a topic of discussion for many postcolonial theorists, such as Anne McClintock in her book Imperial Leather (1995).(^)
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