Images of race and the influence of abolition in jane eyre and wuthering heights
Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s masterpieces, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, respectively, reflect the sisters’ life-long investment in the abolitionist movement. Despite being written over a decade post-abolition, the novels’ retrospective settings lend weight to the sisters’ usage of distinctive language associated with the rise of slavery in the British West Indies and the subsequent push for its elimination. This language, largely centered around the characters of Bertha Mason and Heathcliff, seems to support an antislavery stance on the part of the Brontë sisters. A conflict arises, however, when considering that Bertha and Heathcliff are racially-Othered within the texts, and their aggressive and immoral behavior does nothing to redeem or flatter their characters. Indeed, the language in both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights leave the novels supporting the antislavery discourse of the early nineteenth century while also unsympathetically portraying stereotypical and derogatory representations of racially-Othered individuals. The Brontës’ antislavery sentiments, it seems, are not necessarily free of racial prejudice, but neither is the abolitionist rhetoric that influenced the novels. This project draws upon historical context to trace the major developments in abolition into the nineteenth century, including various sides of the debate and how rural areas throughout England influenced how the movement came to be organized on a national level. Furthermore, biographical information on the Brontës helps contextualize their personal involvement in the abolitionist movement, while an analysis of select works from their juvenilia shows how their knowledge of the movement inspired their writings from an early age. This background lays the foundation for a reading of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights that details how the conflicting sentiments of these novels are ultimately indicative of Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s awareness and participation in the abolitionist movement.