See John and Jane Fight: Textuality and Carnality

While reading Jane Eyre I was struck by the emphasis on textuality that appears almost immediately in the novel. In that early pivotal scene wherein she assaults John Reed’s fist with her face, we see texts are used as weapons, literally. As Simpson stated, “Thus she alludes to the profound effect that the books and the tales have on her throughout her life. She points out that she even draws parallels between the narratives and her own world, parallels that she occasionally declares aloud” (para. 10), after which Simpson cites Jane’s insult comparing Johnny Reed to the likes of Nero and Caligula, at least in her mind.

It’s a crucial scene in terms of narrative agency; here textual knowledge is used as a weapon, and the difference between the male and female usages is noteworthy. John is a fool, a dolt and dullard who lacks imagination as Jane cuttingly mentions: “he was not quick either of vision or conception” (65). He uses books as blunt instruments of domination and hierarchical enforcement. Secure in his position, he deigns not to attempt grace and wisdom, or even knowledge; Bronte’s ironic commentary is that he may own the physical object of the tome, but he does not own the knowledge contained within, which means it will forever be simply a possession to be hoarded and will never become a lesson to be learned. Jane, contrastingly, reads and appropriates the knowledge within, making her the true possessor of the book even though she is penniless and of low social status; she is elevated above her station due to the simple act of reading.

John chucks the book at Jane, the first textual attack, and Jane ripostes with a verbal jab equating him to “the Roman emperors!” (67). It is instructive that she immediately elaborates on this comment by citing the history book and providing two examples. “Also I had drawn parallels in silence, which I never thought thus to have declared aloud,” she comments (67). Incensed, the male assaults her with his body, unable to trade verbal attacks. The key element here is the vocal expression of her opinion. She often disparaged his behavior mentally, but until she vocalizes it she cannot change it. Throughout the remainder of the novel, her source of agency is her words, in her interactions at Lowood, at Thornfield, and with the Rivers, and this episode reveals the potency of her words, to herself and to readers, in affecting her environment, something with women of the time would not be expected to do. But the crucial detail is that she asserts herself through textual knowledge, which has the double advantage of appealing to the patriarchal society’s valuation of education and literacy, as well as demonstrating culture and education’s defiance against brutal oppression and ignorant sensuality embodied in our boy Johnny.

Lastly, Jane’s description of their tussle is interesting in the sensory language she uses and the negative connotations she ascribes. She describes a “drop of blood from my head trickle down my neck, and was sensible of somewhat pungent suffering: these sensations, for a time predominated over fear, and I received him in frantic sort” (68). Worse in Jane’s mind than his unjust attack are the physical sensations she describes, and this impels her to fight back. There seems to be a correlation between an overemphasis, an exaggeration of sensuality with the pernicious brutality and oppression of John. If we take Armstrong’s reference to Foucault’s theory of biopower, John enwraps Jane in a kind of “carnal embrace” (emphasis on the Latin etymology of carnal meaning simply “flesh”) which repulses her and firmly situates her within the Victorian rejection of overt carnality.

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