“Fancies bright and dark”: sadomasochism and the sublime in Jane Eyre

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Elizabeth A. Carlin (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site: http://library.uncg.edu/
Anne Wallace

Abstract: The social context of Charlotte Brontë’s most famous work, Jane Eyre, provides a set of expectations for the novel’s central romance; Jane and Rochester seem to enjoy a relatively egalitarian relationship, while simultaneously occupying traditional gender roles of dominance and submission. These roles, when exaggerated or performed, push the relationship to a more intimate space; dominance becomes sadistic, and submission becomes masochistic. Introducing pain as a sensual dimension to the relationship allows for the development of an exciting tension, and ultimately enables Jane and Rochester to subvert social expectations by performing them. This tension is exciting because it turns on the instability of Rochester’s attention and affection toward Jane, which causes her to feel pleasurable and painful emotions. In his 1757 Philosophical Enquiry into The Sublime and the Beautiful, Edmund Burke’s explanation of the relationship between pleasure and pain shows that these emotions can be present simultaneously or even occur as a byproduct of one another. Burke suggests that pain is stronger, more intense, than pleasure, and that the blending of the two emotions creates an intensity of feeling which transcends simple pleasure. Using Burke and contemporary ideas of the sublime to approach Jane Eyre is advantageous for several reasons. First, it is perhaps obvious to any scholarly reader that the primary relationship of the text possesses a sadistic or sadomasochistic quality; however, this argument has been largely supported in recent scholarship with Freudian theory and other anachronistic psychoanalytic approaches. Using Burke’s study of the pleasure and pain excited by sublime delight offers a productive lens through which to consider sadomasochism in the relationship. Burke’s theory predates Brontë, and thus avoids an ahistorical bias; it allows us to pose these questions in contemporary terms. The theory of sublime delight can also introduce useful language to define the strategic code through which Jane and Rochester express forbidden desire and access pleasure indirectly. The sadomasochistic tension of their relationship overlays their proper dominant/submissive roles, and it is the exaggeration or performance of these roles which allows a space for sensation and (negative) pleasure. If we assume an ultimately egalitarian ground at the core of their relationship, as I attempt to show, we will find that the pain he subjects her to exists at a tolerable distance and generates a sadomasochistic sublime delight.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2017
Edmund Burke, Jane Eyre, Masochism, Sadism, Sadomasochism, Sublime
Bronte¨, Charlotte, $d 1816-1855. $t Jane Eyre
Burke, Edmund, $d 1729-1797. $t Philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful
Sadomasochism in literature
Sublime, The, in literature

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