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IAFA Abstract 2011

Jane Eyre and Zombies

No critic has yet observed that zombies drive the plot of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  Nevertheless, zombic gestures, characteristics, and figures permeate the structure of the novel. Jacques Tournier’s film I Walked with a Zombie (1943) presents Bertha Mason – who is described as “The Vampyre” by Eyre in the novel – as a zombie. While Tournier’s interpretation of Mason does not reflect the literal position of the fiery, physically-domineering, and viciously assertive wife whom Edward Rochester keeps locked away in the attic at Thornfield, it does capitalize on the too-long neglected tone of Brontë’s classic. From Gateshead Hall to Lowood, from Thornfield to Moor House, zombies and zombic commonplaces lurk around every corner.  “Resurgam” (“I will rise again”) – the word that marks Helen Burn’s tomb – sets the tone of the novel, as the resurrected dead rear their ugly heads in the shape of Mr. Reed, Helen, and Eyre. Using David Chalmers’ theory about consciousness in The Conscious Mind, I observe that Rochester’s and Eyre’s conscious states undergo a doubling of self in which autonomy is sacrificed to another’s powerful influence.  Rochester’s economic ambitions in Jamaica mark a period of zombification in which he, like Dick Mason, falls under the voodoo-like spell of despotic women, such as Bertha Mason, who use their numinous strength to control and overpower several male figures.  Such domination signals Victorian fears associated with colonization.  Furthermore, Rochester’s status as a listless and “cursed” zombie calls into question nineteenth-century masculinity.  Eyre – who experiences various shades of zombification throughout the novel dating back to her time as Lowood – falls under the “freezing spell” of St. John at Moor House, where he pushes Eyre’s “slave” status to a new level of subordination.  Her role as a traditional, conservative female – as expressed by Victorian authors such as John Ruskin – is actualized in her moments of zombic imbecility.  Both Rochester’s and Eyre’s zombic states articulate the contentious debate about proper male and female roles.  Zombification means emasculation for Rochester, yet it conforms Eyre to her prescribed role as a “True” woman.  Docile, emotionally vacuous, codependent, apathetic, lifeless, and psychologically numb, the romance between Rochester and Eyre is enabled through their ineffectual struggles against zombification from extraneous forces.