Imagining Monsters

WideSargassoSeaAll fiction writing, it is often said, is borrowing. I’m not exactly sure that’s literally true, but the basic idea is that writers often trade with one another. They also borrow against their own experience and observations that others have made. When a character, or set of characters, an author develops become(s) wildly popular, fan fiction can result. There are websites dedicated to “fan fic” where characters from one writer are personalized in another writer’s imagination. Another form of borrowing is the parody. Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies takes Jane Austen far beyond her original scenario while using her novel as the basis of something somewhat new. These borrowings, as the saying suggests, have been around for a long time. I recently read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. The novel from the 1960s is a “prequel” of sorts to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Although spoiler alerts for literature nearly a couple centuries old might seem like overkill, I’ll give one here anyway. You’ve been warned.

Jane Eyre includes quite a lot of gothic mystery. Thornfield has a mad woman, Bertha, the first wife of Mr. Rochester, living in the attic. Bertha is from the Caribbean, and Rhys, although Welsh, was born in Dominica. Taking an interest in the point of view of the neglected, insane Bertha, she decided to tell her story in Wide Sargasso Sea. I won’t sum up the plot here since you may decide to read it. The reason I brought the whole subject up in the first place is the glimpses given of the religions of the Caribbean. Clearly this was not Rhys’ main objective. The Creole of the various races from the slave trade and colonialism, however, did produce fascinating religious amalgams. The zombie, a figure that plays a small part in the imaginative aspects of the novel, is only the most familiar of the creatures.

The soucriant, or soucouyant, is a blood-sucker. A figure that combines elements of witches and vampires, the soucriant takes the form of an old woman by day and a blood-sucker by night. (Before you get the wrong idea, there are no zombie or soucriant characters in Wide Sargasso Sea—they are merely mentioned briefly in conversation.) This concept, while derived independently, relates to the succubus but also to the more modern chupacabra. These are all creatures that suck the vital essence from another, be the victim human or animal. The ubiquity of the idea is striking. In the context of the novel, however, such creatures merely haunt fevered imaginations. Our minds, however, are what make monsters real. Although Rhys declines to diagnose “Bertha” completely, it is clear that human mistreatment of one another creates, in its own ways, monsters. That’s an idea, I suspect, that I’ve borrowed.

Eyre the Apocalypse

Finishing Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre last night proved timely from the point of view of today’s much anticipated apocalypse. (I hate to leave a book unfinished as the final trump begins to sound.) As I stress to my students at Rutgers (when I actually have a class), the Bible surrounds them whether they are aware of it or not. Quite aside from the present rapture-envy—that one’s just too easy—reading literature of the nineteenth century is an excellent way to show the Bible’s influence on western culture. Jane Eyre is suffused with biblical allusions and direct references, even with the faulty theological notions that the Scriptures had hatched in that century. Of course, the Bronte sisters, all successful novelists, were the children of a clergyman, but other writers of the period demonstrate an equally biblical worldview. In fact, much of the dramatic tension in the present novel revolves around distinctly biblical issues.

Interspersed with my reading of classical novels, I read many more recent literary explorations as well. A couple of weeks ago I completed Stephen King’s It, not a particularly favorite novel, but one that at times demonstrated that even masters of the macabre frequently draw on the Bible. For modern literature the Bible is the ultimate foundation. It would be interesting to live long enough to see if it still has any relevancy at the end of the present century. Jane Eyre, perceptive as most nineteenth century novels are, also pressed directly the wound that currently afflicts much of our nation. Cast upon misfortune, Miss Eyre is mistaken for a beggar. Miss Bronte observes, “Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education,” a line that should be emblazoned upon the door of public officials who feel it is their right to withdraw funding from public education. You want an apocalypse? That’s the recipe right there.

Nevertheless, Miss Eyre presses on until she reclaims the man who had once “stood between me and every thought of religion,” dodging an impassioned missionary along the way. In revealing the manipulations of the cousin who dies on the mission fields, enriched by Miss Eyre’s beneficence, once again Charlotte Bronte displays her perception of how the church may ultimately rob a soul of its true potential. Upon learning of his death, the now Mrs. Rochester ends this penetrating novel with his words, strangely appropriate for this day of fictional endings: “’My Master,’ he says, ‘has forewarned me. Daily he announces more distinctly—“Surely I come quickly!” and hourly I more eagerly respond, —“Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!”’” Of course, St. John is here quoting Revelation 22.20. Since I am scheduled to run a 5-K in a couple of hours, if the second coming is about to happen, it would be convenient should it transpire before I end up exhausted in my own personal apocalypse.

Jane Eyre stopping one of the horsemen of the apocalypse?

Jane Who?

“Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.” So states Charlotte Brontë in the preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre. I am inclined to believe that the lines were widely ignored by clergy and politicians, for public leaders in nineteenth century Britain were not likely to take the advice of a young lady who only had one real credit to her name. Politicians and clergy of twenty-first century America can hardly be expected to have read Jane Eyre, for how would this woman know the harsh realities of how to assert one’s own will on the masses? In the stewing tea pot of the Religious Right, conventionality is morality. Self-righteousness is religion. George Santayana might well have saved his cramped fingers from writing, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As politicians oil their moving parts in preparation for next year’s great race, they know that many constituents will gladly accept conventionality as morality without asking about the origins of such practices. Schoolyard bullies who seek their own aspirations praise the great darkness that has settled over New Jersey where education is simply a commodity with which to bargain. Jane Eyre? Who’s she? If she’s a constituent, I’d better spin this slashing of education funds to her liking. Without an educated public, it is much easier to bolster one’s personal authority.

For years educators have been watching in dismay as other developed nations soar past American expertise in science, math, and even geography. Our response: let’s cut education funding. Conventionality is morality. Education teaches children to think for themselves. Is it not better to show them that self-righteousness is religion? We can put other religions on trial (thank you, Mr. King), while conveniently forgetting our founders were largely religious dissenters. To know that, however, you have to read a little history. We are far too busy plotting how to shortchange our future in order to feather further already overly plush nests.