“Fevered with Delusive Bliss”: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and the Ambiguous Pleasures of the Turk

Ann Erskine

Abstract


The tropes and motifs of the Turk, the sultan, the harem slave, and the corsair—all heavily inscribed with eroticism—emerged from centuries of white slavery within the Ottoman Empire. By the time of Jane Eyre’s publication in 1847 the idea of the harem as a place where enslaved white women were possessed by lascivious men, and bound to slake their sexual needs, was entrenched in the British imagination. This article argues that Charlotte Brontë’s extensive use of these Oriental tropes in Jane Eyre creates a powerfully erotic sub-text enabling her to negotiate the difficult territory of Jane’s vacillation between erotic submission and erotic dominance—between the positions of “slave” and “master.” This “Turkish” reading of Jane Eyre differs from postcolonial readings that pay attention to black, Caribbean slavery, and feminist readings wherein Brontë’s deployment of Oriental tropes is viewed as a racist, political statement. Instead, this article focuses on how Brontë’s use of Oriental motifs and Turquerie illuminates the inherent ambiguity of Jane Eyre’s longing for the “fevered bliss” of passionate surrender, and her fear of sexual subjugation and abandon­ment. This reading extends interpretations of the novel’s sexual politics, providing an integrative framework for the narrative from the first page of the novel where Brontë introduces the child, Jane, “seated like a Turk” in the window seat at Gateshead, to the intensity of her adult passion for Rochester, the despotic sultan. Examining Brontë’s Eastern allusions, including historical awareness of the enslavement of white, Christian women, extends and adds nuance to the erotic ambivalence at the core of the novel.


Keywords


Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte; Orientalism, White slavery

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