English 165

Special Topics: Rebel Slaves and Dark Doubles: Black Women Writers' Engagements with Jane Eyre

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
3 Fall 2021 Sirianni, Lucy
TTh 11-12:30 300 Wheeler

Book List

Anonymous: The Woman of Colour: A Tale; Bronte, Charlotte: Jane Eyre; Crafts, Hannah: The Bondwoman's Narrative; Jacobs, Harriet: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself; Rhys, Jean: Wide Sargasso Sea

Other Readings and Media


A course reader containing short works by Charlotte Bronté, Charlotte Forten Grimke, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Catherine Keyser, Susan Meyer, Gayatri Spivak, and others




Secret marriages and women hidden away in attics, portentous storms and mysterious mansions, the haunting sounds of unhinged laughter and the ominous creakings of a tree. Madwomen, long-lost relatives, lonely orphans cruelly treated, and a woman's voice speaking out with poise and power from the margins of society. These plot points and figures may immediately bring to mind Charlotte Bronte's 1847 Jane Eyre, a novel so popular upon its publication that readerly enthusiasm for the work was described as an all-out "mania." Yet these same plot points and figures also fill the pages of writings by black women—women whose subjugation and abuse Jane Eyre both decries and metaphorizes to serve its own ends. In this course, we will ask why women of color ereturned again and again to Bronte's novel, to emulate and celebrate, chastise and critique, and ultimately, to transform. We'll begin with an in-depth exploration of Jane Eyre with an eye to interlinked issues of gender and race. We'll talk about the power and perils of JaneEyre's proto-feminism, its evocations of race both literal and metaphorical, and its depictions and deployments of "exotic" locales like India and the West Indies. We'll then examine the lines of mutual influence between Jane Eyre and texts by the non-white women she consistently invokes. Turning to slave narratives and novels, journal entries and letters, we'll ask what happens when the women Jane Eyre treats as far-off abstractions take up the novel's story, turns of phrase, and metaphors to assert their flesh-and-blood reality. How—and why—did they so often position themselves both in alignment and opposition to Charlotte Bronte and her most famous fictional creation? Why was Jane Eyre seen as both so meaningful and so in need of corrective revision? How might Jane Eyre have not only shaped but been shaped by the work of black women writers? Might Bronté, for instance, have read The Woman of Colour, an anonymously penned 1808 epistolary novel whose mixed-race heroine's story anticipates in key ways Jane Eyre's? And what do the answers to these questions tell us about feminism and race, solidarity and intersectionality, in the nineteenth century and today?

As we consider the context of ongoing and dynamic dialogues within which Jane Eyre exists, you, too, will engage in dialogue—not only with me but also with critics and with your classmates. We'll read the work of important and influential literary scholars, and you'll have chances to position your own interpretations within larger critical debates. You'll also formally present your work to your fellow students in an end-of-semester conference designed to foreground the conversations across your final projects. In addition, you'll write short weekly responses meant to stimulate and guide class discussion as well as two substantial papers, the first considering how Jane Eyre speaks to and about marginalized communities and the second considering how marginalized communities (or their members) speak to and about Jane Eyre.


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