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The influence of imperialist ideology on the dichotomy of passion and reason in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre

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  • A prevalent belief during the Victorian age was that the world was divided between inferior beings governed by passion and superior reasoning beings. On the political level, this idea separated inferior passion-driven natives from superior reasoning Europeans. This division contributed to the maintenance and expansion of imperialist rule in distant lands, for it suggested that Europeans had a duty to civilize primitive natives. This view of the binary opposition between the passionate and the rational operated on a cultural level in that women were believed to be dominated by emotions unlike their male counterparts, who were seen as superior to women because of their self-control and rationality. As a result of this view, women were believed to be in need of the mental and physical regulation of doctors and psychiatrists in particular and men in general. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre reflects her society's belief in the dichotomy between the inferior passionate being and the superior reasoning being on both the political and cultural levels. In her portrayal of Bertha Mason, the mad Creole woman, Bronte shows the passionate Bertha to be inferior to the articulate Jane and the self-controlled Mr. Rochester. Through the relationship between Rochester and Bertha, Bronte also points to the need for the rational European to govern the unruly passionate "other." On the cultural level, Bronte highlights and challenges the Victorian idea that due to their emotional nature women ought to be confined to domestic life, through her depiction of Jane Eyre's struggle to ease the societal restrictions placed on women. Bronte also refutes the notion that women are in need of men's domination through Jane's fight against attempts by St. John Rivers and Mr. Rochester to control her. Bronte extends the theme of passion versus reason to a personal level through Jane's struggle to govern her emotions through reason when she finds that she must leave Rochester. Hence, Jane Eyre reveals the prevalence of this imperialist notion of the need for domination in Victorian society as well as Bronte's ambivalence toward it.
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