by Ashley Tucker
The telling and retelling of one’s own story is a powerful experience, giving the voiceless a voice, granting authorial freedom, and offering a window into potentially untold stories. J.M. Coetzee’s and Charlotte Brontë’s first person narratives in Foe and Jane Eyre foreground female protagonists telling of their personal histories. Jane Eyre and Susan Barton represent the complexity of autobiography in demonstrating how sources outside of the women themselves have a dominant influence on the way that their stories are experienced, as well as the way that they are later retold. Jane’s story is driven by the oppression to which she responds. Susan’s tale is shaped by her attempt to convince Foe that she is “a bold adventuress” (Coetzee 45). Both fictional characters are left with the task of constructing their stories in such a way that evokes a desired response from their audience. In doing so, however, one of the challenges becomes presenting these stories with authenticity. This conflict arises not only in the isolated instances of these novels, but can be applied to a much greater context: the telling and retelling of all autobiography. Through a fictional platform, Jane Eyre and Susan Barton show that by allowing one the liberty to tell their truth, autobiography affords a narrator the opportunity to claim ownership of their story, develop self-awareness and identity, and provide a sense of concreteness to a series of experiences that at one time may have seemed unreal.
In its simplest form, an autobiography is when a person is narrating their own life story. In “The Veto of the Imagination,” Louis Renza expands on this definition and suggests that autobiography is “an indeterminate mixture of truth and fiction about the person writing it” (Renza 1). What both of these definitions fail to encompass, however, is the inevitable evolution that the author experiences by writing. In “Some Principles of Autobiography,” William Howarth goes even further to suggests that in producing an autobiography in the truest sense, one will undergo, “a spiritual experiment, a voyage of discovery” (Howarth 85). It is irresponsible to neglect this kind of unfolding when defining autobiography because it becomes equal to, or perhaps more significant than the story itself. Renza considers it to be a “‘literary’ event whose primary being resides in and through the writing itself: in the ‘life’ of the signifier as opposed to the life being signified” (Renza 1). What this suggests is that written autobiographical text reflects an outward expression which is only one component of the autobiographical experience. In the piece “Girl Talk: Jane Eyre and the Romance of Women’s Narration,” Carla Kaplan sees an autobiography, in Jane’s case, as “the story of the growth of a writer, someone who can extend the gesture – or invitation… of her own, assured voice to an unknown and unpredictable other (the reader)” (Kaplan 334). If one is to approve of Howarth’s notion that an autobiography functions as a self-portrait does, in the way that the artist and author “work from memory as well as sight, in two levels of time, on two planes of space, while reaching for those other dimensions, depth and the future” then one can also accept that both Jane and Susan are telling their stories in a way that can be classified as autobiography (Howarth 85).
Jane Eyre and Foe are similar because their authors present two women protagonists who manifest both a drive and a will to tell their unthinkable stories. They set up Jane and Susan as authors themselves. As stated in “Fictions of Autobiography,” “it is essential to reach some understanding of the state of mind that motivates autobiographical discourse in the first place” (Eakin 3). Brontë and Coetzee make a statement about autobiography as these characters raise questions about the parallel between function and form. The authors manipulate the way these stories are told which leaves the reader wondering what might happen when one tells their story one way rather than another. Through Jane’s assertive voice, the reader is given a clear interpretation of personal events. Different from Brontë, Coetzee uses Susan’s character to complicate stories themselves. Given the Postmodern context, Susan is depicted as an undermined female narrator and presents issues of power.
McLeod defines this issue of power as a fight for “who gets to establish and maintain the narrative framework and with who is going to seduce (and/or compel) whom into living inside his or her story world” (McLeod 3). This is significant because “to ‘narrate the world’ is to gain power and authority” (McLeod 3). Both protagonists endure this very power struggle. Jane finds other characters such as Mr. Rochester presenting interpretations of her own story. Kaplan references Mary Poovey who exposes Rochester’s tendency to “usurp Jane’s control over what is, after all, primarily her story” (Kaplan 14). St. John also attempts to kidnap Jane’s story when he says “I find the matter will be better managed by my assuming the narrator’s part, and converting you into a listener” (Brontë 438). Jane not only struggles to find a reasonable listener, but Kaplan suggests that she herself must “settle” to become the listener (Kaplan 15). She therefore battles to hold onto the “narrative framework” to which McLeod refers (McLeod 3).
Susan also wrangles with a conflict regarding ownership of narration. There is a clash between Susan and Foe, as Susan thinks of her story in one way, while Foe chooses to project it in another. Susan makes it very clear that she aims to tell a story as close to the truth as possible. She argues that “if I cannot come forward, as author, and swear to the truth of my tale, what will be the work of it?” (Coetzee 40). Foe, however, has a different agenda. He sets out to attract a mass audience and “cause a great stir,” even if it jeopardizes Susan’s “truth” (Coetzee 40). Though Susan firmly states that “[she] will not have any lies told,” ultimately she is dependent upon Foe. To begin, Susan relies on Foe because she doesn’t see herself as a born storyteller (Coetzee 81). Additionally, given the limitations of the patriarchal society in which Susan lives, the reality is that for her story to be heard, it must be projected through a man’s voice. In some ways, without Foe, Susan sees herself as “a being without substance” in the eyes of her reader (Coetzee 51). In the article “Reading History, Writing Heresy,” Brian Macaskill and Jeanne Colleran, however, track a progress in Susan’s dependency when they suggest “Susan moves from a position of sexual and hermeneutic dependency[…] to one of sexual and authorial independence” (Macaskill and Colleran 440-441).
In addition to this power struggle between the author and the other characters, there is also a tension between the author and the crafted “I.” Brontë and Coetzee demonstrate how autobiographical writing calls for the author to develop a sense of self-awareness and identity. As one works to tell their story, they must first establish a clear understanding of themselves. They are forced to see themselves as the primary character, and consider the way that they act and react within the greater context of the story. Eakin articulates this evolution in saying:
I view the rhythms of the autobiographical act recapitulating the fundamental rhythms of identity formation: in this sense the writing of autobiography emerges as a second acquisition of language, a second coming into being of self, a self-conscious self- consciousness. (Eakin 9)
So when considering the “I” of autobiography, the reader must make the distinction between the author and the character. Howarth identifies this relationship as the “artist and model” (Howarth 87). It is only possible for the narrator to present a replica of themselves for two primary reasons: the author is blinded by their perception of themselves and the story is told in retrospect, therefore after the events have come to some sort of conclusion. Howarth points out that the character the reader sees is “far different from the original model, resembling life but actually composed and framed as an artful invention” (Howarth 86). He goes on to identify an important dynamic about this author to character relationship. He explains that though the narrator may have more knowledge than the protagonist, “he remains faithful to the latter’s ignorance for the sake of credible suspense” (Howarth 87). Howarth also notes that these two individual characters “have to merge, as past approaches present, the protagonist’s deeds should begin to match his narrator’s thoughts,” which is particularly relevant to the development of identity (Howarth 87).
Although Jane demonstrates an evolution from a victimized child to a self-governing adult, the reader observes the poor perception that Jane has of herself. This is revealed in the way that Jane portrays her character. She is dependent upon the respect of others to fill the void of a lack of self-respect. She makes it clear that she desires “to earn respect and win affection” (Brontë 81). Although Jane is eventually able to claim “I care for myself,” it is evident that at the core she has a “wounded…self-esteem” (Brontë 365, 28). In addition to Jane’s direct assertions of her low self-esteem, it is revealed implicitly as well. There is a significant scene in which Jane does a series of paintings. As she compares the drawing of herself to the drawing of Rosamond Oliver she demonstrates a moment of class-consciousness. This instance, a mode of autobiography in itself, illustrates not only Jane’s self-awareness, but also her resistance to her social status. The reader watches as Jane grapples with why she is excluded from certain forms of life.
Susan’s self-perception becomes evident as well. As she tells her story to Foe it becomes clear she is on a desperate campaign for validation. She not only questions herself, but more importantly questions her story itself. Towards the end of the novel, she says “I am full of doubt. Nothing is left to me but doubt. I am doubt itself. Who is speaking me? Am I a phantom too? To what order do I belong?” (Coetzee 133). Susan, once strictly dedicated to presenting facts, now loses any sense of solidity. As she tells her story, and begins to develop self-awareness, it also becomes clear that she feels she lacks significance within it. Susan says, “when I reflect on my story I seem to exist only as the one who came, the one who witnessed, the one who longed to be gone: a being without substance, a ghost beside a true body of Cruso” (Coetzee 51). Susan fears that her place in her own story, and more broadly, her position on the island, has been minimized.
The women’s motivation for sharing their stories becomes significant when considering these identities. Eakin believes that “the impulse to write autobiography is but a special, heightened form of that reflective consciousness which is the distinctive feature of our human nature” (Eakin 9). Jane chooses to tell her story because she sees it as a way to take back the power which she had lost over time. In doing so, she owns it. She can orchestrate, for example, surrounding characters, most importantly her oppressors such as John Reed, Mrs. Reed, and Mr. Brockelhurst. They are “living inside [of Jane’s] story world” as McLeod describes it (McLeod 3). Jane proudly proclaims that she “will tell anybody who asks […] this exact tale” (Brontë 44). Kaplan identifies this statement, directed to Mrs. Reed, as the first time that the reader witnesses Jane’s self-narration (Kaplan 5). This moment is dynamic because of the light it sheds on Jane’s determination to release her story and her truth. The idea of authorship, even in this preliminary instance, caused Jane to feel as though her “soul began to expand, [and] to exult with the strangest sense of freedom [and] triumph” (Brontë 44). Susan has similar motives for sharing her story, as it also allows her the feeling of liberation. She makes the claim that “I am a free woman who asserts her freedom by telling her story according to her own desire” (Coetzee 131). Coupled with Jane’s desire to emancipate herself and illustrate her own evolution, Jane also hopes to gain an audience that will justify her experiences. Jane, as Kaplan sees it, searches for a source to “credit her version of her life” (Kaplan 9).
Jane and Susan approach the telling of their stories in different ways. Though Jane insists that readers understand that it is “not a regular autobiography,” the novel traces a somewhat chronological account of her life events (Brontë 98). Her story offers a clear beginning, middle, and substantial conclusion. Her tight-knit relationship with her primary listener (the reader) is also significant. She addresses the reader directly, calling them by name. Howarth insists that these strategic stylistic decisions are significant because they “lead to larger effects like metaphor and tone” (Howarth 87). This portrays Jane’s authoritative voice. Additionally, this personal connection compels the reader to listen attentively with a greater degree of accountability. Susan, on the other hand, tells a story about stories. As she recounts the tale of the island, her narration is directed solely to Foe. Unlike Jane who engages her outside reader, Susan blocks them out. Perhaps Coetzee structured the narrative in this way to further reflect Susan’s insecurity. Susan searches for meaning and until she finds clarity (which she is never able to achieve) she can not include an outside reader in the way that Jane does.
The way that Brontë and Coetzee present a gendered story-telling style is also particularly noteworthy. Jane exercises her own right to tell her story. Much like her character, the way in which Jane tells her story breaks outside of the typical feminine narrative. In his article that observes the difference between male and female narration, James Krasner decides “men’s life stories describe either success or failure” (Krasner 114). Though Jane enumerates her tribulations, ultimately, her reflections represent her achievements. Her story is told in a way that appears complete. This style of storytelling matches the “linear” structure that Luce Irigaray associates with masculine writing in her work “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine” (Irigaray 797). She is direct, patterned, and comprehensible. Susan, however, represents a rejection of this linearity and serves as more of an exploration of sorts. Krasner contrasts the male oriented narrative when he describes women’s narratives as “manifestly fictional; their stories describe the construction of fictions” (Krasner 114). Susan does not achieve Jane’s same completeness considering, even in the final pages of the novel, Susan proclaims to be “doubt itself” (Coetzee 133). Her construction fits into the “fluid” state that Irigaray associates with feminine writing, and models the way that “its ‘style’ resists and explodes every firmly established form, figure, idea or concept” (Irigaray 797). This fluid narrative technique is represented literally at the end of the book. Susan presents images of water and describes the “slow stream” that “flows” from Friday’s mouth (Coetzee 157). “Petals floating around me like a rain of snowflakes” is another image of fluidity that contrasts Jane’s images of concreteness (Coetzee 156).
Through their storytelling they begin to create something clear and permanent. Susan describes this concreteness as “a substantial body” (Coetzee 53). In many ways, the women encountered unspeakable circumstances. Once they account their experiences for the characters themselves, the stories become real. The effort to recall events, account for them in chronological order, and identify their meaning can serve as therapeutic as the mind tries to come to grips with a life narrative. In the work, “Narrating From the Margins: Self-representation of Female and Colonial Subjectivities in Jean Rhys’s Novels,” Nagilhan Haliloğlu explains how “the need to order past and future events […] to account for the passage of time by recounting past events, is an impulse people give in to by means of narrative” (Haliloğlu 14). Finally, and perhaps most relevant, the women write their stories because by doing so they are not only rewriting a series of events, they are also rewriting themselves, which forces them to craft their own identity. Haliloğlu touches upon John Shotter’s argument that says, “What we talk of as our experience of our reality is constituted for us very largely by the already established ways in which we must talk in our attempts to account for ourselves” (Haliloğlu 15-16).
These motivations become crucial because they play a role in the authenticity of autobiography, an element that must be questioned on several accounts. In many ways, the audience unconsciously shapes the nature of an autobiography. The author writes them in mind, again, remembering that they are creating an “artful invention” (Howarth 86). Howarth says that narrators tend to “obey the dictates of audiences, whose responses justify their craft” (Howarth 98). Susan realizes that autobiography “must not only tell the truth about us but please its readers too” (Coetzee 63). She emphasizes McLeod’s idea of seduction when she says that we use our tongues as an instrument to “jest and lie and seduce” (Coetzee 85). Authors of all narratives to some degree set out to manipulate the reader.
The unreliability of memory organically contributes to the failure of accuracy as well. Susan even suggests “the secret meaning of the word story [might be] a storing-place of memories” (Coetzee 59). The women must rely on their memories, which Howarth names as one of the “essential controls” of autobiography, to convey their stories because these narratives are being told in hindsight (Howarth 86). Jane describes her memory as “not naturally tenacious” (Brontë 88). Despite this, memory (and some degree of imagination) is essentially their only resource. Memory becomes significant because as Susan suggests, “the secret meaning of the word story [might be] a storing-place of memories” (Coetzee 59). Authors then must fill in certain gaps to create completeness. Renza sees autobiography as more of an “imaginative” rather than “descriptive” outlet of writing (Renza 4).
What matters here is not the undoubtable sense that the author’s memory is often undependable, but rather to what degree these women are exercising selective memory. The narrators omit parts of their story, not always because they do not remember, but because they opt not to share. In “Speech and Silence in Jane Eyre” Janet H. Freeman identifies Jane’s narrative as “only [a partial version] of the complex narrative” (Freeman 685). Susan is willing to claim these empty spaces when she declares “I choose not to tell it because to no one […] do I owe proof that I am a substantial being with a substantial history in the world” (Coetzee 131).
As readers of autobiography, either fictional or otherwise, there is an ethical responsibility that lies within one’s interpretation. Accepting the genre of autobiography in a way that one would any other story, readers must keep in mind the claims made by J. Hills Miller’s piece, “The Ethics of Reading,” which argues that “stories contain the thematic dramatization of ethical situations, choices, and judgments” (Miller 3). It is therefore the reader’s duty to interpret these three defining elements in a way that allows them to connect to a larger message beyond the characters themselves. It becomes more productive to search for meaning opposed to truth. Ultimately, it is not the who, what, when, and where of Jane’s and Susan’s story that will lend the reader substance, but instead the why. MacLeod points that the fulfillment of the novel comes into play when “the discourse of the novel overrides ‘the truth’ or our actual experiences and we begin to feel and see things according to the framework the book posits even when we aren’t reading it, even between readings” (MacLeod 8).
In an attempt to find a resolution, Renza poses the question:
Must we settle […] for the compromising, commonplace, conception that depicts autobiography as a formal mutation, a hybrid genre, a vague, unresolved mixture of “truth” about the autobiographer’s life dyed into the colors of an ersatz, imaginative “design?” (Renza 5)
To insist as readers upon the truth, one robs the narrator authorial freedom. It takes away the author’s truth which is the very element that classifies the story as autobiography. To elicit this “proof” that Susan refers to is to undermine not only the accuracy of the events, but more importantly the meaning behind these stories. The question then becomes, is an entirely “authentic” autobiography even practical?
Krasner suggests that it is an unrealistic request when he poses the question “in a world of such chaotic inconsistency, in which desire, perspective, and comprehension change from moment to moment, is it possible to write a consistent personal history?” (Krasner 116). The answer is in fact, no. Instead of insisting, however, Freeman asks the reader to evoke it. It is our responsibility as readers to be active listeners. In doing so, we must receive these personal histories. She says that as the audience, “only, our presence, listening, can endorse… truth-telling” (Freeman 700). She goes on to say that “for…[the] truth to be fully told, we are the ones who must hear it” (Freeman 700).
Brontë and Coetzee set up Jane and Susan as authors of their own narratives to show the power behind autobiography. Though Jane and Susan are fictional characters, it is fair to speak of them in real terms because of the way they represent larger real-life significance. They echo the power behind self-narration in demonstrating the personal evolution that it evokes. To tell one’s own story is to tell one’s truth. How this truth is conveyed is primarily dependent on one’s motivations and desired outcomes. The narrator is robbed of their authorial freedom, the very driving point of autobiography, when the reader challenges their truth. It is the reader’s responsibility to be aware of this lack of authenticity, yet accept these versions. In doing so, one will truly be able to welcome autobiography as “a work of art and life… [that] defines, restricts, [and] shapes [a] life into a self-portrait” (Howarth 86).
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