A couple of weekends ago, I watched X-Men: The Last Stand, the most recent installment in the X-Men movie franchise. On the same night, I finished reading Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. You might think that a 9-month-old superhero movie and a 160-year-old realistic novel don’t have anything in common, but you’d be wrong… Both fictions take on the subject of women and madness, with a special focus on the split personality. The outcomes of the two stories are very different in ways that make me concerned about the direction we young whippersnappers are headed in.
I’ll begin with the elder work… At the beginning of the novel that bears her name, Jane Eyre is a mild-mannered, well-behaved orphan who is horribly mistreated by her aunt and cousins. She turns the other cheek time and again, but finally snaps and gives her aunt what for.
“What would Uncle Reed say to you, if he were alive?” was my scarcely voluntary demand. I say scarcely voluntary, for it seemed as if my tongue pronounced words without my will consenting to their utterance: something spoke out of me over which I had no control.
Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty.
I was left there alone — winner of the field. […] First, I smiled to myself and felt elate; but this fierce pleasure subsided in me as fast as did the accelerated throb of my pulses. A child cannot quarrel with its elders, as I had done; cannot give its furious feelings uncontrolled play, as I had given mine, without experiencing afterwards the pang of remorse and the chill of reaction. A ridge of lighted heath, alive, glancing, devouring, would have been a meet emblem of my mind when I accused and menaced Mrs. Reed: the same ridge, black and blasted after the flames are dead, would have represented as meetly my subsequent condition, when half-an-hour’s silence and reflection had shown me the madness of my conduct, and the dreariness of my hated and hating position.— from Chapter 4 of Jane Eyre (bold text my emphasis)
Partly as a result of this outburst, Jane is sent off to a charity school where she is half-starved and half-frozen and surrounded by disease (many of her fellow students die before the year is out). Despite this punishment and her generally quiet and compliant personality, throughout the rest of the novel Jane always stands up for her beliefs when they most matter rather than giving in or keeping quiet.
In the adapted play of Jane Eyre that I saw not long ago, this “wild” and passionate side of Jane’s personality was explicitly tied to the character of Bertha Rochester, the mad woman in the attic, the implication being that both characters are punished for the same reason: they possess strong feelings and express them in a way convention deems unfeminine. In the book, there is considerably less sympathy for Bertha, but the “psychic double” interpretation still has some merit.
Who blames me? Many, no doubt; and I shall be called discontented. I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes. Then my sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third storey, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and solitude of the spot, and allow my mind’s eye to dwell on whatever bright visions rose before it — and, certainly, they were many and glowing; to let my heart be heaved by the exultant movement, which, while it swelled it in trouble, expanded it with life; and, best of all, to open my inward ear to a tale that was never ended — a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously; quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling, that I desired and had not in my actual existence. […] When thus alone, I not unfrequently heard Grace Poole’s laugh [my note: it is really Bertha’s laugh, but Jane doesn’t know it yet]: the same peal, the same low, slow ha! ha! which, when first heard, had thrilled me: I heard, too, her eccentric murmurs; stranger than her laugh.— from Chapter 12 of Jane Eyre (bold text my emphasis)
Jane repeatedly thinks of this rebellious, angry side of herself as a separate, uncontrolled entity, and she often suffers in the short run for her defiance — yet in the end it never leads her wrong. The dark side of rebellion and selfishness is reserved for Bertha, who ends in fire and ruin. But strangely enough — here’s the psychic twin theory again — Bertha’s actions always help Jane. Her attempt to burn Rochester to death leads to the first, odd intimacy between Jane and Rochester, and the blazing collapse of Thornfield Hall leads to Rochester’s blindness and humble readiness to marry Jane as an equal instead of a rich and commanding lord. In the end, Jane achieves true happiness.
Here in the present day, things look a lot more bleak. In the third X-Men movie we learn that Jean Grey is the only known “class five mutant” and thus the most powerful being on Earth. Is this a good thing? Hell, no. Professor X explains to Wolverine early in the movie that when Jean was a girl he created a series of psychic barriers in her mind, so her nearly limitless power was trapped in her unconscious. As a result, she split into two personalities:
“the conscious Jean, whose powers were always in her control, and the dormant side, a personality that, in our sessions, came to call itself the Phoenix. A purely instinctual creature, all desire and joy, and rage.”— Professor Xavier, thinking back to Jean’s youth
Wolverine, and to some extent Magneto, question Professor X’s right to interfere with Jean’s mind in this way, but the rest of the movie amply proves how right he was to box up her wild passionate self. Several main characters are thoughtlessly disintegrated by her in her black-eyed, possessed mode (there are some strong call-outs to The Exorcist in the film), and she bids fair to destroy all of San Francisco before her better half gains ascendancy long enough to allow Wolverine to kill her — out of love, and for the good of us all, of course.
In several ways, Jean is even worse off than Bertha, let alone Jane: 1) there is no hint that she was given any say in her own fate — it is assumed that a powerful woman is, by her nature, dangerous enough to be imprisoned without consent; 2) despite Professor X’s claim that Phoenix feels joy, we never see any of it — she comes across mostly as a blank when she isn’t ripping scenery apart with robotic destructiveness; 3) she doesn’t even have enough agency to kill herself; she has to get someone else to do it.
It is hard to imagine more disparate approaches to the subject of female power and selfhood. Have we gone downhill in 160 years? Or is this a sad sign of how bad some men still are at writing female characters? (X3 was written and directed by guys who aren’t even Bryan Singer, let alone Charlotte Brontë.) I don’t know, but it’s depressing in any case.