The Theme of “Undesirable” in Jane Eyre and Never Let Me Go

Last Updated: 04 Jan 2023
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In the first chapter of Jane Eyre, we encounter the young Jane sitting next to a window reading a book about birds. She is struck by the illustration of “a broken boat, stranded on a desolate coast”. In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro employs the central image of a “beached boat” with its paint “cracking” and its cabin “crumbling away”. Both boats are isolated in a bleak landscape This fascination with openness, abnormality and the exploration of the “undesirable” is at the heart of both novelsi Both narrators, in their own ways are outsiders, whether it be Jane as a poor, physically undesirable orphan, or Kathy as a clone from whom the “normals" instinctively recoili In this way, both authors explore the concept of what is “undesirable“ as not just concerning physical attraction, but also that which is different to received convention and that which undermines the status quo what is socially undesirable.

While the narrator Jane tackles these “differences" head-on, Kathy’s apparent acquiescence requires the reader to draw his or her own conclusions as the novel progresses. But by the end of both novels, this received idea of “undesirability” has been complicated and even subverted. In Jane Eyre, the limits of difference from the norm are explored in the character of Bertha, while in Never Let Me Go, the world of the “normals” is shown to be “more scientific, efficient, yes but a harsh, cruel world. In Jane Eyre, Bronte uses the character of Jane to examine the possibility of defiance against the obstacles that the ‘norms’ of class and gender that her contemporary society presents as socially desirable. The author seems to rejoice at Jane’s small acts of rebellion: Jane’s speech to the bullying John Reed is delivered with such articulate zest and authority. She shouts, “you are like the Roman emperors!”, accentuating Bronte’s depiction of Jane as the oppressed (like the persecuted Christians of the Roman era), thus glorifying her rebellious nature.

The book laments the persecution that Jane experiences as a result of her defiance, when she is locked in the Red Room, and therefore can be read to celebrate ‘undesirability‘ Moreover, the interactions between Jane and John Reed following this incident are gleeful in demonstrating Jane’s superiority in battle John “once attempted chastisement. But as I instantly turned against him, roused by the same sentiment of deep ire and desperate revolt which had stirred my corruption before, he thought it better to desist, and ran from men.” As Joan Anderson writes, the novel “challenges the rigid gender constructions of femininity and the Victorian societal constraints designed to keep women enclosed'. But through the explosive character of Bertha, Bronte explores the limits of the rebellion she celebrates in Jane, Bertha is the epitome of rebellion, refusing to fit in with the social requirements of marriage, making "distressing lamentations” late into the night (in the Gothic style hugely popular in the 18405).

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It is the opposite of the prim and proper ”Miller's Daughter" female stereotype of the time. Bertha is described as “masculine, black-visaged and almost the same height as her husband's This would be seen as grotesque to a 19th-century audience, where the image of a petite, feminine, domestic wife would have been applauded. The decision to make Bertha “black-visaged” would draw further abhorrence from a 19th-century readership, many still out-of-pocket from the aftermath of the Emancipation. Act of 1833 and when ideas of blackness were still tied up in images of danger, physicality and unreason Bertha is portrayed as the inconveniencing and undesirable “other” in the novel, a common Gothic image of threat, insanity and villainy, that stands in the way of Rochester in his marriage to Jane. Although madness would normally be seen as something the victim would be unable to control.

Bronte asserts that Bertha is responsible for herself, with Rochester declaring her mother to be “a madwoman and a drunkard” and that “like a dutiful child, she copied her parents in both points. An assertion like this suggests that Bertha chose to be insane, simply copying her parents (clearly a ridiculous concept but true to contemporary ideas). This further highlights how Bronte wants Bertha to be seen as vindictive and sinful, an undesirable character in the eyes of Bronte’s contemporary audience, perhaps suggesting that she is much more conservative than the established opinion of the novel and providing insight into her more traditional attitudes towards acquiescence to the requirements of society, Ishiguro echoes Bronte’s presentation of the ‘undesirable’ as rebellion through the character of Tommy. After he has been cruelly left behind by the other boys, he flies into a fit of rage.

Throughout the novel, Ishiguro makes it clear that Tommy is not like the others; “What you've got to realise," as Ruth said to Chrissie, “is that even though Tommy was at Hailsham, he isn't like a real Hailsham student." However, Tommy’s rebellious nature, like Bronte‘s portrayal of Bertha’s, is seen as undesirable by Kathy: he begins “to scream and shout, a nonsensical jumble of swear words and insults", Ishiguro shows us that in the eyes of a clone, Tommy is abnormal in his refusal to accept his social status. Kathy later goes on to say that “each of us were secretly wishing a guardian would come from the house and take him away". This is particularly poignant as it shows that the clones do not like any interruption to their destined lives. The clones have been conditioned to view acts of rebellion as simply a childish tantrum, much like the society of Bronte’s contemporaries: the lamentauons of women were simply seen as hysteria, shown with Bronte‘s description of a manic Jane in the Red Room This is not a childish tantrum, but a passionate plea for attention and understanding.

Through Kathy’s eyes Tommy’s tantrum is an ugly paroxysm, something unacceptable for a clone to partake in, Samuel Humy summarized this, stating that the “individual must learn their own identity while coming to terms with the negative identity the world projects upon them”. This reflects on the decision to make Tommy a pubescent boy, already coming to terms with his own identity, without the added pressure of the character forced upon him by his oppressors. The choice of the euphemistic word “incidents” to describe these outbursts suggests a defaming attitude towards such an outpouring of emotion and the fact that this is coming from the clones, themselves the oppressed, makes this society seem more sinister. So lshiguro shows that Tommy‘s acts of rebellion bring undesirable consequences with the ensuing judgement he receives from his peers lshiguro draws from Marx’s theory of False Consciousness, which explores collective recognition of oppression and thus why we rebel or conform.

However, the reader, as the book progresses, comes increasingly to understand that it is the “normal” world that is repulsive, and not the clones at all, lshiguro is questioning why we do not rebel against an obviously oppressive society, in Jane Eyre, the oppression that Jane suffers comes from the powerful characters: Mr Brocklehurst claims she has “a wicked heart" and tells her that the “wicked” go to hell after death; Mrs Reed calls her a “liar”. Bronte would have often experienced similar persecution from those societally superior, suggesting why she published Jane Eyre under the pseudonym “Currer Bell", a male persona. Mr Brocklehurst enacts obvious persecution but it is recognised as such very quickly by Jane herself; Bronte uses the word “dread” continuously throughout Jane‘s time at Lowood, showing her awareness of her own oppression.

Through the character of Rochester, Charlotte Bronte also explores the paradoxical desirability of the “undesirable", Whilst Rochester plays down any attraction towards Bertha in the early days of his marriage, there is an undertone of sexual frustration in subsequent dealings with her, Following a frenzied attack by Bertha on Rochester, he comments: “Such is the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know”. Here Bronte hints at the compelling nature of Bertha, in all her terrifying madness. This is also another example of Bronte reflecting social convention, as it would have been inconceivable for married couples to get a divorce in the 19th century, perhaps another reason why Rochester feels inclined to ‘keep’ her. Both the reader and Jane are captivated by Rochester himself, perhaps because of his fundamental flaws.

He is a brute, described by Jane as “some wronged and fettered wild beast or bird, dangerous to approach in his sullen won’t. This allusion to a beast draws from the old fairytale of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (which was first published around Bronte’s childhood), as Jane is drawn to his flaws, as he is unlike the conventional view of what a gentleman should be in the 19th Century This means the novel can be seen as a double bildungsroman, in which both Jane and Rochester emotionally progress through the novel, to the point where they both realise that societal acceptance and ‘desirability’ is not the most important aim of their lives. As Gilbert and Gubar suggest it was the “anti-Christian refusal to accept to forms, customs and standards of society - in short, its m rebellious feminism that would have the most impact Although the book may contain rebellious feminism, it is not without passion and this is best expressed between Jane and Rochester.

His strong personality makes his love for Jane incredibly ardent, a common theme throughout the novels His undesirability culminates in his obvious disability at the end of the novel, which on the face of it appears to show Bronte taking an unconventional approach to romantic love; Rochester asks “Am I hideous Jane?” And she responds, “Very sir, you always were, you know”. This accentuates Rochester’s flaws and further highlights the atypical nature of their relationship, with such an honest response seeming very modern. For the clones in Never Let Me Go, the most obvious undesirable is death itself, the imminence of which is ever present in their lives. However, disturbingly, this is seen as a twisted sort of achievement to the clones, for which they strive Ishiguro uses the word “complete” to describe the clones’ death after the organ donations.

The use of this word reflects the conditioning that the clones experience during their childhood, with “completing” having positive connotations, as if the clones have achieved their purpose. The use of the word “donations” further accentuates this positive spin on such an exploitative and gruesome task. By making the donations seem like a noble sacrifice for the clones, their unjust death is viewed by them as desirable. This is Ishiguro commenting on our need to have a purpose, and how we can overlook the most obvious exploitation if it means we achieve the goal set for us by society. Through the desirability in the clone’s eyes of such an undesirable fate, Ishiguro makes their oppression seem even more exploitative as it is not just physical but also emotional imprisonment in the twisted system of the “normals”. The emotional separation from normal humans is apparent throughout the novel.

The clones are biologically human, with infertility the only physical feature that differs, Yet the reader assumes they are somewhat inhuman. Ishiguro shows this through the clones‘ clinical descriptions of themselves. Our protagonist Kathy introduces herself as “Kathy H". This being the first sentence of the novel, it immediately separates the reader’s “human" identity from that of Kathy and the clones. Clearly the clone world is very institutionalized, something that we as humans seem to assume differs from our own. Through the rigid structure of the clones‘ naming system, Ishiguro explores the idea of a collective identity, causing the reader to question their own individuality. This collective identity concept appears constantly in the novel: the clones continue to refer to each other as a “tribe", suggesting that they see themselves not as individuals but as parts of a more extensive organism. This would make breaking away from others much harder, as they lack any sort of independence, and is part of the method of control that the normals use to prevent undesirable non-conformity.

A key idea in both novels is the concept of shutting away or imprisoning the undesirable, both physically and metaphorically. In Never Let Me Go the clones are separated from society throughout their lives, whether it be Hailsham, the cottages or the clinics. In Jane Eyre, examples of physical separation include the Red Room, Benha’s incarceration and Lowood, which is designed for poor orphans For their custodians, there is a genuine feeling of benevolence, from Mrs Reed believing that she is teaching Jane how to behave, to Madame, who despite physically recoiling from the clones, clearly regarded them as a philanthropic project as described to Kathy and Tommy when confronted at the end of the novel, Miss Emily says: “Marie-Claude is on your side and will always be on your side," Similarly, Rochester justifies Bertha’s incarceration almost as an act of kindness, or at the very least, duty. In addition to physical imprisonment, undesirable thoughts are also locked away by key characters in both novels.

For example, Jane’s friend Helen uses a religious asceticism to bury feelings of injustice and anger. She comments to Jane in regard to Mrs Reed, “Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited?”. Kathy and Tommy similarly avoid confronting undesirable truths Following their pivotal and devastating trip to Littlehampton, Kathy says: “We hardly discussed our meeting with Miss Emily and Madame on the journey back. Or if we did, we talked only about the less important things, like how much we thought they’d aged, or the stuff in their house.” What makes Jane different is her inclination to confront ‘undesirability’, whether that be injustice, cruelty or her attraction to Rochester. Jane remarks to Helen, “I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly“.

This adamant assertion of defiance defines Jane’s character throughout the novel and is at the heart of the romantic endeavor that Bronte is undertaking In contrast to Helen, Jane embraces passion, whether that be anger or love, and thereby, Bronte has created an enduring romantic heroine, Unlike the passionate Jane, the clones are here to live a half life, without desirer This is most graphically illustrated in their sexual encounters, which are prolific but without sensuality and true desire, An example of this is Kathy‘s description of sex at the cottages, remarking that it all seemed “a bit functional”. Ishiguro wrote the novel in an age of contraception and is perhaps reflecting on the purpose of casual sex and whether such mechanical copulation is desirable, Both novels use imagery very effectively to depict the complex, dangerous and often contradictory idea of what is physically and socially desirable.

Fire in Jane Eyre is a constant theme, whether it be the flame-colored drapes of the Red Room or the devastating burning of Thornfield. Both destructive and sustaining, fire imagery in Jane Eyre neatly illustrates what it means to be human in a socially rigid society and the unquenchable passions and often conflict that this entails, Jane observes of the blinded Rochester: “His countenance reminded one of a lamp quenched, waiting to be re-lit," In Never Let Me Go, art, both visual and musical, is a key theme, from Madame‘s art gallery to the Portway Studios and Kathy’s enjoyment of music and dance. At - its creation and appreciation - is one of the things that define us as human and the Clones‘ response to art (albeit uninformed and inarticulate) indicates to the reader that they are not “the other” and are as human as the “normals”.

At the Portway Studios, Kathy began to “enjoy” the paintings and all the friends “went off into a bit of a dream in there The image of Kathy lost in the music and her own imagination (“iiiwhatever the song was really about, in my head, when I was dancing, I had my own version”) is incredibly poignant Ishiguro, brilliantly subverts this theme when we discover that Madame’s gallery does not exist and that she was encouraging creativity, not as an end in itself, but as clinical evidence of humanity. In other words, throughout the novel, it is the clones and not the “normals” who are touched by art, Just as Jane reflects on herself as a child, (“Children can feel, but they cannot analyse their feelings”), so the clones through Kathy observe their status as ‘undesirables’, but it is for the reader to fill in the gaps and recognize with horror the deeply undesirable ‘normal’ world these ‘poor creatures’ are in.

As the story unfolds in Jane Eyre, as told by the uncompromising narrator Jane, undesirable, rebellious behavior is both stigmatised and celebrated. What both these novels have in common in their depiction of the undesirable is a discovery that what is socially (un)desirable is often at odds with what is personally (un)desirablei Madame’s observation about the “harsh, cruel world” of scientific advancement which inevitably sacrifices the “old kind world” is at the heart of this contradiction, where the socially desirable objective of curing illness leads to a moral corruption of the individual. Bronte, through the relationship of Rochester and Jane, embraces aspects of undesirability, both physical flaws and the ‘other’ of fiery passion, making the novel disconcertingly contemporary.

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The Theme of “Undesirable” in Jane Eyre and Never Let Me Go. (2023, Jan 03). Retrieved from

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