I used to love “Jane Eyre.”
When I was 13 years old, I spent an entire summer dedicated to strictly reading gothic novels. I sat besides pools or in between my covers devouring books like “Wuthering Heights” and doodling Mr. (Edward) Rochester in the margins of notebooks. I remember the feelings of utter literary chicness — I thought I was experiencing some of the greatest literature known to humankind.
But my mind instantly changed almost the second I stepped foot in college. I knew I was a feminist, so in the first semester of my first year, I eagerly signed up for a course called “Gender, Culture and Representation” taught by Professor Julie Rajan.
At the time, I did not pay much attention to the syllabus, but I was eager with excitement when I saw the reading list was full of some of my favorite books at the time, including “Jane Eyre” and “Frankenstein.”
I remember feeling like I was exploding with excitement, ready to take on a feminist lens of some of my favorite books. When I saw the words “empire” and “imperialism” on the syllabus, I merely thought we would explore how these books may have been ahead of their time, revealing some sorts of feminist codes that I missed in the eagerness of reading for fun.
I quickly realized that the class was nothing like I expected. Instead of calling Mary Shelley a feminist (like a lot of my high school teachers had) we tore the novel apart. I never realized that there were serious problems with the submissiveness of women in the novel and the overall depiction of non-white women.
We started each class with the background history of when the book was written and published. This contextualized the novels I read in a way I never thought of doing before. A term my professor used to describe these books was “imperial propaganda,” and at first the phrase startled me in its finiteness.
I soon learned that there were underlying imperial messages in all of the novels that we discussed.
Although I was surprised by all of the characters that Rajan exposed, the hardest literary love to get over was Mr. Rochester. Once the broody, strange love of my youth, I soon saw him as the monster he really was. Mr. Rochester was responsible for abusing his wife Bertha Mason, separating her from society for years and eventually taking part in her death.
Upon hearing that the characters of my adolescence were actually horrible role models, I felt a sense of betrayal. I also felt an insatiable anger. Why did I spend years reading what I thought was the pinnacle of literature when I could have spent my time reading books from authors who shared different voices?
I decided to take the good that came from a lifetime of reading novels that had these sorts of nefarious messages — my love for literature.
I soon felt excited to go to class, re-reading all of the books I read when I was younger, trying to decipher the codes and eventually, I started to get the hang of things by paying special attention to the language and character development
It is important to note that the extent of horrible romance novels does not stop with gothic novels. I could not help but shudder when my younger sister told me she was reading the “The Twilight Saga.” The books are riddled with traits of toxic relationships, sexism and even racism toward Indigenous tribes.
I grew up with books that had horrible messages about people of color, women and the LGBTQ+ community, and I did not want my sister to fall victim to the same narratives.
It may seem like I am being crude when I say that these books should be carefully examined, but I can not overstate the importance of media. More than anything, classes like the one Rajan taught showed me the importance of contextualizing everything and learning not to take media at face value.
This continual battle to deconstruct imperial messages is something I could not have taken part in without the help of great perspectives from Professor Rajan.
I encourage every person to take part in becoming more media literate and looking for more films and novels outside of “Western” ones.
Ameena Qobrtay is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in women’s and gender studies and journalism and media studies, and minoring in political science. She is the Features editor for The Daily Targum.
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