It is safe to say that despite fleeting moments of humour, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1848) is not a funny book. Nonetheless, the ‘low, slow ha! ha!’ of Bertha Rochester is a prevalent refrain that has received wide-ranging critical attention. The examination of laughter beyond Bertha’s celebrated utterances has, however, been neglected. Laughter itself is an involuntary physiological response often, but not exclusively catalysed by humour. In Jane Eyre, the presence of laughter, or indeed the lack of laughter is informed by the increasing tension about women’s capacity as forces of power. Etiquette manuals such as Sarah Ellis’ The Daughters of England (1842), seek to stabilise the position of women in society by reiterating the dominant cultural discourse that ‘women […] must be contented to be inferior to men’. By the mid-nineteenth century theories of laughter clarified that laughter asserts a superiority incongruent with women’s societal role.
Thomas Hobbes (1586-1679) posits that superiority is engendered through the ostensible difference between the object of ridicule and the perception of oneself, arguing that ‘laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others’. The incongruence of female laughter and humour in Jane Eyre, exposes the flawed cultural ideologies that disempower women, and foregrounds the role of social performance and self-presentation in relation to gender and class. Laughter in Jane Eyre is an infrequent occurrence that is seldom expressed, particularly by women, with the sudden visceral expulsion that Hobbes posits as a sign of superiority. Its covert operations are elucidated by Brontë’s densely packed ironic humour. Ironic humour codifies the expression of superiority and encourages the reader to laugh derisively at the object of ridicule.
A notable example is young Jane’s interaction with Mr. Brocklehurst, head teacher of Lowood School: “Do you know where the wicked go after death?” “They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer. “And what is hell? Can you tell me that?” “A pit full of fire.” “And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there forever?” “No, sir.” “What must you do to avoid it?” I deliberated a moment: my answer when it did come was objectionable: “I must keep in good health, and not die’’ ( p.39). Jane’s juvenile appropriation of religious doctrine and Brocklehurst’s rigid solemnity facilitates the ironic humour. It is enhanced by the incongruity between their social statuses, and the reversal of the typical power balance between adult and child. Jane’s final response which resembles repartee, a comic mode of one-upmanship characterised by witty ripostes, asserts superiority and encourages the reader to laugh at Brocklehurst, who’s sober questions are undercut. The juxtaposition of Jane’s ‘orthodox’ and ‘objectionable’ answers presents a knowing quality that confutes her self-presentation as an innocent child. The narrative framing gives Jane retrospective control over the dominant authorities that inhibit her freedom of speech.
For Linda Robinson, ‘irony masks resignation to a situation one cannot alter or control’. Robinson’s assessment feeds into Brontë’s ironic humour which encapsulates her and Jane’s resignation to their subordinate societal role as women, but dually enacts a retaliation through the covert expression of superiority and the evocation of the reader’s derisive laughter. The ‘distinct feeling of satisfaction and a slight ripple of laughter’ produced by Jane’s retrospectively orchestrated deployment of wit, is mirrored in her adult interactions with Rochester. Jane’s utilisation of the rhetorical devices of wit, repartee and wordplay, foreground her self-presentation as an intellectual equal to Rochester, exemplified by her retaliation to his obtuse examination of her watercolours: “Where did you get your copies?” “Out of my head.” “That head I see on your shoulders?” “Yes sir.” “Has it other furniture of the same kind within?” “I should think it may have: I should hope- better” (p.146). Jane combats Rochester’s implied suggestion that her work is a mimic by literalising her response to his question.
Rochester’s wry retort, ‘that head I see on your shoulders?’ appropriates Jane’s literalisation of the word ‘head’ into his own response and glosses over her deliberate evasion, enjoining them in repartee. Concurrently, the word-play embedded in ‘head’, a synonym for both wit and intelligence, creates a thematic undercurrent that foregrounds the role of wit in asserting intellectual superiority. Jane maintains control over Rochester through the modal verbs ‘should’ and ‘may’ which refrain from a confirmative declaration. Repartee’s ironic posturing enables Jane to express her intellectual superiority through dialectic one-upmanship, without patently disrupting the social order enforced by class and gender. Rochester recognises that Jane’s ironic humour and suppression of laughter is a product of these constructs. His erotectic query: ‘Do you never laugh, Miss Jane Eyre? to which he replies: Don’t trouble yourself to answer […] The Lowood constraint still clings to you somewhat; controlling your features, muffling your voice and restricting your limbs; and you fear in the presence of a man and a brother- or father, or master, or what you will- to smile too gaily, speak too freely or move too quickly (p.162), links Jane’s restricted expression to patriarchal dominance, whilst simultaneously enacting exactly that by silencing her voice. Rochester’s positing of Lowood school as a correlative to her constrained manner suggests that religion also influences Jane’s lack of laughter. Brocklehurst’s demarcation of Jane as ‘interloper and alien’ (p.78) due to her outspoken response to his stringent promotion of religious doctrine (p.39), recalls the Puritanical promotion of piety through restraint.
Restraint as a feminine ideal is also emphasised in the introductory chapter of The Daughters of England, which posits that a measured decorum is a woman’s Christian duty (p. 6-9). Puritanical overtones are evident in Jane’s narrative framing of the unrestrained laughter of Lady Blanche Ingram. Jane notes of the ‘greatly admired’ beauty (p.158): ‘she laughed continually; her laugh was satirical’ (p.200). Jane’s figurative embellishment of the laugh’s perennial audibility transforms it into a constant reminder of her own lack of freedom and inferiority to Blanche’s social and physical superiority. Its ‘satirical’ function is intertwined with Blanche’s caustic humour, reflected in her satirisation of governesses as loathsome or laughable demons. Her jibe ‘half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi’ (p.205), sets up Jane as an object of ridicule in a public setting in keeping with Hobbes Theory of Superiority. The superiority Blanche’s humour enacts, in addition to her laugh’s aural resonance, an abrasive ‘Ha!’ (p.208), positions her behaviour as antithetical to the decorum of the ideal Christian woman advanced in The Daughters of England. Ellis’ contemporaneous etiquette manual encourages the cultivation of appropriately feminine laughter by positing ‘the loud laugh as indicative of the vulgar mind’. Her advice foregrounds laughter’s inherent paradox: it is an involuntary physical response that is equally a performative social expression. Ellis amplifies this paradox by repurposing Lord Byron’s ‘The Bride of Abydos’ (1813) to facilitate her teachings: Who has not waited for the first opening of the lips of a celebrated belle, to see whether her claims would be supported by, “the mind, the Music breathing from her face”. Ellis’ allusion to Byron’s ‘Bride’ presents an idealized poetic representation of femininity as achievable through attention to social etiquette, whilst concurrently arguing that laughter is an innate physiognomy.
The paradox exposes the flawed cultural ideologies that shapes the social performance and self-presentation of women including ‘celebrated belle[s]’ like Blanche. Ellis’ etiquette manual underscores the social mores that colour female expressions of laughter to which Blanche’s giggle in response to Rochester’s ironic parody of their rumoured engagement, ‘remember that you are my wife’ (p.214), corresponds. Its gentle, musical resonance confutes Jane’s representation of Blanche’s chastising ‘Ha!’ (p.208). The contrast suggests that Jane’s depiction of Blanche is partially coloured by subjectivity. Equally, the shift to gigging, a sign of femininity and therefore inferiority, emphasises Blanche’s acknowledgement of her subservience to Rochester. The involuntary physiological blush the jest concurrently occasions, ‘she giggled, and her colour rose’ (p.214), reveals that the fear of ridicule catalyzes her laughter. John Morreall argues that laughter can be stimulated by negative emotion explaining that when we feel under attack ‘we are motivated to react in various ways that have the potential of improving our situation’. That the giggle performatively endorses Rochester’s superiority, suggests that for Blanche ‘the potential of improving [her] situation’, means accepting her subservience as a woman and a wife. Jane’s eligibility as a marriageable commodity is advanced by her lack of laughter.
The cultural currency of her puritan restraint is reflected in clergyman St. John River’s proposal of marriage (p.464). Laughter, its femininity or indeed its lack, is positioned as a signifier of a woman’s moral worth and suitability as a spouse. The comparable effects of this on Blanche and Jane, two women of disparate social positions, demonstrates that the flawed cultural ideologies that shape female expression transcends class boundaries. Jane expresses her retaliation to the cultural limitations imposed on women’s expressiveness, rather incongruently through an unuttered monologue: Women too feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties…they suffer from too rigid a restrain…it is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more, learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex (p.130). Jane’s eloquently constructed thoughts on liberty are ironically interrupted by the ‘low, slow ha! ha!’ (p.126) of Rochester’s incarcerated, mentally-ill wife Bertha; who’s laugh Gail Griffin posits as ‘the most eloquent utterance in the novel’. Griffin’s critique highlights the capacity of laughter as a tonal language. That Jane’s verbal eloquence is met with a non-verbal reverberation from another unliberated woman, produces a dialogue between the two communicative forms. Bertha’s staccato laugh rhythmically underscores Jane’s thoughts, producing a sonic abstraction of Jane’s own un-vocalised anger. The antithetic parallelism between the two forms of communication magnifies the retaliation against the cultural and physical restrictions imposed on society’s inferiors.
The collusion between the echoed sentiments recalls Henri Bergson’s argument that ‘laughter appears to stand in need of an echo [...] it is something which would be prolonged by reverberating from one to another [...] our laughter is always one of the group’. Bertha’s laugher which is ‘distinct, formal, mirthless’ (p.126), sets her apart from the females in the novel who share ‘ejaculations, tremors and titters’ (p.223). Her solitary laugher appears to align her with Jane, who’s non-participation in communal laughter exemplifies her ostracisation from the group. However, the ‘articulate, clear, well defined’ sound of Bertha’s ‘ha!’ (p.126), in accordance with Bergson’s theory, opposes the mirrored reverberations of group laughter. The similitude between Bertha’s laugh and Blanche’s chastising ‘Ha!’ (p.208) transforms it into a prophetic, critical retaliation against Jane’s rejection of the power imbued to her through her unexpected financial inheritance (p.xx), and her subsequent subordination to Rochester through marriage. Within the context of a discussion about the power of laughter to expose the cultural ideologies that disempower women, to characterise Bertha’s laugh as nothing more than a metaphorical device, would be to do her role in the novel a disservice. Bertha’s laugh is a far-reaching cry of retaliation; a strong, powerfully audible human response to cultural ideologies that not only deprive women of power, but encourage them to conform to the hegemony that fails them. Jane’s only vocalisation of laughter is occasioned by the realisation that she holds influence over Rochester’s emotional state: I laughed and made my escape, still laughing as I ran upstairs […] “I see I have the means of fretting him out of his melancholy for some time to come” (p.506). The dubious extent of Jane’s ‘escape’ from the patriarchal constructs of society are elucidated by returning to Sarah Ellis’ The Daughters of England: Women, in their position in life, must be contented to be inferior to men; but as their inferiority consists chiefly in their want of power, this deficiency is abundantly made up to them by their capability of exercising influence. As Jane willingly laughs away her power in favour of influence over Rochester, it is not hard to determine who really gets the last laugh.