It’s a truth, perhaps not universally acknowledged, but certainly generally accepted by myself and the people surrounding me, that I’m a tad obsessed by eye related matters these days. Another obsession of mine is reading, as I find it a pretty effective method of escaping from the world. A few months ago, these obsessions collided when I found myself reading two novels, one after the other, each of which contained a character with sight loss. I was surprised as in each case I’d been unaware that the book would be dealing with this subject. Although finding myself unexpectedly reading about sight loss meant that it wasn’t exactly an escape from my own world, I nevertheless found it fascinating and I started to wonder about the subject of sight loss in literature.
As a fan of nineteenth century English literature with a particular passion for the Brontë sisters in my younger days, my thoughts inevitably drifted towards ‘Jane Eyre’, and Mr Rochester’s blindness towards the end of the novel. His sight loss is caused by a falling beam during a fire started at his home, Thornfield Hall. The beam knocked one eye out and after the incident his other eye became inflamed and he lost the sight in that one too. The innkeeper who relates Mr Rochester’s fate to a horrified Jane tells her, “Some say it was a just judgement on him for keeping his first marriage secret, and wanting to take another wife while he had one living”. So there we have an example of blindness being used as a form of punishment. This idea almost certainly comes from biblical sources, so it isn’t really surprising that Charlotte makes reference to it, considering the fact that her father was a vicar.
I’m sure I also remember reading, way back in my student days, that Rochester’s blindness coupled with the amputation of one hand (another injury as a result of the fire) was used as a device to render him and Jane more equal and therefore more suitable for marriage. For anyone who hasn’t read ‘Jane Eyre’ [pauses to gasp in horrified incredulity] – at the start of the novel, Rochester is rich and not-bad-looking; Jane is poor and plain. Obviously such a mismatched couple were never going to make it into the serious business of matrimony, especially when you add into the mix the fact that Rochester had a crazy wife with a passion for pyromania whom he kept locked up in the attic. But – happily – by the end of the novel, Jane had inherited the princely sum of twenty thousand pounds and Rochester was “blind and a cripple”, with the added bonus of having a dead mad wife. And so, Readers, she married him.
Another interesting point concerning ‘Jane Eyre’ is that Charlotte Brontë had some knowledge of sight loss herself. Her father went pretty much blind due to cataracts, and eventually underwent cataract surgery in Manchester, in August 1846, after his daughters had managed to scout out a reputable surgeon. If you’re squeamish, dear Reader, now is the time to avert your eyes as cataract surgery in those days was a bit grim…
Poor Patrick Brontë had to endure his cataract operation without anaesthetic, as it was feared that the vomiting caused by the anaesthetic would cause the wound to rupture. An incision was made into his cornea and the lens was extracted from its capsule. No IOLs in those days of course, so he simply remained aphake. As surgeons didn’t know at that time how to use stitches to hold the cut together, he then had to lie in a darkened room with bandaged eyes for about a month. Imagine that, fellow RD patients… that’s basically posturing after cataract surgery, isn’t it!?! And yes – eyes plural! They operated on both eyes at once! [Pauses to scream in horror.] Aaaanyway, poor Patrick had to remain in Manchester for his cataract posturing. Presumably a rickety horse and carriage ride back to Haworth wouldn’t have been the best idea for his healing peepers. Charlotte therefore stayed to take care of him like the dutiful daughter she was, and it was during this time that she began writing ‘Jane Eyre’. No doubt she drew upon this experience when writing about Rochester’s blindness and of how he eventually recovered some of the sight in his remaining eye.
Thinking about all this has made me curious to investigate the subject of sight loss in literature, with a number of questions in mind. How are characters with sight loss portrayed – are they painted mainly in a positive or a negative light, and how convincing do they appear? Is the sight loss merely being used as a device to symbolise something such as a punishment or increased insight? Are fictional characters with sight loss more accurately portrayed by authors who have personal experience of it? One would assume the answer to this would be ‘yes’, and yet I imagine it depends upon the nature of the experience and depth of understanding and knowledge gained as a result. How has the portrayal of sight loss in fiction changed through the years? And finally… the question which is perhaps most relevant to me personally: will reading fiction concerning sight loss help me to fear it less in my own life? I hope so, for I intend to investigate these questions a little during my attempted escapes from the world via reading. At the moment, the only other examples of sight loss in literature which immediately come to mind are the grandfather in ‘Frankenstein’ and the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes in ‘King Lear’, so I’m sure there is much for me to discover on this subject. If anyone has any suggestions concerning reading material, please let me know in the comments below!
Note: For any readers who haven’t yet read ‘Jane Eyre’… GO AND READ IT!