Christianity is known for whitewashing all types of Christian motifs: angels are always pale-faced, and Jesus himself was portrayed as significantly paler in skin color than he was known to be from his life. Most depictions of Adam and Eve, too, are white. This, of course, stems from the deep, racist history of Christianity across the world; evangelicals would travel to tribe-owned lands where people of color lived in peace to push their religion on them, often inciting violence as a means of coercion. The belief was that people of color were less “cultured,” and thus, they needed to be taught by white people how to be human. This implies a belief that white people were better than people of color — more intelligent, and more human than them, too. However, a piece currently residing at the Ackland depicts one of the most famous Biblical stories, Adam and Eve, through a black lens; Eve is a woman of color, and the painting itself represents one of the songs sung by people of color centuries ago. In that song, the serpent of the tale “wink’d his eye,” and in the painting, he does, too. Subverting the typical whitewashing and white assumptions of Christian motifs in this way forces us to question why depictions of Christian stories have always involved whites and not blacks, and it gets us to evaluate the cultural history behind Christianity and its impact on people of color through time.
It is certainly uncanny the number of ways in which authors, producers, and directors alike will seek to increase their profits, but is it always foul play? The copy of Jane Eyre – or, as it turns out, the copies – present in UNC’s Wilson Library would entice you to think otherwise.
Jane Eyre was originally published in October of 1847, in three volumes, each appearing to end in a “cliff-hanger” of sorts. You might expect, coming across this format which is so unlike the structure of a novel in the modern-day, that this is merely a way to trick people into spending more money for three, separate, physical copies than they would for one and one, alone; however, I would suggest that, in fact, this structure very closely resembles the way we consume stories today, and the decision to split up a narrative into multiple parts — or to refrain from doing so — is directly correlated to the time period in which that narrative is consumed.
Jane Eyre, first and foremost, is a long story, containing many events; pieces of background; and intense, thorough, and important character development. It also fell quite perfectly into the literary landscape of the 19th century: sweeping romances riddled with personal, social, and emotional difficulties but who ultimately end up together through the depth and breadth of their love for one another. It is unsurprising, then, that Jane Eyre would grow to be widely purchased and widely proclaimed a “great classic novel,” among other lofty convictions.
The format of the 1847 edition of Jane Eyre is also unsurprising; it was the typical format in which women would purchase their novels. If your goal was to appeal to 19th century women, a three-volume-novel would be the best way to do it. It would be risky even for a story like Jane Eyre to break the shelves in a bold and un-bespoke single volume.
So, of course, it can be said that the decision to publish Jane Eyre in three volumes is highly unlike the decision to break the last Harry Potter movie into two parts; one might suggest that Harry Potter was broken into two parts because of corporate greed, and I wouldn’t correct you, but what if there was another plausible, cultural explanation?
We see from Jane Eyre that our expectations of how a narrative will be formatted can be a factor in whether or not we pay money for that narrative experience. When you sit down to watch a TV show, you don’t expect to watch a 2-hour episode, right? Of course not: 30 minutes to an hour is the usual, expected range. However, many people will happily sit down to watch a 2-hour “movie.” And why is that? Because we have different expectations as to the format of a movie and a TV show. And these expectations of the structure of a narrative lead us to feel a certain way about that experience.
The frustration some felt with the corporate decision to split the last Harry Potter movie is closely tied to the experience of sitting through a 2-hour episode; we feel irritated that our expectations of that format have been disrupted.
If Jane Eyre had been published as a one-volume-novel, it may have completely turned off some readers who would have otherwise enjoyed her story. And aren’t there readers in the modern day who prefer trilogies of three books, 300 pages each, and who would drop their jaws at the prospect of purchasing a 900-page novel?
And on that note, who in their right mind would pull up to the theater to watch a 4-hour-long movie?
Appealing to the expectations of your audience and to the different cultural dynamics in play makes money, honey. But it also makes sure your story makes it past the shelves in the first place.
Club Nova is an organization housed in downtown Carrboro that gives job and internship opportunities to disabled people who may struggle to find work at other companies, or who find themselves with a lot of spare time and not many disability-accessible ways to fill it. They are one of many organizations in the modern day who see how damaging it is for disabled people to feel unable to communicate, live, eat, move, and prosper the way their non-disabled peers can. Club Nova, one might say, gives voice to individuals who have had their voices stolen by our culture’s unwitting dismissal of disabled people as valuable contributors to society. And as we see in Coetzee’s Foe, it is this lack of voice that can be so traumatic, so devastating, that a disabled person may lose themselves in the silence.
Friday is a highly controversial character, particularly because he is a person of color and seems to have been written by Daniel DaFoe, a white man, as willingly and eagerly submissive to white supremacy. Coetzee, a South African writer, tries to spin this narrative on its head; Friday, controversial as he is, is suddenly at the forefront of the story’s narrative, despite the fact that in Foe he is unable to speak because his tongue was cut out. Susan Barton, the protagonist of Foe, appears tantalized by the mystery that is Friday’s tongue: Who cut it out? Was it Cruso? Slave-traders? Or someone else? And her search for truth — truth in Cruso’s story, truth in her own story, the truth about her daughter, the truth about Friday’s life and his speechlessness — begins.
But it isn’t Susan’s journey that is so enticing, but the silence and seeming numbness of Friday, who goes on to be her main companion until the confusing and open-ended finale in Part 4.
On the island, Friday was Cruso’s main workhorse: he caught fish, he helped build tools and refurnish their hut, he restocked the fire, and he tilled the soil so that crops might grow. But when Cruso, Susan, and himself were rescued, and Susan embarked on a journey to find a Mr. Foe, an author who might consider writing the story of her and Cruso and publishing it, Friday was suddenly useless. He slept when Susan slept, he ate what Susan put in front of him, and occasionally played the flute or danced. The routine of the island was gone, and it quickly seemed that when Cruso passed away, in a way, so did Friday: the part of Friday that thrived on routines and capabilities and habits. Friday becomes distant, numb, and unexpressive.
Susan is desperate to learn of Friday’s stories, and his disability is morbidly tantalizing to her. But she seems to have a selfish investment in Friday that only goes as far as her search for the truth.
Her terrible curiosity belittles Friday to that of an object: something to be picked up and studied, tossed and turned in an attempt to unravel what it is at its core. This selfish and vain curiosity is something not uncommon for disabled people, who receive many unwanted comments, ignorant or sincere, about their disability.
What Friday needs, one might argue, is precisely what Club Nova offers: the ability to be treated like a human being and not a disability. The ability to be seen and recognized for one’s work and accomplishments, and to be given a purpose. This is the life Friday had on the island, regardless of whatever fault we may find in an easily-dislikable character like Cruso. And this is the life Friday left behind when Cruso died and Susan and himself were saved.
But Foe ends with Friday:
“I tug his woolly hair, finger the chain about his throat. ‘Friday,’ I say, I try to say, kneeling over him, sinking hands and knees into the ooze, ‘what is this ship?’
But this is not a place of words. Each syllable, as it comes out, is caught and filled with water and diffused. This is a place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday.”
Friday’s “home,” the place where bodies are words, is the perfect description of what disabled people have always wanted. To be seen as human: flesh and blood and bones. As bodies. Without judgement. Without explanation or justification. To be seen as just as human as non-disabled people. We are all just blood and bones. Bodies. Lungs.
This is why organizations like Club Nova are important, because when everyone gets the same opportunities, and when everyone is treated like they matter, — and not out of guilt or curiosity or embarrassment — then we as a society give voice to the voiceless. And we are stronger for it.