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Making judgements

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Sometimes, students can get sidetracked into making value judgements about characters' actions, basing their arguments on the values and conditions of the time and place of the world in which they themselves live. In interpreting a text, it is important to keep in mind that the world of the text is different from the world that you inhabit. When dealing with works from the distant past, this is easier to keep in mind. For example, Charlotte Bronte published her novel, Jane Eyre, in 1847; the values and conditions of Bronte's mid-19 th century world are clearly very different from our own.

But, in addition to these differences between the world of the author and the world of the reader, there are also differences between these two worlds and the world of the text itself. Bronte presents a moral and social framework within the novel that is characteristic of that particular novel; it is not identical with the life that she led or the world that she inhabited. It is thus important to distinguish between the author and the narrator: the character Jane Eyre is not Charlotte Bronte, and Jane's world is not the same as Bronte's world.

To illustrate how one might describe a novel's social framework, here is what one of your lecturers, Alan Dilnot, had to say about the world of the novel, Jane Eyre:

"When interpreting a text, It is important to try to understand the conditions of the world as it is set up and depicted within the novel. In Jane Eyre, for example, one of the underlying themes is that women have to fight harder in their world - in the world of the novel - to make themselves heard and to leave a mark on the world than men do. Men in the novel may or may not be treated sympathetically, but they are more likely to be in positions of power than women are; and they tend to set up situations in which the lives of women are circumscribed or at least influenced."

The differences between the world of the reader, of the author, and of the text, can be illustrated clearly through a discussion of the novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. Here is what Alan Dilnot had to say:

"Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS) was produced much nearer to our own time (1966), but the action in the novel is set back in the first half of the 19th century. The author, Jean Rhys, has in fact made exactly the kind of imaginative leap from her own time to the time of the characters in the novel that readers of literature need to make. In any case a reader of WSS who is located in the early 21st century in Australia needs to make some allowance for social relationships as they were in the West Indies in the early part of the 19th century, and affected as they were by ethnic and racial antagonisms and hostilities.

Some of these issues are presented as being extremely complex in the world of WSS. Now we've got to make some allowance for these factors, even if they don't occur in our own daily lives; we've got to ask ourselves what a world would be like in which these were important factors. So that's the kind of imaginative leap that students often need to make when they are writing on a work of literature."

In presenting your analysis of a text, it is important to avoid making judgements from within your own moral and social framework, and instead look for the elements in the text itself that support a particular interpretation.

To illustrate this point, let's look at an example from an essay on Jane Eyre.

First, read the following essay topic:

Mr. Rochester describes in Vol. 3, Chapter 1, the circumstances in which he was married to Bertha Mason, and how he came to incarcerate her in the attic at Thornfield. What do we learn about him from this and how far does the novel endorse his claim that he has acted for the best?

Now, read the following conclusion to an essay on this topic:

Many incidents in the novel demonstrate that what Rochester did was in the best interests of Bertha, but these only occur during his narrative when a negative picture is painted of Bertha, but a closer reading of the novel doesn't endorse this claim. There are immense problems with what Rochester did. The incarceration of Bertha in the attic most probably caused her onset of madness to flourish. She should have been rehabilitated rather than imprisoned. Certainly Rochester kept to his marriage obligation and had Bertha taken care of but in reality what Rochester did wasn't the best thing for her condition. We must remember though that Rochester was young and naive when he got married so hiding Bertha away meant that if he couldn't see the problem then it meant that it wasn't there enabling him to move on with his life. Ultimately though we learn that Rochester thought what he did was the right thing to do for not only Bertha but also for himself, but in reality he caused more harm than good.

Has this student answered the question posed in the assignment topic?

Does her analysis interpret events in terms of the moral and social framework of the novel itself, rather than in terms of her own world?

Check your answers


Unfortunately, this conclusion does not answer the question. The question is not whether or not you endorse Rochester's claim that he acted for the best, but whether the novel endorses his claim. To find an answer to the question, do not look from within the values and conditions of your own world, but within the values and conditions of the world as they are presented in the novel. For example, what events, statements, literary devices from the novel can you use to illustrate the view that he did or did not act for the best?

Here is what lecturer Alan Dilnot had to say about how a novel might "endorse" something:

"An aspect of the topic that might give difficulty is the idea that the novel "endorses" a character's behaviour. Students should consider how such an endorsement might be conveyed. It could come as a direct declaration from the narrator. However, the narrator is Jane Eyre and the reader must allow for the possibility that she is an interested party. Or endorsement could come through demonstration: the novel might indicate that certain kinds of behaviour have inevitable consequences, pleasant or unpleasant. Or the degree of endorsement could be indicated through rewards or punishments handed out just prior to the end of the novel." Alan Dilnot, Dept. of English

With this in mind, read the following response to the topic. Note how the student uses evidence from the novel to determine whether or not the novel endorses Rochester's explanation of his actions:

In the novel, Jane Eyre, the main male character, Mr. Rochester attempts to justify imprisoning his first wife in an attic and deceiving Jane about his marital status. A number of elements in the novel encourage a positive assessment of Rochester's actions: the narrator herself, Jane Eyre, finds reasons to forgive his actions, and he is "rewarded" at the end of the novel through his marriage to her. Nevertheless, the novel only partly endorses Rochester, as he suffers a great deal both emotionally (thinking he has lost his true love, Jane) and physically (through his blindness). Rochester may have thought he acted for the best, but it is clear from the reactions of the other characters that he still is seen to have committed a moral wrong. Therefore, within the framework of the novel he suffers for his actions before he attains happiness through his marriage to Jane.

Sometimes , however, you may have a particular reason to draw attention to the fact that the moral world and values of the text are not shared by today's readers. The following passage effectively makes this point as it explicitly refers to the difference between the moral framework of the novel's world and the world of the student reader.

Ten years in the confined space of an attic, in a foreign country, with no friends, no conversation, no outside world and the knowledge that your husband is out gallivanting across Europe is likely to send anybody mad. This allows us, as readers, to disagree with Rochester's opinion that what he did was for the best. This incarceration can hardly be described as acting in Bertha's best interests by today's standards.

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