October 11, 2007
"'Give me back nine pounds, Jane; I've a use for it.'
'And so have I, sir,' I returned, putting my hands and my purse behind me. 'I could not spare the money on any account.'
'Little niggard!' said he, 'refusing me a pecuniary request! Give me five pounds, Jane.'"
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Mr. Rochester's anger in this statement is apparent, even if it is followed up by the demand that Jane return as soon as she can. What was startling about it was the use of the words niggard and pecuniary.
To call his governess (even when his feelings about that governess have not remained professional) such a base term would be an extreme insult, both to her person and her station. The position that the term implies is harsh and cruel, even in 1847 England where slavery was not legal. (An entire war was still due in the United States.) I don't understand why Brontë threw in it so lightly, especially as no other such offensive term really appears.
I understand that authors of the 19th century used this term far more liberally than we do today, as the meaning and social implications have changed. However, in the context that Brontë uses the term it is clearly meant as an insult. One that no one seems to pick up on.
The use of the word pecuniary in Mr. Rochester's statement also got to me. I'll be honest, pecuniary isn't a word that I hear in everyday conversation and was thus forced to look it up. (No complaint mind you, vocabulary expansion is very valuble.) The meaning of it was as to be expected from the context, "of or relating to money." Another mentioned meaning though bothered me, "involving a money penalty or fine." Was this the type of pecuniary to which Mr. Rochester was referring? To me this seems probable, considering the change in harshness of language Brontë had already used in the statement.
Harsh, Mr. Rochester, harsh.
Posted by Diana Geleskie at October 11, 2007 11:15 AM
That word has a meaning that is completely separate from the word that is a racial slur.
A white official in Washington DC was fired by the mayor of D.C. a few years ago, after the white staffer used the word "niggardly" in a meeting and was accused of being racist. Later, the mayor revoked the resignation, and asked the staffer to return, making a public apology for acting hastily in firing the staffer.
Thanks Dr. Jerz, I'll be honest, I had to look it up and then found "reluctant to give or spend" as being niggardly and "an excessively parsimonious, miserly, or stingy person" as niggard. I guess I was just thrown by its usage and jumped to the first conclusion I found.
I guess one has to be careful about word usage. Even though, as Dr. Jerz pointed out, niggard is not just a racial word, it can be taken that way so easily.
Also, as for pecuniary, I think you're right about the meaning. That does make the most sense.
how dare he! She is not his servant. The term "niggard" sounds eerily similar to another offensive word that we are all familiar with, so there is no need for me to type said word. even if the reader does not know the actualy meaning of the term niggard, Bronte has still produced the desired affect: the word sounds like a modern day insult, and we take it as such. What an elitist that Mr Rochester is.
It's interesting how wordy these descriptions are, but how at the same time the dialog often resembles a play script -- the speeches are often so sparsely annotated that you could imagine a scene played so many different ways.
Dani, you're right -- Mr. Rochester is using money to exert influence over Jane. She does a similar thing, of course, by initially refusing his generosity. Her refusal to give up her money shows that she isn't a pushover.
Whatever we may think of Rochester's language or actions in this scene, we have to note that his behavior does not anger Jane or sour her opinion of him, so it's not sensible to imagine him acting like a total jerk here.
This power play is Rochester's rather twisted way of showing Jane he that he wants her to stay, and I can even imagine Jane being playful as they bicker over the money and she hides it behind her back. There is a playfulness to Rochester -- remember his hilarious cross-dressing gypsy shtick? Jane has come pretty close to calling Rochester ugly, she is quick to point out his various flaws, and we are made to understand that Rochester actually likes that about her.