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Bertha Mason: is she an abused wife, or just "the madwoman in the attic"?
Bertha’s family heritage is complex and puts her in a difficult position. She’s half-Creole and half-English, raised in Jamaica among the British aristocrat half of her family, and already not exactly a part of one world or the other.
She also suffers from congenital insanity (read: madness runs in her family). Rochester claims that she was drunken and promiscuous and that her excesses brought on her madness when she was young, but he’s not exactly an objective witness.
It’s clear that she and Rochester never really got along and that they hadn’t gotten to know each other at all before they got married. In that sense, they were both screwed over by their families; they were young and silly, and neither of them really thought to slow down and think about things before saying their vows. As a result of all this, Bertha spends most of her adult life locked in a room—a few years in a room in Jamaica, and ten years in the attic at Thornfield.
We don’t know about you, but we’d hate the person who did that to us, too.
Bertha’s homicidal pyromaniac reaction, however, is admittedly a wee bit extreme. The fact that she crawls around on all fours making animalistic noises and laughing in a creepy way also suggests that the thread of her sanity has long since snapped. However, she’s still perceptive in some ways: she figures out that Rochester and Jane are going to get married, and she shows herself to Jane by destroying her wedding veil, trying, perhaps to warn her off gently, or at least signal to her that a marriage to Rochester isn’t going to work.
Oh, and she's also, um, kind of unkempt:
"And how were [Bertha's visage and features]?"
"Fearful and ghastly to me—oh, sir, I never saw a face like it! It was a discoloured face—it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!"
"Ghosts are usually pale, Jane."
"This, sir, was purple: the lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrowed: the black eyebrows widely raised over the bloodshot eyes. Shall I tell you of what it reminded me?"
"Of the foul German spectre—the Vampyre." (2.10.73-81)
Of course, Jane isn't just noting Bertha's (admittedly creepy) rolling bloodshot eyes and dramatically raised eyebrows. She's very problematically being terrified of Bertha's skin color, which is dark.
Bertha has become especially famous in literary criticism because her situation supplied the title and central theory of a major 1979 book of feminist criticism, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Basically, the idea is that the intensely powerful, passionate, and talented woman who is seen as crazy and in need of confinement by the world represents the nineteenth-century woman writer, whose abilities threatened the dominant good-old-boy literary network.
Obviously, this has a lot of interesting implications for Bertha as a character, for Charlotte Brontë as an author, and for the "Autobiography" of Jane Eyre.
In Bertha’s case, you don’t have to know a lot about the Victorian publishing world to get the sense that keeping a woman capable of burning your house down locked upstairs, and thus looming over your whole life, is, oh, a little bit symbolic maybe? Something of a skeleton in the closet? Except this skeleton can set fire to things. In fact, Bertha is such an intensely powerful character that even as a prisoner in a remote country house across the ocean from her home, with no friends or family or resources, everyone around her trembles in their boots when she gets loose!
For Charlotte Brontë, Bertha seems to become a strange kind of alter-ego. Bertha is rejected by the man who was supposed to love her; Charlotte fell in love with an unattainable man (Constantin Heger). Bertha is kept prisoner in a lonely house on the English moors; Charlotte traveled a little, but spent most of her life shut up in her father’s house in Yorkshire, away from any big-city culture. Bertha is only able to show her powers to the world in what seem like insane, destructive ways; women novelists were common but their works were often considered ridiculous and their abilities inferior to those of men. The parallels are too strong to ignore, and perhaps Bertha does double-duty, both representing the restrictions that Charlotte felt and becoming Charlotte’s wish-fulfillment of breaking through those restrictions to inspire fear and awe.
Of course, there’s another woman writer here besides Charlotte Brontë—there’s Jane Eyre herself, who narrates this entire novel and describes it as her "autobiography." Could Bertha represent Jane if she’s also Jane’s antagonist? Of course! We’re never more like someone than when we consider them our mortal enemy.
Think about it: Bertha is locked in a room for ten years and goes crazy "like some wild animal"; Jane is locked in the red room for five minutes and completely freaks out so that she’s "like a mad cat." Bertha sneaks around Thornfield at night to thwart Rochester’s plans of remarrying; Jane sneaks around Thornfield at night to thwart Rochester’s plans of using her to commit bigamy. Bertha’s supposed to be insane; Jane hears voices.
So here’s the thing: if Jane and Bertha are actually very similar, and if Bertha’s pyromaniac madness represents the incendiary potential of the woman writer telling her story, then it seems entirely possible that Jane could end up like Bertha, but that Jane just has the good fortune of being a little more desirable to Rochester and thus escapes Bertha’s fate.
As you probably noticed, everything we learn about Bertha in Jane Eyre we learn through Rochester as he’s telling the story about her to other people around him. The only things we really "know for a fact" because we as readers have seen them are that Bertha is violent toward Rochester and her brother, that she’s extremely disturbed in some way if not actually insane, and that she’s kept locked in the attic.
Given Rochester’s moral sensibilities, it seems only fair to suggest that we can’t really judge Bertha without knowing her side of the story, which we don’t get in Jane Eyre. To address this gap, in 1966 Jean Rhys explored what Bertha’s perspective might be like in a novel called Wide Sargasso Sea. While it doesn’t necessarily make sense to use that novel in a paper that’s just about what’s going on in the text of Jane Eyre, it is a fascinating re-imagining of the situation that makes us think more deeply about the issues of race and inequality at stake here. We highly recommend it!