The Madwoman In The Attic: How “Mad” Was Bertha Mason In Jane Eyre?

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A report by Ismat Ara for Feminism in India.

Jane Eyre is a progressive book in many senses – far ahead of its time, it is even deemed feminist. As she lived in a time when women were not encouraged to write, Charlotte Bronte wrote under the pseudonym Currer Bell to avoid being ostracized by society, and to avoid being badly received by the audience because the book was written by a ‘woman’.

Jane Eyre revolves around the life of a simple, ‘plain’ yet intelligent, orphaned girl who struggles with internal and external battles before she comes to accept that she loves her employer Mr Rochester, who is double her age, and from an upper class background. Her life turns upside down when she discovers, right before her wedding, that her lover has an ex-wife, a madwoman hidden in the attic, and flees – narrowly escaping from committing to a sinful relationship. Eventually, the madwoman, Bertha Mason, commits suicide, and Jane marries Mr Rochester.

Sure, Jane is a groundbreaking, rebellious character in literature and has been talked about everywhere, but in this article we will analyze the one character, which even though is absolutely essential to the plot, has no representation of her own – a character that has been termed ‘mad’, ‘violent’, and ‘crazy’. No prizes for guessing who! Bertha Mason, despite being so important to the plot of the story, interestingly does not have a single dialogue in her part. Over the course of the decade where Jane speaks of her life with Rochester, not once does Bertha speak.

Bertha Mason is described as the violent and insane ex-wife of Rochester, although she has not been allowed to give us an account of her madness. All we learn about Bertha is either through Rochester’s description of her madness, or Jane’s biased (because she is the leading lady and in love with Rochester) perception of her.

Jane takes great measures to lead the reader into believing in the madness of Bertha. But the interesting fact is, there are not enough instances to prove it. In a book that contains almost 400 pages, the book has not been able to give convincing arguments of Bertha’s insanity. A biased account of Jane only associates Bertha with a “hysterical” and “demonic” laughter, in an attempt to convince the readers of a flesh eating animal like presence in the house. When Jane sees Bertha in the middle of the night, she describes her as a “savage,” even goes to the extent compares her with a “German vampire”.  The possible explanation to this would be the effect that years of confinement and isolation would have had over Bertha. All these descriptions form a bestial image of Bertha in the reader’s mind, even though there is no concrete proof.

THE DESCRIPTIONS FORM A BESTIAL IMAGE OF BERTHA IN THE READER’S MIND, EVEN THOUGH THERE IS NO CONCRETE PROOF.

Somebody who has read Jane Eyre carefully would be able to tell that all the insane acts that Bertha has committed in the book has only been directed at either Rochester (biting him, scratching him, setting fire to his room) or the idea of marriage itself (tearing her veil). Remember when she goes into Jane’s room a night before her wedding? Does she kill Jane, or even hurt her? No. She only tears the veil, which shows her frustration with the idea of marriage, even though she had the potential to do a lot more. A possible explanation for the scene where Bertha injures her brother when he comes to see her at Mr. Rochester’s could be that it was Mason who had tricked her into marrying Rochester.

Even in death, Bertha is seeking only emancipation that has been snatched away from her by locking her up in the attic. She jumps off the house, openly affirming her identity – one last time. Bertha, through her suicide, rejects the confinement that she had been subjected to. She yearns for emancipation, which she can attain only through death, which she embraces, inverting all the previous scenes of confinement, reasserting her existence in a public spectacle, rejecting Rochester’s charity as well.

For Jane’s love to culminate and the plot to pace up, it’s important for Bertha to die. Bertha’s death increases the mystery even more. She dies without telling the readers anything about her suffering. (Note: While Bertha gains emancipation only through death, Jane, being the protagonist gains it from a relationship with mutual dependence.)

BERTHA, THROUGH HER SUICIDE, REJECTS THE CONFINEMENT THAT SHE HAD BEEN SUBJECTED TO.

Bertha Mason’s madness is often attributed to her features, “red eyes”, “black hair”. It is very clear that she is from a non-white ethnicity. Her portrayal as an insane bestial woman is further problematic as a case of racial prejudice. White Victorian women couldn’t possibly go mad! The book thus avoids the fact that people from all cultures would essentially have anger resulting in irrational (read unconventional) behaviour if suppressed by society and treated as a passive, second class citizen. Bronte has not allowed madness to linger in pure European blood or to attribute madness to it.

Bertha Mason is described as a woman of Creole descent. Even the rumours that go around regarding the presence of a strange woman in the house are of women who do not essentially fit into the Victorian ideal women, such as a “cast-off mistress” of Rochester, a “bastard” sister. Madness is conveniently reserved for women that do not conform to the Victorian code of conduct.

Jane describes Bertha’s appearance in chapter 26:

“What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.”

The character of Bertha Mason has been fully explored only in the counter narrative by Jean Rhys, a half Creole and half Welsh writer, in her book, ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’. Here, the narrative is wrested away from Jane and given to Bertha, finally giving her a voice. Bertha’s name in the book is Antoinette Cosway, which is changed to Bertha Mason by Rochester to sound more Anglicized, thus stripping away at a part of her identity. Written as a prequel to Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea shows how Bertha and Rochester both married each other under false pretexts and how marital frustration culminates, following a dark and disturbing future life for Bertha in England.

While it was Rochester’s dad who pressurized him into marrying Bertha in order to gain control over her property (Rochester agrees because he is also stupefied by her beauty), on Bertha’s side it was her aunt and brother who convinced her to marry this man from a strange land in order to save her rights over her property. Her gender makes it easier for Rochester to discard her as a madwoman and lock her up later.

In recounting the history of their relationship, Rochester, in Jane Eyre, says:

“I thought I loved her… Her relatives encouraged me; competitors piqued me; she allured me… Oh, I have no respect for myself when I think of that act! … I never loved, I never esteemed, I did not even know her.”

After one reads the counter narrative in Wide Sargasso Sea, it becomes impossible to not see through the ‘implied’ madness of Bertha, but giving no account of it and no voice to her, a propaganda to suppress a woman in the very book that focuses on Jane’s years of effort to attain financial and social independence, and even in marriage, making sure that there’s mutual dependency between the two (by virtue of one’s gender, and other’s blindness). Bronte’s diametrically different representations of the two characters conform to the idea of having an essential madwoman or devil in the house, in order to affirm to the other woman’s status as ‘angel of the house’.

An important observation would be to see that initially, Jane, in the violence that she displayed with her cousin brother and Aunt Reed as a child, showed some (supposed) signs of madness – violence and unchecked energy. Whereas for Jane, her admission into her boarding school at Lowood curtailed her her rebellious nature and she was tamed to suit the ideal of a Victorian woman. Nothing of that sort was provided to Bertha. Jane is, hence, towards the end made to depict the ideal Victorian woman, and Bertha comes in as the supposed anti-heroine who must not fit into this idea in order to justify her death.

On this Victorian hypocrisy, Freud rightly said, “Victorians pretend like sex doesn’t exist in the society.”

BRONTE’S DIAMETRICALLY DIFFERENT REPRESENTATIONS OF THE TWO CHARACTERS CONFORM TO THE GOOD WOMAN-BAD WOMAN DIVIDE.

Bertha’s insanity can be seen as a result of Rochester’s misguided belief that madness is in her ‘blood’ (which is not European, just a reminder). We are shown how white women, (Jane Eyre and Charlotte Bronte) though plain, control the narrative of a non-white character, and how her subdued narrative is finally reclaimed by a woman of her own origin, Jean Rhys.

Even though Jane Eyre is a revolutionary book for its time and relevant even today, it has some elements that are problematic like confining women into only two possible boxes: one, like Jane, curtailed over the years to fit into the conventional Victorian, ‘angel of the house’, the other Bertha, suffering her confinement and being eventually pushed towards madness, ‘madwoman in the attic’, two terms used by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in a reading of Jane Eyre, their very famous essay ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’.

The sexual repression, social isolation and emotional trauma that Bertha undergoes after being betrayed and cheated on by Rochester are shown by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Seaas reasons responsible for Bertha’s (supposed) madness.

She wasn’t always mad; (if at all) her containment had made it so.

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