Last Updated on November 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 941
Extended Character Analysis
Bertha Mason Rochester is Mr. Rochester’s wife throughout most of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Mr. Rochester’s father had arranged and pushed Mr. Rochester to marry her in an effort to gain money and status. However, Mr. Rochester was unaware of the monetary gain until after he had married her. Bertha is a Creole woman from Jamaica and is described as having been “tall, dark, and majestic.” During Mr. Rochester’s visit to Jamaica, he was quickly courted by her and encouraged to marry by both of their families. He married her without getting to know her and soon found that he did not love her.
Unbeknownst at first to Mr. Rochester, Bertha’s family has a history of mental illness. Her mother had been placed in an institution, and her younger brother had mental disabilities. Mr. Rochester slowly finds this out, and as he begins to get to know Bertha, he sees that he is entirely incompatible with her. Bertha allegedly mistreats him for much of their marriage, and she is unable to hold a conversation with him without employing verbal abuse. A doctor diagnoses Bertha eventually, claiming that she is suffering from the beginnings of insanity. Bertha and Mr. Rochester live together in Jamaica for a few years after. However, Mr. Rochester falls into despair over Bertha’s mental state and her mistreatment of him. He decides, as a last effort to save himself, to move back to Europe with her.
The period in which Jane Eyre is set—the Victorian era—was a time in which the British had extensive rule over many parts of the world. Mr. Rochester marrying and then taking a Jamaican woman from her home reflects the colonialist nature of England at the time. Furthermore, Jane Eyre stands as a gothic novel not only because it is dark and gloomy, but also because it has the classic and expected “monster” present within the story. Due to Bertha’s being from a different country and being considered insane, she is drawn out as a monster. It is not Mr. Rochester, who is aggressive and often creepy, or Mrs. Reed, who is cruel and apathetic—it is Bertha who is ostracized and vilified within Jane Eyre. It is not seen as problematic for Bertha to be taken and then isolated for her mental health issues. It is only problematic for Mr. Rochester, who worries for himself and his reputation. This shows that the white English men and women are cared for and have a degree of autonomy, while Bertha, who is from another (quite different) country, is othered, trapped, and misunderstood.
In England, Mr. Rochester locks Bertha in the attic at Thornfield Hall and hires the servant Grace Pool to care for her. Bertha is purposely hidden away so that Mr. Rochester’s name and status aren’t “sullied.” Bertha lives in the attic for several years, and when Jane comes along, Bertha begins acting out. She first sets fire to Mr. Rochester’s bed, which Jane luckily catches before he is burned alive. Bertha also stabs Mr. Mason, her brother, when he visits Thornfield, and when Jane is set to marry Mr. Rochester, she goes into Jane’s room in the middle of the night and tears up Jane’s wedding veil.
Bertha is described as inhuman in many ways throughout Jane Eyre. Jane describes her laugh as “demoniac” and she is referred to as a “hyena” or “Tigress.” The turning of Bertha from human into strange wild animal highlights the loss of Bertha’s humanity in the other character’s eyes. When turned inhuman, she no longer can garner respect or empathy.
If read as feminist commentary, Bertha’s entrapment and actions can reflect society’s general treatment of women in the Victorian era. Bertha serves as a foil to Jane in that she is imprisoned physically yet wild in actions. Jane, on the other hand, has been groomed by school and society to be calm, to make herself small, and to stay in her place. Jane has realized her place in society, but Bertha is outside of this jurisdiction. In a release of what can be considered righteous anger, Bertha’s actions comment on the questionable nature of Mr. Rochester’s decisions. When Bertha destroys the wedding veil, she’s destroying a symbol of the impending loss of Jane’s identity to Mr. Rochester. When Bertha sets fire to Mr. Rochester’s bed, she’s taking revenge for her maltreatment. Although her actions are considered wrong and evil, it is all Bertha can do to communicate her displeasure and sense of entrapment.
Bertha is also a foil to Jane in that she really is trapped. Unlike Jane, she cannot learn, grow, or leave Thornfield. She is the “madwoman in the attic,” reduced to unimportance and placed far away from others. Bertha most of all appears to be the victim of maltreatment and isolation. Since she has no control and no outlets, she appears to only communicate through her violent—and vengeful—acts. Near the end of the novel, Bertha sets fire to Thornfield and kills herself by jumping off the roof. This may be seen as a last desperate reach for control over her own life, which has only been controlled by others, such as her family, the Rochesters, and Grace Poole. And, as a final reference to her newly established power, Bertha is framed by the flames of her creation. She stands in what has been her prison for many years, now destroyed, and has taken back her life, even if that can only be achieved through death.
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