Bertha Rochester: 'the madwoman in the attic'

The most well-known and problematic character in Jane Eyre is Rochester's first wife, who is almost always referred to by her maiden name of Bertha Mason:

  • The first and most important point to make about her is that within the time span of the novel she is unable to give an account of herself
  • Her madness is already evident when Rochester brings her to England and her condition steadily deteriorates until she is reduced to the condition of a bestial creature whose personal voice is never heard, except through her actions.

Initial impressions

In the early part of the novel:

  • She is only audible by her strange laughs, screams and incomprehensible babbling
  • She is only visible in what seem to be ghostly apparitions: gazing at Jane as she lies in bed or attempting to set fire to Rochester's bed
  • Jane is led to believe that these sounds and appearances originate from Grace Poole, Bertha Rochester's keeper, yet her placid (if stern) appearance and ordinary behaviour make this an unlikely explanation.

Further revelations

Only gradually is the truth revealed. When Mason first appears in the novel (Chapter 20, Volume 2, Chapter 5) Rochester is clearly very disturbed by his arrival. In retrospect, this is hardly surprising, since Rochester has made it clear that he plans to marry soon and any hint that Bertha is still alive would make that impossible:

  • When Mason is attacked, he describes to Rochester, in Jane's hearing, his attacker's words and actions: these are the only words of Bertha's that are directly reported in the novel. Therefore, the only account we have of her words is through someone else's words, in this case Mason's.
  • The only direct sight of Bertha comes in Chapter 26 (Volume 2, Chapter 11) after Mason has reappeared and stopped Jane and Rochester's wedding, revealing that he is the brother of Rochester's first wife.

The remainder of this chapter and a large part of the next are devoted to Rochester recounting the story of his early life and how he was tricked into marrying Bertha. Although she was beautiful and passionate, a pronounced streak of madness runs through her family, a fact concealed from Rochester by his father and brother, who want him to marry in the family interest.

  • Re-read the scene in which Rochester takes Jane and the others to the attic to see Bertha. Note:
    • The details of her appearance and actions
    • Rochester's behaviour towards her
  • In the scene in which Rochester takes Jane and the others to the attic to see Bertha.
    • What are the main features of how she is represented?

Rochester's burden

Bertha has become Rochester's burden:

  • She is the source of the mysterious sorrow and sense of doom that seem to hang over all his previous accounts of his life before he met Jane
  • Although he wishes to be free of Bertha and start a new life, his conscience is such that he cannot bring himself to leave her in the West Indies and he decides to conceal her at Thornfield
  • Thus, the ‘madwoman in the attic' comes to stand for everything that has gone wrong in Rochester's life
  • Jane's attraction for Rochester lies in her difference from Bertha: her smallness, steadiness and sanity. It is by marrying her that he hopes to redeem his life.

Recent interpretations of Bertha

More generally, however, Bertha Rochester has also come to represent other things, particularly in the ways in which the novel has been read in the past thirty years.

Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea

In 1966, the novelist Jean Rhys (1890-1979) published Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys, like Bertha, was a white native of the West Indies and felt that as well as not allowing Bertha a voice of her own, the novel somehow suggested that her madness was linked with the place of her birth:

  • She wanted to offer another way of understanding these events and her book has sections narrated both by a Rochester figure and by his bride, here called Antoinette Cosway
  • Rhys sets the novel in the Caribbean islands of Dominica and Jamaica, with a brief final section in which the wife is confined at Thornfield
  • Rhys' novel was a great success, establishing a fashion for writing novels from the point of view of ‘silent' characters in fiction
  • It can also be seen as a post-colonial reading of Jane Eyre, in which a distant country colonised by the British is seen in terms of its own values and culture instead of through British eyes.

Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic

In 1979, two American academics, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, published a ground-breaking volume of feminist literary history, called The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination

  • In this study, Bertha Rochester comes to symbolise the more general sense in which the female voice was often silenced or muffled in the nineteenth century, both in society and in literature. It is seen as an uncomfortable, disturbing voice, reminding people – men – of truths they did not wish to acknowledge
  • Gilbert and Gubar also argue that this silencing has been perpetuated in another sense, by the ways in which a male-dominated literary history has tended to either demote women's writing to a lower ranking, or to ignore all but a very few of the many women writers from the Victorian age
  • If this argument is accepted, then it has to be considered that this may be because Jane, and maybe Charlotte Brontë herself, have their own reasons for not wishing Bertha's voice to be heard.
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