Bertha As The Feminist Heroine of Jane Eyre Jane Eyre, written in 1847 by Charlotte Bronte, chronicles the journey of the title character as she faces hardships and adversity along her journey into adulthood. Orphaned as a young child and given up by her caregiver and Aunt, Jane perseveres and appears to have found happiness when she becomes engaged to her employer, Edward Rochester. A critical moment in the novel occurs when Jane comes to the shocking realization that her fiance already has a wife, Bertha, whom he keeps locked away in the attic at his home.
Ultimately Jane and Rochester wed and have children, but only after he is severely disabled in a fire and Bertha has committed suicide by jumping to her death. Although Bertha never utters a single word throughout the novel, she remains a pivotal figure, and her presence is strong. She may be seen both as Jane’s alter-ego and the physical manifestation of her repressed feelings (Beattie 5-9).
Furthermore, Bronte uses Bertha as a tool to speak to the nature of gender inequality in nineteenth-century England.
The manner in which Bertha is introduced sets the stage for the picture of her as subhuman. She is presented through her monstrous laughs that Jane hears echoing from the third floor. The tone of the scene is chilling and uneasy, as Bertha is portrayed similar to a ghostly being. “While I paced softly on, the last sound I expected to hear in so still a region, a laugh, struck my ear.
It was a curious laugh; distinct, formal, mirthless. I stopped: the sound ceased, only for an instant; it began again, louder: for at first, though distinct, it was very low.
It passed off in a clamorous peal that seemed to wake an echo in every lonely chamber; though it originated in one…” (Bronte 114) Bertha’s eerie laughs foreshadow the dark events to come at Thornfield. Soon, her presence will be known, and with it the implications of the truth: that Rochester is a married man, and he and Jane cannot legally wed. Just as Jane’s silence is disrupted by Bertha’s laughs in the passage, Bertha’s existence will soon disrupt Jane’s hope for marriage with Rochester. Similarly, Jane’s first tangible encounter with Bertha reinforces notions of her as subhuman through the use of imagery. 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. ” (Bronte 289-290) The first-person mode of narration allows the reader to see Bertha through Jane’s vision, and words such as “grovelled” and “grizzled” depict her carnal nature. She is likened to “some strange wild animal,” and as a result, our encounter with Bertha is not only memorable, but it is tainted.
We do not meet her through the eyes of an objective observer, but rather as a reader primed for the vision of Bertha as a beast. The portrayal of Bertha as wild and uncontrollable makes her symbolic of the feminist response to nineteenth-century male oppression. She fights back and attacks the males that have dominated her. Her husband, Rochester, has kept her locked in the attic, and she tries to kill him on several occasions, including setting fire to his bed. Her brother, Richard Mason, took part in her being married off to Rochester, and she viciously attacks and bites him.
Bertha’s unruly nature challenges the traditional concept of the “Angel in the House” that was prevalent in Victorian England. This concept portrayed the ideal woman as delicate, passive, and angelic. Bertha’s uninhibited and overpowering nature shatters this mold. As noted by Valerie Beattie in “The Mystery at Thornfield: Representations of Madness in ‘Jane Eyre,’” “…Bertha, specifically, and madness broadly, operate similarly to vocalize and denounce the philosophy of ‘suffer and be still’ applied to women in the nineteenth century.
An acknowledgement of the danger of choosing the path of madness need not and should not foreclose explorations into its specific literary and sociohistorical usage” (11). Additionally, Grace Poole describes Bertha’s temperament when she says “One never knows what she has, she is so cunning: it is not in mortal discretion to fathom her craft. ” (Bronte 290) The nineteenth-century feminist movement was often met with resistance by males who were suspicious and uneasy at the notion of women stepping out of their traditional roles.
Grace’s characterization of Bertha as unpredictable communicates a similar feeling of mistrust that was ascribed to feminists. Additionally, Grace referring to Bertha’s abilities as not in “mortal discretion” paints her as unearthly. Strengthening tones of gender inequalities, Bertha appears to direct all her rage at the males in the novel. She tries to harm Rochester and her brother, Richard Mason, yet there is not the same anger towards females. We do not see her physically attack Grace Poole, Mrs. Fairfax, or Jane. In addition, though
Bertha ultimately starts the fire that burns down Thornfield from Jane’s bed, she does it long after Jane has left. Furthermore, when Bertha rips up Jane’s veil, she has ample access to harm her, but chooses not to, and rather looms over her bed, positioning her wrath towards the veil. This may be interpreted as Bertha, the feminist, conveying her anger towards the notion of traditional marriage roles. Though Bertha and Jane have clear differences, they also possess striking similarities and are in many ways mirror images of each other.
Both women have had romantic relationships with Rochester and, as women living in nineteenth-century England, Jane and Bertha both face oppression by a male-dominated society. Building upon the belief that women could not be self-sufficient, Bertha is married off to Rochester by her family. Jane experiences the repressions of gender inequalities as she is only able to inherit wealth after her male relatives are dead. Also, along with notions of male-dominance, there are attempts to control both of the characters. Rochester attempts to control Bertha by cutting her off from society and the world, and at the onset of the novel, Mrs.
Reed tries to control Jane by punishing her for fighting with John. There are also consequences for the noncompliance of both women, as noted by Beattie “…to be deviant, whether as Jane or Bertha, is to partake of ‘insanity’ and run the risk of being locked up in the Red Room or in the attic at Thornfield” (9). In Jane Eyre, unruly female behavior is met with punishment. For Jane, when she does not obey Mrs. Reed she is banished to the red room, and when she will not marry St. John he becomes extremely bitter with her. At Lowood, when she accidentally drops a slate, Mr.
Brocklehurst embarrasses her by making her stand on a stool in front of her classmates and ordering them not to speak to her for the duration of the day. For Bertha, her punishment is to be locked away in the attic by Rochester. Although Bertha remains in the attic for the duration of the novel, her role is complex and she serves many purposes, including acting as Jane’s foil. She complements her, and many of Jane’s features become magnified by contrast to Bertha. Bertha is dangerous; she sneaks out of her room at night to try and harm Rochester.
She is also unpredictable to the degree that Rochester employs Grace Poole solely as Bertha’s caretaker. Jane, on the other hand, is demure and restrained. At Lowood, she is able to assimilate and adhere to the rules to the degree that she eventually becomes a teacher. Additionally, Jane is quick-witted, smart, and humble, while Rochester describes Bertha as possessing “pigmy intellect” and “giant propensities. ” Adding to the intellectual and temperamental differences, physically Bertha is Jane’s opposite. Jane describes her as “… a big woman, in stature almost equaling her husband.
She showed virile force…” (Bronte 290) Bertha is of Creole descent, with dark features, exotic, and strong. Jane, on the other hand, is labeled as pale, thin, and plain. Bertha has an extended family and comes from money, while Jane possesses neither wealth nor immediate kin. The contrasts are so striking that Rochester addresses them aloud when defending his desire to be with Jane: “Compare those clear eyes with the red balls yonder—this face with that mask—this form with that bulk; then judge me! ” (Bronte 291) Additionally, Bertha acts as Jane’s alter-ego (Beattie 9).
She is the repressed side of Jane that is seen in brief moments, such as her madness in the red room. Jane describes her encounter with madness in the red room by saying “…my blood was still warm; the mood of the revolted slave was still bracing me with its bitter vigour” (Bronte 27). In metaphorically comparing her anger to that of a “revolted slave,” the extent of her rage is revealed. Likewise, Jane draws parallels to Bertha when Rochester is trying to convince her to stay with him and Jane replies “I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now” (Bronte 307).
Not only does this tool strengthen Jane’s conviction against immoral behavior, but the allusions to Bertha are clear as she refers to herself as “mad. ” As Jane’s alter-ego, Bertha is allowed to behave in ways that Jane cannot (Beattie 7). When Jane feels uncomfortable with the expensive veil Rochester has purchased for her, Bertha destroys it. Jane recounts the experience to Rochester the next morning by saying, “Sir, it removed my veil from its gaunt head, rent it in two parts, and flinging both on the floor, trampled on them” (Bronte 281).
In depicting the scene Bronte employs gothic elements. Not only does it take place at midnight, but there is the mysteriousness and unfamiliarity of Bertha, as Jane is unaware who she is. Furthermore, there is an ambiguity of whether or not Jane’s experience was a dream or reality. These elements showcase Jane’s vulnerable state while also foreshadowing Bertha’s violence and destruction. Additionally, although Jane does not know who the figure is, she refers to her as an “it. ” This reinforces notions that Bertha is subhuman.
Bronte further highlights Jane and Bertha’s differences by juxtaposing them. Jane represents the socially-acceptable response to male domination. Although outspoken at times, including telling Mrs. Reed “I am glad you are no relation of mine” (Bronte 47), she still acts within the confines what is societally acceptable. Following in the path of Helen Burns, she is complicit with the rules at Lowood, and is calm and demure in uncomfortable social settings, such as her encounters with Blanche and the Ingram family when she is clearly being slighted.
Bertha, on the other hand, is representative of a non-conformist. She is the wild, uninhibited woman, who refuses to obey the rules prescribed by males and society, and as a result is locked up. Paradoxically, although Jane obeys the rules of society and is physically free, she keeps her feelings confined and is imprisoned internally. Although she has had feelings for Rochester for quite some time, she keeps them to herself. Also, she has strong notions against Rochester marrying Blanche but does not tell him.
Referring to her self-restraint she says, “The passions may rage furiously, like true heathens, as they are; and the desires may imagine all sorts of vain things: but judgment shall still have the last word in every argument, and the casting vote in every decision” (Bronte 203). Jane is led by reason and judgment above all else. She has strong emotions, similar to Bertha, but unlike Bertha, she does not show them. The feminist tone extends through the close of the novel, as the timing of Bertha’s suicide, and corresponding exit, must be looked upon as a focal point.
She jumps to her death only after Jane has become independent and has left Rochester. In this way, her suicide represents the death of the repressed and confined Victorian woman, yet her presence does not cease with her death (Beattie 11). Bertha has penetrated the lives of both Jane and Rochester, and her departure has implications for them. Rochester is permanently disabled and Thornfield is annihilated. Notions of gender inequalities may be seen in Jane and Rochester’s union, as well, as they are only married after he is disabled.
The timing, after his accident, communicates the belief that Jane and Rochester can only become equal when he is physically undermined. Furthermore, even though Jane ultimately acquires wealth and happiness, it is still in line with male domination. She gains independence through a monetary inheritance from her male uncle, and inevitably, gains happiness through marriage. Speaking to her delight at life with Rochester she states, “I have now been married ten years. I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth” (Bronte 439). This strengthens notions of gender inequalities and limitations imposed upon women.
Even though Jane has seemingly attained a “happy ending,” she is still operating within the inescapable confines of patriarchal repression. In this classic work of Charlotte Bronte, Bertha, a seemingly minor character, is actually a pivotal figure, serving as the physical manifestation of Jane’s repressed feelings and her alter-ego (Beattie 5-9). Through close textual reading, we see images of Bertha portrayed as animalistic, and notions of gender inequality are pervasive as Bronte displaces the dynamics of male domination on the two opposing characters of Jane and Bertha.
Jane ultimately responds by conforming, and is free physically, yet suffers as she is confined internally, and is only able to achieve happiness through marriage with Rochester. Bertha responds with aggression, violence and unruliness, and as a result is physically imprisoned and dies violently; yet Bertha’s powerful presence does not end with her physical death, as her prevailing impact is felt by both the novel and Jane alike.