March 23, 2011
Funhouse Mirrors: Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason
“Jane Eyre” is a book centred around female duality. In a time when females were still expected to fulfill their “womanly duties,” Charlotte Bronte wrote a novel dealing with a woman’s view on morality & sexuality, passion & sensibility, and conformity & insanity, among other themes. This motif of duality plays a strong part in the dynamism that makes up the book, and is not limited to the themes, but is also used to relate many of the characters to the titular Jane. In “The Mystery at Thornfield,” Valerie Beattie makes claims that the character Bertha Mason’s insanity is a representation of rebellion toward the limitations of Victorian women. Not only is Bertha a symbol of the Victorian woman, but also a reflection of Jane herself. Thus, this shows that not only is Bertha a personification of women in the patriarchal society of the Victorian period, but so too, is Jane. As a child, Jane shares many characteristics with Bertha, but when she comes of age she begins to conform in order to thrive in a male dominated society. Bertha, on the other hand, is incapable of such reason and lashes out at the limits that bind her. Through the contrasts and similarities of Bertha Mason and Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte conveys a view on the position, and potential, of Victorian women.
As a child, Jane shares many commonalities with the character of Bertha Mason in relation to dealing with a male dominated society. Though at first Jane holds in her passions, despite her oppression by John Reed and Mrs. Reed, Jane eventually asserts herself against John in a physical and violent way. This is comparable to Bertha’s violent outbursts and temper toward Mr. Rochester and those occupying his home. In Jane’s case, the outburst seems more justified; she is simply acting out against her abusive cousin. However, when examined closely, Bertha’s violent attacks on Mr. Rochester are simply backlash from years of neglect. These conniptions are symbolic of the powerlessness felt by women in Victorian society. In this case, Mr. Rochester is comparable to the Reeds. Mrs. Reed becomes somewhat of a reinforcement of a male dominated society; being left to care for her husband’s orphaned niece after his death is oppressive to her (in Mrs. Reed’s mind) and so too, is the rule John Reed takes over the house hold as the new man of the house. John Reed is also an obvious comment on a patriarchal society. Although he is just a young boy, at the moment of his father’s death he became master of the home, dominating his mother and all those that answer to her. Mr. Rochester comes to not only symbolize the Victorian man, but also exemplifies the oppression incurred by husbands at this time.
During their fits of rage, both Jane and Bertha are likened to beasts. Jane becomes “like a mad cat” (p. 69) while Bertha is compared to a “clothed hyena” (p. 381). This association to animals is notable mostly because males, who are seen as more violent and physical than women, are typically the ones compared to beasts. This unorthodox comparison brings about ideas of gender roles, and seems to suggest that Bronte felt women can be as physical and fierce as men. Beattie builds on this, “in classic horror films a potentially empowering affinity exists between the woman and the monster, enabling the articulation of deviant femininity” (Beattie, 1996). This creates another example of female duality between Bertha, the monster, and Jane, the female lead.
Bertha’s increasingly frequent violent episodes result in her being locked away in a room where she cannot harm others or tarnish the name of Mr. Rochester. Jane suffers a similar fate in her childhood at Gateshead, in which she is isolated first in the red room, and then in the nursery, even during holiday festivities. This oppression can be likened to that of women in the Victorian era, whom were still expected by many to find their place in...