The Ambiguity of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre

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The Ambiguity of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre

In Jane Eyre, Rochester's mad Creole wife Bertha Mason is described as nothing less than a creature of sorts; a human-like existence, but, as it appears in Jane's narration, bereft of all humanity. That is to say, the humanity as defined by the European standards which Jane and Rochester represents. The sounds Bertha produces – the laughter of the insane – suggests a looming, unsettling och threatening presence, which is confirmed by her violent acts of burning Rochester's bed, and later the entire house. She stands out as an anomaly in the British setting. In a way, she seems to appear only as a contrast to the virtues of Jane herself; as the antithesis, who by being destroyed enables Jane's elevation. However, there are reasons to believe Bertha has her own, individual agenda, too, as we shall see. Jane encounters Bertha twice in person: first, as Bertha visits Jane in her room and tears the wedding veil in half; second, when Rochester is forced to reveal his secret due to the the claims of Bertha's brother. This is how Jane describes her on the latter occasion:

What it was, wether 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 clothed hyena rose up, and stood tall on its hind-feet (291. My italics)

The words italicized indicate Jane's identification of Bertha as something animal, apart from her own kind. Consequently, on neither occasion there seems to be anything in Bertha to rouse empathy in Jane; in her, Jane does not recognize an unhappy sister. Hence, Bertha is reduced to a function, representing the main obstacle of the novel, hindering Jane from finding happiness with her Edward. This is made possible by her dehumanization, which sanctions her disposability, outside of human...
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