The Madwoman in the Attic: Angel or Monster?
In “Jane Eyre,” the character of Bertha Mason serves as an ominous representation of uncontrollable passion and madness. Her dark sensuality and violent nature contrast sharply with Jane’s calm morality, and it is no surprise that Bertha’s presence at Thornfield is a key factor in transforming Mr. Rochester into a stereotypical Byronic hero. Moreover, Bertha’s marriage to Mr. Rochester serves as the primary conflict of the novel, and it is only after her death that Jane is able to achieve personal happiness by marrying Mr. Rochester. However, Bertha’s position as the “Madwoman in the Attic” also speaks to larger social questions of femininity and authorship during the Victorian period.
In 1979, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar made a breakthrough in feminist criticism with their work “The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.” In the 700-page text, Gilbert and Gubar use the figure of Bertha Mason as the so-called “Madwoman in the Attic” to make an argument about perceptions toward female literary characters during the time period. According to Gilbert and Gubar, all female characters in male-authored books can be categorized as either the “angel” or the “monster.” The “angel” character was pure, dispassionate, and submissive; in other words, the ideal female figure in a male-dominated society. Interestingly, the term “angel” stems directly from Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem “The Angel in the House,” in which he described his meek and pious wife. In sharp contrast to the “angel” figure, the “monster” female character was sensual, passionate, rebellious, and decidedly uncontrollable: all qualities that caused a great deal of anxiety among men during the Victorian period. However, Charlotte Brontë (as well as many other contemporary female authors) did not limit her characterizations to this strict dichotomy between monster and angel. Jane Eyre possesses many of the...
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