This essay will look at representations of black and white women in both The History of Mary Prince by Mary Prince and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and in doing so it will also look at the distinctions between what is perceived as normal and what is perceived as deviant in the two works. In order to discuss this I will look at the characters of Jane and Bertha in Jane Eyre. This essay will discuss how they are depicted within the novel and will include works such as The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Jenny Sharpe’s “Allegories of Empire” and Desire and Domestic Fiction by Pamela Armstrong. I will then compare the representations of these two characters with Mary in Mary Prince and will look at Sandra Pouchet Paquet’s “The Heartbeat of a West Indian Slave: The History of Mary Prince”.
In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Jane is an independent, liberated woman, who feels both men and women should be treated as equals; she is everything a Victorian woman is not meant to be. Despite Jane possessing these characteristics and beliefs, she is a very calm person and so to emphasize her ‘un-ladylikeness’ Bronte provides us with the character of Bertha. Mason is Mr. Rochester’s part English, part Creole wife whom he keeps locked up in the third story of Thornfield, hidden like a dark secret, away from the public eye. Bertha was once a beautiful and wealthy woman from Spanish town in Jamaica, but suffers from a hereditary mental illness resulting in her becoming insane and extremely violent. The racial representations of Bertha are important as we are given the image of Bertha through Jane’s eyes. She describes her as a wild animal-like creature, “What was it, 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 258) The fact that Bertha is shown in an animalistic way signifies that not only is she not considered an equal, but she is barely considered a person. Bertha’s character represents an uncontrollable passion and insanity which sharply contrasts with Jane’s calmness and morality. In Jenny Sharpe’s “Allegories of Empire” she explains how Bertha is “Commonly read as a symbolic substitute for Jane Eyre and the monstrous embodiment of unchecked female rebelliousness and sexuality”. (Sharpe 80)
In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar explain how Mr. Rochester considers his marriage to Bertha as his biggest mistake in life as he married for sex, money and status, for everything but love and equality (Gilbert and Gubar 356). He confesses “oh, I have no respect for myself when I think of that act” (Bronte 353). The fact that Rochester married a woman he did not love further shows his inferiority to Jane who previously stated she would “scorn such a union” (Bronte, 291), and more again Bertha’s inferiority to Jane. Rochester married Bertha for her beauty and wealth, he married what he thought would be the perfect Victorian wife. However this was not so, as the years went on and Bertha became mad he found out she was not the perfect wife. She was rebellious and violent and he felt the only choice he had was to lock her away as she could not function in society without harming herself or others. Due to her lack of education, complete dependency on Mr. Rochester and loss of control over her mind she could never live up to the woman Jane is. Jane’s education led to her to be able to hold various jobs throughout her life and be independent not to rely on a husband. Her intelligence led her to be clever enough to know how to present herself to society and act in a respectable way to those who did not treat her right. Where Bertha chooses rage and violence to vent her frustration at her mistreatment in...
Bibliography: • Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. (online)
• Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin Classics, 1847. (print)
• Gilbert, Sandra and Gubar Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000. (online)
• Prince, Mary. The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, London: Published by F. Westley and A. H. Davis, 1831. (online)
• Paquet, Sandra Pouchet. “The Heartbeat of a West Indian Slave: The History of Mary Prince”. African American Review.Vol.26, No. 1. Indiana: Indiana State University, 1992. 131-146. (online)
• Sharpe, Jenny. “Allegories of Empire”. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: A Casebook. Ed. Elsie B. Michie. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 79-102. (online)
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