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 fiancé 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...
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