Madness is theme linked extremely closely to Bertha within the novel- the Victorian era was a period in which medicine was coming to the forefront of people's knowledge, yet mental illness remained something of a grey spot. Many critics claim that Bronte decided to make this a focal point of the novel, through the character of Bertha; Carolyn Berman argues:
''Bertha is a moral-medical horror who signifies the equivalent historical mistreatment of the madwoman and colonial slaves'
Berman makes her point based upon the fact Rochester saw it fit to lock Bertha away, thinking her obvious mental disorder an irreversible ailment, which was common treatment towards those in Bertha's situation during Victorian times. Helen Briggs, a health journalist for the BBC, described the view of people with mental disorders as ''inconvenient people''.
The act of locking those away who were perceived to be mentally ill was not an idea of Bronte's imagination, this was a practice which was common place in Victorian times, particularly in regards to the treatment of women. One such case was Emma Riches, who after childbirth suffered from postnatal depression, which was diagnosed as insanity- she was discharged almost a year later after the medicine they used proved ineffectual.
However, some critics believe that Bronte must have been aware of the advancements and significantly better treatment shown towards mentally ill patients in Victorian times. An 1884 review by the Metropolitan Commissioners for Lunacy, The Westminster Review, states the following:
Individuals who look after those who are mentally ill must ''avoid everything which might give to the patient an impression he is in prison''
In the view of some critics, this is evidence that Bronte (as she had an interest in the medical field- see below) she would've been aware of these advancements in the understanding of mental illness- and the treatment of Bertha is far more to do with the presentation of Rochester as a cold individual.
Medicine and the Bronte Family:
Contextually, the Bronte family can be tightly linked to medicine, as evidence suggests they possessed numerous modern medicines, which were heavily annotated by the father, Patrick. The family is known to have had an interest in bodily and psychological processes, and what the bodily symptoms of our minds- which may be argued is at the very core of this novel
Presentation of Bertha as ''the madwoman in the attic''
The Other, The Supernatural and Gothic Literature
The above video is of Professor John Bowen analysing the idea of 'The Other'- one of the most poignant quotes from this video is:
''Somewhere, hidden in the secure domestic home, is a backstory and an otherness''
This analysis suggests that Bertha represents a supernatural otherness within Jane Eyre; this is supported as, before we are aware of Bertha, Bronte describes her as a ''figure'' and ''it''- this may also be perceived as Bertha being portrayed as non-human, indicative of the racist undertones in the novel. We are able to further our understanding of Bertha's link to the supernatural through the description of her laugh, which is referenced numerous times before our introduction the Bertha- Jane states, ''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.'' This reinforces Bertha as a supernatural device within the novel, as an unknown figure, she haunts Thornfield, which is presented to convey that within Victorian homes, there is an element of the supernatural. One of the most interesting quotations linking Bertha to the supernatural is as Jane says:
''What crime was this that lived incarnate in this sequestered mansion, and could neither be expelled nor subdued by the owner?—what mystery, that broke out now in fire and now in blood, at the deadest hours of night? What creature was it, that, masked in an ordinary woman's face and shape, uttered the voice, now of a mocking demon, and anon of a carrion-seeking bird of prey?
This may be analysed to support an array of different themes, motifs and arguments regarding topics branching even further than the supernatural as this is a key quote regarding Bertha. Below is a breakdown of the possible analysis:
- Motif of fire- ''what mystery, that broke out now in fire''- this can be seen as Bertha being Jane's double; fire is connected to Jane as it represents her passion, yet Bertha uses it as a destructive force- firstly in the mentioned incident in which she sets Rochester's bed alight, and later in the novel as she burns Thornfield to the ground, after which her ''black hair...streamed against the flames'', suggesting that she is one with the fire- similarly to Jane.
- Inhumane description of Bertha- ''What creature was it''- Bertha's shown throughout much of her descriptions in the novel as non-human, perhaps as a result of her ethnicity, which would have been an incredibly sensitive and taboo topic in Victorian Britain. These descriptions are relentless during this passage, as Bertha is portrayed through the use of this impersonal pronoun, which is not an isolated description in the novel.
- Supernatural- ''uttered the voice, now of a mocking demon''- this, coupled with the other connotations of the supernatural linked with Bertha, suggests that she is a being other than human, perhaps another way to make Bertha non-human, maybe a result of her ethnicity once again.
- Motif of birds- ''anon of a carrion-seeking bird of prey?''- Similarly to the motif of fire, the link of Bertha to birds is significant in as Jane also shares strong links to birds- yet, Jane's link to birds is indicative of freedom, such as 'Bewick's History of British Birds'' which acts as her escape from the cold confines of Gateshead; Bertha acting as a bird of prey is indicative of her being a dark version of Jane, preying on Jane's and the Victorian audience's fear of the unknown.
Literary Context of Bertha
It has been suggested that Bertha holds strong connotations to Gothic literature, which had become a very popular convention in Victorian literature, such as the idea that horror lies after an ascent or descent, seen as Bertha is trapped by Rochester in the attic, above Jane's bedroom.
Also, there are numerous conventions that Bertha shares with Gothic literature, such as the idea of revenge, seen as she sets fire to Rochester's bed as a result of her imprisonment. Similarly, Bertha is presented as 'The Outsider', another convention within Gothic literature, as not only is she sectioned away from society in the attic, but her ambiguous ethnicity in Victorian Britain resulted in her being an outright outsider to the readers at the time the novel was published. Also, as has been explored numerous times above, she is linked to the convention of The Supernatural extremely closely. 'Doubling' is also seen as a common Gothic motif- its significance to Jane and Bertha will be explained later.
The Romantics and Bronte:
It is widely accepted that Bronte was not only aware of The Romantics, but drew inspiration from them, as their rise in popularity corresponded with Bronte writing Jane Eyre. The Romantics were a group who aimed to emphasize emotion and individualism, whilst focusing on intense emotions, such as horror and terror, and used elements of Gothic literature effectively. This movement manifests itself through Bertha as, as seen above, she is strongly linked to Gothicism, and thus The Romantics, and it is comparably safe to suggest Bronte would have incorporated elements of The Romantics' work into Bertha's character.
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, captures the essence of The Romantics work perfectly
Bertha is described as a 'Creole' as she is the daughter of a white settler in the West Indies, yet her ethnicity isn't stated outright, Bronte describes her as ''dark'', ''discoloured'' and as having a ''black face''. It is important to note that in Victorian Britain, racism was rife amidst the public, particularly as colonialism was becoming very popular. Colonialism was the idea that white Europeans should travel overseas to places such as Africa, to enlighten the populations of their ideology, particularly Christian ideas. This is referenced in the novel as St. John offers Jane the chance to be a missionary in India. Carol Atherton of the British Library put this point of oppression by white Europeans excellently by saying:
''In the 18th and 19th centuries, many European writers in the West Indies sought to associate Creoles with the native Caribbean population, as a way of distancing them from ‘civilised’ Europeans''
Jane and Bertha- ''truest and darkest double''*
*Quote by Gilbert and Gubar
Jane and Bertha are presented as being doubles and opposites to each other, these may be conveyed through motifs, their experiences and their actions. These connections include:
- Imprisonment- Jane and Bertha both experience imprisonment during the novel; Jane's torment in the Red Room mirroring Bertha's in the attic of Thornfield
- Victorian perception- Bertha would've been seen as an outsider, who was destructive within the Victorian home, and essentially a nightmare for the readers at the time, whereas Jane is a prim, proper and polite white British girl, who does little to challenge the patriarchy, yet she does achieve victory through love and inheritance; a very idealistic girl for the most part to the Victorian audience
- Rochester- Both women have had or do have a romantic connection with Rochester, and can both be perceived to have been supressed by him in some form- Bertha as he imprisoned her, and Jane as she is put into a very precarious position as he proposes she, as his governess, marry him
- Social situation- As mentioned above, Jane risks being seen in an incredibly negative way in society by agreeing to marry Rochester, which draws parallels to Bertha's social situation, although worse, she is subdued by the virtues and beliefs of the Victorian era
- Marginalised- Jane is marginalised throughout much of the novel's events, by individuals such as Mrs Reed, Brocklehurst and Rochester to an extent, yet escapes this marginalisation through her inheritance; whereas Bertha is marginalised by Rochester as he locks her away with contempt, and receives a certain amount of liberation as she burns her prison to the ground