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Female Mental Illness in Jane Eyre and Great Expectations

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Elaine Showalter suggests ‘In Jane Eyre, Brontë attempts to depict a complete female identity’ in the creation of the eponymous character of the novel (Showalter, 2013). The characterisation of Bertha Mason, however, provides a stark contrast to the autonomy Jane seems to possess over her life. Described by Mr. Rochester as ‘some strange wild animal’ that blurred the lines between ‘beast or human being’, Bronte’s attempt to depict realistic, representative female characters does not extend to Bertha. Beyond Jane’s description of Bertha’s voice as ‘demonic’ and ‘unnatural’ sounding, and although she is not reduced to silence, she is not given a voice capable of reason. Valerie Beattie, in her article ‘The Mystery at Thornfield: Representations of Madness in Jane Eyre’ builds upon Julia Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic, in which she posits that the emotional meaning of language is not found within words but rather in the spaces between words (CITE). Beatie states that Bertha exists within the ‘forbidden place inside symbolic language’, suggesting that although Bertha does not possess the ability to speak intelligibly, there is intention and meaning in her laughter and screams, and they function as a rejection to the silence Mr. Rochester forces onto her. The ‘same low, slow ha! ha!’ may have another purpose in making a mockery of Jane’s liberal, feminist thoughts. Even though Mr. Rochester cites Bertha’s ‘debauchery’ and sexual freedom as justification for his imprisonment of her, which could indicate that Bertha could agree with Jane’s stance on gender equality, Beattie suggests ‘it is surely ironic that Bronte reintroduces Bertha’s laugh when Jane is most overtly political in her aspirations regarding women’s status’.

This reading adheres to a position critics of Jane Eyre have taken, in which Bertha’s main narrative function is as a mirror to Jane’s innermost thoughts and beliefs. With repression of emotion being taught to Jane from a young age at Gateshead and Lowood, her hesitation and anxiety at marrying Mr. Rochester manifests in the form of Bertha breaking into her room and destroying her wedding veil. Sue Spaull draws attention to the importance of mirrors in ‘Gynocriticism’, in which she states, ‘Jane is constantly confronting her ‘truest and darkest double’ in reflections of herself’. Further evidence of Bertha being a reflection of Jane’s desires is clearly illustrated in the first meeting of the two on the eve of her wedding, ‘at that moment I saw the reflection of the visage and features quite distinctly in the dark oblong glass’. Another textual parallel between the two vastly different women is found in the confinement of Bertha in the third story of Thornfield Hall and of Jane in the ‘red room’ as a child. Sally Shuttleworth comments on the similarities between Jane being described as a ‘mad cat’ when imprisoned in the ‘red room’, and the constant characterisation of Bertha as an animal, also noting the Victorian idea that women were closer to animals than men (CITE). Jane’s feelings of imprisonment within Thornfield Hall, depicted in ‘my sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third story, backwards and forwards’, also draws a clear connection to Bertha, especially since the two women are merely separated by a wall at this point in the novel. Shuttleworth also draws attention to this room, titling the third floor and the ‘red room’ a spatialized configuration of Victorian notions of female interiority’, in which both women are confined for showing passion, uncontrolled emotion. This act of imprisonment links back to the Victorian connection of woman to animal, locking Bertha and Jane in a room the way one would an unruly dog.

Female insanity is a topic Dickens navigates in Great Expectations through the character of Miss Havisham, a wealthy woman set on exacting revenge on men after being jilted at the altar over ten years ago. Miss Havisham’s confinement to Satis House, a ruined mansion, is self-imposed, unlike Bertha Mason’s. In the introductory notes to the novel, Dr John Bowen sympathetically comments on her characterisation, ‘Miss Havisham is the victim of a terrible trauma, which she condemns herself to repeat day after day, alone and friendless’. Even though Miss Havisham raises Estella, her adopted daughter and Pip’s love interest, to be a cold, unloving young woman, encouraging her to ‘break (men’s) hearts and have no mercy’, far more sympathy is extended to her than to Bertha Mason. This is because, despite her perceived madness, Miss Havisham is allowed a voice and is capable of reason and logic. She speaks with the diction of a civilized, mannerly woman and is able to communicate clearly with Pip and Estella. For this reason, Susanna Bennett, in ‘Representations and Manifestations of Madness in Victorian Fiction’, suggests that Miss Havisham’s plays the role of an insane woman suffering from heartbreak, in order to ‘to gain attention from and power over her relations’ (CITE). However, this reading of the text is overly simplistic and ignorant of the sincerity of Miss Havisham’s mental illness, of which there is more evidence that suggests it is not a performance in the slightest. She shuns social contact, disregards personal hygiene, is purposely oblivious to time and remains apathetic towards the feelings of Estella and Pip until her tragic death, clear indicators of what many critics have defined as ‘hysterical insanity’ (CITE).

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Miss Havisham’s perspective on marriage is complex. She rejects and disparages the concept of love, as she perceives it to be the root cause of what she defines as her ‘misery’, defining it to Pip as ‘blind devotion, unquestioning self humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter—as I did!’. Yet the preservation of her wedding dress and cake, however yellowed and rotten they have become, indicate that she holds onto hope that her deceitful fiancée may still reappear. The use of her white wedding dress, a symbol of virginity and femininity, becoming decayed and ‘all yellow and withered … in a state to crumble under a touch’ is a clear metaphor for Miss Havisham’s femaleness being destroyed. Alongside this, Satis House is also in ruins, and with the knowledge that during the Victorian era, a woman’s place was considered to be in the home, the indifference shown towards upkeeping her house exemplifies Miss Havisham’s rejection of femininity as a result of her insanity. L Raphael comments on Miss Havisham’s refusal to ascribe to feminine ideals, considering it to be the root cause of the disdain Pip feels towards her. She states, ‘she is the owner of Satis house and an authority over Estella … she represents the male Victorian figure: she owns property and she possesses a female’. Like Bertha Mason, the reason Miss Havisham is repulsed by the men that surround her is because of her adoption of masculine attributes, where Bertha is ‘tall and large’ with a ‘brow furrowed’, Miss Havisham’s physical appearance is feminine, but she is a dominating male presence.

The Victorian ideal of femininity is addressed frequently in both novels, with characters like Jane and Estella ascribing to it while Bertha and Miss Havisham are punished for rejecting it. Despite appearing to be distinctly different from one another, Miss Havisham and Bertha share a range of similarities. The first of which is the lack of a positive female figure in either woman’s life, with Bertha’s mother being ‘both a madwoman and a drunkard’ and Miss Havisham’s dying shortly after her birth. C Carson comments on this, stating that the death of Miss Havisham’s mother is the root cause of the denigration of her mental health, and had she grown up with a mother, her intelligence and empathy could have been nurtured, allowing her to deal with rejection and betrayal healthily (CITE). In Bertha’s case, Mr Rochester makes clear that he believes her madness to be genealogical. Curt Hartog, in ‘The Rape of Miss Havisham’, posits ‘women in Great Expectations are destructive primarily because they deny and are denied motherhood and since Dickens equates motherhood with feminine identity, this denial becomes an irreparable breach that eventually results in disaster’. This theory can also be applied to Jane Eyre, and the message is clear in both novels; the lack of a mother or maternal figure brings significant harm to women.

At first glance, the character of Jane Eyre contradicts this idea, since she is also without a positive maternal influence, but characters like Bessie Lee and Helen Burns take upon the role of a warm, guiding figure, one that is not extended to Miss Havisham or Bertha. The ‘disaster’ that Hartog references is the tragic fate of Miss Havisham, a fate that bears resemblance to Bertha Mason’s own. Miss Havisham is killed by fire and although it is Bertha’s jump from the roof of Thornfield Hall that kills her, she is surrounded by fire as she commits suicide. In literature, fire is viewed as both a destructive, punishing force and a ‘purifying, cleansing (force) that allows for the birth of a fresh new world’ (CITE). Unlike Bertha, Miss Havisham is forgiven by the main character of the novel for the destruction she has reaped in his life, and her death enables him to mature and continue on his journey. Because communication between Jane and Bertha or Mr Rochester and Bertha is not accessible, forgiveness is not available to her but her death allows Mr Rochester to pursue marriage with Jane, adhering to the idea that fire is ‘cleansing’ and allows progression. However, there are also distinct differences between Miss Havisham and Bertha Mason. Unlike Bertha, Miss Havisham is given the opportunity to justify her descent into insanity, and frequently speaks of her broken heart and lost love, while Bertha’s story is heard only from Mr. Rochester, a male. Her confinement to Satis House is also self-imposed and she doesn’t desire contact with the outside world, unlike Bertha who continually attempts to escape from the third floor of Thornfield Hall. In terms of appearance, Miss Havisham is dressed in ‘rich materials – satins, and lace, and silks’ while Bertha is dressed simply in ‘clothing’ and has ‘dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane’. This juxtaposition draws attention to Miss Havisham’s awareness of her body and appearance, there is intention behind her wearing her wedding dress each day while Bertha’s insanity has driven her past the point of self-consciousness.

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Female Mental Illness in Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/female-mental-illness-in-jane-eyre-and-great-expectations/
“Female Mental Illness in Jane Eyre and Great Expectations.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/female-mental-illness-in-jane-eyre-and-great-expectations/
Female Mental Illness in Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/female-mental-illness-in-jane-eyre-and-great-expectations/> [Accessed 4 Oct. 2022].
Female Mental Illness in Jane Eyre and Great Expectations [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2022 Oct 4]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/female-mental-illness-in-jane-eyre-and-great-expectations/
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