As soon as Jane Eyre reaches Thornfield, we are subtly alerted to Bertha’s presence through the use of the servant Grace Poole. Bertha, through the portrayal of Grace Poole, is seen as mysterious and shadowy, especially with her characteristic “demonic laugh”, leading Jane to believe that these sounds and appearances originate from the servant. However, both the reader and Jane is not sure as to whether these are characteristic of the otherwise normal and, albeit stern, placid character.
From the very beginning Bertha appears only in apparitional appearances, for example staring at Jane whilst she sleeps or setting Mr Rochester’s sheets on fire. This creates the impression something supernatural is at work, reflecting the gothic nature of the book, which is used to add drama and suspense to Jane Eyre. However, unlike a traditional ghost story, Bronte reveals the reader the reasons for these events to occur. For example, the “ghost” of Jane’s late uncle in the red-room is a figment of Jane’s supressed imagination, while Bertha is described as the ‘demon’. This element of the supernatural is key to the novel as it allows her to examine each individual character’s psyches, especially when it comes to Jane’s interior monologue. This is central particularly to the red room scene at the beginning of the book.
It could be argued that the main feature to show Bertha as violent is through excessive dehumanisation and by portraying her as foreign and different. This is partly to do with the fact she is at least part creole, a race that would not have been prevalent in England in the 19th Century, and on top off this, as a woman she would (possibly) be seen as inferior and subdominant to men, hence it is so unusual she should act in this insubordinate and physically empowering manner. She has a darker complexion and could naturally be seen as more animalistic than traditional English women. This discrimination adds an imperialist discourse to the novel in terms of how the English viewed colonised races in the 19th Century. Bertha’s skin colour seems to imply that she is less human than the English, implying that violence towards ethnic minorities was not seen as particularly inhumane or out of the ordinary. In fact, people at the time would possibly sympathise with and even praise Rochester for keeping her in his house and making sure care and attention is given to her. Bronte highlights how Bertha is marginalized as both a woman and someone who is foreign. The rest of the characters in the book possess an Orientalist approach with regard to their opinion of people who are not British. Other countries are viewed as exotic and their natives are seen as uncivilised and uncultured and governed by passion (much like Jane). Being civilised was a characteristic that the English believed only they possessed and they felt that it was their responsibility to civilise the rest of their colonies and ultimately the world.
Despite being mentally insane, some people might say that the description of Bertha is overly exaggerated and it is just Jane’s perspective that influences this view of her. To Jane and the reader, Bertha seems extremely strong, described as having “virile force,” her eyes compared to “red balls,” “this form with that bulk.” She “springs” at Mr Rochester and “grapples his throat violently,” whilst Bronte incorporates further specific language to dehumanise her. Through the use of the word “mastered,” it shows Mr Rochester’s skill at dealing with his wife, however, it could also mean that this has taken place for a long time and Mr Rochester is masterful through experience. Despite this, there is a constant sense that he and Bertha do not know each other too well – they didn’t know each properly before they were married and she had been locked away since the event. Throughout the scene there is also a sense that Mr Rochester’s time to be judged has come – he is in front of both a priest and a lawyer and is trying to prove his case. Despite Jane’s feelings, it is apparent that she still supports Mr Rochester’s case – this is through the violent and demonising language used by her to narrate the story to the reader. The more Bertha is placed in unfavourable light, the more we support Mr Rochester and work out his motives, which is essential for the resolution of the story.
Bertha is described as a “wild beast” and the devil – a strong thing to say at a time when Christian values were upheld very strongly, and the unpredictability of Bertha is such as that of a wild animal. It is important to note that she is also dehumanised further by not speaking English for the entirety of the novel, audible only by her strange laughs, screams and incomprehensible babbling. In addition, she is only visible in what seem to be ghostly apparitions: gazing at Jane as she lies in bed or attempting to set fire to Rochester’s bed.
Through Bertha Mason’s character, Bronte also shows the arbitrariness of men’s views towards women and the impacts of a patriarchal society. There were certain characteristics that were considered “inherent” or “natural” to a woman which rendered her inferior to a man, thus justifying the need for man to “discipline” women. Madness was one such trait. Women were considered to have madness inherent within them and it was only through patriarchy that this madness could be tamed. As a result, any form of rebellion from a woman was seen as untamed madness and all methods used to subdue her were justified. This arbitrariness is seen when the novel is analysed from the perspective of Bertha Mason. She marries Rochester, soon after which she is pronounced insane – reason being her mother was mad and madness was an apparently “feminine” trait that was carried through generations. Some might argue she is then unfairly imprisoned as she legally done nothing wrong. This could mean that any sign of independence displayed by her is automatically attributed to her insanity, removing all sense of freedom from her. She can be seen as a woman who is helpless in the grip of patriarchy, and it could be argued that this suppression is the reason Bertha decides to escape, stabbing Mason, igniting Mr Rochester’s sheets and destroying the wedding veil. This destruction of Jane’s veil could be used to represent Jane now being able to see – Berta has removed the veil and revealed the true Mr Rochester. It could perhaps be for this very reason that Jane decides to leave Thornfield.
Mr Rochester tying Bertha to the chair is a symbolic moment, as it reflects the time Jane was put into the red room as a child and was bound down. As the reader, we remember feeling sympathy for Jane, and it makes us question whether this also applies for Bertha. This could either create empathy for Bertha and makes us challenge Mr Rochester’s decisions, or it could perhaps show that Jane and Berth are closer related than we might have otherwise thought, as when Jane follows her passions and loses all sense of self control. Bertha is evidently perceptive and cunning, which translates onto Jane through her excellent observational skills and intelligent auto didactical learning method.
Bronte could also be sympathetic to Bertha’s position, as she herself fell in love with a Belgian man already married. However, as we follow the narrative from Jane’s perspective, through the use of first person monologue, we see Bertha as an obstacle to her aim and the objective of the novel – her marriage with Mr Rochester. Therefore, to conclude, I think that Bertha is overly dehumanised for dramatic effect, but under these circumstances is acceptable, as a large portion of the book revolves around the events leading to the third section. Also, Bertha is an important literary figure in the book as I believe she reflects Jane’s character – her insubordination, desire to follow passion and her refusal to be broken by anything other than her own thoughts and passion.