Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre: Seminar

1 . . . In the deep shade, at the further end of the room, a figure ran
backwards and forwards. 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.
(Ch 26: Norton ed., 257-8)

Whole passage of revelation takes only a page or so; yet Bertha has
become one of most discussed of 19th century characters. Why? and how should
we read Bertha Mason?

2 Jane Eyre seems to demand ‘interpretation’; at times it interprets itself. To
take one example. There is an insistent red/white or fire/ice contrast throughout
the novel, sometimes at a seemingly trivial level – there is white marble and red
glass in the drawing room at Thornfield, ‘and between the windows large
mirrors repeated the general blending of snow and fire’ (Ch. 11: 91) – sometimes
with obvious point, as when Jane rejects the proposal of marriage from St John
Rivers, just come in from a snow storm, ‘his tall figure all white as a glacier’, with
the words ‘I am hot, and fire dissolves ice’ (Ch. 33: 332, 338). The pattern works
at a broad level – Rochester is fire, Rivers is ice – and in tiny details which
make sense only as part of the pattern – as when Rivers crushes ‘the snowy
heads’ of daisies beneath his feet, and his eyes ‘melt with sudden fire’ as for a
brief moment he allows himself to think of the woman he instinctively loves (Ch.
31: 320).
It seems inevitable then that the novel’s ‘madwoman in the attic’ (in fact
on the third floor) will also demand to be interpreted. We can’t suppose Bertha
is no more than part of the machinery of the novel, at the level of crisis and
suspense only.

3 There are widely different readings, however, which not only take the
novel in different ways, but also imply or derive from different attitudes to the
business of reading/criticism.
One suggestion has been that Bertha represents ‘what the text cannot
speak – about sexuality, about gender relations, about patriarchy’ (Brooker and;
Widdowson, 108): in other words, Bertha is there to get behind or beyond the
conventional kinds of discourse in the mid-Victorian novel written by women.
There are at least two options here:

. that Bertha reveals (or expresses, or represents . . .) some view or state or
feeling that Charlotte Bronte; understood, and wanted to express, but knew to
be impermissible within her society,

. that Bertha reveals, etc., some view or state or feeling that Charlotte Bronte
did not understand, or perhaps could not allow herself to understand or

The former view invites us to look for other more direct evidence to
support our reading, e.g. for other means used in the novel to circumvent
conventional expectations, but it doesn’t propose that Bertha’s presence runs
against the grain of what we might call (as Brooker and Widdowson do) ‘the
authorised discourse’. In short, Charlotte Bronte would have understood and
might even have approved of our critical interpretation.

The other and more radical view allows for the possibility that Bertha’s
role might open up to the modern reader areas of the novel that Charlotte Bronte
would not / could not have recognised, or indeed might have resisted. Penny
Boumelha gives this account of a feminist reading –

A feminist reading is a reading made for ourselves by the needs and
interests of contemporary feminism, but it must be grounded in an
awareness of the historical and formal possibilities of writing and
reading if it is genuinely to explore the relation between the work
and the society that produced it . . .
(Sue Roe, ed., 26)

Is the second part of the sentence a necessary outcome of the first? It seems not . . .

The first part of Boumelha’s sentence can be read as a strong version of Annette
Kolodny’s position:

All the feminist is asserting . . . is her own equivalent right to liberate
new (and perhaps different) significances from these same texts; and
. . . her right to choose which features of the text she takes as relevant
because she is, after all, asking new and different questions of it.
(Annette Kolodny, 20)1

We necessarily read ‘now’; a critical reading can be an attempt to create now a
feminist moment, liberating the text into the dynamics of modern experience
from under the dead weight of those readings which are (perhaps) part of the
history of sexual oppression.

4 A second key question is whether Bertha tells us something about Jane (or
more generally about women??), or about Rochester (or more generally about
men??). Before the 1970s most readings seem to have assumed the latter – after
all, Rochester had married her. This is Mark Kinkead-Weekes (1970):

The house itself is a metaphor of Rochester’s heart. . . . The hell of
mindless and uncontrolled passion is barred into the attic, hidden
away in the form of his lunatic wife. . . . When Jane finally enters that
attic she is penetrating the most secret chamber of Rochester’s own
heart – an inner dimension in which the chained bestiality growls
like a yahoo, held in check by the sardonically named ‘Grace’.
(Gregor, ed., 82-3)

Other (as it happens, mainly male) critics of this period agree with Richard Chase
(1948) in seeing Bertha as a warning to Jane of what she might become if she
surrenders to a lawless passion:

Bertha represents the woman who has given herself blindly and
uncompromisingly to the principle of sex and intellect [sic – but
why ‘intellect’ isn’t made clear] . . .

But as Rochester could be said to have given himself blindly to her (he more or
less says it), and thus to the principle of sex, the two suggestions are not
incompatible, and Chase goes on:

Rochester’s injuries [sustained in his attempt to save Bertha from the
fire] are, I should think, a symbolic castration. The faculty of vision,
analysts have shown, is often identified in the unconscious with the
the energy of sex. When Rochester had tried to make love to Jane, she
felt ‘a fiery hand grasp at her vitals’; the hand, then, must be cut off.
(Norton ed, 464-7)

Other critics similarly see Rochester as doing penance, or being purified, in ways
which suggest that Bertha is to be seen as the sign of his unrestrained sexual
passion (with no necessary implications about women’s sexuality).

Such a reading might be one Charlotte Bronte would have accepted? Jane
is wary of Rochester’s ‘Sultan’ style of love-making, and refuses to become
another of his mistresses – unlike them, of course, she is English. The
interpretation of Bertha as the image of sexual license perhaps underlines what is
already said or implied in the novel, rather than opening up the unsaid, or
unsayable, and it doesn’t require any unusual critical flexibility to defend such a

5 But this might be to understate the case: perhaps rather than opening up
the unsayable, Bertha is used to keep it unsaid. One critical reading is that given
by Jean Rhys in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Rhys creates a possible
history for Antoinette (‘Bertha’ is Rochester’s name for her, not her given name).
This history tells us that Rochester’s desire for her is real, and accordingly that his
account in Jane Eyre of her depravity must be seen as the projection on to her of
his own sexual excesses. In one episode (told by Rochester himself) we hear how
‘the sight of a dress which she’d left lying on her bedroom floor made me
breathless and savage with desire’; later, at Thornfield, Antoinette asks Grace if
the dress makes her look ‘intemperate and unchaste . . . The man told me so.’ But
it’s clear that the intemperance was Rochester’s; he has just acknowledged that he
thinks of her as a ‘stranger’, and after the savagery of the lovemaking he turns
from her ‘still without a word or a caress’ (Rhys, 93).

One might suggest, then, that in presenting Bertha’s madness as the
outcome or sign of her sexuality Bronte achieved two effects, whether with or
without a full awareness of what she was doing. Bertha’s madness (i) provides a
rational excuse for, if not a moral justification of, the sexual double standard –
sexual excess is sinful in the man, though the sin can be forgiven, but it leaves a
woman incurably insane; and (ii) it distinguishes Jane, who is by contrast both
rational and chaste. Note that the two terms, rational and chaste, become almost
synonyms on this reading: not to be chaste is to run the risk of madness.

Read in this way Jane Eyre begins to appear conventionally ‘Victorian’ in
its sexual morality (though it may still be seen to challenge other aspects of
Victorian values, for example about the deference expected of an orphan and
governess). On this account, what Rhys does in Wide Sargasso Sea is to pick up
and bring into the foreground what Bronte has overlooked in her society – or
has hidden, perhaps even from herself.

6 It is possible, however, by revising this reading of Bertha as the image of
sexual license only slightly, to suggest that Bertha represents a desire that Jane at
least partly recognises within herself. Here we begin to move Bronte (rather than
Rhys) towards the unsayable or ‘not said’. It is in this spirit that Sandra Gilbert
and Susan Gubar see Bertha as acting out feelings which are Jane’s, and at least
partly recognised: in this case, not Jane’s desire, but her anger. But here too it is
possible to distinguish between readings which make Charlotte Brontë a more or
less conscious rebel against her age and its values, and those which suggest that a
radical or rebellious impulse which Bronte might have disowned can still be
found in the text – not because Bronte wanted them there, but because the text
(any text?) inevitably reveals the faultlines / inconsistencies in the belief systems
/ ideologies of the age.

This point can be made by referring to the passage which disturbed Woolf,
when what Jane assumes to be Grace Poole’s laughter immediately follows Jane’s
thoughts about female rebellion (‘nobody knows how many rebellions besides
political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth . . . women
feel just as men feel . . .’ Ch. 12, 96).6 Bertha’s laugh can be seen as the figure or
image of these rebellious thoughts. These are both admitted as part of Jane’s sense
of things (she and Bertha prowl up and down the third floor at Thornfield,
separated only by a wall; Jane too has been imprisoned, in the red room at the
beginning of the novel, because she seems mad to those who try to rule her), and
also displaced from Jane into the mad woman, and thus disowned. Bertha thus
appears both as a kind of double for Jane, and as her opposite. Cora Kaplan

Bertha must be killed off . . . so that a moral, Protestant femininity,
licensed sexuality and a qualified, socialized feminism may survive.
Yet the text cannot close off or recuperate that moment of radical
association between political rebellion and gender rebellion.
(Kaplan, 172-3)

Whether or not Charlotte Brontë wished to endorse this mood of rebellion, it
exists in the text, thrown up by the tensions of the 1840s.

7 To return to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, and the reading which sees
Bertha as Jane’s double because she expresses anger. They write:

[E}very one of Bertha’s appearances . . . has been associated with an
experience (or repression) of anger on Jane’s part. Jane’s feelings of
‘hunger, rebellion, and rage’ on the battlements, for instance, were
accompanied by Bertha’s ‘low, slow, ha! ha!’ and ‘eccentric murmurs’.
Jane’s apparently secure response to Rochester’s apparently egalitarian
sexual confidences was followed by Bertha’s attempt to incinerate
the master in his bed. . . . Jane’s anxieties about her marriage, and in
particular her fears of her own alien ‘robed and veiled’ bridal image,
were objectified by the image of Bertha in a ‘white and straight’ dress
. . . Jane’s disguised hostility to Rochester, summarized in her terrify-
ing prediction to herself that ‘you shall, yourself, pluck out your right
eye; yourself cut off your right hand’ (chap. 27) comes strangely true
through the intervention of Bertha.
(Gilbert and Gubar, 360)

This passage makes a central claim: that disguised or latent feelings in Jane –
which may have been so far repressed that Jane herself is not conscious of them
– are made manifest through Bertha. Such words as ‘associated with’ and
‘accompanied by’ are used to imply only likeness, not opposition. The argument
is impressive partly because it is self-consistent (and it is possible to find other
examples to illustrate Jane’s anger), but logically a parallel can of course show
difference as well as similarity (as Rivers and Rochester are both alike and unlike
in courting Jane – the one all ice, the other all fire). We might argue on the same
grounds and with similar force that the saintly and submissive Helen Burns is
neither more nor less Jane’s double than Bertha.

There is another question implied here. If Jane can be unaware of her
anger – if, for example, her hostility to Rochester is so well disguised that it
leads her to threaten herself rather than him with a Biblical mutilation – is
Charlotte Bronte aware of it? Gilbert and Gubar in fact link the author and the
character so closely that it is not easy to tell where they stand on this; their
reading of nineteenth century literature by women represents this anger as all but
universal, even perhaps the precondition of female creativity in an age when
women were constantly urged to silence – as Charlotte Bronte was, notoriously,
when the poet Robert Southey reminded her that literature could never be the
proper business of a woman. Jane’s anger in the novel is in their account
virtually indistinguishable from Charlotte’s as she sat to write it.

8. Bertha is, then, the victim of male sexual and economic exploitation; she is
the embodiment of female sexual desire at its most disturbing; she is the image of
Rochester’s sexual power over Jane; she is the dark double who enacts Jane’s, or
Charlotte’s, rage at Victorian patriarchy. Whatever else she is, she is the most
discussed non-speaking character in Victorian fiction.


  • Quotations from Jane Eyre are from the Norton critical edition, edited by Richard
    J. Dunn (London, 1971)
  • Penny Boumelha, ‘George Eliot and the End of Realism’, in Women Reading
    Women’s Writing, ed. Sue Roe (Brighton, 1987)
  • Peter Brooker and Peter Widdowson, eds, A Practical Reader in Contemporary
    Literary Theory (London, 1996)
  • Richard Chase, ‘The Brontes, or Myth Domesticated’, included in the Norton
    Critical edition of Jane Eyre, ed. Richard J. Dunn (London, 1971)
  • Cora Kaplan, ‘Pandora’s Box: Subjectivity, Class and Sexuality in Socialist
    Feminist Criticism’, in Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, ed. Gayle
    Green and Coppelia Kahn (London, 1985)
  • Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: the Womam Writer
    and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, 1979)
  • Mark Kinkead-Weekes, ‘The Place of Love in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights’, in
    The Brontes: a Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ian Gregor (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.,
  • Annette Kolodny, ‘Dancing through the Minefield: Some Observations on the
    Theory, Practice and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism’, Feminist Studies 6
    (Spring 1980)
  • Philip W. Martin, Mad Women in Romantic Writing (Brighton, 1987)
    Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (London, 1966)
  • Elaine Showalter, A Literature of their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to
    Lessing, (Princeton, 1977: London, 1978)