Bertha Mason, the antagonist in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the Creole woman from Jamaica, first wife of Mr. Rochester is depicted as nothing more than a mere animal in Jane Eyre. When Rochester invited his wedding party back to Thornfield after his wedding was interrupted by Richard Mason to show everyone the state his first wife was in. When everybody reached the attic the sight was a very unpleasant one: 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. (Jane Eyre 325-326). In Jane Eyre, we the readers learn about Bertha Mason from the point of view of the protagonist, Jane. So it is natural to have a bit of revulsion towards her because she is coming in between Jane and Rochester’s holy matrimony.
But Jean Rhys in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, where she names Bertha Mason as Antoinette Mason, very cleverly answered all the burning questions one needs to know about why Antoinette turned out the way she did. Rochester explained to his wedding party after he introduced his wife to them that: Bertha Mason is mad; and she came of a mad family; -idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a mad-woman and a drunkard! -as I found out after I had wed the daughter: for they were silent on family secrets before. Bertha, like a dutiful child, copied her parent in both points. Jane Eyre 203) It was easy for Rochester to blame it all on Antoinette, who obviously could not respond to his accusations.
Time and time again, Antoinette, the most marginalised character in Jane Eyre was shown as the villain who burned down Thornfield and tried to kill Rochester. Critics before have tried to put Rochester’s accusations to the test: ‘Did Antoinette’s madness run in the family or were there other reasons for her madness? ’ Elizabeth J. Donaldson in her article The Corpus of the Madwoman: Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Embodiment and Mental Illness, wrote, “Rhy’s novel gives voice to the reviously silent madwoman and depicts what some might consider the causes of her madness – a difficult childhood, a dangerous social climate, and her husband’s ultimate betrayal. ” My article will look deeply into these three aspects and try to give a verdict on what drove Antoinette Cosway Mason mad. I will also try to compare and contrast between the lives of Jane and Antoinette in the conclusion to get a better understanding of Antoinette’s madness. After the Emancipation Proclamation Act of 1812, after all the slaves in the Caribbean were set free, slave-owners such as Antoinette’s father were in a very difficult situation.
Mr. Cosway, started to drink to get away from reality and all the misery he was in, and eventually died of it. So Antoinette lost her father when she was very young. Soon after that her handicapped younger brother Pierre got all the attention from her mother, Anette. But it was not long before Anette spiraled into depression. Antoinette recalled, “She persuaded a Spanish Town doctor to visit my younger brother Pierre”, “I don’t know what the doctor told her or what she said to him but he never came again and after that she changed. Suddenly, not gradually.
She grew thin and silent, and at last she refused to leave the house at all” (Wide Sargasso Sea 4). Maybe the doctor told Anette that Pierre has a terminal disease or maybe he told her that he will never be cured. Whatever the conversation was, it devastated Anette and from that point onward young Antoinette became more distant with her mother. Antoinette was deprived of love and affection from her mother and there are many instances when we see that, “She pushed me away, not roughly but calmly, coldly, without a word, as if she had decided once and for all that I was useless to her” (Wide Sargasso Sea 17).
Not too long after that she is once again rejected by her mother, “ I started to fan her, but she turned her head away. She might rest if I left her alone, she said. Once I would have gone back quietly to watch her asleep on the blue sofa-once I made excuses to be near her when she brushed her hair, a soft black cloak to cover me, hide me, keep me safe. But not any longer. Not any more. (Wide Sargasso Sea 19) But for Antoinette the biggest tragedy came when Coulibri, her first home, was set on fire by the angry ex-slaves which eventually took the life of her brother Pierre, and this resulted in Anette going permanently mad.
They obviously left Coulibri and Antoinette stayed with Aunt Cora for six weeks for her extreme illness. Finally when she was well enough and went to see her mother because she was very eager to, “‘But I am here, I am here,’ I said, and she said, ‘No,’ quietly. Then ‘No no no’ very loudly and flung me from her. I fell against the partition and hurt myself” (Wide Sargasso Sea 25). This clearly was the climax of the relationship between Antoinette and Anette because we do not hear of any of their reunion later in the novel.
Antoinette, who loved and adored her mother, was denied the affection that every child deserves from his or her mother. Antoinette’s childhood revolved around Coulibri, the property she lived in, which belonged to her father Mr. Cosway. In Wide Sargasso Sea Antoinette painted a very detailed picture of Coulibri and its surroundings, “Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green” (Wide Sargasso Sea 4).
From her account one can assume that Coulibri was in a very remote location; and especially because of her neighbour, Mr. Luttrell, whose house the locals thought was haunted was another reason why nobody came near them. Antoinette mentioned in the beginning of the novel Wide Sargasso Sea that she was used to this solitary life. But one can only imagine what type of effect this solitude might have on a young child. But just as she loved her surrounding she had a fear for it too, “It was then I heard the bamboos creak again and a sound like whispering. I forced myself to look out of the window.
There was a full moon but I saw nobody, nothing but shadows” (Wide Sargasso Sea 17). Even as a very young child she had a fear that everything was alive, “not only the river or the rain, but chairs, looking-glasses, cups, saucers, everything” (Wide Sargasso Sea 18). It was not only her surrounding that had a great effect on her; her social life did not help her much either. The only people in the life of young Antoinette were her mother, her brother, Christophine and Godfrey. Christophine was her surrogate mother whom she loved and feared; the latter probably more. But then she made a friend, a black girl named Tia.
Antoinette’s talked fondly of all the great times with Tia, Sometimes we left the bathing pool at midday, sometimes we stayed till late afternoon. Then Tia would light a fire (fires always lit for her, sharp stones did not hurt her bare feet, I never saw her cry). We boiled green bananas in an old iron pot and ate them with our fingers out of a calabash and after we had eaten she slept at once. (Wide Sargasso Sea 7-8) Although Antoinette was very fond of Tia, Tia did not feel the same way. She once stole three pennies and a clean, starched and ironed dress from Antoinette, leaving her naked in the cold.
When Coulibri was burning down and Antoinette along with her family was running for their lives, Tia’s final token of appreciation to Antoinette was a stone which she threw at her and made her face bleed. Thus, Antoinette’s only friend was not actually her friend at all. After Antoinette’s marriage with Rochester, it seemed as if she found happiness at last, or at least she thought she did. It was not too long before her marriage was breaking apart and it all started with a letter from Daniel Cosway, supposedly Antoinette’s half brother.
He gave this letter to Rochester that planted the seed of doubt in his mind about Antoinette and her family. Slowly Antoinette and Rochester grew farther apart from each other. Antoinette was surely very devastated by this, because the only person in her life did not trust her anymore. Thus, she would try anything and everything to win him back. But after the love potion that Christophine gave Antoinette to give to Rochester did not work and as Rochester in turn thought, “I have been poisoned, but it was dull thought (Wide Sargasso Sea 88), they grew even farther apart.
However, when Rochester committed adultery with their servant Amelia, it all fell apart. She questioned Rochester, “Is she so much prettier than I am? Don’t you love me at all” (Wide Sargasso Sea 95)? Antoinette felt the person who was supposed to protect her and love her just abandoned her. She now crossed her tipping point; feeling disgusted, betrayed and used, she took refuge in alcohol. Rochester tried to stop her but she “lifted the bottle to drink again. I said, and my voice was not very calm, ‘No. I managed to hold her wrist with one hand and the rum with the other, but when I felt her teeth in my arm I dropped the bottle…She smashed another bottle against the wall and stood with the broken glass in her in her hand and murder in her eyes” (Wide Sargasso Sea 95-96). Antoinette now started to resemble her mother, since she also tried to murder her husband, Mr. Mason. Throughout this article we have looked very closely into Antoinette’s childhood, her surroundings and social life, and the ultimate betrayal from Rochester. All these three aspects of her life played a significant role for her gradual decline into madness.
If we compare the childhood of Jane Eyre and Antoinette we will notice they are very similar. They both had tragedies in their lives; they grew up being rejected by all and went to similar schools. Then why is it that their fates are so different? If we look at the tragedies, Jane lost her parents to a natural disease and it happened even before she could remember anything. On the other hand Antoinette’s father drank himself to death, her brother was murdered and her mother died out of misery. To go through all that pain at such a tender age surely played a huge role in her decline to insanity.
Although Jane was hated by her cousins when she was young, she had a very close friend at school, Helen Burns. Antoinette on the other hand had nobody she could call friend. Her only friend Tia actually turned out not to be her friend at all. But I feel it was ultimately her passion for drawing that helped Jane to escape the harsh reality of her childhood, but Antoinette had no such things to escape to. So it is safe to say that Rochester’s claim that Antoinette’s madness ran in the family was nothing more than his own fabrication of the real truth. The real truth is that Antoinette’s madness was caused due to a series of events that span from her childhood all the way to her adult life, and it finally spiralled out of control after she was horribly betrayed by Rochester.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin Books, 2001. Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989. Donaldson, Elizabeth J. “The Corpus of the Madwoman: Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Embodiment and Mental Illness. ” NWSA Journal 14. 3, Feminist Disability Studies (Autumn, 2002): 99-119.