In Jane Eyre, Rochester’s mad Creole wife Bertha Mason is described as nothing less than a creature of sorts; a human-like existence, but, as it appears in Jane’s narration, bereft of all humanity. That is to say, the humanity as defined by the European standards which Jane and Rochester represents. The sounds Bertha produces – the laughter of the insane – suggests a looming, unsettling och threatening presence, which is confirmed by her violent acts of burning Rochester’s bed, and later the entire house. She stands out as an anomaly in the British setting.
In a way, she seems to appear only as a contrast to the virtues of Jane herself; as the antithesis, who by being destroyed enables Jane’s elevation. However, there are reasons to believe Bertha has her own, individual agenda, too, as we shall see. Jane encounters Bertha twice in person: first, as Bertha visits Jane in her room and tears the wedding veil in half; second, when Rochester is forced to reveal his secret due to the the claims of Bertha’s brother. This is how Jane describes her on the latter occasion:
What it was, wether 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… the clothed hyena rose up, and stood tall on its hind-feet (291. My italics) The words italicized indicate Jane’s identification of Bertha as something animal, apart from her own kind. Consequently, on neither occasion there seems to be anything in Bertha to rouse empathy in Jane; in her, Jane does not recognize an unhappy sister.
Hence, Bertha is reduced to a function, representing the main obstacle of the novel, hindering Jane from finding happiness with her Edward. This is made possible by her dehumanization, which sanctions her disposability, outside of human morals. This is what Gayatri Spivak suggests when observing an obscuration of the “human/animal frontier” in relation to Bertha. This, to Spivak, is the workings of a Law in accordance with human motives, rather than divine injunctions. This thought is of course reflecting the colonial discourse’s treatment of the olonial subjects as ‘Others’, defined to suit the ruling perspective of imperialistic interests. In the context of postcolonialism, then, her otherness is responsive to orientalist representations in literature – she is the a dark, unruly presence of everything the Europeans are not. She does not occupy a subject position, but remains a function, a symbol of the primitive. Though not granted that position by Jane herself, Bertha is obviously Jane’s opposite in everything – dark, insane and violent, as opposed to fair, rational and kind: they clearly symbolize the dichotomy of the European and the ‘Other’.
So, Bertha is the mystical, dark centre of the narration; that which Jane cannot capture in her account. It enables a reductionist reading, placing her neatly as Jane’s shadow. But, in a sense, she is also a blank spot for the reader to fill with meaning. Thus, the very ambiguity that makes possible an oppressive definition, might also be able to turn it over. We have only Jane’s observations and Rochester’s account to rely on, and, with Spivak’s motive-theme, they have no reason to portray Bertha positively, quite the opposite.
Hence, we must look at details to contradict the accounts offered, in order to nuance our understanding of Bertha. In the narrative we can note that there is, at least, one act that renders an obvious trace of humanity and consciousness in Bertha, namely her tearing Jane’s veil in half. If we would distance ourselves from Jane’s experience, and observe Bertha from a different point of view, this awareness of the situation somewhat questions the extent of Bertha’s madness – the very definition of it, in fact – suggesting an own agenda of sorts.
Her act certainly predicts what will happen next in symbolizing the upcoming break between Jane and Rochester. However, this semiotic gesture gives us a hint of Bertha’s inner life. It connotes anger and violence, but also sadness and an element of cunningness; she does not attack Jane, but only reminds Rochester of the illegitimacy of his second marriage. And the ironic point here is, that she can put forward her claim by virtue of the laws of England concerning marriage. She thus appears as a silent agent of guilt, a darkness enclosed within the Empire.
The manner of how Rochester’s marriage came about certainly reflects the British motives for colonization: to enhance their (family/country) wealth by securing resources abroad, but without any sympathy for the colonized people’s position. This enterprise is, like with the case of Jane and Bertha, based on a understanding of a fundamental and inherent difference between Europe and its ‘Others’, lending the latter a position of superiority on account of being the force of definition. Deviations form the European is devalued simply through it being different.
One must be aware that judgments are formulated from a specific position. Rochester’s experience of Jamaica might be hellish, but one should remember that this not only reflects an oriental stereotype, but also the nature of his position at the time; a stranger, far from home, tied (by British convention, mind you) to a wife he does not want. The wind from Europe is not only a breath of civilization, but also a remembrance of what this implicates in power relations. By its virtue he can resume his position at the cost of Bertha’s freedom.
Conclusively, the character of Bertha Mason must be understood as being conveyed through a filter of representations, serving certain interests. Rochester and Jane construes Bertha according to the colonial posing of the ‘Other’ since this serves their individual motives. The imperialist definitions enables them to suspend any pity beyond that they would lend an animal. On a larger scale, this approach reflects the attitudes of the colonialist enterprise, serving the Eurocentric ideology of imperialism
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre (1847). London: Penguin Classics. 1994. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism”.