Bertha Mason: A 21st Century Woman Trapped in 1847
Patriarchal images of women who dominate Victorian literature typify the often debated binary oppositions — “madwoman in the attic” and “angel of the house”. The “madwoman in the attic” represents a female who has an irrepressible level of rebellion towards patriarchal standards of women. In contrast, the angel of the house represents the desired patriarchal image imposed by men in society. Author, Charlotte Bronte, uses the latter archetype in her novel, Jane Eyre (1847), through character Bertha Mason. Bronte profiles Bertha as the quintessential “madwoman”, which, coincidentally equals the 21st century’s independent woman. In reality, society has always mimicked Bronte’s idea of the “madwoman in the attic” by forcing women into submissive roles. Thankfully, the idea of the submissive woman has changed tremendously since Bronte’s 19th century novel.
Clarifying the true identity of Bertha first involves understanding the patriarchal perspective of femininity in a 19th century Victorian society. Femininity simply involves the qualities of being female, but in the Victorian society it involves many more characteristics. Men of the Victorian era reduce women to a one-dimensional personality conditioned to embody angelic purity, inferiority, and supressing their genuine personalities. This patriarchal perspective of femininity requires a woman to have an upbringing that focuses on catering to their husbands wants and desires as requested. Victorian women purposely receive minimal education and aim for financial stability which they believe only occurs through marriage. The submissive woman signifies an “angel in the house” because her goal in life is to please her husband and rear their children. The husband’s commands help to keep his “angel’s” submissive. Women who either obey or rebel against patriarchal stereotypes that men choose makes them either the perfect wife or the perfect lunatic. This male conceived aesthetic ideal causes women to consider themselves as insignificant and lacking substance due to the suppressing of their true character. Bertha certainly rebels against these types of demands, but her reasons for doing so remain unknown.
Bronte never quite explains how Bertha delineates from the Victorian aesthetic ideal. In fact, classifiying her a “madwoman” seems random because readers only know that she is of Creole and English descent (Jane Eyre 766). With so many details of Bertha’s character remaining undeveloped, her actions qualify her, at the least, a woman scorned, and easily equates to the Victorian male’s defiant woman. Victorian men, like most 21st century men, prefer submissive women with angelic qualities. If given the choice, they would choose the woman who willingly accepts the role of the docile homemaker over an independent woman in control. According to Bronte, Bertha reneges on the role of ‘Susie Homemaker’ which leads to the demise of her existence. Some researchers consider Bertha a raging lunatic who deserves exile from society due to her physical features alone. Does Bertha’s persona align with that of a lunatic or does she rebel against the patriarchal femininity that men need her to show? Bertha’s description, which parallels the lives of women pre-1970, is that of a shapely woman with her own ideas, and desires of freedom to exist in society as she so pleases. The difference is that women of the pre-1970 era work menial jobs and suffer many inequalities. In order for women to succeed in society, they need to fit the profile of a thin-framed, voiceless, homemaker, never derailing the male’s superiority. Sounds like everything Bertha is not.
Before understanding why Bertha’s husband considers her a madwoman, her perspective needs evaluation. Throughout the novel, Bronte does not include Bertha’s point-of-view of her circumstances. It takes a different author to divulge Bertha’s perspective of her husband and his reasoning. Author, Jean Rhys, discloses in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), the missing history from Bertha’s life and provides the platform for Bertha to give her opinion. In part three of Rhys’ novel, Bertha recounts the incident she believes causes Rochester to alienate her. Apparently, Rochester discovers Bertha’s intimate relationship with someone else. This infidelity causes Rochester to consider Bertha “intemperate and unchaste” because intimacy outside of marriage is adultery. Ninety-percent of the 21st century’s society would be locked away by Rochester’s reasoning. The incident enrages Rochester to lock Bertha away in his attic forever. Nowadays, the paradox of Rochester’s actions is a woman wanting to lock her husband in the attic.
Bertha’s existence is so averse to 19th century standards that even her husband changes her name to depict her attitude. She goes from Antoinette to Bertha, which seems the thing to do for a “madwoman.” In comparison to the 21st century, Bertha refers to a title similar to the current use of garden tool, (you can fill in the blank). Her husband feels he married into a family of idiots and maniacs because the reason for marrying Bertha centers around money — sounds familiar. Rochester’s father did what most people do today, consider marriage when trying to secure finances instead of love. The truth is, Bertha’s mother does not actually suffer from madness, but heartbreak due to the death of her young son, Pierre, who dies in a fire. Bertha’s strong-willed personality and need for independence does not align with that of a heartbroken mother with a flirtatious personality. The reason Bertha changes from Antoinette the “charming partner — pure, wise, [and] modest…” to a “madwoman” her husband hides from society due to restraints imposed upon her. Rochester hides Bertha from society because he does not want to ruin his family’s namesake by revealing he married beneath his European family’s status. Marrying below one’s status is so common today, that the strongholds of society in the 19th century seem unfathomable.
Could Bertha just run away as if she saw the 21st century waiting for her under a rainbow? Sure, except for the fact that if she were to abandon her marriage she would probably die from starvation because the marital wealth belongs to the husband. A Destiny’s Child song, “Independent Women”, comes to mind at this moment — (thank goodness for an evolving society). Surely, Bertha wants to shout the lyrics of this song, but unfortunately, she is ahead of her time. Patriarchal standards in Victorian society does not allow women the freedom that women experience in the 21st century. Once a woman marries, she becomes subjugate to the “angel in the house” theory. Although, she grew up in a lifestyle that consists of the pampering and freedom of a 21st century woman, her marrying a European in Victorian times causes her demise.
Concerning Bertha’s features, conflicting information exists. Bronte’s story describes someone of African or Hispanic descent. Other analysis consider Bertha a White-Caribbean. Besides being deemed a “madwoman,” Bertha has “blackened inflation of the lineaments” and “fiery eyes” (Jane Eyre 743-44). Bertha’s description simply mirrors her anger and proposed alcoholism as a result of imprisonment in a room that does not contain any resemblance of normalcy. Locked away in captivity for so long, she also realizes that she does not resemble her old self. Her captivity and desire for freedom causes an attack on someone with a knife because they will not help her escape to freedom. Suddenly, Bertha’s description makes sense — she exemplifies the quintessential 21st century independent woman. Try locking away a 21st century woman, and she too, will adopt the angry prisoner mentality.
Bertha is a 21st century woman trapped in a 1900 Victorian society. She is independent because she chooses to rebel against the male standards of femininity by reserving her right to choose what she deems right for her life. The men in her stories label her negatively because she refuses to submit to their “angel in the house mentality.” Bertha proves, in her own words, that the “madwoman” theory does not portray her accurately. Her actions seem beyond that of an “angel” because she refuses to accept a lifestyle not conducive to her beliefs. Author, Wilson Harris, believes Bertha’s captivity “is no less than a hidden surrender of life…” (Rhys 192).
Whenever a female character in literature depicts this type of behavior she becomes society’s outcast. For example, Lucy Westerna, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), has beauty, wealth and her choice of any man she desires. Her ability to outwardly desire whatever she wants in life causes men to disassociate her from their patriarchal design. They consider her monstrous because her physical beauty, not meek personality, attracts men. Her flirtatiousness also parallels the rebellious nature of Bertha, except, instead of a man locking Lucy away in an attic, a vampire locks away her mind. “Angel in the house” versus “madwoman in the attic” define passe‘ tactics men use to conform women to their patriarchal standards. As long as they could have a “young girl…with clear eyes…[who] submit[s]” they not only keep control of society, but also what defines femininity (Bronte 317, 771). Bertha’s behavior culminates from experiencing life in a prison without bars after many years of a wealthy lifestyle. She does not understand nor have the wherewithal to comply with the imprisonment inflicted upon her. Bertha stands as a crusader for the 21st century’s independent woman.
Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre (Apple iBook. Bookbyte Digital. 21 October, 1847).
Rhys, Jean, Wide Sargasso Sea ( Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1966).
Stoker, Bram, Dracula (New York: Oxford University Press, 1897).
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