In “Jane Eyre,” the character of Bertha Mason serves as an ominous representation of uncontrollable passion and madness. Her dark sensuality and violent nature contrast sharply with Jane’s calm morality, and it is no surprise that Bertha’s presence at Thornfield is a key factor in transforming Mr. Rochester into a stereotypical Byronic hero. Moreover, Bertha’s marriage to Mr. Rochester serves as the primary conflict of the novel, and it is only after her death that Jane is able to achieve personal happiness by marrying Mr. Rochester. However, Bertha’s position as the “Madwoman in the Attic” also speaks to larger social questions of femininity and authorship during the Victorian period.
In 1979, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar made a breakthrough in feminist criticism with their work “The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.” In the 700-page text, Gilbert and Gubar use the figure of Bertha Mason as the so-called “Madwoman in the Attic” to make an argument about perceptions toward female literary characters during the time period. According to Gilbert and Gubar, all female characters in male-authored books can be categorized as either the “angel” or the “monster.”
The “angel” character was pure, dispassionate, and submissive; in other words, the ideal female figure in a male-dominated society. Interestingly, the term “angel” stems directly from Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem “The Angel in the House,” in which he described his meek and pious wife. In sharp contrast to the “angel” figure, the “monster” female character was sensual, passionate, rebellious, and decidedly uncontrollable: all qualities that caused a great deal of anxiety among men during the Victorian period.
However, Charlotte Brontë (as well as many other contemporary female authors) did not limit her characterizations to this strict dichotomy between monster and angel. Jane Eyre possesses many of the qualities of the so-called angel: she is pure, moral, and controlled in her behavior. Yet, at the same time, she is extremely passionate, independent, and courageous. She refuses to submit to a position of inferiority to the men in her life, even when faced with a choice between love and autonomy, and ultimately triumphs over social expectations. Moreover, Jane’s childhood adventures demonstrate much of the same rebelliousness and anger that characterize the “monster.” It is clear that Jane’s appearance of control is only something that she learned during her time at Lowood School; she still maintains the same fiery spirit that defined her character as a child.
With the character of Bertha Mason, Brontë has a more difficult time when it comes to blending the distinctions between angel and monster. The readers only meet Bertha when she is in the depths of madness, having been confined in the third-story attic of Thornfield for nearly fifteen years, and there is not enough interaction between her and the other characters to demonstrate any “angelic” behavior. Yet, Bertha’s position as the obstacle to Jane’s happiness with Mr. Rochester, as well as her state of complete imprisonment, suggest that her madness may have been partially manufactured by the male-dominated society that forced her to give up her wealth in marriage to Mr. Rochester. Moreover, the similarities between Bertha’s behavior in the third-story attic and Jane’s actions as a child in the red-room suggest that neither character is full angel or full monster but rather a combination of the two.
While Brontë does not differentiate between angel and monster in her portrayal of Jane and Bertha, she does, however, argue for moderation of the passions in all of her characters. Mr. Rochester and Bertha both have too much passion in their lives, while St. John Rivers has too little. Bertha’s passion manifests as madness, while Mr. Rochester’s passion is displayed in his debaucherous behavior on the continent and his determination to make Jane his mistress. St. John, on the other hand, suppresses all of his passion and love for Rosamond Oliver, and thus becomes a cold and aloof man whose only desire is to fulfill his duty to God. Of the three characters, Mr. Rochester is the only one who eventually achieves a balance of passion; after Jane’s departure from Thornfield and the loss of his eyesight, he becomes much more spiritual and is able to achieve the same emotional moderation that Jane exhibits throughout the novel.
Although Bertha does serve as one of the seeming villains of the novel, she should be seen more as a critique of a society in which passionate woman are viewed as monsters or madwomen. Charlotte Brontë’s act of writing a novel – particularly such a Gothic one - was no doubt equally threatening to the men of her time period. In some ways, Brontë’s decision to merge the identities of the “angel” and the “monster” in the two primary female characters of her novel can be seen as a personal statement about the conflict between passion and passivity in her own life.