JANE EYRE BOOK CLUB…PART FOUR!
In a word: BERTHA.
I'm dying to hear what you all made of Mr. Rochester's wife, locked in the attic for the rest of her days, referred to as a "monster" and a "vampire", "discolored" and "lurid", who crawls on all fours like an animal, who can't seem to stop trying to escape (odd, that: when being trapped in an attic is SO NICE) and setting the house on fire.
Bertha Mason Rochester has been well-examined by history already, to be sure. Some of you have already mentioned Jean Rhys's incredible novel "The Wide Sargasso Sea", which tells Bertha's story from her own point of view. (Weirdly, I read this novel 20 years ago, never having read "Jane Eyre", which is just sort of dumb of me. But it's a great book! You should all read it next, in the proper order and with the proper context!) And those of you who have read it more recently than two decades ago…please comment!
Some of you may have also read the 1979 feminist classic "The Madwoman in the Attic", which discusses Bertha, among other sort of unsettling characters in women's literary history. The authors posited that 19th century writers only had two choices when creating female characters — devils and angels. The modern feminist position was that we must somehow destroy this duality, as it keeps women basically trapped in only one of two personas — they are either howling in the attic, or smiling contentedly in the kitchen. Neither of which depictions is a whole human being. One is what men fear; the other is what men desire. (Or maybe men fear and desire both? I dunno. I don't even know how current this theory is. I'm just glad I am neither.)
In order for Jane Eyre to be an angel, in other words, it has been theorized that she must have an opposing devil, against which to set her own purity. Mr. Rochester basically says as much, when he talks about hunting all over the world to find a woman who is the EXACT opposite of his detested spouse…a dangerous dating strategy for anyone, if I may add. (GET SOME COUNSELING BEFORE WRITING THAT "MATCH.COM" AD, MR. ROCHESTER!)
All that said, I am not convinced that Charlotte Brontë meant for Jane Eyre to be seen as a pure angel. Jane is a hard and flinty chick — far from docile, far from sweet, far from fluffy, far from obedient. I've met some saccharine sweet "perfect" women in Victorian literature, and Jane ain't that. She's a bad-ass, actually, which means that she does not, in my mind, meet the criteria for the Victorian feminine ideal of "The Angel in the House". (Nobody who tells a minister that the best way to avoid going to hell is to avoid dying can be THAT pure, right?)
What do you all think?
There is also a theory that Bertha's madness sure looked like the symptoms of syphilis …which one reader today already noted she could have received from her dear husband Rochester (what with his history of sleeping with French Opera dancers, and all.) If this is the case, Bertha's story is even more tragic than we thought.
One way or another, Bertha disturbs. She disturbs us today for perhaps different reasons than she disturbed readers in 1847, but she still disturbs. It is disturbing to imagine a man locking his wife in an attic, simply because he can. It is disturbing furthermore for the racial and colonial undertones of Bertha's native wild sensuality vs. Rochester's British masculine power. (He liked her wildness well enough when he wanted to have sex with her; then he couldn't take it and got rid of her…)
I wonder how you all felt when it came to Bertha? I wonder if any of you have ever felt LIKE Bertha? I wonder how you felt about how Jane feels about Bertha? I wonder what you think Charlotte Brontë meant for us to think about Bertha?
Yours in reading,