The Mad Woman in the Attic: Allegories of Empire

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The incident of “the mad women in the attic” is about Jane Eyre discovering Mr. Rochester’s mad wife, Bertha, in a hidden room on the day of their wedding. This scene features Jane’s encounter with Bertha which embodies the slavery of marriage, gender and class and the oppression of colonialism. In Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brönte the figure of Bertha Mason can be seen as the symbol of slavery and oppression for every women in a patriarchal society. The Bertha-Jane couplet forms an integrated connection to the forms of oppression in the novel. Bertha is a sign of slavery and colonialism which will be analysed by incorporating the Bertha-Jane couplet into the Victorian marriage, the oppression of gender and class in the patriarchal society and lastly British dominance and colonization.

“Women… [are] taught slavishly to submit to their parents… [which] prepare[s] [them] for the slavery of marriage” (Wollstonecraft 2009). The Victorian marriage gives the husband complete power and control over the wife, her property and her actions. A married Victorian woman was enslaved by her husband mentally and physically. If the wife failed to submit to her husband or deviated from the expected behaviour she would be treated as a mad woman. Mr. Rochester hates his wife not for her madness, but for her indulgence in sex, her perverse nature and unrefined mind. Bertha’s madness is a sort of protest and escape mechanism from her marriage life, but instead of freedom she is confined to the attic. It is only through the “condition of perfect submission and stillness” that Jane could be freed from the red-room which is also accountable for all women in marriage (Brönte 14). Both Jane and Bertha are locked away for not confining to the ideals of society.

Bertha Mason personifies a part of Jane Eyre that craves for freedom, but is enslaved by the ideologies of society. “Brönte’s novel precisely formulates its critique of gender-and class-ideology by means of… metaphorics- of enslavement and mastery” (Plasa 67). Jane Eyre is “always suffering, always browbeaten, always accused, for ever condemned” (Brönte 11). Jane has a deep desire to escape from the oppression of society by moving from Gateshead to Lowood- Whitecross- Mash End and lastly Ferndean, but stays oppressed by her state as orphan, governess, teacher, potential wife and woman. While Jane is figuratively enslaved by her gender and class, Bertha is a physical representation of slavery. Bertha is locked away in a hidden room at Thornfield, deprived of love and companionship. Bertha’s only freedom is when her caretaker is drunk and she is able to escape the attic to cause chaos in the house. Bertha is locked inside a room like a slave just like Jane is enslaved by the Victorian ideologies of gender and class.

When Jane sees Bertha, she calls her a “beast”- a word commonly used to refer to slaves of countries colonised by England which allows Bertha to become a symbol of slavery and colonialism. Even though she does not belong to the group of slaves, Bertha evokes England’s involvement with slavery. Bertha is a white creole and an upper-class citizen of Jamaica, but is characterized by Jane as a slave. Jane describes Bertha as having a “discoloured face”, “lips that were swelled” and red bloodshot eyes which implies drunkenness. “Bertha Mason is a female version… a literary stereotype… [that] was commonly invoked as ‘a useful shorthand for depravity’” (Shape 45-46). Bertha also embodies the process of colonisation when Brönte strips Bertha’s humanity by describing her with animalistic features. Mr. Rochester brings Bertha to Thornfield and locks her up in the attic, reinforcing the image of Jamaican slavery. Bertha becomes an anti-slavery rebel against slavery and colonialism in England by fighting against her oppressor- Mr. Rochester- through her attempt of murder.

The character of Bertha Mason embodies slavery in the class and gender ideologies, Victorian marriage, colonialism and slavery in England and Jamaica. Bertha is an important figure for women in many ways as a sign of enslaved women and the struggle for freedom.

WORK CITED

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2001. Norton Critical Edition, Third Edition.

Plasa, Carl. “’Silent Revolt’: Slavery and the Politics of Metaphor in Jane Eyre.” In Plasa, C. and Ring,B. (Eds.) The Discourse of Slavery: Aphra Behn to Toni Morrison. London & New York: Routledge, 1994. 67.

Sharpe, Jenny. “The Rise of Women in an Age of Progress: Jane Eyre”. In Allegories of Empire: The Female Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. pp 45-46.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Ed. Deidre Shauna Lynch. 3rd Ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2009.

(Disclaimer: This is the intellectual property of Nikki Leibbrandt. Plagiarism is illegal.)

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