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Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre: Character Analysis & Quotes

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  • 0:02 Wives & Madwomen in the Attic
  • 1:52 Who Is Bertha: Key Quotes
  • 4:18 Bertha: Jane's Foil
  • 5:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson examines the character of Bertha Mason in Charlotte Bronte's 1847 masterpiece ''Jane Eyre''. The lesson analyzes Bertha Mason both as an image of horror and as a tragic figure, and explains why she is considered one of the most controversial characters of all time.

Wives & Madwomen in the Attic

In her 1847 novel Jane Eyre, published under the male pseudonym Currer Bell, Charlotte Bronte presents one of the most iconic love stories of all time, that of the wealthy, tortured Mr. Rochester and the governess Jane Eyre. In doing so, Bronte also creates one of English literature's most memorable and controversial characters, Rochester's first wife, Bertha Mason, the madwoman Rochester has secreted away in the attic of his mansion, Thornfield Hall.

Bertha is the great tragedy of Rochester's life; she is the obstacle that Jane and Rochester's love must overcome, and she is the catalyst that proves Jane's moral virtue and Rochester's ultimate redemption.

Initially read in the 19th century as a villain or a horror, Bertha Mason in the 20th century has earned her own redemption of sorts, particularly following Jean Rhys' 1966 publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, widely considered the first postcolonial novel (a novel written from the perspective of indigenous peoples in territories once colonized by the European empires). Told from Bertha Mason's perspective, the novel presents a far more sympathetic and infinitely more human image of Rochester's wife, who was, according to the novel, born Antoinette Cosway on the island of Jamaica.

Bronte's illustrious novel and Rhys' almost equally famous prequel present two starkly different images of Bertha Mason/Antoinette Cosway: the former an image of debauchery, malice, terror, and sickness; the latter an image of fragile humanity abused, exploited, maligned, and ultimately discarded. So who is Rochester's wife, really? Is she Bertha the villain? Is she Antoinette the victim? Both? Neither?

Who Is Bertha: Key Quotes

Now let's take a look at some key Jane Eyre quotes from Mr. Rochester about Bertha.

1. Bertha Mason is mad; and she came of a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations!

Jane Eyre pivots upon this idea that Bertha Mason is a madwoman, but the implications of this concept when the novel was written are far different than we might understand them today. Today, mental illness is understood to be a common and treatable condition, and a result of natural, biological processes in the brain.

But in Bronte's Victorian era, mental illness aligned with moral condemnation, suggesting weakness and depravity. While modern psychiatric medicine has indeed proven a strong genetic component to many forms of mental illness, the tendency of such illnesses to run in families had already been noted in the Victorian era, but was taken as a token of a familial taint, a sort of curse on the bloodline. In this regard, then, Bertha Mason's purported madness is a sign of an inward corruption, a cancer that has eaten through her body, mind, spirit - and bloodline.

2. Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard!

Here is not only an emphasis on faulty genetics, but also on ethnicity. As a Creole, Bertha Mason's ancestry is ambiguous, as she descends both from European and non-European origins. As a native of Jamaica and a Creole, Bertha's ancestry likely includes African and Caribbean origins.

Rochester's assertion of Bertha's Creole roots, then, is a racialized condemnation borne of imperialist presumptions of the 'superiority' of the European. Modern European imperialism was built upon the idea of the civilizing mission, bringing progress and enlightenment to the supposedly dark corners of the world.

But this presumes that such places, like the Caribbean islands inhabited by the Creoles, are in fact dark and in need of saving and guardianship, hence the close connection between the idea of the Creole and madness: an indigenous person, especially a woman, is already a little sick in body or mind (and probably both). Otherwise, there would be no need for a European/colonizer to save her.

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