38 The Angry Woman in the Attic
“Madwoman in the Attic” by Gilbert and Gubar made me rethink the classic novel written by Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre, for those who haven’t read it, is about a woman who is employed as a governess by Edward Rochester. They fall in love, and are about to get married when *plot twist* Jane finds out that he is already married. He has been keeping the current Mrs. Rochester locked away in the attic the entire time. She has a really unsettling laugh and occasionally escapes to set fire to her husband’s bedroom.
But was Bertha actually crazy, as readers are led to believe?
She is described as very animalistic when she and Jane are officially introduced in her attic prison. But then, you don’t expect to see a normal person locked in an attic prison, do you?
In this time period, mental illnesses were misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and feared. The “cure” was to lock the person away in an asylum where they would eventually become crazy anyway. We know from “the Yellow Wallpaper” that depression was treated with constant and complete rest, and the narrator descends into madness as a result.
But what about Bertha? Here, Rochester explains the situation:
“Jane, I will not trouble you with abominable details: some strong words shall express what I have to say. I lived with that woman upstairs four years, and before that time she had tried me indeed: her character ripened and developed with frightful rapidity; her vices sprang up fast and rank: they were so strong, only cruelty could check them, and I would not use cruelty. What a pigmy intellect she had, and what giant propensities! How fearful were the curses those propensities entailed on me! Bertha Mason, the true daughter of an infamous mother, dragged me through all the hideous and degrading agonies which must attend a man bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste.”
Bertha is described as being “difficult” and subject to “vices.” Rochester claims that she wasn’t very bright and had no self control. Most importantly, she was “unchaste.” From a modern viewpoint, it’s easy to criticize the old-fashioned value placed on a bride’s purity. However, her overtly headstrong and sexual nature are notable markers of the “monsters” discussed by Gilbert and Gubar.
But where is the evidence of insanity?
I mean, she does have an obsession with fire, and she stabs her brother with a knife when he comes to visit. But who wouldn’t get a little “stabby” when your husband locks you in the attic, pretends that you don’t exist, and makes a move on the governess?
Maybe Bertha wasn’t mentally unstable to begin with, and Rochester just made her that way because she threatened his masculinity. She acts almost inhuman, dare I say “monstrous” next to angelic Jane, because he treats her like an animal that he cannot control. Because he is a man, his actions are justifiable. He demonized her because she wasn’t “pure,” yet it is okay for him to attempt polygamy.
Maybe Monsters are created by monsters. Gender has nothing to do with it.