One of the most fascinating characters in literature is the mysterious mad woman confined to an attic in Jane Eyre. I have read and re-read Jane Eyre many times and I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never paid much attention to this spectre of a woman lurking in the shadows until much later in life. To my young mind, she was nothing more than a plot device; a nuisance and an impediment to this beautiful love story between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. Still I was aware that she wielded a lot of power as her existence threatened the happiness of two people in love.
A strange woman evoking fear, Mr. Rochester’s long-suffering first wife is depicted as a savage creature with a preternatural appearance and a diabolical laugh:
In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.
Throughout the book she is described in a degrading and dehumanizing way as a ‘clothed hyeana’, a ‘goblin’, a ‘vampire’, someone of ‘pygmy intellect’ and is referred to as an animal or by the neutral pronoun ‘it’. She is considered a raving lunatic as she sets fire to Mr. Rochester’s bed, attacks Mr. Mason and tears Jane’s veil on the eve of her wedding. On re-reading the book now I realize that years of confinement without fresh air or sunshine would be enough to drive anyone mad. We don’t have her account of the story. She is referred to by her maiden name Bertha Mason although she is Mr. Rochester’s legal first wife. Hidden, stifled, negated, she is denied of her conjugal rights. Her ethnicity is not clear; she is described as dark but was probably a white Creole woman, but even as a white woman she is viewed as the foreign ‘other’ compared to the ‘civilized’ English.
Two feminist critics, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in a 1979 book entitled The Madwoman in the Attic posited that she represents the subverted rage of Charlotte Brontë herself, the female voice stifled in literature who had to write the story under a male pseudonym or that she could be the evil doppelgänger of Jane herself. Read the book if interested in a thorough analysis. Although a little dated, it’s a seminal work which sowed the seeds for future literary criticism.
While recently re-reading Jane Eyre, I focused on the dichotomy between the two women; the kind and good-hearted Jane and the wild and intimidating Bertha. In Victorian novels women are often depicted as one of two binary opposites- angel or monster.
It is interesting that both women possess qualities attributed to the other. As a child Jane displayed bouts of aggression when confined to the red room by her aunt. Years later, Mrs. Reed on her death bed, reveals: ” I could not forget my own sensations when you thus started up and poured out the venom of your mind: I felt fear as if an animal that I had struck or pushed had looked up at me with human eyes and cursed me in a man’s voice.” Jane’s aggressive and unladylike behavior, similar to Bertha’s is also likened to that of an animal and a man. It was social conditioning at her boarding school that curbed her impetuousness. She became docile and learned to control her feelings. Yet Jane is a passionate, independent and courageous woman who has a rebellious streak and shows spunk when needed. She does try to assert her individuality when she refuses to be Mr. Rochester’s mistress on finding out that he is already married or when she refuses to be dolled up in silks to please him.
Bertha, for all her belligerence, is a subjugated woman forced to give up her wealth and her country. Even Jane can’t help feeling sorry for her and rebukes Mr. Rochester:“ Sir.. you are inexorable for that unfortunate lady: you speak of her with hate—with vindictive antipathy. It is cruel—she cannot help being mad.” Bertha represents the oppression of women in a patriarchal society. She is Jane’s alter ego who acts out her darkest repressed desires. This type of ‘doubling’ is a motif prevalent in many Gothic novels.
Jane Eyre is one of my most favorite literary characters. Even to this day I admire her for her resilience, her tenacity and her ability to forgive. She is a sensible woman who follows her heart but doesn’t compromise her integrity. Most women, I imagine, identify with her irrespective of ethnicity and skin tone. The racial prejudice and xenophobic overtones escaped my attention as I was heavily invested in her romance. But now with age I view Mr. Rochester in a different light. He’s a dark and brooding man who tried to deceive Jane. And then, there’s the troubling issue of mental illness and its depiction! And I have become more enamored with the woman in the attic who eventually jumps to her own death and enables the couple to get married. ” Reader, I married him” declares Jane towards the close of the novel.
Reader, I married him first!
There’s always another side to every story. Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea, written in 1966 is a prequel and a post colonial reading of Jane Eyre, narrating the story from the perspective of Bertha Mason. She literally brings her out of the closet..er..attic. She gives a voice to the silent woman and reveals how she was a victim of patriarchal and colonial hegemony. Her mental illness made matters worse.
The first Mrs. Rochester who goes by the name Antoinette Cosway in Rhys’ book is a white Creole, born and raised in the West Indies. The novella is divided into three sections narrated alternatively by Antoinette and by Rochester and is set in the Caribbean islands of Dominica and Jamaica. The last section takes us back to Thornfield Hall in England. Antoinette lives with her mother and sick brother in relative poverty until her mother remarries the wealthy Mr. Mason. Black workers burn down their plantation house, her brother dies and her mother slips into madness. She spends the rest of her maiden days in a convent school until her marriage is arranged with Mr. Rochester. He marries her for her dowry and is deceived into the marriage by his own father and brother who wish to disinherit him and hide the history of insanity in his fiancée’s family from him.
The text highlights the political and racial tensions between former slaves and slaveowners after the Emancipation. Antoinette’s parents who were once slaveowners represent a shameful legacy to the locals. Antoinette who grows up in isolation belongs nowhere. A white European girl raised in Jamaica, she is as much of an outsider to the English who visit the island and marry the white girls as she is to the local colored people. She experiences a sense of alienation and rootlessness:
It was a song about a white cockroach. That’s me. That’s what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I’ve heard English woman call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.”
Mr. Rochester is ill at ease in his own way in this languid and lush country which is frighteningly oppressive in its intensity of sensations and he laments: “Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.” On the one hand he lusts after his seductively beautiful bride and on the other, he is bewildered by her strange native habits and her familiarity with the servants and especially with her nanny Christophine who practices obeah ( voodoo) and doles out rum and love potions as and when needed. Rumors of madness in her family drive a wedge between the couple. Eventually Antoinette herself starts showing signs of mental illness.
Marriage is another form of slavery. It is interesting that Antoinette whose name has been changed to Bertha ( just as Mr. Rochester would, on occasion, call Jane by the name of Janet) and who is transported to England and locked in the attic for years, only gets her liberation through death. And Jane, who is free to marry, will be confined in matrimony due to her gender and also as she will have to take care of a crippled and invalid husband.
Although the idea of giving a voice to the marginalized woman is subversive and original, Wild Sargasso Sea, in my opinion, is so dreadfully written that it loses all its credibility. The sentences are disjointed and incomplete and often missing punctuation. Maybe Rhys’ intention was to portray Antoinette’s fragmented self with incoherent dream like visions and a hallucinatory effect but the execution is poor. Moreover Antoinette still remains in the shadows. I did feel an inexpressible sadness for her and her plight but I felt she could have been fleshed out more as a character. This is one of the rare instances when I enjoyed the film more than the book.
The book tackles issues of racism, reverse racism, xenophobia and misogyny in the sensual setting of the West Indies. The Sargasso Sea, defined by ocean currents instead of land boundaries and masses of free floating seaweed which, according to mythical lore, trapped ships, serves as an apt analogy for the struggles of racial identity. What a pity then that the writing ruins what could have been a brilliant book of intertextuality!
All I can say in defense of the book is that we’ll never see or read Jane Eyre the same way again.