Bertha Mason: More than just “mad”


Olivia Buckel, Senior Editor-in-Chief

Under the pseudonym Currer Bell, author Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre in 1847 at the age of 38. One of the key elements of this story is the character Bertha Mason, the “mad woman” hidden in the attic by the male love interest Mr. Rochester. Bertha is actually the wife of Rochester and is portrayed as violent, resentful, and insane, versus the plain, sweet, simple Jane, who ends up marrying Rochester.

While Bertha is portrayed as a relatively one-noted “mad” character, I believe that there is more to her than meets the eye, and Bronte was ahead of her time with the inclusion of her character.

An important thing to note is that the story of Jane Eyre is told completely by Jane’s perspective. This inhibits any emotions, perspectives, or overall general observations in the book about other characters. Everything in the novel is biased to Jane, which is part of the point, but this gives us an opportunity to look at Bertha from our own perspectives and strip her down for ourselves. The following is how I view her character and how I dissect her characterization.

To begin, Bertha was married to Rochester for many years, and Jane eventually finds out that he has been keeping her in the attic for a long while. When Jane demands an explanation, Rochester tells her that when he got to know Bertha, she hid her insanity and only revealed it after they got married. The glaring problem with this excuse is that if someone is truly insane, manic, and even “demonic,” how could they have just hidden it? This excuse therefore holds no weight.

In addition, when Jane finally goes up to the attic with Rochester and sees Bertha, Bertha only attacks Rochester. She bites him, screams at him, and only targets her “insanity” towards him. Once again, if she was truly insane, why would she only become distressed when one specific person came into her room? Why was she a normal, functioning human being before, but as soon as her ex-husband walks into the room, she becomes “manic?”

These two points are the most obvious inconsistencies that support my idea that Bertha is more than just insane, but there are multiple others.

When Jane first meets Rochester, before she even knows Bertha exists, he states multiple times that he is not a good man and Jane should stay away. He proves this through his actions, constantly viewing Jane as “little” and “meek” and his “little good girl.” He even goes so far as to dress up as a witch to understand what Jane’s true feelings towards him are, therefore tricking and humiliating Jane, the woman he “loves.” It is obvious that Rochester is controlling and dominant in all aspects of his life, and if a woman like Bertha came into his life not interested in that type of treatment, I can only imagine the ways he treated her to make her comply, thus driving her to insanity.

Unfortunately, Bertha’s character comes to an end after Jane leaves Rochester. Bertha burns Jane’s old bed, therefore setting the entire house aflame, and jumps off the roof of the mansion, killing herself. While this action is inexcusable and could have killed many people, she obviously had an aim: revenge for Jane. Again, her insanity is only targeted towards Rochester, she never hurt Jane. She only destroyed the house and Jane’s old room after Jane was gone. I think that Bertha knew that Jane had left and was tricked by Rochester, and as a woman who was also controlled and manipulated by him, she finally snapped.

Finally, the historical context of the time is a very important for the understanding of Bertha’s character as well. During this time in England and across the world, mental health issues were understood in a way that is nowhere near how they are understood now. In the time that Jane Eyre is set, if anyone, especially women, had some sort of mental health issue (for example anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, etc.), especially women, they were declared insane because of the lack of education around it. Someone could have just been bipolar, not insane, but treated as such. Because of this, Bertha could have been traumatized by treatment by Mr. Rochester, driven to anger and possibly depression and anxiety, and then treated as “insane.”

In conclusion, I believe that Bertha Mason is so much more than just an “insane” character. With how Mr. Rochester admits to acting and treats Jane, it is possible that Mr. Rochester did the same to his wife Bertha, thus driving her to “insanity.” She is villainized and downplayed as just another crazy woman who hid her illness and hurt people, but I believe she is the victim. Unfortunately we will never really know because Bronte never wrote anything else about her, but the fun part about literature is that it is entirely subjective. The author can go into their writing with a particular purpose, but everyone can take something different away from a novel. The fact that there is still so much dialogue that still stems around this novel over one hundred years later is a testament to how well this novel was written.