Jane Eyre and the “Madwoman in the Attic”

 The_Madwoman_in_the_AtticAccording to Janet Gezari’s  article “Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic,”  “It took about a century for the angel in the house to join forces with the madwoman in the attic.  Even when this angel occupied the foreground in nineteenth century novels, she was shadowed by her dark twin.  The monster woman rose from the depths of the attic, and her name was Bertha Mason.  While Gilbert and Gubar make it clear that their discussion concerns madness as a metaphor, not mental illness in the clinical sense, this distinction proves impossible to maintain.”

Elizabeth Donaldson wrote about this topic in her article “The Corpus of the Madwoman:  Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Embodiment and Mental Illness”.  She states that “Gilbert and Gubar argued that the ‘maddened double’ in texts by women writers of the nineteenth and twentieth century function as social surrogates, projecting women writers’ anxiety of authorship in a male dominated literary tradition.   The figure of Bertha Mason is portrayed as violent, dangerous and inhuman.  She represented a powerful model for Victorian readers, including psychiatrists.  This influenced how women were diagnosed with insanity.   Bertha represents Jane’s own feelings of oppression and suppression in a patriarchal society.  The hunger and rage that Bertha demonstrates may actually be the result of the restraint Jane feels as a silent member of society.”    Some may argue that Bronte used this forum to reflect the fantasies of female writers of the time or to perhaps make living during this era more bearable.  Shuttleworth debated  that “Bronte’s ‘mad-wife’ did not only suggest the  clear critique of the Victorian repression of the ‘innate’ forces of female sexuality, but in addition,  Bertha functions to call attention to the tenuous, fragile foundations of Jane’s imperialist claims to self-dominion.”

 According to Donaldson,  “Bertha’s madness comes from the underlying logic of physiognomy, the science or knowledge of the correspondence between the external and internal man.   This science was based on an extension of intuitive understanding, the reading of moral character through facial features.”   There are  many references about Jane as well as by Jane in the text indicating physiognomy.   I have indicated a few.

  St John and his sisters are trying to determine what Jane has been through, “She has a peculiar face;   fleshless and haggard as it is, I rather like it; and when in good health and animated, I can fancy her physiognomy would be agreeable.”  (p 289)

 They say that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.  The eye may also interpret the person’s inner character as stated on page 149.   “Most true is it that ‘beauty is in the eye of the gazer.’  My master’s colourless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth,–all energy, decision, will,–were not beautiful, according to rule; but they were more than beautiful to me.  He made me love him without looking at me.”

This dual image reminds me of many other stories and or novels that we have read over the years which contain the “angel/devil” heroine.  Does the author use this dichotomy in order to bring to light the inner voice that is not always heard?




 Characters such as Bertha and Jane demonstrate internal conflict.   Our unheard voice can manifest itself as “madness” as Berth’s character embodies.    Does Bertha’s final act, her death,  free Jane of her conflict?  Was it necessary for Bertha to die  in order for Jane to enter into a marriage of equality?  Initially I did not realize this  connection between the two characters, but after this research cannot deny the possibility.

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36 thoughts on “Jane Eyre and the “Madwoman in the Attic”

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  20. Jason Tougaw

    The doubling of Bertha and Jane is reinforced in so many ways throughout the novels, as the critics you cite make clear. Shuttleworth’s point about Jane’s “self-dominion” is pretty interesting. Brontë does seems to be suggesting that her willful characters are also motivated by desires and influences they don’t recognize or can’t access. Bertha seems to represent those. Also, you might argue that both Jane and Rochester are a little “mad” themselves–and, in this sense, they both challenge cultural norms that inhibit other characters in the novel.

  21. swu7

    I’m glad that you introduced this work to us, and demonstrated the significance of physiognomy in tracing Bertha’s madness. As we’re all well aware, physiognomy plays an important role in the novel in shaping characters (both physically and mentally).
    I think that Bertha’s death definitely frees Jane from her conflict of loving Mr. Rochester and desiring to marry him, but being unable to because he is already married. I don’t think that her death enabled Jane to enter into a marriage of equality, because I’m not so sure that Jane and Mr. Rochester are equals. In the end, we know that they’re physically not equals, because Mr. Rochester is blind and lame, and Jane will always have to guide him.

  22. davidginsberg

    Until we discussed it in class, I didn’t associate Bertha with Jane at all (aside from both of them being brides of Rochester). After our discussions, I felt like an idiot for having missed the fairly obvious connection.

    To answer your final 2 questions, I would say the answer is ‘yes’ to both. Bertha’s death gave Jane the strength and the freedom to return to Rochester without reservation. In addition, Bertha’s death also caused Rochester’s blindness and deformity which Jane, I feel, felt leveled the playing field in terms of marriage equality since he’d have to depend solely on her for everything.

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