Jane Eyre Model Paper

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Bertha's Silence in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontė

Bertha Mason is a very unusual character in Victorian novels.  She is a Creole woman from Jamaica and she is mad.  Mr. Rochester hates her.  Bertha is described in a very negative way.  In this paper, I would like to explore what can be read into Jane Eyre by focusing on Bertha Mason.  From the ways Bertha is described, one can say that there were built-in racial prejudice and discrimination against Creoles in Victorian Britain.  Bertha Mason symbolizes the Victorian inability to recognize colonized people as fully human.  Mr. Rochester, who looks down on her and treats her badly, is a typical example of such people.  In addition, he continuously tries to justify his actions.  Even the narrator, Jane, who is always eager to side with the weak, does not regard Bertha as a human but as something like an animal.  In The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that Bertha is Jane’s double and Bertha carries out what Jane wants to do herself.  Even if that is true, Mr. Rochester and Jane would be considered racists today.  It is very important to note that this novel was written during the period of British colonization.  Therefore, Bertha’s ambiguous ethnicity is the key to the story.  By examining the description of Creoles and people’s attitude toward them, we can understand the way colonialism influenced Victorian people to treat Creoles as inferior and alien.

What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it groveled, seemingly, on all fours: it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal… (Ch 26, 338)

Jane even calls her “the clothed hyena.”  Because Bertha is like an animal, neither Mr. Rochester nor Jane tries to talk to Bertha.  She is Creole and Mr. Rochester is “of a good race” (Atherton), which means her race is inferior to that of Mr. Rochester.  She is even described with the neutral pronoun, ‘it’ (Atherton).  In the whole story, Bertha does not speak at all.  She is deprived of her voice.  Even if she is completely mad, she must be able to speak some words, but they are never heard.  Her voice is not considered to be worth paying attention to or may not be even counted as a voice.  In a way, Jane is responsible for not recognizing Bertha’s voice because she is a narrator.  Jane does not see Bertha as a human being even though she is always praised for siding with the weak and speaking out what she thinks:  

I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: - it is my spirit that addresses your spirit: just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal – as we are! (Ch 23, 292)

Here most people agree that Jane is challenging the values of Victorian society.  Yet even Jane cannot overcome the racial prejudice toward Creole people and regards them as non-civilized people.

Mr. Rochester and Jane’s way of treating Bertha seems very unfair.  If one looks at the historical facts, one can understand the reason.  “In the 18th and 19th century, many European writers in the West Indies sought to associate Creoles with the native Caribbean population, as a way of distancing them from ‘civilized’ Europeans, particularly the case for Creole women” (Atherton).  This kind of thinking underlies the situation.  In the Victorian era, Britain colonized many parts of the world and the British sometimes treated the native people cruelly.  Even though the people in British colonies in North America were mostly white, they were subjected to heavy taxation by Great Britain.  This act can be derived from their prejudice against Americans (Wilde).  Britain kept on colonizing other parts of the world until it became “the empire on which the sun never sets.”  They had to justify their actions by labeling non-English populations as “others.”  Mr. Rochester and Jane are influenced by the way Victorian people justified British colonization.  According to David Newsome’s The Victorian World Picture, Thomas Arnold, the Headmaster of Rugby, said, “The English are a greater people than these” when he visited the south of France. [TEACHER'S COMMENT]

At the time that Jane Eyre was published, lots of readers empathized with Jane and Mr. Rochester but not with Bertha.  In that era, “these races were widely seen as being simply too backward for rescue” (Evans [TEACHER'S COMMENT]).  Mr. Rochester’s different attitude toward a Creole wife and a governess represents people’s sense of “otherness” at that time.  People could cross boundaries between men and women, different classes, and the rich and the poor, but they failed to cross the boundary between Europeans and non-Europeans because of colonization.   Silenced and confined in a prison-like room, Bertha Mason shows how imperialism restricts people’s way of thinking, and how many of her fellows were deprived of human dignity as a result of it.

TEACHER'S COMMENT: This is a good piece of work, but there is a very important counterargument that needs to be taken into account. Bertha’s brother, Richard Mason, is just as much a Creole as Bertha, and yet he is treated with every respect both by Rochester and by the other guests at Rochester’s party. Furthermore, Mason – who gives every sign of loving his sister deeply – accepts Rochester’s treatment of Bertha and does not accuse him of cruelty or prejudice. I think there needs to be at least some recognition of the respect in which Richard Mason is held and his acceptance of Bertha’s treatment.

Works Cited

Atherton, Carol. “The Figure of Bertha Mason.” The British Library. British Library Board. n.d. Web. 30 December 2014.
Brontė, Charlotte. Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. London: Elder & Co., 1847. Edition used, Penguin, 2006. Print.
-----. [ジェイン・エア. Jein Ea] Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2013. Print.
Evans, Sir Richard. “The Victorians: Empire and Race.” Gresham College. Gresham College. 11 April 2011. Web. 29 January 2015.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale U Press, 1984. Print.
Iwana, Mia. “Bertha Mason's Madness in a Contemporary Context.” The Victorian Web. George P. Landow. 25 March 2003. Web. 30 December 2014.
Newsome, David. The Victorian World Picture. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1997. Print.
“Was It True That the Sun Never Set on the British Empire?” Royal Museums Greenwich. National Maritime Museum. 2015. Web. 31 January 2015.
Wilde, Robert. “Why Britain Attempted to Tax American Colonists.” About.com. About.com. 2015. Web. 30 January 2015.


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