Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre

In Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s turn-of-the-century poem “The Other Side of a Mirror,” a woman sees a mad reflection of herself in the looking-glass, a “vision of a woman, wild” enraged by her confining feminine role. The doubling, confinement, and rage expressed in Coleridge’s poem all figure prominently in Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre. In Brönte’s novel, Jane’s “reflection” in the looking-glass is Bertha Mason, the mad Mrs. Rochester who represents the potential for madness in Jane herself.

Rage and Rebellion

According to Judith Lee Wells in Madness and Women (1976), the madwoman in 19th-century and early 20th-century fiction is often characterized as “enraged, sometimes to the point of violence” because “she suffocates in a patriarchal world where she is bound to the traditional female role.” The two ways this madwoman in fiction traditionally deals with her rage is “anger turned within or passivity” and “anger projected outward or rebellion.”

Both of these alternatives for expressing rage appear in Brönte’s Jane Eyre. In the opening chapters of the novel, Brönte introduces us to the character that 19-century reviewer Elizabeth Rigney calls “the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit.” Today, we may be impressed by Jane’s strength when she challenges John Reed by fighting back against his unwarranted violence, but in the 19th century it was unacceptable for a lady to behave in this manner.

The family members and servants of the Reed household share Rigney’s view, calling Jane a “mad cat” and chiding her for her “wickedness” and “shocking conduct.” Even Jane herself is surprised by her behaviour as the maids, Bessie and Abbot, carry her up to the red-room where she is to be punished: “I resisted all the way: a new thing for me…I was conscious that a moment’s mutiny had already rendered me liable to strange penalties, and, like any other rebel slave, I felt resolved, in my desperation, to go all lengths.”

Like Wells’ rebellious madwoman, the young Jane projects her anger outward. Moreover, when Jane says, “I was a trifle beside myself; or rather out of myself,” we see that Jane must step outside of the feminine role prescribed for her in order to act out her rebellion against injustice. This sense of doubling intensifies when Jane is locked in the red-room and senses her secret self as another presence in the room: “…something seemed near me; I was oppressed, suffocated.”

Madness and Doubling

Jane’s experience in the red-room leaves an indelible mark on her consciousness and marks the beginning of Jane’s attempts to reign in her rage and develop a “disciplined and subdued character.” However, despite Jane’s best efforts at change, she merely turns her anger inward and accelerates the doubling that began in her youth. Bertha Mason is literally Mr. Rochester’s mad wife, a woman projecting her anger outward, but she is also a figurative reflection of Jane’s repressed rage. This doubling becomes clear as Brönte links Jane’s unsettled states of mind with Bertha’s manifestations. For instance, when Jane ponders gender inequality in the third story corridor of Thornfield—“Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot”—she hears Bertha’s “low, slow ha! ha!” and her “eccentric murmuring.”

Bertha also acts out when Jane has disturbing interactions with Rochester. The night Rochester tells Jane about his affair with the opera-dancer, Céline, Jane hears Bertha’s “demoniac laugh—low, suppressed, and deep” and finds that Rochester’s bed has been set afire. The night after he dresses up as the fortune-teller to trick Jane into conversing openly with him, Bertha attacks Mr. Mason: “The night—its silence—its rest, was rent in twain, by a savage, a sharp, a shrilly sound that ran from end to end of Thornfield Hall!” Brönte’s choice of language here (“rent in twain”) is interesting in light of the doubling between Jane and Bertha; Jane is torn between her rage and her desire to remain passive and conform to the traditional female role.

Jane’s doubleness increases as her marriage to Rochester draws near and she has nightmares that reinforce her association with Bertha and foreshadow the destruction of Thornfield. In one of these dreams, Jane carries a “baby-phantom” down an “unknown road,” unable to catch up to Rochester because her “movements [are] fettered.” In another dream, she carries the same child amidst the “dreary ruin” of Thornfield, climbs to the top of the only remaining wall to catch a glimpse of Rochester riding away from the mansion, and then falls from the top of the wall.

It is significant that even in her dreams, Jane’s unsettled mind is connected with Bertha; on one level, the dreams are simply a foreshadowing of Jane’s separation from Rochester, but it is Bertha’s movements that are fettered, confined to her third-story prison, and it is Bertha who will plummet from the battlements of Thornfield Hall. Just as Jane saw herself as a kind of phantom in the looking-glass of the red-room, she is the baby-phantom who must be released from Bertha’s grip, the grip of madness and rage. Jane is eventually released, both by Bertha’s literal death and by Jane’s determination to create a life for herself on her own terms.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brönte is published by Penguin Classics (2010), ISBN 987-0141040387.

© Jennifer Bertrand, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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