Dark Doubles in Jane Eyre
While some critics regard Bertha Mason (Mrs. Rochester) as a mere ‘plot device’ in Brontë’s text – an obstacle to Jane’s happiness who must be excised from the narrative before closure can be achieved – others have argued that Bertha may be seen as Jane’s ‘Dark Double’. Taking into account these different critical positions, write an essay in which you explore your own views of the role of Bertha Mason in relation to Jane and the novel as a whole.
oth Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason are oppressed by the system of British patriarchy, in which men are the makers, interpreters, and enforcers of social and political rules, in both the private and public domain. However, these two women differ greatly in the ways that they accept and cope with the reality of their place in society, and it is these differences that ultimately determine their fate. I will be using this as a basis of my argument as to why Bertha Mason plays such an important role in the novel Jane Eyre, and acts as both a foil and an obstacle to the character herself.
On the surface, two more opposite female characters could not be conceived. As an adult, Jane is “quaint, quiet, grave and simple” in the eyes of Mr. Rochester, and is often described as small and pale, whereas Bertha is “a big woman, in stature almost equalling her husband, and corpulent besides” with a “virile force” and “purple…bloated features” (p.338 Ch.XXVI). Jane describes Bertha as “a woman, tall and large, with thick and dark hair hanging long down her back” who possessed a “fearful and ghastly … discoloured face,” “red eyes and…fearful blacked inflation of the lineaments,” also “lips . . . swelled and dark.” She looks to Jane like “the foul German spectre, the vampire” (p.326 ch. XXV).
Jane is a destitute orphan, an English clergyman’s daughter who is reared in a charity school; Bertha is an exotic Creole, and the pampered daughter of a wealthy Jamaican planter. Jane is modest, decorous, and virginal; Bertha is “‘at once intemperate and unchaste'” (p.353 Ch. XXVII).
Although Bertha and Jane are clearly contrasting characters, it is important to note similarities in their positions and the plots that engage them at Thornfield Hall. Bertha is literally trapped in the mansion and Jane feels figuratively trapped. Jane paces the attic floor when she felt extremely restless and closed in: “Then my sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third story, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and solitude of the spot, and allow my mind’s eye to dwell on whatever bright visions rose before it” (p.129 ch. XII). This is reminiscent of Bertha’s continual pacing and running about in her attic cell. It is important to note also that the two women are really only separated at this moment by one wall.
However, it is not these obvious physical, behavioural, and class differences that are important when comparing the two. Rather, it is the difference in the way they accept their roles as women in a patriarchal society that defines the characters and determines the outcome of the story.
Bertha and Jane have little choice but to live within the male-dominated society into which they were born. A direct consequence of this automatic reliance on men is that their survival options involve attaching themselves to powerful and/or rich men. However, neither woman manages to create a situation that would provide a framework for independence, self-expression, or variation from society’s rigid expectations of a well-married woman. Jane is bound to powerful or rich men several times in the novel: Uncle Reed (and, later, Aunt Reed and cousin John), Mr. Brocklehurst, Rochester, and St. John Rivers. But while each of these attachments is supposedly necessary for Jane’s welfare, in reality they are severely oppressive. Even worse, Jane is dependent, something “less than a servant” (p.15 Ch. II) because she is a drain on the family resources. She is resented and persecuted by her wealthy relations, who arbitrarily make and enforce unjust rules that Jane has little choice but to obey.
When Jane is ten years old, she builds up enough resentment of this injustice to rebel against it. Jane’s mental and emotional exhaustion, after the Red Room incident, and her subsequent escape and suicide fantasies, are evidence of her realization that she has neither control over her life nor an opportunity to defend herself. This desperate behaviour is uncharacteristic. Mrs. Reed (who, interestingly, is a female symbol of patriarchal injustice and oppression) cannot comprehend why Jane “for nine years . . . could be patient and quiescent under any treatment, and in the tenth break out all fire and violence” (227; ch. 21). The fact that Jane resorts to such extreme measures is evidence of the intolerable frustration she suffers under her family’s harsh treatment.
Intolerable oppression and injustice bring about significant female rebellion, which inevitably ends in frustration and depression. This is especially seen in Jane’s behaviour when she is still living with “miserable cruelty” at Gateshead with the Reed family; or in Bertha herself when she is jailed in the Spanish tower at Thornfield Hall. It could be said that Jane experienced the latter cause and effect, while Bertha suffered from the former.
Unfortunately, this depression is not the only consequence of rebelling against social norms as Jane did in the earlier part of her life. In a system where men are the ruling gender in all spheres, rebellious individuals are inevitably punished swiftly and harshly by those in positions of authority Men reserved the right to both define female propriety and to punish infractions of it. In different ways, Jane and Bertha each attempt to devise a socially acceptable plan to function within the patriarchal structure while still retaining a sense of individuality. This proves to be very difficult, and both women are judged and punished severely when they do not conform to society’s expectations.
In contrast to Jane’s Quaker-like appearance as a governess, when Bertha is finally revealed on Jane’s long-awaited wedding day, she is described thus:
In the deep shade, at the further 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. (p. 338Ch. XXVI)
In this way, Brontë likens her to a vulgar animal, with wild mannerisms and a dishevelled appearance. The descriptions that follow are even less flattering: Bertha is described in the following epithets – “the clothed hyena,” “the maniac,” “that purple face,” and “the lunatic” (p.338 Ch. XXVI). These descriptions of Bertha as animal-like or savage are reminiscent of the Reeds and their servant’s reactions to Jane’s tantrum prior to her being locked in the Red Room. Jane herself is described as “a mad cat” (p.15 Ch. II) and a “bad animal” (p.11 Ch. I).
The budding individuality that Jane exhibits at Gateshead is severely restricted during her years at Lowood; she eventually submits to social conformity. By the time she becomes a teacher at Lowood, Jane no longer needs to be controlled by society through punishment or fear, because her individuality had been repressed.
Later, Jane learns that Rochester cannot marry her because he already has a wife, but even though she desperately wants to cling to him, she still holds to her ethical code:
Laws and principles are not for times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour. . . . Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations are all I have at this hour to stand by; there I plant my foot. (p.365 Ch. XXVII)
Rochester’s efforts to dominate Jane, and to prohibit and/or promote the behaviours he seeks, become proportionately less effective as the amount of force he employs increases. Ironically, it is his most intense attempt to control Jane – his insistence that she run away with him to the south of France- that makes her realize that he is leaving her no choice but to escape from him.
Jane’s conformance to social rules becomes the defining element of her adult self. She knows her place, and although she may not always be comfortable with it, she controls her behaviour through unwavering self-discipline.
Although she initially revolts against what she believes to be unfair restrictions at Gateshead and Lowood, she soon discovers that rebellion carries a high price and, over time, she learns to modify her behaviour to conform to socially accepted norms. Her guru in this quest is also her first true friend – Helen Burns, whose philosophy of submission inspires Jane to take the high road, although she finds Helen’s kind of tranquillity inexpressibly sad. In Helen’s own words, “revenge never worries my heart, degradation never too deeply disgusts me, injustice never crushes me too low; I live in calm, looking to the end”.
Unlike Jane, Bertha Mason is interested in neither social acceptance nor self-respect. According to Rochester’s narrative, Bertha’s childhood experiences have not prepared her to function within the patriarchal framework of polite society. Bertha is not taught, at a young age, that noncompliance to social rules carries with it the certainty of merciless judgment and swift punishment, and consequently, she never learns the value of conforming to the expectations of others. As a child, Bertha is brought up in an atmosphere of tropical sensuality and extravagance, delighting in the luxuries provided by her wealthy family. But the innocent desires of her languid, pampered childhood begin to transform, by adulthood, into sensual appetites which, in this society, are not so easily accepted or tolerated in a woman, especially one of her status. Bertha’s father fears that his daughter is beginning to show the socially inappropriate tendencies exhibited by her mother, who was “‘shut up in a lunatic asylum'” (p.352 ch. XXVII), and conspires to marry her off as quickly as possible.
Rochester is “dazzled” by the beautiful Bertha, who is admired by “‘All the men in her circle'” (p.352 ch. XXVII). But after their whirlwind courtship and hasty marriage, Rochester realizes he “‘never loved…never esteemed…her'” and that he was “‘not sure of the existence of one virtue in her nature…neither modesty nor benevolence, nor candour, nor refinement in her mind or manners'” (p.352 ch. XXVII ). He finds her nature “totally alien” to his, “‘her cast of mind common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher, expanded to anything larger'”. At one point, he even refers to her intellect as “pigmy” (p.353 ch. XXVII).
Bertha’s “vices” and “giant propensities” which “sprang up fast and rank'” repulse her husband. Bertha goes from sexual seducer to something bestial because of her lack of morals. In fact, Rochester considers Bertha’s lusty sexual appetites inappropriate and deviant even within the framework of marriage (291; ch. 27). Furthermore, when Rochester punishes her for her unacceptable behaviour, she only becomes less controlled.
Therefore, it becomes clear that Bertha has neither the intention, ability or desire to operate within the structure of traditional marriage or to conform to the expectations of her husband or society. It is Rochester’s abhorrence of Bertha that ultimately leads to his decision to confine her. He imposes a life sentence of imprisonment for her “crimes” of unladylike, aggressive sexuality and refusal to conform to patriarchal expectations of female modesty and self-sacrifice.
However, even after she is imprisoned at Thornfield, Bertha continues to rebel against Rochester’s control, in dark, cunning ways that call to mind all the ways in which Jane would not behave.
This comparison between Jane and Bertha’s behaviour creates the impression of a doubling of the female self into the good girl Jane and the violently mad Bertha. Bertha’s behaviour is diametrically opposed to Jane’s – where Bertha is the sexual seducer, Jane is the virginal and moral governess. In accordance with their individual responses to patriarchal control, Jane reasons out the causes and effects of women’s domestic oppression and the results of rebellion, whereas Bertha burns down the imprisoning house. Jane, therefore, is ultimately successful in achieving her desired place in society as Rochester’s wife because she learns the value of conforming to the rules and operating within the context of their established structure. Bertha does not conform and therefore does not survive. Even in death, Bertha Mason refuses to be controlled by her husband or to comply with society’s mandates about proper female behaviour.
Bertha Mason is a complex presence – she impedes Jane’s happiness, but she also catalyses the growth of Jane’s self-understanding. However, Bertha can also be interpreted as a symbol of the “trapped” Victorian wife, who is expected never to travel or work outside the house and becomes ever more frenzied as she finds no outlet for her frustration and anxiety. Within the story, then, Bertha’s insanity could serve as a warning to Jane of what complete surrender to Rochester could bring about.
One could also see Bertha as a manifestation of Jane’s subconscious feelings—specifically, of her rage against oppressive social and gender norms. Jane declares her love for Rochester, but she also secretly fears marriage to him and feels the need to rage against the imprisonment it could become for her. Jane never manifests this fear or anger, but Bertha does. Bertha seems to be the outward manifestation of Jane’s interior fire, or Jane’s “Dark Double”. Bertha expresses the feelings that Jane must keep in check. Thus Bertha tears up the bridal veil, and it is Bertha’s existence that indeed stops the wedding from taking place. When Thornfield comes to represent a state of servitude and submission for Jane, Bertha burns it to the ground. Throughout the novel, Jane describes her inner spirit as fiery, her inner being as a “ridge of lighted heath” (p.45 Ch. IV).
It is Bertha’s final rebellion that not only frees Rochester to marry Jane, but also frees Jane to marry Rochester. While Bertha is alive, Jane’s internalized conformity to patriarchal rules prohibits her from deviating from social conventions and living with Rochester as his mistress, even though she loves him and is unhappy without him. After Jane learns of Bertha’s death, however, she rushes to Rochester’s side. What she is concerned about, however, is how to get Rochester to propose. Ironically, Jane’s conformance to social custom works against her during the final engagement scene. Jane would far rather give up her chance for happiness than do anything that would compromise her conformity to social custom. She is convinced that maintaining a strict adherence to the rules will, in the end, help her to achieve what she wants, even if that turns out to be simply social acceptance and her own self-respect. Even when she senses that her heart’s desire is within reach, her early training in female propriety makes her reluctant to ask Rochester to marry her. Instead of speaking plainly, she attempts to steer Rochester in the direction she wants him to go by suggesting that he “‘Choose–her who loves you best.'” He then promptly replies, “‘I will at least choose–her I love best. Jane, will you marry me?'” Jane, of course, eagerly responds, “‘Yes, sir'” (p.512 ch. XXXVII). Once again, Jane’s principles remain uncompromised, but this time she is able to get exactly what she wants.
Jane successfully uses her conformity to the constructs of patriarchy not only to establish social acceptance and maintain her own self-respect, but her insistence on strict compliance with society’s rules for women also makes it possible for her to achieve her most cherished desires and goals: to be the legal, legitimate wife of Edward Rochester and the mother of his children.
Therefore, Bertha is not Jane’s dark double, an obstacle to be overcome, a foil to, nor a mirror of, her character. To some extent, Bertha plays the role of all of these things. She reflects all the vengeful things Jane would like to do, but also shows the consequences of those actions, therefore justifying Jane’s choices and behaviour. She not only reflects Jane’s internal turmoil in living colour, but warns Jane of the consequences of giving in to patriarchal pressure, or not being true to self. Without Bertha, it is unlikely that the full complexity of Jane’s character could be understood, and therefore, despite her darker skin and all the other aspects of her character which are ‘dark’, Bertha provides illumination into not only Jane and her character, but the novel as a whole.
Please note that all page references throughout the essay refer to the copy of “Jane Eyre” listed here, and not to any of the other reference books.
Brontë, C. Jane Eyre. England: Penguin Classics, 2006.
Ghose, Indira. The Power of the Female Gaze. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Maynard, J. Charlotte Brontë and Sexuality. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Wallace Literary Agency, Inc, 1966
Schönberger-Schleicher, E. Charlotte and Emily Brontë : A Narrative Analysis of ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’. Zurich: European Academic Publishers, 1999.
Thomas, S. Victorian Literature and Culture (1999), 27: 1-17 Cambridge University Press Copyright © 1999 Cambridge University Press.
“Our West Indian Colonies.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine February 1848: 63.
“Five Years in the West Indies.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine June 1852: 71.