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Here's a question that's a little longer than usual — sort of a blogpost and question rolled into one. You can just skip down to the question if you like. But it will make more sense if you read the long introduction to it first; and anyway, since I went to the trouble to write it...

So one thing that emerges from your answers to the question for last Thursday, together with our last class discussion, is that there's an angle from which just about any character in Jane Eyre could be considered "strange" or "alien." Consider him in the light of ordinary human compassion and understanding, and even so mainstream a character as Rev. Brocklehurst looks a little weird.

Strangeness in Jane Eyre is more or less comprehensive. The odd dramatis personae of the novel are in keeping with the novel's dreary atmosphere, its occasional paranormal activity (most notably the telepathic communication between Jane and Rochester), and its many peculiar settings — from the chamber of horrors (psychological horrors, at least) that is the "red room" at Gateshead Hall, to the icy and repressive Lowood Institution, to the mysterious Thornfield.

All of this is to say that strangeness itself is one thing that is not alien to Jane Eyre. And this is a significant fact about the novel. Consider how different Northanger Abbey is in this respect. Austen picked up on the frequent use of the word "strange" in the Gothic novels she set out to parody in Northanger Abbey, and thus almost every one of the 22 instances of the word in her own novel is ironic. Consider, for example, Catherine's inner monologue as she looks around her room at the Abbey for the first time:

"This is strange indeed! I did not expect such a sight as this! An immense heavy chest! What can it hold? Why should it be placed here? Pushed back too, as if meant to be out of sight! I will look into it — cost me what it may, I will look into it — and directly too — by daylight. If I stay till evening my candle may go out." She advanced and examined it closely: it was of cedar, curiously inlaid with some darker wood, and raised, about a foot from the ground, on a carved stand of the same. The lock was silver, though tarnished from age; at each end were the imperfect remains of handles also of silver, broken perhaps prematurely by some strange violence; and, on the centre of the lid, was a mysterious cipher, in the same metal. Catherine bent over it intently, but without being able to distinguish anything with certainty. She could not, in whatever direction she took it, believe the last letter to be a T; and yet that it should be anything else in that house was a circumstance to raise no common degree of astonishment. If not originally theirs, by what strange events could it have fallen into the Tilney family? (Chapter 21)

Here Catherine is thinking in the language of the novels that have filled her head with an alternative reality, a reality alien to the one she actually lives in. The strangeness is all in her head. Neither Austen nor the reader (assuming the reader is getting the parody) takes Catherine's word "strange" at face value. That's irony.

Contrast this with Rochester's declaration to Jane that he finds her "full of strange contrasts" (Jane Eyre Chapter 27). He means exactly what he says. And it seems a fair assessment of Jane's character. No irony here. The reality of Brontë's novel just is a reality of strangeness.

Why does this matter? Brontë, far from making fun of Gothic as a fictional mode, clearly embraces it. The kind of Gothic she writes in Jane Eyre is significantly different from the kind Austen parodied — it's genetically modified Gothic; we'll have to try to get to this in class — but it's Gothic nevertheless, and thus in some sense a plain repudiation both of Austen's take on reality and (necessarily, then) her take on the novel.

Brontë's genetically modified Gothic novel shows some family resemblance to Shelley's Frankenstein. For in both novels, not only is strangeness not alien; there is also a basic and pervasive sympathy for the alien as a human type. Sure, there are loads of odd characters in Brontë's story. But we can also see that some of them — like Jane, Helen Burns, and Rochester — stand outside the mainstream insofar as they lack power or are determinedly unconventional — while others, such as Brocklehurst, the Reeds, and St. John Rivers, belong to the mainstream insofar as they possess power or are regarded by others as more or less normal.

The aliens in Jane Eyre all have some of Victor Frankenstein's monster in them. Like Frankenstein, Jane Eyre makes the case for monsters: for the social outcast, the brooding psychological loner, the human that is somehow a "heterogeneous thing" (Chapter 2).

So now, at last, we come to the question for this Tuesday's class. Perhaps the most monstrous character in Jane Eyre is Bertha Mason. Yet as we noted in class last Thursday, she isn't treated with a great deal of sympathy by either Rochester or Jane. My question to you is: Why? Why doesn't the novel make the case for the most alien of its aliens?

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15 Comments

  1. Unknown User (hes3)

    I think the difference between Bertha Mason's strangeness and the strangeness of the other characters is that the others, such as Jane and Rochester, can still fit in with "normal" society, whereas Bertha is just completely unable to do so. Jane almost prides herself on her alien status because it allows her to identify with someone like Mr. Rochester on a deeper level than say, Blanche would be able to. But Bertha is too alien. She's from the islands, she's ghoul-like in appearance, she's extremely violent, and she spends her time locked up in a room on the third floor. Perhaps Jane and Rochester don't sympathize because they're afraid of what she stands for; Bertha shares many of their alien qualities, but she has them at an extreme level. Perhaps they're afraid that, given certain pressures, they would become like her. Jane and Rochester are strange, but they have maintained a very strong humanity. Bertha has lost it completely and is now more monster than human.

  2. Unknown User (klh11)

    I agree with Hannah, and would add to that that Bertha's inability to sanely connect with the world separates her so much from the other characters that her strangeness loses all credible value. The other characters that we've dicussed as being strange can all apply that characteristic to something; it changes their point of view, strengthens their belief in something, or has helped them learn some lesson. Bertha Mason already was "strange" in the context of Jane Eyre before her mental break because she was foreign. However, she is so out of touch with reality that we cannot trust that her original "strangeness" changes her in anyway. Her later strangeness, her insanity, was something that happened to her and changed her point of view without her consent or participation. Rochester and Jane cannot sympathize wih Bertha because, we are led to believe, she's not really Bertha anymore. It is a typical case of fear of the unknown. In this way she's a lot like Frankenstein; she embodies an unpredictable force and personality which were created out of nothing and have changed a beautiful, tropical, woman into a monster. Unlike the other "aliens" in Jane Eyre, who have consciously delt with their strangeness, Bertha never had that option. She does not seem morally or emotionally affected by her condition because she cannot conceptualize or consider it. In this way, she is smewhat less than human, and therefore is viewed as a true alien.

  3. Unknown User (mw10)

    I think Bertha is intentionally described as so alien a creature to create a contrast between her and Jane. We see Jane as this very innocent governess who is only really alien because of her class and lack of family (something that is relatable and not all that uncommon). Bertha, however, is meant to be viewed by the reader as an insane creature rather than a human. Because of this, Bertha receives no sympathy from Jane or Rochester and probably little to none from the reader. Jane describes Bertha as monsterous, much like Frankenstein described his creation. The main difference between these two "monsters" is that Franksenstein's monster had a voice that we could sympathize with while Bertha is never given this opportunity. Bertha is so "alien" because neither Jane nor the reader ever sees Bertha's thoughts or emotions; we are only ever allowed to witness her few acts of rage and insanity. We are not meant to sympathize with a woman who is locked in an attic room for her whole life because Rochester forbids it. By placing Bertha in that room and hiding her from Jane, Rochester also hides her from the reader. In this part of the novel, we are not necessarily reading what Jane narrates but rather what Rochester allows her to narrate by telling lies and hiding information. 

  4. Unknown User (mmg8)

    Unlike the other characters, Bertha Mason is so alien in that she cannot be identified with on any level, and therefore Bronte does not even bother to make a case for her.  She is criminally insane, setting beds on fire and attacking her husband and many others for no reason except that she is crazy.  The other characters, while they can be considered alien, are still very human and their motives, while sometimes questionable, are understandable to the audience; Bertha's actions cannot be explained by any normal sort of rationale.  Because she lacks even the basic human qualities, she is despised by all (including the author) and treated as an outcast.  No one is capable of understanding her, so Bronte leaves it alone, blaming her insanity for every action she takes, even though it is plain that she still has some semblance of humanity such as when she destroys Jane's wedding gown, clear evidence of the human characteristic of jealousy.  However, she still cannot be well-identified with and so the reasoning behind her every action is mental illness.

  5. Unknown User (arh11)

    While I do agree in part about what has already been written on Bertha Mason - that she is criminally insane and therefore has no moral structure, that she is too alien to even sympathize with, that she is meant as a contrast to the protagonist - my feeling is more along the lines of a perhaps undeserving cynical view of the author and her protagonist. Bertha Mason does not get the same treatment as Frankenstein's monster receives in terms of sympathy because she is not a product of anyone's failing (and therefore no one can be "blamed" for her insanity, causing all fault to turn unfairly onto her shoulders), and because she is deliberately standing in the way of Jane's happiness. Where Victor is the one ultimately to blame for both the creation of his monster and later the devastation it wreaks, Bertha is simply the "obstacle" to overcome in the wake of Jane and Rochester's happiness together. She is no longer a person, but a tool or dramatic device, one ill-deserving of any real development because her only purpose is to obstruct the protagonist and then conveniently go away, or die. 

  6. Unknown User (smc20)

    I think Bertha really is not anything at all like the other strange characters.  Therefore, I don’t think there is any way of saving her by making a case for her.  Bertha’s homicidal actions are really extreme.  The fact that she crawls around on all fours making animalistic noises and laughing is really creepy to me!  This proves that she has lost her sanity.  Unlike the other characters that are “alien” they are still sane.  They can still talk, be part of society and somewhat relate to others.  Bertha on the other hand has completely lost her mind and is so far disconnected from normal life that there is no saving her. 

  7. Unknown User (knw4)

    The first thing I want to throw out there is something I wanted to bring up in class when we were discussing this lack of sympathy for Bertha, but there wasn't time.  There is a single moment when Jane acknowledges Bertha's misfortune.  Rochester bitterly speaks of her "familiar to burn people in their beds at night, to stab them, to bite the flesh from their bones, and so on-".  Jane interrupts him, "...you are inexorable for that unfortunate lady: you speak of her with hate-with vindictive apathy.  It is cruel-she cannot help being mad."  (chapter 27)  I think particularly striking is Jane's use of the phrase "unfortunate lady"; it has the effect of momentarily humanizing Bertha.  I say momentarily because I agree that overall Bertha is not given much sympathy, we're too busy lamenting the fact that Jane and Rochester have been torn apart.  To get to the actual question, I think the answer could lie with the narrator.  I imagine that Jane, although able in one instance to admit that Bertha is to be pitied, would not have much reason to "make a case" for the woman who, in her eyes, has been the cause of so much pain to the man she loves.  I think the reader is intended really to be too swept up in the Jane/Rochester drama to give much consideration to Bertha other than as a catalyst for some tearful pleading from our leading man.

  8. Unknown User (kp7)

    For me, I think it's a pity that Bertha is characterized as she is by Bronte, while it's even more pathetic that Rochester's father and brother were both in on the plan to get Rochester to marry a girl only for her money, but not to tell him that "Oh, yeah, just so you know...insanity runs in her family! Haha, jokes on you!" And kind of going off of what Margaret was saying about Bertha's madness/insanity, in my own thinking: couldn't it be possible to see Bertha more as an actual human being if she were allowed a bit more leeway in the novel? I mean, it seems so uncharacteristically cruel to define her as a complete madwoman, because as Margaret pointed out, she still had at least some sort of remaining humanity left in her (even if it was only to tear up Jane's wedding dress, if out of a possible act of jealousy). If Bertha were able to commit this act of random...violence?-I can't think of the correct word to use here-then doesn't this indicate that any humanity left in Bertha can be saved? Sure, it may take time, but it could be psosible...

  9. Unknown User (sjm18)

    Dr. Schacht, you mention Frankenstein in the introduction to today's discussion question, and I feel that one of the reasons the monster is so frightening to Victor is that Victor can't relate to the monster. The monster (portrayed so obviously as a “monster”, as something “strange”) embraces qualities and manners of thinking that Victor is lacking or not capable of. Because of this, he is afraid of the monster, he is afraid of what he does not know.

    If it makes any sense to make this connection, I feel that Jane and Rochester do not offer Bertha much sympathy because she too, like the monster, embraces something they don't know and cannot begin to understand. Also, like the monster, she is obviously “strange” and a “monster”, in both her behavior and appearance.

    Like Hannah and so many others mentioned, though Jane and Rochester are both "strange" in their own ways, they're also UNstrange enough that they're still relatable, just as though Victor Frankenstein is a "monster" in HIS own way, he is UNmonster enough to also be relatable. I like how both authors chose to use such obvious characters in contrast to the less obvious, however truly, "monsterous" and "strange" main characters in both novels. I feel that in doing this, both Shelley and Bronte bring to light some very interesting traits in their title characters that otherwise would not be as apparent to the reader.

  10. Unknown User (laf9)

    The novel cannot make a case for Bertha Mason because to do so would humanize her. It might even dehumanize Rochester. Rochester needs Bertha to be less than human in order justify his feelings for Jane. Likewise, Jane needs Bertha to be less than human in order to eliminate guilt over her feelings for an already married man. The novel does not just make Bertha insane, but violent with an inhuman outward appearance. Although Jane decides she cannot be Rochester's kept woman, if Bertha were simply insane without the unnatural appearance and violent tendencies the reader just might develop a sympathy for Bertha. This might lead to contempt for Rochester and scorn for the illicit relationship developed between Rochester and Jane. Jane might become, in the reader's eyes, "the other woman" which would make her more of a monster than Bertha in society. It is necessary that Bertha possess subhuman qualities so that no sympathy within the reader can develop for her; otherwise, the love shared by Rochester and Jane is nothing more than an unscrupulous affair to be shunned and scorned.

  11. Unknown User (skg3)

    Bertha Mason is indeed a strange character. She represents a circumstance in Rochester's life that cannot be ignored, forgotten, or avoided. She receives no sympathy because she is what destroys the union of Rochester and Jane. For this reason alone, the selfish reader despises her. The rising action in the novel that takes Rochester's affection for Jane from a lower level to a much higher level is so overpowering, that when the climax comes and the reader becomes aware of Bertha, she is a destructive monster literally and figuratively. While reading, I felt a sense of sadness and pity for Bertha, but I also hated Bertha for ruining, what I thought to be, a perfectly predictable ending of the novel. I think that we all feel sympathy for people who are physically and emotionally not in control. I would also argue that we feel more sympathetic for the people who take care of these "aliens" and who sacrafice their own time and sanity for others. We don't recognize Bertha's dilema because her effect on Rochester's life is much more prominent. Her indirect effect on Jane's is sickening to the reader and is what creates animosity, rather than sympathy for Bertha.

  12. Unknown User (gdc2)

    The strangeness Rochester sees in Jane is fundamentally different than the strangeness Bertha Mason embodies.  Bertha Mason is described as "grizzled," a "maniac," and other sub-human characteristics.  Her strangeness is monstrous like Frankenstein's monster, whereas Jane's strangeness is a beautiful strangeness.  The "strange contrasts" Rochester sees in his soon-to-be bride comes from the rare and special combination of traits that Jane possess.  She is beauitful and smart, self-reliant and co-dependent, and incredibly strong despite her female nature.  The ultimate difference is that Jane is attractive and Bertha is ugly, and although they are both strange, one kind of strangeness is attractive and the other is crazy.

  13. Unknown User (ds2)

    I agree with what Hannah has said.  While the other characters have their idiosyncrasies, Bertha is too far removed from society to ever fit in.  Therefore, she is hidden away both physically and in the minds of Jane and Rochester because that is the easiest thing to do.  Any guilt that may be amassed from hiding her in the attic is assuaged by attempting to forget that she exists.  By treating her as more of an object without feelings, the other characters are less likely to be ravaged by guilt.  Unfortunately, I believe that this is how a man or woman of Bertha's condition would have been treated (or possibly worse) during that time period.  People in the Victorian era did not possess the understanding of mental illness that we do today, so perhaps they felt this was the best or only way to deal with someone like Bertha.

  14. Unknown User (cal15)

    In the novel Bertha Mason is seen as the monstrous character.  Everytime we hear or see anything about Bertha in the novel, she is described as something not human.  The crazy screams from the attic, the visions in Jane's nightmare's ect.  All of the times Bertha is mentioned she is seen as strange and crazed animal.  Jane herself is described as odd and strange, but in a very different way.  Jane is strange because of her intellectual abilities and because of how she acts in ways that people do not expect of her.  Bertha on the other hand is strange because she is alien and very un-human like.  Bertha is strange because she is not like others, she acts like an animal and does not even have distinct human like abilities, such as speaking and self regulation. Bertha can never be in the public's eye because people would not accept her because she is so crazy and strange.  I think it would be interesting to see what Bertha's point of view throughout the whole book would be.  (There is actually a book written in Bertha's point of view.....hmmm that would be an interestign comparison.)

  15. Unknown User (grb2)

    There is very little about Bertha Mason which can be considered distinctly human. She has a physical body, but it is only ever described as a deformed one with purple skin, bloated features, and blood-shot eyes. In this sense she is a monster as hideous as Victor Frankenstein's. The main difference between the two figures (Bertha & Frankenstein's monster) is speech. Bertha Mason is not granted the eloquence of dialogue that Frankenstein’s monster possesses. Bertha is animalistic, vengeful, and spoiled in character from the first moment that she is introduced to the reader and to Jane. She rips flesh with her teeth, her laughter is likened to something demonic, and because we as readers are not given much of a picture of her character before she goes mad, she elicits little sympathy. Frankenstein's monster made an effort to take his place in society. He did not inflict pain upon others until he was ruined by misery and abandonment. Frankenstein's monster is deserving of sympathy because he was alone and his transformation into something monstrous (in action) was a direct result of his mistreatment. He reasons and pleads; his transformation is a reckless mistreatment of intellect and sickening in what it reveals about the vanity of selfishness of human beings. Bertha has no such transformation. She is a monster from the start and we are not given insight into the workings of her mind. Neither Frankenstein's monster nor Bertha can ever enter society. However, for Bertha this is a matter of physical and mental distortion, for Frankenstein it is only a result of his physical deformities, making him pitiable.