Living in the shadow by a patriarchal society, they didn’t have their own identity. But many tried to push back against this. One such example of this is a woman who tried to fight the patriarchal norms. Her name is Bertha Mason and she is a character in Jane Eyre, a novel written by Charlotte Bronte. In the novel, Mason was the former wife of Edward Rochester and she was kept locked up in the attic because she was ‘mad’.
But Bertha Mason, a woman of courage and fortitude, should be admired and respected for her actions rather than being given the term ‘madwoman in the attic’. Throughout, she has no representation of her own. Being a woman who stood up against male violence, she has no voice and is instead described by either her husband Rochester who doesn’t give her the respect and dignity that she deserves or by the narrator Jane. She was the target of the patriarchal society and her gender allowed Rochester to treat her like a ‘mad woman’ and with that excuse, lock her up.
The practice of getting their daughters married in order to serve their own personal interests prevailed during this time. Bertha was also compelled into marrying Rochester in order to maintain rights over her own property, which is also one of the reasons why Rochester wanted to marry her, the other being her great beauty. However she never received the kind of love and affection she deserved. Was it because of her gender or her outward ‘character’? A woman who tried to subvert the patriarchal norms was labelled as ‘mad’. Not only was she a target of the male-dominated society, but also of Victorian women like Jane Eyre who, out of affection for their husbands, didn’t help her, which ultimately resulted in Bertha suffering through her life. Bertha, in many ways, was ahead of her as her actions equal those of a woman who is able to question the injustices practised against them by patriarchy.
Feminism is defined as a movement that seeks to enhance the role of women by defying the societal norms established by male dominance. It also talks about how men and women should have an equal say in society and how women should not be considered as ‘passive objects’. They need to be heard and they should be heard. Bertha Mason’s act of burning Thornfield and her ‘demonic laughter’ tagged her as the ‘insane ex-wife’.
Victorian women were not expected to ‘loiter’ just like men. Bertha’s forwardness as a woman can be constituted as one of the reasons why Rochester kept her locked in the attic. Women were supposed to be the ‘angels of the house’ and let men define their identity for them. So either a woman is a perfect wife or a perfect lunatic.
One might argue that the reason why Rochester hides her from society is to save his so-called ‘respectable’ reputation from getting ruined as he married someone below his European status. And although Bertha was brought up as an independent woman, just like a 21st century woman, her marrying into a European family causes her demise.
A lot of critics have questioned her anger and alcoholism not being in conformance with the qualities of a typical Victorian woman. My counterpoint to that is: Any woman, being imprisoned, cannot be expected to maintain normalcy. Try locking a present-day woman and she too will resort to anger.
I would like to end by stating that we all need to dismantle this rigid patriarchal system that still prevails in certain parts of the country. Rather than giving a label to women like Bertha Mason for her ‘insanity’, people should respect them for their courage and bravery and see them as a source of inspiration. Most importantly, they should do justice to their stories.