Bertha Mason's Madness in a Contemporary Context
One of the most controversial -- yet essential -- plot elements of Charlotte Bront?s widely beloved novel, Jane Eyre, is her depiction of Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester's first wife, a once-beautiful Creole woman who is ravaged by mental illness and is hidden away, locked up in a lonely room at Thornfield. Many critics have decried Bront?s delineation of Bertha as both a racist and insensitive portrayal of insanity.
Her sensationalistic approach to describing a character suffering from mental illness during the Victorian era, while lending the gothic elements of suspense and intrigue to her cleverly crafted and brilliantly executed novel, nevertheless remains rather unsettling for modern readers, who may often wonder whether her views toward mental illness reflect the prevalent attitudes of her day. An examination of articles contemporary with the initial publication of Jane Eyre in 1847 surprisingly reveals that awareness of mental illness and sensitivity towards the care of suffering patients were remarkably acute, and these issues were being actively discussed in the press, as well as by politicians.
In the March-June, 1845 volume
of The Westminster Review of
An equally striking change is perceptible in the disposition of the public generally on this matter. The time has not long gone by when the mere mention of it was received with aversion and disgust; this has now, however, we are glad to say, given place to an interest and attention which is not merely confined to the enlightened and benevolent portion of the community, but is shared in, to a very great extent, by the public at large. [Metropolitan Commissioners 162]
Thus, this suggests that
attitudes toward mental illness in the Victorian era were already shifting, and
the public at large began to recognize the humane necessity of lending attention
to the matter of mental institution conditions. The report continues, mentioning
that in 1828, Parliament initially appointed a Commission to inspect
In a room without a window there burnt a fire, guarded by a high and strong fender, and a lamp suspended from the ceiling by a chain. Grace Poole bent over the fire, apparently cooking something in a saucepan. 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 groveled, 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. 
Thus, Bront?likens her to a
vulgar animal, with wild mannerisms and a disheveled appearance. The
descriptions that follow are even less flattering: Bront?uses such epithets as
"the clothed hyena," "the maniac," "that purple face," and "the lunatic" (250)
to describe Bertha's condition. When she attempts to strangle
The reader is told only briefly of Bertha's history by Mr. Rochester. He summarizes her past quite succinctly and without any semblance of sympathy:
Bertha Mason is mad . . .she came of a mad family; --idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a mad woman and a drunkard!-as I found out after I had wed the daughter: for they were silent on family secrets before. Bertha, like a dutiful child, copied her parent in both points . . .Oh! my experience has been heavenly, if you only knew it! 
This has long been the source
of criticism of Jane Eyre as a racist novel, since
it is explicitly mentioned that Bertha's mother is "the Creole" and is both an
alcoholic and a lunatic -- traits which were common stereotypes regarding
Creoles. There is no evidence in the novel that Bertha has ever been placed in a
formal mental asylum in an attempt to discover a cure for her condition. This is
very unusual to note, as the actual Commissioners' report relates that "the
number of insane persons ascertained to exist in
the whole of the barbarous system of coercion and restraint . . .was founded on a fallacy, and that insanity . . .is simply a state of unsound, physical health -- a state of functional disease -- in the great majority of cases capable of a cure, under appropriate treatment; capable also, under injudicious treatment, of being rendered permanent and incurable. [Conolly 120]
Although modern readers have the benefit of increased knowledge of mental illness conditions and treatments, it nevertheless is encouraging to realize that even in the Victorian era with its rather antiquated and limited knowledge and views upon mental illness, measures were actively being taken to alleviate the suffering of patients and attempt to implement some sort of beneficial treatment. As the article continues to explain, such victims of ravaging mental illness are incapable of judging their condition with accuracy or realizing the necessity of seeking medical assistance. All of this evidence of increasing understanding and awareness of mental illness in the 1840s then places Mr. Rochester's character in a rather unfavorable light. He allows Bertha, whose family has a history of mental illness, to be locked up like a prisoner in a cheerless, windowless room, wearing dirty and ragged clothing and subject to the abuse of Grace Poole, who binds her to a chair to subdue her. There is no evidence any real attempts have been made in the past to address her situation by medical professionals and try to lessen the suffering she inevitably experiences.
Ultimately, investigation into the condition of mental institutions at the time of the publication of Jane Eyre reveals that although poor and abusive conditions and overcrowding were prevalent in Victorian era mental asylums, there also existed a surprising level of awareness of the plight of the mentally ill and a widespread desire to improve the conditions of asylums and the treatments they offered to those who were incapable of functioning in regular society due to mental illness. In both selected articles, the issue of mental illness is handled with an impressive degree of respect, sensitivity, and understanding. As the Commissioners Report authors declare, "We sympathize with the lower animals and protect them from cruelty, whilst we suffer every species of barbarity to be heaped with impunity on our afflicted brethren" (191). They hope to that improved conditions and understanding will "suffice to provide the means of comfort, freedom, and happiness to the many afflicted and worse than slave-bound of our fellow countrymen" (192). This evidence leads one to question with much greater scrutiny Mr. Rochester's character, for his treatment of Bertha Mason is unpardonable. More importantly, however, is the criticism one might direct towards Charlotte Bront?herself for her sensationalistic, highly stereotypical, and unsympathetic portrayal of a woman who has been removed from her home country, has suffered mental illness, is kept like a caged animal in deplorable conditions without medical treatment, and ultimately is compelled to end her tragic life by suicide.