'Bertha' in Charlotte Bronte’s 'Jane Eyre' and Jean Rhys’s 'Wide Sargasso Sea' - Comparison and Analysis
Essay: 'A comparison of the presentation of 'Bertha' in Charlotte Bronte’s 'Jane Eyre' and Jean Rhys’s 'Wide Sargasso Sea.'
'Wide Sargasso Sea' - 'Jane Eyre' Comparison
In 1847, Charlotte Bronte invented ‘Bertha’ ~ a minor, two-dimensional, gothic caricature in the novel 'Jane Eyre'. Almost 120 years later, Jean Rhys re-invented Bertha, for her book, 'Wide Sargasso Sea'. Here, re-named Antoinette, she is the central heroine; a three-dimensional individual, with a life and a personality.
In Bronte’s novel, we learn about ’Bertha’ from Jane, the narrator. Bertha is presented gradually, as suspense builds. At first she is not named, but is simply a disembodied menacing entity, typical of the popular, contemporary gothic genre: ’a curious laugh; … a clamorous peal that seemed to wake an echo in every lonely chamber' ~ a terrifying gothic stereotype; the dangerous madwoman; the stuff of melodrama; mysterious, frightening and formless, inhabiting an ancient Victorian mansion ~ less a personality; more a literary device.
The imagery is repeated ~ 'a demoniac laugh .... goblin-laugher’ ~ as the mystery person sets fire to Rochester's bed.
Next, Bertha destroys Jane’s bridal veil and Jane describes the intruder’s 'savage face', like a 'Vampyre' ~ an idea emphasised when Bertha bites her own brother, ‘drawing blood‘, having ‘grappled his throat viciously and laid her teeth to his cheek'.
Bertha Rochester, formerly Bertha Mason, turns out to be Rochester's insane first wife.
Thus the phenomenon that is Bertha slowly evolves ~ from strange laugh, to unseen pyromaniac, to 'snarling' assailant, to Jane’s intruder, to Rochester's wife ~ until she is finally presented as the full vision of the madwoman, standing ’tall on its hind-feet'.
Bronte emphasises the savagery: 'The maniac bellowed: she parted her shaggy locks from her visage, and gazed wildly at her visitors'. The language ~ particularly the use of the pronoun 'its', and the animal imagery ~ presents Bertha as a wild beast. Jane comments; "whether beast or human being, one could not …. tell: it grovelled .. on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal".
Jane Eyre - Illustrated + Graphic novel
Themes and motifs are constantly repeated in Bronte's 'Jane 'Eyre'.
And these are taken up, again, in Rhys's 'Wide Sargasso Sea'.
We recognise patterns and parallels, throughout both stories.
Bertha - Lunatic and Mirror
A superficial reading of ‘Jane Eyre’ provides the impression that Bertha is simply an exotic, hidden lunatic, typical of the 'gothic' genre of novel. However, there is more to this ostensibly two-dimensional character.
It becomes clear that Bronte’s Bertha is a foil for Jane. The 'cunning' Bertha, whose 'vices sprang up fast and rank', is 'a bad, mad, and embruted partner'; Jane, however, is 'discreet' and 'thoroughly modest and sensible'. The contrast is both mental and physical. Rochester criticises women with 'a perspective of flatness, triviality, … imbecility, coarseness, and ill-temper'. In Jane, he found a 'clear eye and eloquent tongue'; in Bertha he perceived a 'cast of mind common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher'.
Jane is 'small' and fair, while Bertha is 'a big woman … and corpulent‘. When young she was 'tall, dark, and majestic', while Jane had the ‘misfortune’ to be ‘so little, so pale'. Bertha is perceived as promiscuous ~ her 'nature' being 'gross, impure, depraved'. She is blamed, hated and considered a curse.
Bertha is also a 'foreigner' ~ a Jamaican Creole ~ and to be foreign is considered an impediment in Bronte's story. For example, Rochester’s French ward requires a 'sound English education [to correct her] French defects'. Thus Bronte implies that Bertha, too, is in need of 'correction' for her foreign 'defects'.
While Bertha may be considered the antagonist of Jane, she is also her literary double. Like Jane, she falls in love with Rochester. Like Jane, she is passionate. At the age of ten, after fighting off her bullying cousin, Jane, far from being considered modest and good, was described, by her aunt, as 'the most wicked and abandoned child ever reared' and 'a picture of passion'. Bronte emphasises the similarities by incarcerating both characters; Jane as a child and Bertha as an adult. Jane is likened to ’a mad cat'; Bertha is compared to a 'hyena'.
As with Bertha, Jane's mental health is questioned. The servants were 'incredulous of [her] sanity' and believed that 'it was always in her'. Rochester claims that Bertha 'came of a mad family', the inference being that 'it was always in her', too. Jane was warned: ‘If you don’t sit still, you must be tied down’. Rochester ‘pinioned [Bertha's arms] behind her' and 'bound her to a chair'. Jane felt like a 'revolted slave'; Bertha came from the slave-ridden West Indies.
'Jane Eyre' ~ the story which introduces the 'madwoman in the attic'.
'Wide Sargasso Sea' ~ the story behind the 'madwoman in the attic'.
Mad Woman in the Attic
Bertha and Jane: Bertha as Jane's Alter Ego
The role of Bertha, when compared to Jane Eyre, is intriguing.
Jane paces up and down the corridor, outside Bertha's room, complaining about the restrictions on her freedom, while Bertha paces up and down, inside, physically locked within.
Jane is angered by Rochester's insistence on buying her an ornate veil and worries that he may dominate her after marriage. Bertha solves both problems, by destroying the veil and by being an impediment to the marriage.
Not until Jane has her own income, does Bertha commit suicide, thus removing the impediment, by which time she has rendered Rochester blind and disabled. Bertha never hurts Jane, though her attacks on her brother and Rochester show that she could have done so.
Bertha may be the frustrated passionate lunatic that young Jane might have become, but she also symbolises any Victorian woman who feared lest her sanity be questioned for ‘aspiring to anything more than hearth and home' [Gilbert and Gubar ~ 'The Madwoman in the Attic']. Consequently, she is also Charlotte Bronte‘s alter-ego. Bronte, herself, had to pretend to be male, in order to have the career she desired
Buy 'Jane Eyre' + 'Wide Sargasso Sea'
Rochester's Bertha and Rhys's Antoinette
Bronte gives only Rochester's interpretation of Bertha. Both Jane and
the reader must rely on his explanations. He married this girl, then
concluded that she was mad. Is he her benefactor, protecting her from
the horrors of a Victorian mental asylum, or her jailor and enemy,
taking her from her home, but not loving her? Did the failed marriage
contribute to her madness; or did the madness cause the marriage
failure? The author leaves the reader to decide.
Rhys concluded that Rochester used his loving wife and then discarded her, leaving her mentally exhausted and vulnerable ~ leading to insanity, when taken from the land she knew and loved. Bronte states, in ‘Jane Eyre‘, that 'it is madness in all women to let a secret love kindle within them …unreturned and unknown‘. Rhys considers this true for Bertha/Antoinette.
As Bertha holds a mirror to Bronte, Antoinette is a reflection of Rhys. She is the lonely Creole girl, who does not belong anywhere. Rhys stresses the racial prejudice, already noted in ‘Jane Eyre‘, when Antoinette’s husband states: 'Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or Europeans either'. Rhys points out negative racial attitudes, both in Bronte’s work and within society.
Both Bronte and Rhys use motifs in their works ~ choosing the same ones. Antoinette, in 'Wide Sargasso Sea', and Jane, in 'Jane Eyre', are associated with mirrors and reflections, redness and fire; the latter two foreshadowing the blaze which results in Bertha’s death and Rochester’s impotence. References to 'mirrors' and 'reflections' are unsurprising, since Jane and Bertha are, in part, mirror images of the other. The parallels between the two Mrs Rochesters, when viewed alongside the repeated word patterns, are compelling.
Jean Rhys + Charlotte Bronte
Bertha Beyond 'Jane Eyre'
In ‘Jane Eyre’, Bertha may be considered both simplistic monster and complex multiple-layered personality, reflecting not only Jane ~ and, indeed, other characters ~ but also the author, Charlotte Bronte.
Bertha, however, also exists beyond this novel ~ in Rhys’s 'Wide Sargasso Sea', where she is, again, an interesting and complex individual. Here, she even has another name ~ Antoinette Cosway.
Bronte’s Bertha is entirely her own creation, but Rhys writes about an existing 'person'. Rhys complains, in her novel, that 'Rochester' re-named Bertha, but it is actually Rhys who renames her, supposedly giving back her 'original name' ~ Antoinette.
Antoinette is not Rhys's invention, but her re-invention ~ her response to Bronte's 'Bertha'. Rhys not only explains aspects of Bertha's life, she actually changes them.
When 'Wide Sargasso Sea' is examined alongside 'Jane Eyre', the character implications become ever more complex. ‘Jane’ and ‘Bertha/Antoinette ’ are alike in many ways, but, while Jane is plain, Bertha is pretty. Jane is loved by Rochester; Bertha is hated by him. Rochester accuses Jane of having magical powers (‘fairy as you are—can’t you give me a charm, or a philter‘) while Antoinette actually uses a love potion on him (which left him thinking: ‘I have been poisoned’).
Both Rhys’s Antoinette/Bertha and Bronte’s Jane are 'wild'. Descriptions of them are interspersed with descriptions of the wild landscape. Antoinette's garden had 'gone wild'. 'Paths were overgrown ... orchids flourished.' As a child Jane refers to 'some savage country where the woods were wilder and thicker'. This could be a description of Antoinette's Jamaica. Rhys describes her garden with its 'tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns‘ where ‘the light was green'. As a young adult, Jane walks in the orchard where ‘no nook in the grounds [was] more sheltered and more Eden-like; it was full of trees, it bloomed with flowers’.
Charlotte Bronte presents the strange, 'foreign' adult, while Jean Rhys gives us the Creole girl of Jamaica. Bronte's Bertha has much in common with Jane Eyre, as does Rhys’s Antoinette.
Both ‘Jane’ and ‘Antoinette’ are about ten when introduced. Both fathers have died, leaving girls unwanted by the women rearing them ~ Antoinette's mother; Jane's aunt. Young Antoinette’ , like young Jane, leads a solitary existence. Both Jane and her Creole alter-ego find some peace and companionship at boarding school. Antoinette's is a convent. Jane's is 'convent-like'. Jane stays until she is 18. Antoinette leaves at 17. Both go to Rochester; Antoinette, whom he calls ‘Bertha‘, as his arranged bride; Jane as his employee, who becomes his betrothed.
Women in Victorian Society
Antithesis, Antagonist and Alter-Ego
Bertha, symbolic of Victorian womanhood, is presented as a complex
reflection of various individuals. She is the passionate, mad, confined
woman that the ten year old Jane in 'the red room' could have become.
She also represents the restrictions imposed upon Charlotte Bronte,
whose life and society were so male-dominated.
Victorian women were constrained ~ as Bronte's characters are constrained. She states; “It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity”.
Cynthia McMurray, writing about the Victorian gothic novel, states: 'The esteemed medical profession made it very clear that any woman who became "anxious" or "nervous", (pseudonyms for frustrated with society and their position in life), would go mad unless they submitted to a more calm and peaceful existence, one that followed the clearly defined role of a Victorian woman.'
Suicide might be the only
escape and this is what Bertha finally chooses.
Bertha is not only the antithesis and antagonist of Jane, but also her alter-ego, and since there is much of Charlotte in Jane, then there is some of Charlotte Bronte in Bertha. Yet Bronte does not allow Bertha to speak! Only the biased explanations of the aristocratic Victorian male ~ Rochester ~ are passed on to the reader.
Approaches of Bronte and Rhys
Bronte’s approach is that of the constrained, educated, Victorian female, whose heroine battles with her twin desires; to be modest and good, but also passionate and successful. Jane’s passion and intellect show through, but they are controlled, for she has learned, from childhood, that a passionate nature may lead to accusations of madness, followed by incarceration. Bertha is the living proof of this, for she is uncontrolled, bestial, manic, frightening ~ and imprisoned. She cannot even be given the freedom to voice her own thoughts.
Having reached adulthood, Jane puts away the unacceptable childish self and is rewarded. Bertha retains what is unacceptable and is condemned.
Jean Rhys, a Creole woman, recognised, in Bronte’s Bertha, the distorted British colonial view of a Creole caricature, full of prejudice and misunderstanding. In ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, Rhys portrays this character as a real woman, with intense feelings and a fascinating life story. In ‘Antoinette’, Rhys presents an alternative view of ’Bertha’ ~ forced into a loveless marriage and taken to an unknown land ~ and she gives her a voice to tell her story.
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These two novels, especially when taken together, are educational. They provide us with certain eye-opening truths from history, concerning the way that various human beings have been treated ~ women generally; people from foreign lands; descendants of slave populations; etc, etc.
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Copyright Tricia Mason. All rights reserved.
Some of my Literature Hubs
- Michael Frayn's 'Spies' - the Beginning of the Novel
- War Poetry: 'Break of Day in the Trenches' by Isaac Rosenberg - The Impact of war.
- 'A Wife in London' and 'Drummer Hodge' by Thomas Hardy
- Tennyson and 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'
- The Dungeon - A Poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Plus Wordsworth's 'The Convict')
- Hamlet's Last Long Soliloquy Analysis and Commentary - Shakespeare's 'Hamlet'
- Shakespeare's Presentation of the Theme of Colonisation in The Tempest'.
- Geoffrey Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales
- A Sonnet - By William Shakespeare
- How to teach and learn plurals and the apostrophe
- What Readers of Wide Sargasso Sea Should Know About Jane Eyre
- Jane Eyre the Child: Breaking the Rules
- Comprehensive Guide to Jane Eyre Adaptations
- Jane Eyre Sequels, Prequels, Spin-Offs, and Retellings
- Clouds in a Tumbler: a Literary Analysis of Jane Eyre
- Feminist Ideals and the Women of "Jane Eyre"
- Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre - Social Conscience and Feminism in Victorian Literature - A Short Bi
- Book Review of The Professor, by Charlotte Bronte (Author of Jane Eyre)
'Jane Eyre' - Scenes for Comparison
'Jane Eyre' - More Scenes for Comparison
1944 Film - Some Cast Members
Orson Welles ~ Edward Rochester
Joan Fontaine ~ Jane Eyre
Margaret O'Brien ~ Adele Varens
Peggy Ann Garner ~ Jane Eyre (younger)
Agnes Moorehead ~ Mrs. Reed
Aubrey Mather ~ Colonel Dent
Elizabeth Taylor ~ Helen Burns (uncredited)
I haven't found a reference to anyone playing 'Bertha'!
1934 Cast Includes:
Virginia Bruce, Colin Clive, Beryl Mercer, David Torrence, Aileen Pringle
Watch Jane Eyre the Movie: Jane Eyre 1934 + 1944 - DVD
Starring Virginia Bruce and Colin Clive.
8 Amazon customer reviews.
Average score: 3 stars out of 5.
Bronte Country - Haworth, West Yorkshire
Seas: Caribbean and Sargasso
Focus On - Wide Sargasso Sea
By Anthony Fowles
'Wide Sargasso Sea' and 'Jane Eyre' Comparison
I would recommend both 'Wide Sargasso Sea' and 'Jane Eyre' as good reading.
They are both entertaining and thought-provoking ~ especially when read one after the other.
It is worth making comparisons, whether between the two books / stories:
~ 'Jane Eyre', 'Wide Sargasso Sea'
Or between characters:
~ Jane Eyre, Bertha
Read in conjunction with one another, 'Jane Eyre' and 'Wide Sargasso Sea' will make you think!