The ‘madwoman in the attic’ trope has been a theme in literature for centuries. Centred around the othering of women, it typically involves an allegedly erratic or unstable female character hidden away from society. The origins of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ can be traced back to the Gothic literature from the 18th and 19th centuries. During this period, women's mental health was vastly misunderstood, with those who exhibited symptoms of mental illness being marginalized and institutionalized.
This theme finds its racial roots in Bertha Mason from Charlotte Brontë's 1847 classic: Jane Eyre. Bertha is locked away by her husband, Mr. Rochester, in the attic of Thornfield Hall, concealed from the outside world due to her ‘madness’.
Bertha's character is shrouded in mystery and fear, a deranged figure looming in the shadows of Jane and Rochester’s all-white-hence-sane relationship. Her sole purpose in the narrative is to be an obstacle between the two. Bertha's represents the consequences of a society that silences and isolates women who do not conform to its norms. It also begs analysts to probe into the evident racial othering that the character faces.
Bertha Mason is depicted as a Creole woman from Jamaica, with mixed-race heritage. In terms of the novel, Bertha's Creole background marks her as different and ‘exotic’ in the eyes of the white English characters. This portrayal draws upon prevalent racial stereotypes, painting Bertha as wild, uncontrolled, and dangerous. As explained by Mr. Rochester, “Bertha Mason is mad; and she came of a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard.”
Her characterization echoes the prevailing fear of the savage or barbarian, commonly associated with non-European cultures. The racial element in Bertha's character is cruelly used to heighten the sense of mystery and threat she poses to the English characters, and aligns with the broader colonial discourse of the era.
Bertha Mason's character highlights the intersectionality of gender and race within the context of the novel. As both a woman and a person of colour, she serves as the double oppressed. She is subject to the control and authority of the white male characters in the story, particularly Mr. Rochester.
The Politics of Hysteria
In the 19th century, hysteria was a commonly diagnosed ailment, predominantly afflicting women. This diagnosis was heavily rooted in societal beliefs about gender roles and expectations. Women were often seen as the more emotional and fragile sex, and any display of strong emotion or unconventional behaviour was frequently attributed to hysteria. Bertha Mason's character exemplifies this societal stereotype.
Her passionate and uncontrollable outbursts are interpreted as symptoms of hysteria. Hysteria was often associated with the repression of female sexuality. Bertha's uncontrollable passion, sexuality, and blackness are deemed symptomatic of hysteria. This reflects the Victorian fear of female desire and the belief that women should be chaste and obedient. Bertha's character serves as a cautionary tale, reinforcing the idea that unrestrained female sexuality leads to madness.
Jane Eyre’s character stands in stark contrast to Bertha Mason. She is white and hence, timid in any sexual expressions. She is also a fiercely independent and self-reliant woman (a character that challenged traditional gender roles). By portraying Bertha as irrational and dangerous, the novel subtly reinforces the idea that women who ‘over’ assert their independence and refuse to conform to societal expectations are potentially unhinged.
Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and the Saving of Bertha Mason
Jean Rhys's 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea can be seen as a response to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and a reimagining of the character of Bertha Mason, giving her a voice, a background, and the closure that Brontë happily skipped out on.
In this novel, Bertha Mason is no longer the nameless ‘madwoman in the attic’. She is given a name, Antoinette Cosway, and a complex backstory. This humanizes her character, allowing readers to understand her perspective and experiences. By providing her with a voice, Rhys brings justice to Bertha by acknowledging her as a fully realized character with thoughts, feelings, and desires.
Rhys delves into the racial aspects of Bertha's character, portraying her as a Creole woman born in Jamaica. The novel explores the impact of colonialism, racism, and cultural displacement on Bertha's life. By doing so, it sheds light on the racial prejudices that contributed to her tragic fate in Jane Eyre. Wide Sargasso Sea also provides a backstory to Bertha's marriage to Mr. Rochester.
It reveals the complexities of their relationship and vehemently challenges the one-sided narrative presented in Jane Eyre. In Brontë's novel, Mr. Rochester is the victim of a marriage arranged by his family, while Bertha is portrayed as the madwoman who threatens his happiness.
Rhys's novel shows the power dynamics at play in their relationship and how Bertha was unfairly treated, providing a more balanced perspective. Rhys even explores the gradual descent of Antoinette into madness, showing how her treatment and isolation played a significant role in her mental deterioration.
This portrayal brings justice to Bertha by highlighting the injustice of her confinement in the attic and the cruelty of those who kept her there. It discards the simplistic portrayal of her as a dangerous madwoman and instead presents her as a victim of patriarchal and racial circumstances.
Wide Sargasso Sea provides closure to Bertha's story, offering insight into her final moments and the events leading up to her death. Her character is fleshed out, her experiences are explored, and the factors contributing to her tragic fate are revealed. This allows readers to see her as a tragic figure rather than a mere plot device in Jane Eyre. It humanizes her suffering and brings a sense of resolution to her character, which was lacking in Brontë's novel.
In conclusion, the evolution of literature's portrayal of female characters with mental health issues reflects a broader societal shift towards greater awareness and empathy regarding mental health. While the madwoman in the attic trope has been rightfully critiqued for its limitations, contemporary literature is forging a path toward more authentic, nuanced, and inclusive representations.
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