Bertha Mason, though a minor character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, played a pivotal role in the love story between Jane and Rochester. Bertha remains mysterious throughout the first half of the novel and, the times that she appears, the cryptic actions reveal her state of mind. She is the impediment to Jane and Rochester’s impending marriage and her actions later lead the two to reconcile. Bertha was a mentally impaired woman. Her motives and the causes for her behavior are unclear, besides the obvious jealousy towards Jane and the betrayal she must have felt by Rochester. Without the nuisance of her character, Jane Eyre would have been a flawless love story, but in life everything is not always perfect and neither is Bertha Mason.
Bertha’s character only appears once Jane moves to Thornfield. She is never seen, only heard. One night, as Jane lay awake, she heard “a demoniac laugh”(168) and as she rose to investigate she found Rochester’s bedroom on fire. Jane thinks it is Grace Poole, the woman that appears to be crazy, who is the culprit of such an insane act; but in reality it is the woman whom is under her secret care, Bertha Mason to blame. What motivates a person to do such a terrible act? Betrayal. Bertha Mason felt betrayed by Rochester. Rochester was her husband from an arranged marriage. Upon discovering her mental condition, he took her out of Jamaica where she was born and forced her to live in England at Thornfield under the care of Grace Poole so that no one would know of their marriage. She felt unloved and was angered that Rochester was able to just leave her at Thornfield and just move on with his life as if she had never existed. Bertha wasn’t going to go quietly, she made sure she was heard.
That Bertha was violent is evident when she attacked her brother Richard Mason who had come to visit her late one night. He recalled to Doctor Carter, “She bit me, worried me like a tigress, when Rochester got the knife from her”(239). She was enraged that her own flesh and blood had allowed her to be kept up in an attic under such conditions and was unable to express these feelings calmly but only through bloodshed. Though she was crazy from the start, being kept up in an attic with no friends and just Grace Poole, a person who was paid to watch her, Bertha Mason led a very solitary life for which she begrudged both her brother Richard and Rochester her estranged husband.
Bertha becomes increasingly envious of Jane as the story progresses. Two nights before her wedding Jane was disturbed in her sleep and she later recalls the unsettling event to Rochester.
“… The shape standing before me had never crossed my eyes within the precincts of Thornfield hall; The height, the contour were new to me…It seemed sir, a woman tall and large with thick and dark hair hanging long down her back…But presently she took my veil from its place; she held it up, gazed at it long, and then she threw it over her own head…Sir, it removed my veil from its gaunt head, rent it in two parts, and flinging both on the floor, trampled on them” (317)
Through this passage it is evident that Bertha was covetous of Jane because she was marrying her estranged husband. No woman in her right mind would burst into someone else’s bedroom in the middle of the night and try on their wedding veil and then proceed to tear it in half and step on it. The tearing of the veil symbolized how Bertha’s existence tears apart Jane and Rochester on their wedding day.
Until her wedding day, Bertha Mason’s existence remained unknown to Jane. Jane was very close to being the next Mrs. Edward Rochester until her wedding was disturbed by two men. One of these men being Richard Mason who revealed to her Bertha Mason and her real identity as the wife of Rochester. Bertha’s presence and life pose a problem for the God fearing Christian that Jane was. She could not in good faith marry Rochester anyway knowing that his first wife was still alive. Jane was born and raised a Christian and knew she could not be pure in God’s eyes if she continued this relationship as his mistress. Jane left for a year and upon her return she was made aware that Bertha had worked everything out for her.
A year after her wedding, Jane returned to Thornfield to seek news of Mr. Rochester, at which time she was told that a fire had destroyed the great manor. Jane, referring to the fire, inquired, “ Was it suspected that this lunatic, Mrs. Rochester, had a hand in it?” to which the innkeeper who had been informing her replied, “You’ve hit it, ma’am: its quite certain that it was her and nobody else but her, that set it going” (474-5). This fire had not been Bertha’s first exposure to the world of pyromania. It was an act she practiced quite often in trying to avenge her fate she that she felt wrongly subjected to by Mr. Rochester. She thought that this fire, which completely ruined his beautiful mansion would destroy him, but instead she was the only one left silent. She chooses her own death falling from the roof only to meet her end on the stone path below. Due to the events orchestrated by Bertha Mason, Rochester, still alive and a free man was left crippled and blind. Bertha Mason had made it perfectly acceptable for reconciliation between Rochester and Jane.
Due to the outcome of Bertha Mason’s attempt to kill Rochester, he and Jane were now on an equal playing field. He was no longer above her so to speak because he lived a life of solitude and interacted with no one. Jane over the interval, which of course was caused by Bertha Mason’s being, Jane became a stronger person so she and Rochester were able to become equals in a way, allowing them to reconcile and live happily ever after. Bertha Mason thought she could prevent the love affair. She did everything in her power to discourage Jane and make it physically impossible for Rochester to be happy. She was retaliating for what she felt was an unjust way of life, locked up in an attic apartment. In the end however, love won out and Bertha received to the justice that her criminal and insane behavior deserved. Although it can be said that Bertha was given a bad rap and that she could not control her actions because she was mentally impaired, it is obvious that she deserved everything she was dealt.
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