In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë clearly demonstrates the relationship between sexuality and morality in Victorian society through the character of Bertha Mason, the daughter of a West Indian planter and Rochester's first wife. Rochester recklessly married Bertha in his youth, and when it was discovered shortly after the marriage that Bertha was sexually promiscuous, Rochester locked her away. Bertha is called a "maniac" and is characterized as insane. Confining Bertha for her display of excess passion reinforces a prevalent theme in Jane Eyre, that of oppressive sexual Victorian values. Bertha's captivity metaphorically speaks on the male-dominated Victorian society in which women are inferior and scorned for acts of nonconformism.
For the first half of Jane Eyre, Bertha is only known to the reader through her nearly phantasmal presence&emdash;the peculiar laugh, and the mysterious incident in which Rochester's bed was lit on fire. Only after the foiled wedding of Rochester and Jane, in which Mr. Briggs and Mr. Mason appear unexpectedly declaring that the wedding should not proceed, does Rochester explain to Jane that he has a living wife detained on the third floor of Thornfield Hall. "He lifted the hangings from the wall, uncovering the second door: this, too, he opened" (327). "In a room without a window" Bertha is found living as a wild animal sequestered from everyone but her caretaker Grace Poole. Like a ferocious beast, she is even tied down and bound.
Throughout the novel there are similar images of the restrained female, an example being Jane's detention in the "red-room" at Gateshead Hall. Both Jane and Bertha were ...
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...otypical woman of the Victorian era who courteously and obediently allowed herself to be dominated by males. Through the depictions of the incarcerated female, Brontë speaks on the ills of an unjust society. Brontë's representation of Bertha as a wild, chained, and trapped animal and the symbolic use of fire reflect the difficulties women had in expressing their sexuality in an era in which men dominated and in which women played the role of the obedient, confined, and inferior being.
Works Cited and Consulted:
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York, Penguin Books, 1997.
Gates, Barbara Timm, ed. Critical Essays on Charlotte Bronte. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
Okin, Susan Moller. Justice, Gender and the Family. United States of America: Basic Books, 1989.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. The Rights of Women. Everyman's Library Edition.
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