Did Bertha not subscribe to the "cult of true womanhood" in which a real woman was believed to be without any sexual feelings, to be responsible for the man's sexual behavior, to be religious, obedient to her husband, and to provide a serene haven for him? After all, the man had to do business in a dangerous and corrupt world and needed rest and regeneration in a serene and cheerful household where all his needs and wants were met. Rochester complains, "...I perceived that I should never have a quiet nor settled household..." The ideal Victorian real woman suffers any mistreatment without complaint. She is non-assertive.
It's obvious that Bertha does not fit this role at all and is therefore liable to be labeled "crazy" because she doesn't conform. Waller (2004) discusses sexuality as insanity in 19th century literature and argues that "the rejection of a proper woman's role... is a dangerous undertaking." Thus, Bertha is seen as fallen, degenerate, immoral, and animalistic rather than victimized:
Jane herself feels little empathy for Bertha, and this is striking because from the first pages she demonstrates a hatred of cruelty, repeatedly evokes metaphors of emancipation, and chooses principle over personal gain. Yet although Jane notices Bertha's plight and laments her suffering, she neither dwells on it nor identifies a perpetrator -- madness provides her a category with which to identify suffering without implicating Rochester. Bertha becomes not a victim but an impediment" (Su, 2003, p. 160).
Thus, Bertha Mason's madness is not seen as the product of her situation as a woman and her oppression. The more she struggles for liberty, the more she is contained. And the more she is contained, the angrier she gets. The angrier she gets, the more her "craziness" is substantiated. But she isn't crazy. On the contrary her behavior, though indeed angry, is logical and understandable.
When Bertha comes to Jane's bedroom two nights before the wedding is to take place, for example, she does not behave like a person who is mentally ill. She quietly enters the room. She inspects the bridal veil carefully and then puts it on. She looks at herself in the mirror and sees herself as a bride. Then she removes the veil and tears it in two, throws it on the floor and tramples it. She does not attack Jane, the bride-to-be; thus, one can safely assume it is not a jealous rage or envy that troubles her. The only other explanation is that she sees the veil as a symbol of her marriage to Rochester. Rochester, himself, interprets her behavior that way. What he does not see is that the marital relationship with its demands, restrictions, and controls has ruined her life and stripped her of her identity. Bertha has rebelled against the strictures of patriarchal authority. She can find no real escape. Now she sees that Rochester is about to imprison and drive another woman crazy. Her diagnosis of "mental illness" is, as described by Foucault (1988), really a form of social control. Jane, of course, is "sane," but Donaldson (2002) argues that "even if Jane Eyre should happen to go mad, she will not escape the requirements of restraint..." As Rochester tells Jane:
if you raved, my arms should confine you, and not a strait waistcoat -- your grasp, even in fury would have a charm for me: if you flew at me as wildly as that woman did this morning, I should receive you in an embrace at least as fond as it would be restrictive (p. 286).
Whether a woman is restrained by a straitjacket, or the strong arms of her "fond" husband, or by the conventions of patriarchal society she has internalized, it is still restraint (Donaldson, 2002). In any event Bertha's "madness" calls for confinement, and having been diagnosed as crazy, the uncontrollable, socially unacceptable Bertha is imprisoned for life. Although judged crazy and sentenced to be locked up, she certainly still has her wits in trying to secure her freedom. Rochester complains, "The lunatic is both cunning and malignant; she has never failed to take advantage of her guardian's temporary lapses; once to secrete the knife with which she stabbed her brother, and twice to possess herself of the key of her cell, and issue therefrom in the night-time" (p. 346).
The ideal Victorian woman was a near-impossible model of saintliness. She perfectly controlled her emotions and never complained or raised her voice. She was obedient and never criticized or contradicted her husband even when she knew him to be wrong. Rebellion was unthinkable. She was ever cheerful and patient.
If she were abused, she tolerated it without complaint. She was pious, Bible reading, and prayerful in her devotion to God. Her whole life took place within the confines of her home, and all her interests were domestic. She was pure with no hint of sexual thoughts or feelings while at the same time compliant and dutiful in indulging her husband's "baser instincts." Because Bertha was more like Rochester than she was like the ideal Victorian woman, she represented a danger to him and to society. Uncontrolled and uninhibited in her manners and habits, she had to be restrained. Because she willingly engaged in sexual activity and made demands, society said she must be "mad." She was not interested enough in domesticity to keep an orderly home for her husband. She probably didn't go to church, either, let alone pray and read the Bible. When she was restrained, she became angry and fought back with all her will, strength, and energy. This was her undoing in 19th century society. Bertha was mad, all right, but not necessarily crazy.
Anderson, J.Z. (2004). Angry angels: Repression, containment, and deviance in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/bronte/cbronte/anderson1.html
Donaldson, E.J. (2002). The corpus of the madwoman: Toward a feminist disability studies theory of embodiment and mental illness. NWSA Journal, 14, (3).
Great Books Foundation: Jane Eyre. http://www.greatbooks.org/typ/212.0.html
Logan, D. (1998). Fallenness in Victorian women's writing: Marry, stitch, die, or do worse. London: University of Missouri Press.
Martin, C. (1983). An angel in the house. Midwest Quarterly, 24, 297-314.