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Helen’s Class Summary: September 20th, 2010

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Today’s class began with the great tragedy of the Blackboard reward quizzes: some, like the woeful author of this essay, neglected to take the Jane Eyre quiz until the hour before class, or, rather, the ten minutes before class started. When Dr. Foss attempted to reboot the closed quiz for our benefit, it rudely deleted itself. Amid cries of despair, Foss, with the kind of poise only accessible to people whose children are in school, promised to ask the illustrious Reverend Jim Groom about it, and said he would let us know when the quiz was once again available. Moving swiftly forward, we began our large group discussion about Bertha Mason and her portrayal in Jane Eyre; later, in small group, we talked of Rochester’s disability.  Our class discussion focused upon reading Bertha’s disability as an identity that dehumanizes her, as well Jane and Rochester’s reactions and relationship to Bertha; in small group, we concentrated upon the problematic way in which Rochester’s disability functions at the end of the novel.

To preface our discussion, Dr. Foss cited “The Madwoman in the Attic” a feminist article from the late 1970’s by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, which posits that, in Victorian literature, there is a temptation to portray female characters as either angels or villains. We used this idea to address the contrast between Bertha and Jane’s characters, and the way that disability may intersect well with Gilbert and Gubar’s feminist reading of this text. Bertha is portrayed as a dark, hulking, almost spectral figure with features so unspeakable that, in true Victorian fashion, they are left completely undescribed. Jane, dissimilarly, is pale, thin, and plain, a sensible and well brought-up young lady with whom Rochester has many illuminating conversations, while Bertha’s mind is described as “…common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher, expanded to anything larger…” (p. 324). Bertha is entirely dehumanized by Rochester, less worthy to him, even, than his dog, Pilot. Rochester’s first wife is reduced to the role of spectacle: when Jane stares at Bertha, Jane is reminded of how normal Jane herself is.

For all that Jane is “good, gifted, and lovely” (334) to Bertha’s “manic upstairs” (335), Jane and Bertha do have some characteristics and life experiences in common. Jane has numerous encounters with extended confinement in her childhood, like her near-incarceration in the red-room in chapter II of the novel, which haunts her well into her adult life, and her tenure at Lowood School, which was little more than a jail. Jane experiences anger in these situations that could be considered similar to Bertha’s fits of rage, and perhaps Jane understands Bertha all the better for her experiences with confinement. She certainly pities Bertha, and says to Rochester: “you are inexorable for that unfortunate lady; you speak of her with hate—with vindictive antipathy. It is cruel—she cannot help being mad.” (318). This raised another question in our discussion: does Bertha behave like a wild animal because it is a function of her disability, or is Bertha simply living up to the role of the madwoman in the attic that Rochester has prescribed for her? When we discussed Richard III, we asked ourselves a similar chicken-and-egg question about whether Gloucester was naturally evil, or if his physical disabilities forced him to take up the mantle of a cruel and ruthless man.

Rochester’s attitude toward Bertha seems to change after she has been officially labeled as “mad.” Despite numerous protestations that he does not despise his wife for being mad but rather for being wicked, he was faithfully married to Bertha until he discovered that something diagnosable was wrong with her. Rochester claims to be capable of great love, but not of great love for Bertha. Foss raised an interesting question: does Bertha actually lose her status as a human being when she, apparently, loses her mind? Rochester seems to relegate her to the status of mistress: on page 234, Rochester says, “To tell me that I had already a wife is empty mockery: you know now that I had but a hideous demon.” Bertha certainly suffers the contempt, then, that Rochester’s other mistresses do. The class was reminded of the treatment of the disabled during more medieval times, when property could be taken over by a lord or another property owner when the actual owner was deemed unfit to oversee their own land.

Before Rochester is blinded unwittingly by Bertha, he tries to seek for himself a kind of spousal prosthesis: he is emotionally crippled, and in Jane he sees the kind of person who could look after him and perhaps cure him of his less desirable character traits. Bertha, on the other hand, exacerbates his worst characteristics, and Rochester believes that his treatment of Bertha and his disregard for the sacrament of marriage are the reasons he is stricken, by God, with blindness. In our small groups we discussed the problematic nature of Rochester’s blindness being dealt to him by a judging God rather than simple accident: this kind of thinking holds all disabled people accountable for their disability, and presumes that they have some sort of character defect that manifests itself outwardly though disability. We talked about how this is a narrow and fearful reaction on the part of non-disabled people. If there is universal morality or a just God to punish disobedience or defectiveness, then disability is avoidable, and therefore explainable and less frightening.
Whether Bertha’s mental disability led her to behave like an animal or if Rochester’s treatment of her is to blame, she provokes very dissimilar, though illuminating, reactions from Jane and Rochester. Jane empathizes with and pities Bertha; Rochester sees her as little more than a nuisance, a burden that he knows to be beneath him. Jane blames the disability for her behavior, while Rochester is compelled to believe that a natural wickedness has left her in this condition. Indeed, Mr. Fairfax, upon becoming blind, blames defects in his character for his plight, rather than the woman who inadvertently inflicted the damage. The disabled people portrayed in Jane Eyre are judged and punished, Bertha through incarceration and Rochester through his blindness.

Written by Helen

September 21st, 2010 at 7:34 pm