The Madwoman in the Attic. A Counterpart of Self Imprisonment and Freedom in Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre"

Term Paper 2015 17 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Semanticization of Space

3. Imprisonment and Denied Freedom
3.1 Gateshead and the Red-Room
3.2 Thornfield and Bertha’s Attic

4. Jane’s Process of Self-Realization
4.1 Jane’s quest for freedom and The wild Moors
4.2 Bertha’s death

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“All extremes of feeling are allied with madness.” ― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Every society has its norms and values, a code of appropriate behavior that can differ not only from one culture to another but also from one period of time to the next. A norm, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, constitutes a pattern or standard of accepted and expected behavior of a group (oed.com). These arbitrary conventions of societal rules force an individual to abide by such set standards if he or she wishes to be integrated and enjoy all the advantages community has to offer. Though these social norms bridle us, having guidelines of how to interact in various circumstances, impart a sense of security, in that they tell us what to expect of other people and also facilitate day to day interaction. However, when an individual’s world view and pursuits strongly collide with that of society’s prescriptions, he or she can have difficulties to act upon them, as the norms prevalent in a society are strongly shaping people’s opinion and behavior and allow not much room for deviation. The power of a whole society can thus become so overwhelming to an individual, that they feel disoriented, as they cannot openly show their true emotions and feelings. Opposition to prescribed norms might only be uttered by a still, small voice, through a passive aggressive behavior. This can have devastating effects on the person nourishing anger, to which one inevitably has to give vent in one way or another. In the course of history, women were often restricted in their self-development. In 19th century Victorian society, the time of Charlotte Brontë ’s Jane Eyre, marriage was depicted as the only fulfilling destiny for women. The “angel of the house” was supposed to have a quiet spirit and act in total submission to male authority. The following pages will analyze how Bertha Rochester is the personification of Jane’s rebellion and feeling of oppression in a male dominated society in which she challenges established and rigid gender norms and fights for love and freedom. First of all it will be analyzed how space is semanticized and becomes a bearer of meaning, and so provides information about Jane’s world and her feelings. Secondly, Jane’s and Bertha’s imprisonment and denied freedom will be examined, followed by a closer look at Jane’s process of self-realization. Last but not least, we will end with the conclusion.

2. The Semanticization of Space

The structure and presentation of the spatial context are important considerations when analyzing this aspect of drama, as they are indicative of how place is ‘semanticized’, in other words, how space becomes a bearer of meaning in its own right (Nünning 99).

The settings of a narrative, although we might not at first consciously recognize, do not only have aesthetic function, but more importantly, they have semantic implications- they are a carrier of meaning (Nünning 129). The model of space and time is often inseparably connected to the themes and motives of a literary work (Lusin 19). The structure, as well as the juxtaposition of different locations will shed light on the significance of a setting (Nünning 129). Boundaries that are drawn between distinct locations within literary spaces and the crossing of these help us to draw further conclusions on the semanticization of spaces (Nünning 129). Open and closed spaces are a revealing feature, in that they convey a certain mood or mental state of a character (Lusin 17). In Jane Eyre the inside, that is, rooms and houses are continually associated with either literal or figurative imprisonment (Gymnich 82). Closed spaces, however, are not restricted to this meaning: St. John’s home provides a shelter and security and rescues Jane from starvation and Thornfield becomes a home for Jane once she falls in love with Mr. Rochester (Gymnich 82). The outside or open space in literature is often associated with freedom but can also become cold and hostile (Gymnich 82-83). We can see that Jane is longing for the world outside, not only at Gateshead, but also at Thornfield looking out from the window of the third story and thinking about “the busy world, towns, regions full of life [she] had heard of but never seen” (Brontë 129). Nevertheless, Jane’s associations with the outside world often shows to have been deceptive and the beautiful nature she feels connected to after her departure from Thornfield, soon almost causes her death (Gymnich 82-83). “In the cultural context of the Victorian period, when open expressions of emotions was not encouraged but rather seen with a wary eye” (Gymnich 83), space would convey both intense emotions and their control by society (Gymnich 83).

The imprisonment of a woman- in the red room or in the attic of Thornfield- is an expression of external control and is specifically a punishment for passionate outbursts: enclosure is the penalty for passion; rooms are asked to contain desires, notably female desires (Chase 62).

Space can mirror a worldview prevalent in the time of the literary work, like the restriction of women to the domestic sphere. Knowledge about the specific cultural context of the Victorian society will provide even deeper insight into Charlotte Brontë’s work. It becomes clear how Jane, refusing to obey societal restrictions, moves outside of the domestic sphere (‘the inside’) into the public sphere (‘the outside’) - the sphere of men (Gymnich 84).

3. Imprisonment and Denied Freedom

3.1 Gateshead and the Red-Room

For while the world outside Gateshead is almost unbearably wintry, the world within is claustrophobic (Gilbert and Gubar 340).

The first pages of Jane Eyre depict a cold winter day. We find Jane in her hiding place, on a window seat behind a scarlet curtain. From there she alternately stares out at the “drear November day” and reads of Polar Regions in Bewick’s History of British Birds (Gilbert 340). For Jane, the “death-white realms” of the Arctic and “the multiple rigors of extreme cold” are fascinating, and it seems as if she is reflecting her own predicament, trying to decide whether to stay behind the oppressively scarlet curtain or to go out into a cold and loveless world (Gilbert 340). Jane, the orphan child, is excluded from “privileges intended only for contented, happy little children” (Bronte 9) and therefore from society (Gilbert 340). Her aunt’s refusal to love and accept Jane and giving her a chance to win her favor, increases Jane’s feeling of loneliness. How could a child, who is denied love and comfort from those closest, and thus not growing up as most children do, act as happy as those who experience the constant warmth of their loved ones? Abandonment is an extreme situation that evokes extreme feelings.She is only ten years old, but has to deal with John Reed’s tyranny and traumatizing words that she is dependent, without money and that she “ought to beg and not live here with gentlemen’s children at [their] mamma’s expense” (Brontë 13). From early on Jane was confronted with her destitute position, they were part of her “first recollections of existence” (Brontë 16).Jane has not experienced caring and tender authority over her, but only mistreating and harsh mastery, at Gateshead, as well as Lowood. Being dependent on someone, therefore, has caused great aversion and fear of mistreatment, which she will be confronted with later in regard to Mr. Rochester’s mastery. When she gets into a fight with John Reed, who is only four years older but called her master (Brontë 14), she is taken up to the red-room for her inappropriate behavior and thus punished, not only with the common emotional distance but also with physical separation from the rest of Gateshead. The severe treatment she receives produces in her even more resistance and “like any other rebel slave, [she] felt resolved, in [her] desperation, to go all length” (Brontë, 15). She is compared to a “mad cat” (Brontë 15) and because of her passionate behavior, believed to be insane (Brontë 16). Jane at times loses control over her feelings and was on occasion a “trifle beside [herself]” (Brontë 15) and acted rampantly, to the amazement of everyone, even to herself. Once she remarks that “only half an hour’s silence and reflection had shown [her] the madness of her conduct” (Brontë 45). She rebels against loveless authority and

In desperation, [she] burst[s] her bonds again and again to tell Mrs. Reed what she thinks of her, an extraordinarily self-assertive act of which neither a Victorian child nor a Cinderella was ever supposed to be capable (Gilbert and Gubar 343).

Such uncommon and strong emotional reaction of the female sex in Victorian society was shocking and could not but be regarded, excused or justified as madness. Jane is only a child and her rebellious attitude is only a reflection of the way she is constantly treated. Her defense of Bertha later in the novel who “cannot help being mad” alludes to her own outburst towards Mrs. Reed, who appears to be an opponent to be fought with violent strength and evokes in her uncontrollable anger (cf. Brontë 45). The room she is taken up for her punishment is one of the stateliest and largest chambers in the house, yet almost never entered. This chilly place, where hardly ever a fire is-kindled, seems like a perfect representation of little Jane’s place in society and seems too much to bear, even to the point where she exclaims: “I cannot endure it […] I shall be killed if- (Brontë 22). The deathbed she finds in the red-room of her uncle, Mr. Reed, who would have treated her well were he alive, and the locked doors of the stately chamber, increase even more her feeling of isolation, vulnerability and desperation (Brontë 16-17, 20; Gilbert 340). Realizing that she is doubly imprisoned, she states that “no jail was ever more secure” (Brontë 17; Gilbert 341). In this, for her unbearable, situation of injustices, indifference and hatred of the Reed family, she thinks about a way to escape, “ as running away or, if that could not be effected, never eating or drinking more, and letting myself die” (Brontë 19). Escape through flight or starvation will reoccur throughout Jane Eyre (Gilbert 341). In the red-room, however, Jane chooses, or is overcome by, a third way of escape: madness (Gilbert 341).

3.2 Thornfield and Bertha’s Attic

Bertha’s fate is similar to that of Jane’s. Bertha also suffers from a lack of love- that of her husband’s. She is also locked away in a remote chamber on the third floor. Jane’s inhumanly description as a mad cat resembles Bertha’s description as a hyena, beast, strange wild animal and maniac, with a capricious, cunning and unpredictable nature (Brontë 338). Bertha’s burst of anger towards her master, Mr. Rochester, are reminiscent of Jane’s attack on John Reed, who tried to exercise authority over her. Both rebel against the sort of confinement that locks them away from the rest of society and robs them of their personal freedom by declaring them mad, because they would not conform to and act according to the norms of society. Both would get free, by perfect submission, though not truly having a chance to please and prove otherwise. A certain kind of behavior is ascribed to them that seemed to stigmatize them as mad for life, seeing their madness as innate and a default in their nature, rather than a cause of wrong treatment and injustice. When Bessie sees Jane for the first time in such a rage before she was brought to the red room, Miss Abbot declares: “[…] it was always in her” (Brontë 16). Bertha, in the same way, descended from a mad family, of “idiots and maniacs through three generations” (Brontë 337). Jane and Bertha in their emotionally tense circumstances were locked away and put out of sight, instead of dealing with their problems and seeking the underlying cause and a cure. Solitary confinement in both cases did not produce the desired outcome. From a medical standpoint, by the 1850s, it had even become evident that solitary confinement had “unintended and extreme effects on the sanity of convicts” (Showalter 69). In prisons where this was practiced incidences of mental illnesses were ten times higher than in other penal systems and prisoners suffered from nightmares, hallucinations and suicide attempts (Showalter 69).



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jane eyre bertha mason charlotte bronte




Title: The Madwoman in the Attic. A Counterpart of Self Imprisonment and Freedom in Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre"