Oh my. These chapters are where all the action is! Jane returns to Thornfield and she and Rochester go and get all engaged! Of course fate just can’t allow Jane to be happy. On her wedding day, she learns that Rochester is already married to a woman from Jamaica who went crazy and is the mysterious phantom living in the attic. Jane feels compelled to leave Thornfield on principle even though she still loves Rochester and he desperately wants her to be his mistress. Jane’s morals can’t allow her to stay and she leaves. Good for her. Rochester is being a bit of a rake.
There is so much to discuss in this section. Many people rush right to Bertha (the mad woman). I tried so hard to find my copy of “Madwoman in the Attic” by Gilbert and Gubar (critical essays on Victorian lit from a feminist perspective), but alas I couldn’t find it. It was introduced to me during my Brontes class in college, and really messed with my reading of Bertha. Gilbert, Gubar, and those in their camp see Bertha as an oppressed victim. She was the “other” who was forced into a marriage with a European who did not know or understand her or her culture. She was ripped away from her home and her family and locked in an attic. Thus becoming a symbol for the oppressed “other” and of course the oppressed Victorian woman or the evil of British colonization. Much has been written on this topic, and to be honest, I don’t really know if I have a horse in this race. Upon my first reading, I was firmly on Rochester’s side. On this reread, though, I’m not so sure if Rochester is really doing his best and if Bertha really needs to be rescued by a knight in shining armor. I can certainly see both sides. Bronte goes to great lengths to make her seem crazy. Her appearance and her actions do not seem to be those of a sane person. However, read from another angle, the same descriptions and actions could be seen as those of a misunderstood and desperate woman. The descriptions of her swollen features and purple skin were descriptions given by Jane, a woman who had never seen anyone who was not white before. She didn’t understand or know anything about this woman. It could have been a description made out of fear and ignorance. Bertha’s actions could also be interpreted as those of a fearful woman who is trapped in a situation she wants out of. She was taken away from her home and family and locked away into an attic. This interpretation reminds me of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The woman in that short story gradually went crazy when she was trapped in her house by her husband. She even crawled around just like Bertha did. Are Bertha’s actions those of a crazy woman or a woman trying to escape and save her life??? I guess it depends on if you believe Jane’s physical description is reliable and if you believe Rochester’s tale is credible (and let’s be honest, he’s not impressing anyone with his ethics and morality right now).
As I alluded to in my introductory post, an issue that really interests me in Jane Eyre is the issue of equality in marriage. This section is really where that issue begins to rear its head. When Rochester was playing with Jane during his awkward proposal, Jane says,
” Do you think I am an automaton?–a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, becasue I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!…And if God had gifted me with some beauty, and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you…it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal–as we are!”
This is pretty pretty radical. Even though she is poor and plain, she is declaring her equality with a supremely wealthy man and demanding fair treatment. Later on when Mrs. Fairfax learns of the engagement, she tells Jane, “Equality of position and fortune is often advisable in such cases; and there are twenty years of difference in your ages.” Mrs. Fairfax is pointing out the painfully obvious problem with the coupling of Jane and Rochester. Their ages is certainly the smallest of the two. The difference in their position would have made life difficult for them with Jane being so inferior. There was evidence of it immediately with Jane’s discomfort in Rochester spending money on her and later on when Bertha was revealed. Would Rochester have pressured a woman of equal social standing to stay on and be his mistress?
Despite the fact that, as Jane points out in the first quote, they are literally equal (in the eyes of God and as human beings), a truly fair and equal marriage would have been nearly impossible. Would they have been happy? We’ll never know for sure, but he would always have some degree of power over her.