Representations of the Madwoman: Jane Eyre's Bertha in Text & Image




Larsen, Veronika

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How and when did the conception of madness as illness begin? When did we cease to view madness as curse of genetic inheritance and start to understand it as treatable? My research addresses these questions by looking at depictions of madness in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). The Victorian era saw a change in the criteria for insanity: not only was the definition of insanity transformed by medical advances, but society also changed its response to madness itself (Scull 1981). The notion of lunacy as a manifestation of racial inheritance (a model that we see in Bertha from Jane Eyre [1847]) transitioned into a model of it as a form of illness. As such, the very nature of madness progressed from something dark and ominous—incurable—into a treatable medical issue. My research included a general exploration of the views of insanity and the rise of psychiatry during this time by using contemporary and Victorian literature: Madness and Civilization (1961) by Michael Foucault, and Modern Domestic Medicine (1826) by Thomas Graham. I examined these works to inform an illustration analysis of Bertha Mason in both text and image. Texts included the book itself and its reviews as well as the author’s own letters; illustrations included spanned from 1896 to1943 (the novel was not illustrated on first issue). The illustrations composed in the late nineteenth century present a pattern: as a madwoman, Bertha is depicted as animalistic and de-humanized in life, yet illustrations of her in death suggest a beautiful “re-humanization.” Her body remains central in illustrations during this time period. In contrast, illustrations emerging in the 1940s focus on Bertha’s face, simultaneously demanding sympathy and suggesting human cognition despite madness.



Jane Eyre, Insanity, Madness, Charlotte Bronte, Victorian Era