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'Bertha' in Charlotte Bronte’s 'Jane Eyre' and Jean Rhys’s 'Wide Sargasso Sea' - Comparison and Analysis

Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

Essay: 'A comparison of the presentation of 'Bertha' in Charlotte Bronte’s 'Jane Eyre' and Jean Rhys’s 'Wide Sargasso Sea.'

'Wide Sargasso Sea' - 'Jane Eyre' Comparison

In 1847, Charlotte Bronte invented ‘Bertha’; a minor, two-dimensional, gothic caricature in the novel 'Jane Eyre'.

Almost 120 years later, Jean Rhys re-invented Bertha for her book, 'Wide Sargasso Sea'. Here, re-named Antoinette, she is the central heroine; a three-dimensional individual, with a life and a personality.

In Bronte’s novel, we learn about ’Bertha’ from Jane, the narrator. Bertha is presented gradually, as the suspense builds. At first she is not named, but is simply a disembodied menacing entity, typical of the popular, contemporary gothic genre: ’a curious laugh; … a clamorous peal that seemed to wake an echo in every lonely chamber'. A terrifying gothic stereotype, she is the dangerous madwoman, the stuff of melodrama; mysterious, frightening and formless, inhabiting an ancient Victorian mansion. Less a personality; more a literary device.

The imagery is repeated as the mystery person sets fire to Rochester's bed; 'a demoniac laugh .... goblin-laughter’.

Next, Bertha destroys Jane’s bridal veil, and Jane describes the intruder’s 'savage face', like a 'Vampyre'; an idea emphasised when Bertha bites her own brother, ‘drawing blood‘, having ‘grappled his throat viciously and laid her teeth to his cheek'.

Bertha Rochester, formerly Bertha Mason, turns out to be Rochester's insane first wife.



Thus the phenomenon that is Bertha slowly evolves, from strange laugh, to unseen pyromaniac, to 'snarling' assailant, to Jane’s intruder, to Rochester's wife ~ until she is finally presented as the full vision of the madwoman, standing ’tall on its hind-feet'.

Bronte emphasises the savagery: 'The maniac bellowed: she parted her shaggy locks from her visage, and gazed wildly at her visitors'. The language, particularly the use of the pronoun 'its' and the animal imagery, presents Bertha as a wild beast.

Jane comments; "whether beast or human being, one could not … tell: it grovelled .. on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal".


Jane Eyre - Illustrated + Graphic novel


Themes and motifs are constantly repeated in Bronte's 'Jane 'Eyre' and these are taken up in Rhys's 'Wide Sargasso Sea'. We recognise patterns and parallels, throughout both stories.

Bertha - Lunatic and Mirror

A superficial reading of ‘Jane Eyre’ provides the impression that Bertha is simply an exotic, hidden lunatic, typical of the 'gothic' genre of novel. However, there is more to this ostensibly two-dimensional character.

It becomes clear that Bronte’s Bertha is a foil for Jane. The 'cunning' Bertha, whose 'vices sprang up fast and rank', is 'a bad, mad, and embruted partner'. Jane, however, is 'discreet' and 'thoroughly modest and sensible'. The contrast is both mental and physical. Rochester criticises women with 'a perspective of flatness, triviality, … imbecility, coarseness, and ill-temper'. In Jane, he found a 'clear eye and eloquent tongue'; in Bertha he perceived a 'cast of mind common, low, narrow, and singularly incapable of being led to anything higher'.

Jane is 'small' and fair, while Bertha is 'a big woman … and corpulent‘. When young, she was 'tall, dark, and majestic', while Jane had the ‘misfortune’ to be ‘so little, so pale'. Bertha is perceived as promiscuous; her 'nature' being 'gross, impure, depraved'. She is blamed, hated and considered a curse.

Bertha is also a 'foreigner' ~ a Jamaican Creole ~ and to be foreign is considered an impediment in Bronte's story. For example, Rochester’s French ward requires a 'sound English education [to correct her] French defects'. Thus Bronte implies that Bertha, too, is in need of 'correction' for her foreign 'defects'.

While Bertha may be considered the antagonist of Jane, she is also her literary double. Like Jane, she falls in love with Rochester. Like Jane, she is passionate. At the age of ten, after fighting off her bullying cousin, Jane, far from being considered modest and good, was described, by her aunt, as 'the most wicked and abandoned child ever reared' and 'a picture of passion'. Bronte emphasises the similarities by incarcerating both characters; Jane as a child and Bertha as an adult. Jane is likened to ’a mad cat'; Bertha is compared to a 'hyena'.

As with Bertha, Jane's mental health is questioned. The servants were 'incredulous of [her] sanity' and believed that 'it was always in her'. Rochester claims that Bertha 'came of a mad family', the inference being that 'it was always in her', too. Jane was warned: ‘If you don’t sit still, you must be tied down’. Rochester ‘pinioned [Bertha's arms] behind her' and 'bound her to a chair'. Jane felt like a 'revolted slave'; Bertha came from the slave-ridden West Indies.


The 'Madwoman'

'Jane Eyre' ~ the story which introduces the 'madwoman in the attic'.

'Wide Sargasso Sea' ~ the story behind the 'madwoman in the attic'.

Mad Woman in the Attic

Bertha and Jane: Bertha as Jane's Alter Ego

The role of Bertha, when compared to Jane Eyre, is intriguing.

Jane paces up and down the corridor, outside Bertha's room, complaining about the restrictions on her freedom, while Bertha paces up and down, inside, physically locked within.

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Jane is angered by Rochester's insistence on buying her an ornate veil and worries that he may dominate her after marriage. Bertha solves both problems, by destroying the veil and by being an impediment to the marriage.

Not until Jane has her own income, does Bertha commit suicide, thus removing herself as an impediment to marriage. By this time, she has rendered Rochester blind and disabled. Bertha never hurts Jane, though her attacks on her brother and Rochester show that she could have done so.

Bertha may be the frustrated passionate lunatic that young Jane might have become, but she also symbolises any Victorian woman who feared lest her sanity be questioned for ‘aspiring to anything more than hearth and home' [Gilbert and Gubar: 'The Madwoman in the Attic']. Consequently, she is also Charlotte Bronte‘s alter-ego. Bronte, herself, had to pretend to be male, in order to have the career she desired. She kept her initials but wrote under the name Currer Bell.


Buy 'Jane Eyre' + 'Wide Sargasso Sea'

Rochester's Bertha and Rhys's Antoinette

Bronte gives only Rochester's interpretation of Bertha. Both Jane and the reader must rely on his explanations. He married this girl, then concluded that she was mad. Is he her benefactor, protecting her from the horrors of a Victorian mental asylum? Or is he her jailor and enemy, taking her from her home, but not loving her? Did the failed marriage contribute to her madness; or did the madness cause the marriage failure? The author leaves the reader to decide.

Rhys concluded that Rochester, after taking her from the land she knew and loved, used his loving wife and then discarded her, leaving her mentally exhausted and vulnerable ~ leading to insanity.

Bronte states, in ‘Jane Eyre‘, that 'it is madness in all women to let a secret love kindle within them … unreturned and unknown‘. Rhys considers this true for Bertha/Antoinette.

'Bertha' holds a mirror to Jane Eyre and also to Charlotte Bronte, while 'Antoinette' is a reflection of Jean Rhys. 'Bertha' and 'Antoinette' are lonely Creole girls who do not belong anywhere; they do not fit comfortably in society.

Rhys stresses the racial prejudice, already noted in ‘Jane Eyre‘, when Antoinette’s husband states: 'Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or Europeans either'. Rhys points out negative racial attitudes, both in Bronte’s work and within society.

Both Bronte and Rhys use motifs in their works, choosing the same ones. Antoinette, in 'Wide Sargasso Sea', and Jane, in 'Jane Eyre', are associated with mirrors and reflections, redness and fire; the latter two foreshadowing the blaze which results in Bertha’s death and Rochester’s impotence.

References to 'mirrors' and 'reflections' are unsurprising, since Jane and Bertha are, in part, mirror images of the other. The parallels between the two Mrs Rochesters, when viewed alongside the repeated word patterns, are compelling.


Jean Rhys + Charlotte Bronte

Bertha Beyond 'Jane Eyre'

In ‘Jane Eyre’, Bertha may be considered both simplistic monster and complex multiple-layered personality, reflecting not only Jane ~ and, indeed, other characters ~ but also the author, Charlotte Bronte.

Bertha, however, also exists beyond this novel, in Rhys’s 'Wide Sargasso Sea', where she is, again, an interesting and complex individual. Here, she even has another name ~ Antoinette Cosway.

Bronte’s Bertha is entirely her own creation, but Rhys writes about an existing 'person'. Rhys complains, in her novel, that 'Rochester' re-named Bertha, but it is actually Rhys who renames her, supposedly giving back her 'original name' ~ Antoinette.

Antoinette is not Rhys's invention, but her re-invention ~ her response to Bronte's 'Bertha'. Rhys not only explains aspects of Bertha's life, she actually changes them.

When 'Wide Sargasso Sea' is examined alongside 'Jane Eyre', the character implications become ever more complex. ‘Jane’ and ‘Bertha/Antoinette ’ are alike in many ways, but, while Jane is plain, Bertha is pretty. Jane is loved by Rochester; Bertha is hated by him. Rochester accuses Jane of having magical powers (‘fairy as you are—can’t you give me a charm, or a philter‘) while Antoinette actually uses a love potion on him (which left him thinking: ‘I have been poisoned’).

Both Rhys’s Antoinette/Bertha and Bronte’s Jane are 'wild'. Descriptions of them are interspersed with descriptions of the wild landscape. Antoinette's garden had 'gone wild'. 'Paths were overgrown ... orchids flourished.' As a child Jane refers to 'some savage country where the woods were wilder and thicker'. This could be a description of Antoinette's Jamaica. Rhys describes her garden with its 'tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns‘ where ‘the light was green'. As a young adult, Jane walks in the orchard where ‘no nook in the grounds [was] more sheltered and more Eden-like; it was full of trees, it bloomed with flowers’.

Charlotte Bronte presents the strange, 'foreign' adult, while Jean Rhys gives us the Creole girl of Jamaica. Bronte's Bertha has much in common with Jane Eyre, as does Rhys’s Antoinette.

Both ‘Jane’ and ‘Antoinette’ are about ten when introduced. Both fathers have died, leaving girls unwanted by the women rearing them ~ Antoinette's mother; Jane's aunt. Young Antoinette’ , like young Jane, leads a solitary existence. Both Jane and her Creole alter-ego find some peace and companionship at boarding school. Antoinette's is a convent. Jane's is 'convent-like'. Jane stays until she is 18. Antoinette leaves at 17. Both go to Rochester; Antoinette, whom he calls ‘Bertha‘, as his arranged bride; Jane as his employee, who becomes his betrothed.


Women in Victorian Society

Antithesis, Antagonist and Alter-Ego

Bertha, symbolic of Victorian womanhood, is presented as a complex reflection of various individuals. She is the passionate, mad, confined woman that the ten year old Jane in 'the red room' could have become. She also represents the restrictions imposed upon Charlotte Bronte, whose life and society were so male-dominated.

Victorian women were constrained ~ as Bronte's characters are constrained. She states; “It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity”.

Cynthia McMurray, writing about the Victorian gothic novel, states: 'The esteemed medical profession made it very clear that any woman who became "anxious" or "nervous", (pseudonyms for frustrated with society and their position in life), would go mad unless they submitted to a more calm and peaceful existence, one that followed the clearly defined role of a Victorian woman.'

Suicide might be the only escape and this is what Bertha finally chooses.

Bertha is not only the antithesis and antagonist of Jane, but also her alter-ego, and since there is much of Charlotte in Jane, then there is some of Charlotte Bronte in Bertha. Yet Bronte does not allow Bertha to speak! Only the biased explanations of the aristocratic Victorian male ~ Rochester ~ are passed on to the reader.


Approaches of Bronte and Rhys

Bronte’s approach is that of the constrained, educated, Victorian female, whose heroine battles with her twin desires; to be modest and good, but also passionate and successful. Jane’s passion and intellect show through, but they are controlled, for she has learned, from childhood, that a passionate nature may lead to accusations of madness, followed by incarceration. Bertha is the living proof of this, for she is uncontrolled, bestial, manic, frightening ~ and imprisoned. She cannot even be given the freedom to voice her own thoughts.

Having reached adulthood, Jane puts away the unacceptable childish self and is rewarded. Bertha retains what is unacceptable and is condemned.

Jean Rhys, a Creole woman, recognised, in Bronte’s Bertha, the distorted British colonial view of a Creole caricature, full of prejudice and misunderstanding. In ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, Rhys portrays this character as a real woman, with intense feelings and a fascinating life story. In ‘Antoinette’, Rhys presents an alternative view of ’Bertha’ ~ forced into a loveless marriage and taken to an unknown land ~ and she gives her a voice to tell her story.

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These two novels, especially when taken together, are educational. They provide us with certain eye-opening truths from history, concerning the way that various human beings have been treated: women generally; people from foreign lands; descendants of slave populations; etc, etc.

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DVD + Audio Book

Watch Jane Eyre the Movie: Jane Eyre 1934 + 1944 - DVD

Focus On - Wide Sargasso Sea

'Wide Sargasso Sea' and 'Jane Eyre' Comparison

I would recommend both 'Wide Sargasso Sea' and 'Jane Eyre' as good reading.

They are both entertaining and thought-provoking ~ especially when read one after the other.

It is worth making comparisons, whether between the two books / stories:

~ 'Jane Eyre', 'Wide Sargasso Sea'

Or between characters:

~ Jane Eyre, Bertha

Read in conjunction with one another, 'Jane Eyre' and 'Wide Sargasso Sea' will make you think!


Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on November 12, 2013:

Thank you, Matt. Glad you enjoyed it :)

Matt Paris on November 12, 2013:

I read both of these books for one of my English Lit classes. Great analysis!

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on September 13, 2011:

Hello Anaya :)

Thanks for reading and commenting :)

Yes, I only found your interesting article very recently, but I have linked it to this hub.

These are fascinating books ~ the more one reads them, the more one discovers :)

Anaya M. Baker from North Carolina on September 13, 2011:

I just noticed your wonderful hub on Bertha and Antoinette! I wrote a similar one a long time back, just a few basics though, but this is an amazing round up of information on the two characters. So glad that you mentioned the Gilbert and Gubar theory of the madwomen as alter ego-- certainly does add a new dimension to things! Cheers, Anaya

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on February 26, 2011:

Hi Mrs JB :)

Thank you for your kind comment.

I studied these books for the research part of my English literature A'Level ~ which I took, quite recently, as a mature student.

I am sure that you will enjoy both books :)

Mrs. J. B. from Southern California on February 26, 2011:

You are so clever. I never saw the comparison before. Now I am going to read both books....

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on January 08, 2011:

Thank you Camlo. :)

I think that a good book will probably offer something new each time you read it ~ don't you?

Certainly, I felt this way about these two :)

Camlo De Ville from Cologne, Germany on January 08, 2011:

Hi Trish!

I had to compare these two books for a university course, but you mention a few things here I completely overlooked, which has made me think.

By the way, I love both these novels, and re-read them after the course purely for my own pleasure. They are 'un-put-downable'.

Thanks for a great Hub!

All the best, Camlo

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on October 21, 2010:

Hello 2 Patricias from another Patricia :)

Thank you for your very kind comments.

I found this study to be really fascinating ~ and I feel sure that there is yet more to discover by reading and re-reading these novels.

2patricias from Sussex by the Sea on October 21, 2010:

This is a very clever, well-written Hub. I have read and enjoyed both books, but now that I have read this Hub I hope to find to re-read them, as I am sure I will find new aspects to ponder and enjoy.

Thank you

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on June 20, 2010:

Thanks Dolores :)

Yes! I don't think that Rochester could be considered a 'new man', but it is very much a book of its time, of course, reflecting many of the social inequalities, etc.

I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on June 20, 2010:

Trish, I am presently experiencing a bout with Bronte-mania and so enjoyed this excellent hub (followed here from shetoldme). I love the way Charlotte leaves us confused about Bertha, and about Mr. Rochester's real intentions. I always thought that he put her in the attic to avoid the 'shame' of having a wife that was mad. For all that Jane loved Mr Rochester, he was a real stinker.

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on May 19, 2010:

Hello Painted Seahorse

Thank you for the lovely positive comments.

Much appreciated :)

Brittany Rowland from Woodstock, GA on May 19, 2010:

Fascinating hub--great information! I definitely want to check out Wide Sargasso Sea now. Jane Eyre is one of my favorites! Thanks for the hub!

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on May 19, 2010:

Hello USMCwifey09 :)

Thanks for your kind comments. Glad you enjoyed it.

I found it a very interesting subject.

USMCwifey09 on May 19, 2010:

What an interesting hub! I actually did this comparison for and literature course I took in college. You've written about several points that I never caught! Thanks.

USMCwifey09 on May 19, 2010:

What an interesting hub! I actually did this comparison for and literature course I took in college. You've written about several points that I never caught! Thanks.

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on April 09, 2010:

Hello Shreeta! Thank you. It's a good book. I studied it for my A level, too :)

Shreeta on April 09, 2010:

i'm doing this as a course book for my A levels in May. Just wanted to thank you for the good work you've done,it helped me a lot. God Bless You! :) smile

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on March 31, 2010:

I tend to keep my books ~ and I have thousands! Perhaps I need to have a bit of a clear-our :)

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 30, 2010:

I also read Jane Eyre as a teenager and loved it. Never read the Wide Saggasso Sea but really enjoyed your analysis of both books. Like you, I have re-read many books that I enjoyed as a youngster and have been re-reading them as an adult. I used to keep every book but have been giving them away or donating them for years now.

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on March 16, 2010:

Hi Shinai & thank you.

I'm very pleased that you enjoyed it :)

Shinai on March 16, 2010:

This was a brilliant and refreshing look at both women in their stories. Many parallels were formed that I had not previously imagined. Wonderful article.

Tricia Mason (author) from The English Midlands on February 03, 2010:

Hello Jane.

Thank you :)

I first read 'Jane Eyre' when I was a teenager. I enjoyed it very much and I re-read it last year (decades later).

I enjoyed comparing it with 'Wide Sargasso Sea' & I would definitely recommend that book.

I also hope to read 'Rebecca' and look at the similarities between that & 'Jane Eyre'.

Ann Leavitt from Oregon on February 02, 2010:

I had never heard of Wide Sargasso Sea until now, but your comparisons were fascinating to me. Also your contrasts between Bertha and Jane were something I had never noticed or thought of before. Very interesting. Great writing!

PS- I just added a link to your article from mine. Thanks for telling me about it!

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